Helaine Olen’s in-depth critique of “personal finance” guru Dave Ramsey’s victim-blaming, victim-creating media empire — “The Prophet” — created some minor ripples. So did Felix Salmon and Susie Poppick’s exploration of Ramsey’s investment advice, in which they wrote, “Ramsey’s investing advice is weak and could get you into trouble if you follow it too closely.”
But it was Dave Ramsey himself who inspired the larger recent wave of people taking a critical look at his “ministry.”
Ramsey cheerfully promoted a post by fellow “personal finance” racketeer Tom Corley, listing “20 Things the Rich Do Every Day.” The explicit idea of this list is that these are 20 things that poor people don’t do — and thus 20 reasons why the poor themselves are to blame for their poverty. It’s a vicious, ugly and breathtakingly ignorant expression of contempt for anyone who has less money than Tom Corley and Dave Ramsey filled with dubious and skewed uncited “statistics” to make this sneering seem “scientific.”
Decent people don’t punch down at the weak. Corley and Ramsey did. Gleefully.
Some of us fired back at this nasty financial Bildadism by punching up. That’s the biblical model for responding to precisely this form of victim-blaming: sarcastic reproach. When Bildad blamed those who suffer for their suffering, Job’s response was not temperate or gentle:
How you have helped one who has no power! How you have assisted the arm that has no strength! How you have counseled one who has no wisdom, and given much good advice!
If the proverbially patient Job had no patience for those who punch down at the poor, then we shouldn’t patiently put up with their nonsense either. So I wrote “8 More Things the Rich Do Every Day.” And Rod at Political Jesus weighed in with a Job-like “20 Things the Working Poor Do Every Day.”
But it wasn’t just those of us sometimes seen as hotheaded who got heated up over this immoral moralizing contempt for the powerless. Here I want to round up some of the responses to Ramsey’s victim-blaming before returning, in Part 3, to look at the real, tangible harm this ideology is doing to real, tangible people.
• Ben Irwin offers “20 things the poor really do every day,” defending “those with whom Jesus identifies most closely” from Ramsey’s slanders. And he’s followed that up with posts discussing how “Poverty is more than a matter of poor decision-making” and challenging the morally corrosive “Myth of the unemployed freeloader.”
• Christianity Today’s Her.meneutics blog offers a mini-forum titled “Things Broke People Do: We’re not the only ones responsible for our financial state” in which Caryn Rivadeneira, Rachel Marie Stone and Marlena Graves discuss “some misguided beliefs about the poor.”
• Nate Pyle reflects on “The Danger of Equating Wealth With Virtue: A Response to Dave Ramsey.”
• Hännah Ettinger writes of “Privilege, Dave Ramsey, and Context,” conceding that while some of his cheerleading and some of his advice may be useful for some listeners, Ramsey is also “arrogant” and “a privileged bully” who offers bad long-term advice. “And I hate that he uses shame so much.”
• Elizabeth Esther is one of the people who could, and did, benefit from some of Ramsey’s practical advice and his get-out-of-debt zeal. She’s grateful for that, but writes, “I like Dave Ramsey’s ideas but I’m not sure I like Dave Ramsey.” Because he’s such a bullying jerk. (She doesn’t say “jerk,” she says “meanie,” “prideful,” “mocking” and “mean.”)
• Casey O’Leary also expresses gratitude to Ramsey’s classes and ideas for helping her get a handle on the debt that was enslaving her, but she laments “Dave Ramsey’s missed opportunity.” Ramsey is unable to effect lasting change, she says, because he doesn’t know how to listen.
• Morgan Guyton offers, “Another item for Dave Ramsey’s list of what rich people do that poor people don’t do” — reducing art and other people to commodities whose only value is to be exchanged as a means of keeping score when comparing oneself to other rich people. (Maybe that’s two items.)
But the biggest splash in the blogosphere came from Rachel Held Evans, writing for CNN’s belief blog, on “What Dave Ramsey gets wrong about poverty.”
“Dave Ramsey is rich,” Evans begins, starting off with the most salient point in this whole business before summing up the problem:
While Ramsey may be a fine source of information on how to eliminate debt, his views on poverty are neither informed nor biblical.
A guy who holds himself up as an expert on poverty needs to have his facts and his analysis straight when it comes to understanding poverty. And a guy who holds himself up as a Christian expert on poverty ought to have some understanding of what Moses, the prophets, Jesus and the apostles had to say about the subject. So if Ramsey’s “views on poverty are neither informed nor biblical,” then we’re dealing with two pretty substantial problems.
Evans gently, but firmly, points out the ways in which Ramsey’s views on poverty are not informed, but it’s her critique of how those views contradict what the Bible teaches that really makes her post deserving of the attention it’s getting:
Far from having contempt for the poor, Jesus surrounded himself with the needy and challenged the excesses of the rich. “Blessed are you who are poor,” he said, “for yours is the kingdom of God. … But woe to you who are rich, for you have already received your comfort” (Luke 6:24).
“It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle,” Jesus famously said, “than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.”
It’s hard for the wealthy to flourish in the kingdom that Jesus inaugurated because the economy of that kingdom runs so contrary to the economies of the world. It rewards the peacemakers over the powerful, the humble over the proud, the kind over the cruel, and those who hunger to do the right thing over those whose wealth has convinced them they already are.
… For Christians, Ramsey’s perceived “direct correlation” between faith and wealth should be more troubling than his other confused correlations, for it flirts with what Christians refer to as the prosperity gospel, the teaching that God rewards faithfulness with wealth.
Ramsey’s particular brand of prosperity gospel elevates the American dream as God’s reward for America’s faithfulness, the spoils of which are readily available to anyone who works hard enough to receive them.
But such a view glosses over the reality that America was not, in fact, founded upon purely Christian principles (unless one counts slavery, ethnic cleansing, gender inequity, and Jim Crow as Christian principles), so we should be careful of assuming our relative wealth reflects God’s favor. (The Roman Empire was wealthy, too, after all.)
… Throughout Scripture, people of faith are called not simply to donate to charity, but to address such systemic injustices in substantive ways. … Categorically blaming poverty on lack of faith or lack of initiative is not only uninformed, it’s unbiblical.
God does not divide the world into the deserving rich and the undeserving poor. In fact, the brother of Jesus wrote that God has “chosen the poor in the world to be rich in faith and heirs of the kingdom that he has promised to those who love him” (James 2:5).
Since we’ve introduced the subject of biblical teaching on poverty, let’s close with this — Peter Tosh exegeting the book of Amos: