The Challenges of Wealth and the Call of Christ

David Brooks recent NY Times article entitled “The Great Divorce” speaks of what is becoming on of the largest issues of our day, not just because it’s an election year, but because it’s a real issue.  Brooks reveals the dramatic shifts in American culture between 1963 and the present, noting that, while there’s always been a gap between wealth and poverty, in previous eras that gap wasn’t accompanied by a behavior gap.  Brooks writes, “income gaps did not lead to big behavior gaps. Roughly 98 percent of men between the ages of 30 and 49 were in the labor force, upper class and lower class alike. Only about 3 percent of white kids were born outside of marriage. The rates were similar, upper class and lower class.

Those days are long gone.  Now, the gap between wealth and poverty is accompanied by staggering behavior gaps, so large that he posits what we really have are tribes: An upper crust of 20%, and a bottom 30% mired not only in poverty, but in dysfunction.  He notes, “Roughly 7 percent of the white kids in the upper tribe are born out of wedlock, compared with roughly 45 percent of the kids in the lower tribe. In the upper tribe, nearly every man aged 30 to 49 is in the labor force. In the lower tribe, men in their prime working ages have been steadily dropping out of the labor force, in good times and bad.  People in the lower tribe are much less likely to get married, less likely to go to church, less likely to be active in their communities, more likely to watch TV excessively.”

The political right offers a strategy to correct this wrong, including the removal of the child tax credit which last year kept 1.3 million children out of poverty, while preserving Bush’s tax cuts for the wealthy, and running on a platform of even more tax cuts for the rich.  The left, meanwhile, is busy blaming the 1% for all the social woes of America.  These conversations, as Brooks rightly points out, aren’t unimportant – but they’re  distractions.

But Brooks’ article also runs the risk of being a distraction, especially if read through the eyes of faith, because all we hear about are the dangers of poverty, not the dangers of wealth.  Why is it that Jesus says that it’s terribly difficult for a rich man to enter the kingdom? There are several reasons, but there’s one worth considering in light of Brooks’ article.

Wealth paves the wide road to isolation. I’ve written about this in my book O2: Breathing New Life into Faith, but it bears repeating.  There are no middle seats in first class.  In a wealthy household, everyone has their own bedroom and if there’s even more wealth, their own phone, computer, TV, bathroom, car.  The really wealthy have all this stuff protected from the outside world by living in community with gates, to keep out the rest of the world.  We’re buying freedom from the untidy necessity of relating to others.  Contrast this with the limited options to isolate where chronic poverty is in place; tiny houses, shared room, limited resources.

The gap between these two worlds is gigantic.  There’s a wall between them:  the poor can’t cross over, and the rich don’t want to.  As a result, both cultures become entrenched, and in their self-referential communities, weaknesses are free to grow unchecked, which means that those in poverty often lack role models for those qualities that will enable the cycle to be broken.  The wealthy lack role models too, in the realm of simplicity, humility, brokenness, dependency.  The truth is we all need each other. If only there were a way to break down the dividing wall….

That, of course, is where the gospel comes in, as Paul articulates in Ephesians 2 and Galatians 3:28.  Christ came with the express purpose of obliterating social barriers. It’s clear though, that this doesn’t just happen.  We need a vision for it, and we need to take clear to steps so that we live into that vision.  The vision for it comes from God’s vision that His kingdom will be a powerful reconciling alternative to the prevailing culture wars, divisions, and walls, that are so entrenched in our fallen world.  We must see that God is taking history towards the bringing together of rich and poor, slave and free, male and female.  Tragically, this vision has been given a backseat to our fixation on sin management, and hell avoidance, as we pursue our own “personal relationship with Christ” who expects us to “accept Jesus as our personal savior” (language conspicuously missing from the Bible).  We desperately need a kingdom vision!

It’s not enough, though, to see this vision as God’s preferred future, and then passively wait for it to happen.  Instead, we need to live into the reality of this vision now by taking Jesus up on his exhortation to cross barriers, just as he did by becoming a man, so that we might break down walls and build community.

Being part of a church that has ministries which cross barriers is a start (and there are many), but don’t confuse cheering for those who cross barriers, with actually crossing them.  The parable of the virgins with their oil is telling us that my lamp isn’t lit because my church has a ministry that builds relationships across social divides.  My lamp is lit only if, and when, I cross social divides.  Writing a check is easier – but it’s not what Jesus wants; not ultimately.  So however you do it, take a step.  Engage a homeless person in conversation, praying for eyes to see and ears to hear, because those who see and hear will discover Jesus right there in the conversation.  Cross barriers.  Swim upstream against the isolating power of wealth and use it instead to bless and serve, but not just by giving cash, because in the end, as so many people rightly say, all poverty is relational.  Simply embracing that definition will break down dividing walls, as we approach each other, not in hierarchy or anger, but in mutual brokenness; together; at the foot of the cross.

