Prosperity and Virtue


I wish that I had simply asked the question on Sunday that, it seems to me, must be answered at the beginning of the Poor People’s Campaign’s National Call to Moral Revival: Why is it hard to talk about money? As our friend Wanda pointed out to me, a productive dialog on poverty must include both those who have money and those who don’t, those who have prospered and those who have struggled. But that is a hard conversation. Those of us who have it – if we actually care about those who don’t – feel guilty about it. We’re convicted. And those who don’t have money are shamed by a society that values little else. As a result, I think it is hard to talk about money because conversations about money tend to become conversations about virtue.

It is part of the American mythology that virtue leads to prosperity. Whether we think the key virtue is hard work or education or honesty or ingenuity, we are certain that there is something a person can do to change their circumstances for the better. So when we see someone whose circumstances are bad, we assume they do not possess this key virtue. The unsuccessful are lazy and stupid and untrustworthy and uncreative. But I’m sure we can all think of exceptions to this rule to either side.

There are people we know to be unvirtuous who are prosperous. One occupies the White House. One might be writing this post. Those of us who are prosperous and also honest with ourselves know that far more went into creating our circumstances than our own virtue. Most of it is luck. Most of it is the luck of being born into one situation instead of another. And, of course, that situation is not luck at all, but the relentless defense of privilege over the course of centuries; we are just the latest iteration.

We also know people who do all the right things, but don’t get the right outcomes. Hard work is supposed to be a virtue that leads to prosperity, but I’ve never known anyone who works as hard as the impoverished people I know. African Americans with college degrees are twice as likely to be unemployed as their white counterparts, so education isn’t a guarantee. Even if we do all the things under our control well, there is a lot that is out of our control. If you are a person of color or someone who has experienced generational poverty, there is a lot more that is out of your control.

I suspect that the reason we frame poverty in terms of values is because we don’t want to believe that there is a lot that is out of our control. We want to believe that we succeed on our own merits, that we are where we are because of hard work and determination. It absolves us responsibility for the privilege we have received.

When I was in seminary, I made an off-hand comment to a friend, an African American woman: “I’m so tired. I’m just so busy.” She nodded and started to walk away and then turned back to ask: “Is that a white thing? Talking about being tired and busy?” I proceeded to explain that it wasn’t, that I had just taken too many difficult courses and was having trouble keeping up. But it pricked my ears to listen to my African American peers. One talked of pastoring a church, going to school full-time, and driving Uber in his “spare time.” Another talked of growing up having to start working at 14 years old to support the family and facing the risk of losing their subsidized housing as a result. I realized it was indeed a white thing to think we are really working hard. I went to school full-time and didn’t have to do anything else. School was my only job. And I think most white peers would say the same. However tired and busy the privileged think we are, it does not compare to the lives of impoverished people.

We also absolve ourselves by speaking of poverty in the abstract. I thought the hostile binary of socialism versus capitalism had died with Ronald Reagan – or at least with the fall of the Berlin Wall – but it continues to rear it’s ugly head. Given the overall collapse of socialism across the world, I can’t believe anyone thinks it is a real threat. Instead, it seems to me that people raise the corpse of socialism to justify our own privilege. The victory of capitalism over socialism is seen as a sign of its strength and virtue. It won because it was the best possible system and those who prosper in it are the best possible people.

Perhaps there is some merit in this view. As a rule, it is better to be virtuous, to work hard and become educated. Further, capitalism is very efficient at moving resources around, which gives it great potential to solve problems as they arise. However, when we draw our choices in the stark terms of an epic battle between good and evil, we become blind to any problems on our own side. That’s how we got where we are now: hyper-capitalism.

Capitalism – like communism or any other economic arrangement – was originally offered as a means to the common good. The efficiency of the market would bring about the best results for the most people. But it was always understood that the market can get out of control and, therefore, must be constrained. Monopolies and concentration of wealth were seen as bad ends that should be curtailed. It was also understood that the market could fail to bring about the best results. That is, the market might not be the best way to provide education or healthcare because there is not a beneficial incentive structure or a way for consumers to make informed choices. In these cases, it may be better to treat these things as part of the infrastructure of the common good. Always, the goal was the common good.

But now capitalism has become a good in itself. Whatever the market provides must be the best possible alternative that could be. We accept income inequality and the wealth gap because that is where unfettered capitalism naturally ends. We accept poor education and poor healthcare because the market is ill-equipped to solve those problems. In any case, it must be better than the only possible alternative: evil socialism. This glorification of the market is a particular problem for anyone who claims the label “Christian.”

We talked on Sunday about the Ascension of Jesus. Tied up in Luke’s vision is the idea that Caesar is not the ruler of the cosmos and Jesus is. As I’ve said many times, we don’t have to accept the patriarchal images of kingship and sonship found in Scripture. Instead, we should focus on what they mean. When Jesus ascends to heaven to sit at the right hand of God, his “Father,” we are to understand that Jesus acts with the authority and power of God. He acts with God’s agency. However, because it is an honor/shame culture, the son is also supposed to act with the virtue of his father. Therefore, if we want to know God’s concerns, if we want to know the content of God’s virtue, we can look at Jesus. Moreover, we should glorify those virtues. Jesus said you can’t serve God and money. You can’t glorify the market and Jesus.

Next week we will talk about Pentecost, the coming of the Holy Spirit. Pentecost fulfills Jesus’ promise to clothe us in power from on high. Just as Jesus acted with the authority and virtue of God, we are called to do the same. We are not to wait around for Jesus to return; God is here and has never left. We are to act on the power given us by God and act in imitation of God’s virtue. That means the fate of the poor is in our hands now. As Christians, that means we must hold the market to account when it fails to care for the least among us. As Jesus was a glory to Israel because he cared for the poor, Christians can be a glory to America if we are willing to be convicted and to repent. It is past time for a moral revival.


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