Gonna start dropping various advocacy letters here as I/we write and use them. Hoping they might inspire local advocacy among readers of this blog.
You know that feeling, the tingle that runs up your spine and neck when you come into close proximity with threat, or see evil embodied in a horror film?
That’s about exactly the feeling I had when I read the Northwest Arkansas Council was investing a million dollars over the next six months in ten thousand dollar incentive grants to help “talent” move to NWA.
Whenever I get that feeling, especially around issues of economic justice, I try to take a breath, ponder, and then put on the two theological hats that I wear as a Lutheran pastor. One of those hats reads “theology of the cross.” The other hat reads “social gospel.”
So I got up this morning, walked the son to school, and then set to work writing what I hope is a reasonable treatise on the evil of giving a million dollars away to move people to our region during a pandemic.
Let’s get started. First, I don’t want to make the mistake of operating out of a gospel of scarcity. I’m not envious of bicycle-riding chemists getting grants to move here, and in fact I hope bicycle-riding chemists do keep moving here, both because we have amazing bicycle trails and because chemistry is cool.
However, to my knowledge no entity in Northwest Arkansas has EVER given away ten thousand dollar grants to households in our own community as a leg up out of poverty.
Yes, some organizations give out small amounts of cash assistance. More recently, our congregation’s COVID relief fund has been able, through the generosity of many individual donors, to give out grants as large as $1000 per household to cover rent and utilities.
But even a thousand dollars doesn’t get a family out of crisis. Mostly it only just pays one or two bills that are past due.
Do you know what would actually get a struggling working class family out of crisis and back to real stability?
You guessed it! Ten thousand dollars and a bicycle.
So ask yourself: why do we give $50, or $100, to struggling families, and tell them that’s enough, while creating a million dollar grant program for educated professionals who, honestly, don’t even need the ten grand to get by?
A gospel of abundance over-against a gospel of scarcity says, “We can do both. There’s enough for both.” And I agree, there is enough for both. Some of the executives who lead the Northwest Arkansas Council could probably give away ten or even one-hundred million dollars in ten thousand dollar grants to hundreds of families in NWA.
Honestly, a combined effort of Walmart, Tyson, J.B. Hunt alone could single-handedly lift every single renter in our region out of their rental crisis, build enough shelter for every single family living homeless in their car, give a ten thousand grant to those and many other families, and create a revolution of prosperity for the poor.
But they haven’t. They didn’t. Instead, they designed a grant to give more money to already rich people. Plus a bicycle.
In Lutheran theology, this is what you call a “theology of glory.” A theologian of glory calls evil good and good evil… like giving grants to move to already rich people, as if it counts as a good to move talent to a region already seeing tremendous growth, driving up housing costs and pricing out the working class and poor.
Without the alternative, a theology of the cross, humans misuse the best in the worst manner. “We’ve got all this extra cash, so let’s use it to move talented people to our region.”
A theology of the cross, on the other hand, sees the crucified Christ in the neighbor, and poors their resources into the communities most in need as the abject neighbor, the neighbor currently being crucified by the economics of our present moment.
There are many reasons local talent and working class persons are offended by this new “Life Works initiative…” it overlooks talent already here, ignores the real economic crisis of the pandemic, and so much more.
But my read of it is primarily centered in the theology of the cross, combined with the other hat I wear, that of the social gospel.
I get this social gospel perspective from the biblical prophets themselves. I’m preaching on one this weekend, the prophet Zephaniah.
Early in the warnings Zephaniah issues, he brings this word of the Lord, directed at the rich,
Their wealth shall be plundered,
and their houses laid waste.
Though they build houses,
they shall not inhabit them;
though they plant vineyards,
they shall not drink wine from them. (1:13)
The warning is simple: because economic justice has not been observed, and the community has idolized wealth, God will bring about a kind of destruction that levels things, and all the fancy houses the rich have built will stand empty.
Social gospelers like myself read these texts, and we call those with wealth to wake up, heed the warning, and distribute their wealth to those with actual need.
“The opposite of love is not hate, it’s indifference. The opposite of art is not ugliness, it’s indifference. The opposite of faith is not heresy, it’s indifference. And the opposite of life is not death, it’s indifference.”
I believe that a grant like this one from the Northwest Arkansas Council illustrates a breath-taking level of indifference. In the midst of a pandemic, with thousands of NWA neighbors struggling to just pay the bills, this organization decides to try and attract new talent to the region and gives away a million dollars, while doing nothing for the poor.
Yet… there is still time. We can do better. I challenge the Northwest Arkansas Council to wake up from their indifference. Go ahead, give that million dollars away, plus the bicycles. I hope we get some really cool astronomer to move here and buy a little castle south of town to watch the stars.
But… you have billions more. Billions. So cast aside your indifference, and set up a fund to give 100 million away in ten thousand dollar increments to struggling families. Heck, give them an electric bicycle also so they can get to work.
Such action won’t be as sexy as bikes for STEM professionals.
But it will be gospel in the way of the cross.