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.