About Richard Dahlstrom

As Pastor of Bethany Community Church in Seattle, Richard teaches with vision of "making the invisible God visible" by calling people to acts of service and blessing. It's working, as a wilderness ministry, homeless shelter, and community meals that serve those living on the margins are all pieces of Bethany's life. "We're being the presence of Christ" he says, "and inviting everyone to join the adventure." Many have, making Bethany one of the fastest growing churches in America in 2009 according to Outreach Magazine.

  • Catherine Skoor

    “…as we approach each other, not in hierarchy or anger, but in mutual brokenness; together; at the foot of the cross.”
    Fantastic! Thank you.

  • Kristin Hill

    I appreciate these words very much. As a family counselor, I see so much isolation and lack of intimacy in relationships. I am always glad to hear through your writing and speaking the emphasis on valuing relationships and community. I think our Christian culture has played a part in the individualism and isolation by emphasizing our “individual relationship with Christ”, to the point that we are able to justify the barriers we create.

  • Mike Zosel

    Amen and amen. Richard, it’s so encouraging to hear words like this from a minister in the church.

    I work at UGM’s men’s shelter downtown. One of my core convictions that has come out of my time here is that the only people who need to be here more than poor people are . . . rich people! So many privileged people come here to give (as I did), but the ones who stick around are always those with the ability to receive from our guys as well. If only more people (and churches!) of power and privilege would brave crossing the barrier between rich and poor—they might discover a truly rich faith that would challenge and encourage them in ways they’d never imagined.

  • Nathan

    Why limit the application to material poverty? What about other barriers that keep the fullness of Christ’s redemptive work from people?
    When you write, “…we need to live into the reality of this vision now by taking Jesus up on his exhortation to cross barriers, just as he did by becoming a man, so that we might break down walls and build community”, I cannot help but think in terms of nations (Rev. 7:9) as well as socio-economic groups.

  • Lamont

    “The parable of the virgins with their oil is telling us that my lamp isn’t lit because my church has a ministry that builds relationships across social divides. My lamp is lit only if, and when, I cross social divides.”

    Could someome explain what “The parable of the virgins” has to do w/crossing social divides?

    • Richard Dahlstrom

      No problem Lamont… the parable of the virgins has to do with living the Christian life, rather than hoping someone else will live it for them. As a result, the moral of the story can imply to any imperative to which we’re called. Nobody can develop a robust prayer life for you. Nobody can deny themselves and take up their cross for you. Nobody can be filled with the Holy Spirit for you. Nobody can love their enemies for you. Nobody can cross social divides (as we’re invited to do in Paul’s letters to the Colossians, Galatians, Ephesians, and Corinthians – and in keeping with the example of Jesus and Pentecost) for you.

      Hope this helps

      • Lamont

        Thank you Richard.

        I’m reading a sermon by J.C. Ryle on it now. I really like your answer!
        Sorry it took so long to acknowledge your response.

        Thank you!
        Lamont.

  • http://www.welcometomarriedlife.com Krista

    As I read this I think about how isolated my family is from poverty, especially my children. I know my eyes were opened in the college years when I was able and sometimes required to participate in ministries that crossed lines.
    I hope this isolation has more to do with the time of my life (very small children) and not as much with the fact that it’s easier not to cross the lines, or even think about them.
    I want my children to grow up knowing about all people… now how to practically implement that.

  • Eric Peterson

    The call of Christ is beyond are wallets and Riches or Poverty. God does NOT WANT my money or my religous acts he wants me FULLY in a relationship whith him that only brings me to intimacy with him but meaningful relationships with others. This relationship with Christ is both wonderful and costly. It is not done quickly or in a short time but requires humility, honesty and faithfulness.

    I can not hide behind being busy with work or religon. Christ desires to invade my life fully. He truly wants every square inch of my life. My dreams,desires and destiny, Christ says “Give them all to me”! Easier said than done. Becuase in the process he shows me my arrogance, unbelief, selfishenss etc etc, Yet at the same time he shows his Mercy, his faithfulness and Love. This leads me into a real realtionship of Faith and obeidence, and not some shallow sentimental faith that nobody cares about. People who are seeking Jesus are seeking to meet and relate to real people who are honest with God and others.

    Why is God not using me more than he is? This is a question I ask myself alot. There are various reasons like my sinfulness, ignorance and pride. But one thing I am learning is I must be Faithful in the small things before he can give his heart and his call. People are to valuable to him for me to give them a reason not to follow Jesus, because of me acting like a religous fool. It is about him and not me.

    In closing why does God have me here going through this thing called Life. But to Share the risen Christ. One Sunday at Church the words of this song (soon) impacted me with his heart.
    ” Though I have not seen Him
    My heart knows Him well
    Jesus Christ the Lamb
    The Lord of heaven.”

    That is the testimony God wants me to share with others. My prayer for my self and his bride is that we can all share it with others the Lord brings into are lives.

  • renee g

    I wrote a comment in a later post about volunteerism. I just realized that the David Brooks article actually calls for a mandatory National Service Program. While probably not practical, I think this supports the idea that writing checks to a cause (and/or paying our fair share of taxes) and then continuing on with life as if the ‘lower tribe’ around us doesn’t exist will not fix the problem. We need to be *involved* on a regular and consistent basis with our (financially) *poorer* neighbor.


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