What Can Dave Ramsey’s Evangelicals Learn from Ebenezer Scrooge?

In a recent article on Dave Ramsey on the subject of poverty, Rachel Held Evans quotes Ramsey as saying, “There is a direct correlation…between your habits, choices and character in Christ and your propensity to build wealth.” She then goes on to claim that this teaching flirts with the prosperity gospel, which can be construed as God blesses those with wealth who bless God. Among other things, Evans also writes of how Ramsey’s view does not account for the structures that make and keep people poor in America.

Here’s what Pastor Kenneth Edward Copeland had to say about Evans’ article:

In my opinion, Rachel Held Evans rightly points to, but does not explicitly call out, an insidious and debilitating flaw in American evangelicalism: an overemphasis on individual salvation to the neglect of how the Gospel impacts systematic, structural, and corporate evil/injustice. The so-called prosperity gospel and its evangelical cousin (the trickle-down social ethic that says society’s ills would be solved if everyone were “saved”) share the fallacy that personal responsibility and wise choices alone are what separate the rich from the poor. In other words, the poor are poor because they don’t have enough faith (standard prosperity gospel) or they aren’t employing biblical principles/making wise choices (evangelical prosperity gospel).

The Bible paints a more complex and realistic picture about the causes of poverty…My real problem is that my middle/upper class brothers and sisters (especially those who are more “reformed” than “Christian”) are always using the term “sovereign grace” but never seem to apply it when discussing poverty. Bottom line: You did not choose the country, century, parents, or zip code you were born to. God did. In doing so He granted you privileges, opportunities, and choices that others did not receive. Consequently, you are not where you are solely because you made all the right choices, had enough faith, and/or bought Dave Ramsey’s book. You are where you are because God gave you favor. To suggest otherwise denigrates the very grace we all claim to hold so dearly.

Evans’ and Copeland’s discussions of Ramsey as well as Evangelicalism led me to reflect back on something I said in my Advocacy and Justice class earlier this semester. I sometimes find in Evangelical circles two competing convictions: first, none of us deserve the economy of God’s grace, yet we should accept God’s grace; second, the poor are poor because of laziness, and don’t deserve for us to help them advance economically. I agree with the first claim. I disagree with the second claim on three counts: not all poor people are poor because of laziness (in fact, some rich people are rich in spite of their laziness); there are poor people who are poor in spite of their hard work, as the film The Line makes clear; and we are called to extend grace to undeserving people (laziness is not the unforgiveable sin), just like God did to us.

Certainly, Scripture has much to say against the sluggard and how the sluggard’s ways will lead to ruin whereas the diligent person’s hard work will lead to success (See for example Proverbs 13:4: “The soul of the sluggard craves and gets nothing, while the soul of the diligent is richly supplied;” ESV). However, such statements as those found in Proverbs are general principles of wisdom that merit careful consideration, not universally binding principles that apply to each and every situation where one comes across poverty or riches. There are other reasons why people become poor or rich, including systemic structures that make and keep people rich and others poor, as I have noted in various writings over the years, including Consuming Jesus: Beyond Race and Class Divisions in a Consumer Church.

I don’t know any Evangelical who doesn’t like Charles Dickens’ Christmas Carol, although Dickens didn’t like Evangelicals all that much. We all take to heart the change of heart in Ebenezer Scrooge, who had been such a scrooge concerning the poor and his own employee who worked so hard for so little. Only as Scrooge, who looked a lot like the rich fool of Luke 12, comes to terms with his future destiny in view of his miserly ways does he give charitably to all. God’s severe mercy brings an end to his bad karma ways. Scrooge ends up being like God: he pours out good gifts on all lavishly regardless of their merit. Hard work has its place, just not the place that determines who becomes a benefactor of God’s grace.

This piece is cross-posted at The Institute for the Theology of Culture: New Wine, New Wineskins and at The Christian Post.

About Paul Louis Metzger

Dr. Paul Louis Metzger is the Founder and Director of The Institute for the Theology of Culture: New Wine, New Wineskins and Professor at Multnomah Biblical Seminary/Multnomah University. He is the author of numerous works, including "Connecting Christ: How to Discuss Jesus in a World of Diverse Paths" and "Consuming Jesus: Beyond Race and Class Divisions in a Consumer Church." These volumes and his others can be found wherever fine books are sold.

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  • duskglow

    Thank you for being an evangelical that takes Rachel Held Evans seriously.

  • Derrick Peterson

    I think you strike a great balance here. Jean Baudrillard once wrote “Disneyland exists in order to hide that it is the ‘real’ country, all of ‘real’ America is Disneyland…Disneyland is presented as imaginary in order to make us believe that the rest is real.” His point being that America itself is only a simulacrum of manufactured desires, just like Disneyland, but we forget this precisely because the “concentrated form” of Disney parks or Las Vegas. (As a Disney lover, this is hard for me to say As a sort of inversion of Baudrillard’s quote: Ramsey’s debt-free system and its benefactors exist in order to convince us the rest of the world of debt and systemic inequality is fake. Ramsey does some wonderful stuff to help people get out of debt, of that there can be no question. But I think you hit the nail on the head here, and in Consuming Jesus, regarding a certain “Evangelical blindness” to systemic inequality. As such Ramsey’s help is wonderful, but it becomes a token of a wider atmosphere of self-help “up-by-your-own-bootstraps” mentality. This is especially ironic since Ramsey’s motto (at least at the conference I attended) was “Live Like No One Else.” The irony being of course, that if everyone in Ramsey’s theory is capable, then precisely everyone is “No One Else,” i.e. they are “purely themselves.” Personal responsibility is obviously important, but its hard to imagine a more concentrated (or more implicit) sense of individualism.

    The irony truly hits home when the content of “Live Like No One Else” ended up with frequent panegyrics by Ramsey that such freedom allows one to “do whatever you want” which, despite several asides about giving to charity and church (obviously good!) ended up looking like becoming a more “authentic consumer” (going on vacations, spending money for leisure, etc…) None of these are bad (and frankly this might be my sinful side talking but it sounded fantastic!) but Ramsey seemed to be defining freedom as purely “freedom from,” debt, an unburdening of our contentless and spontaneous will that can now play freely before an endless sea of choices, and not the more Augustinian (and biblical!) “freedom for,” others. Of course Ramsey did emphasize charity, and he himself does a ton of charity work. Again this is great, but operates within a given horizon where we relieve ourselves from being “mere consumers” by become quasi-anonymous benefactors, injecting money into a system laden with all-too-invisible costs that generated certain segments of the poverty we, with best of intentions, then donate to. In a sickening sort of irony our charity thus perpetrates the very conditions of its own possibility. Nietzsche’s aphorism that charity secretly revels in its opposite, vice, so that it has an opportunity to display itself, has become disturbingly apt.

    At any rate I’m rambling so I’ll stop. I see this as a key example of why the new Theology of Culture seminar is so important: we have to be educated to think theologically, in order to respond in a robust theological manner to our culture instead of simply repeating uncritically its own methods and modes of analysis. Ramsey is a sharp guy, but I think there is a certain naivety in our culture about how one reads and uses scripture (Ramsey’s “Biblical wisdom” is essentially all pulled from Proverbs. He could benefit a bit from reading the Prophets on social justice!)

  • David Springer

    It is sad to me that, even as we profess our love for the Book, we Evangelicals so often miss these important Biblical points that speak to your article. 1) In Genesis 12, God promises to bless Abram and make his name great SO THAT he will be a blessing to others. We who have been blessed, because of the family, or race , or nation into which we have been born or by our intellect, our drive , our determination or through our educational opportunities, our business connections, or our social networks must see our active responsibility to be a blessing to others as a worshipful response to God’s unmerited proactive favor in our lives. And 2) when Jesus says in Matthew 26 that the poor you will always have among you but you will not always have Me, He is describing/prescribing two things: a] out of our love for Him, we will be were He is–among the poor and disadvantaged (see His previous statements that when we act to feed the hungry, give a drink to the thirsty, clothe the naked, etc we are acting toward Him) and b] Jesus recognizes that in our fallen world, there are pervasive structural reasons (Paul later describes them as ‘powers and principalities’) for poverty and disadvantage. God has ALWAYS seen this, this is why there are so many warnings to the Israelites in Exodus, Leviticus, and Deuteronomy to care for the NATIVE poor (as well as the alien poor) among them–the people and children of God. Even among those Yahweh had redeemed from slavery there will be those who will seemed to be more blessed and those who will seem less blessed–but the former are not to deny or mistreat the latter. Though it is a warning and not an excuse for our actions, again Jesus understands our human tendencies when He reminds us in Matthew 9 of Amos’ prophetic admonition “I desire mercy, not sacrifice”