“This is not class warfare—it’s math.”
On September 19th, President Obama proposed a deficit reduction plan that would be paid for by tax hikes for families making $250,000 or more annually, a group that makes up just 1.5% of the U.S. population. Conservative pundits expressed concerns that President Obama was either engaging in or encouraging “class warfare.” To this, President Obama responded, “This is not class warfare—it’s math.”
At the same time, an “Occupy Wall Street” protest began in NYC, and now similar protests have spread around the world. Protesters at such events have made a habit of chanting “We are the 99 percent” in reference to the fact that 1% of the nation’s population is taking home a quarter of all income in the U.S. each year (a phenomenon eloquently described by Nobel Laureate economist Joseph Stiglitz’s article “Of the 1%, By the 1%, For the 1%” in Vanity Fair’s May 2011 issue).
It just so happens that I spend my days as a policy research analyst, so I’m used to thinking about the implications of what others see as mere numbers. But this particular debate – class warfare versus math – got me thinking theologically.
Where does Jesus stand on class warfare?
That one is easy. Jesus does NOT like warfare. The Prince of Peace wouldn’t stand for it.
But wait…. how does Christ feel about math?
Searching my concordance, looking in the New Interpreter’s, flipping through my mental rolodex of dead theologians…. and …. Zilch. Where other sources failed, Google provided an answer:
Thank you, Google. That is, indeed, some Jesus math.
Despite the absurdity of an equation for salvation, the question is a real one: what does the Christian tradition say about the attitude we should take toward the rich in society?
The Bible has very little good to say about the rich and very little good advice for the rich. The rich are described as not allowing the poor even the scraps from their table. The rich are described as having their reward on earth and therefore not entitled to tenderness in death. It’s easier, we’re told, to get a camel through the eye of a needle than a rich man into heaven. And the only advice for a rich man: Go, sell your possessions, and give the money to the poor. In other words, stop being rich. Woe, woe, woe… to you who are rich.
So there you have it. The rich are in big trouble.
What a relief for the rest of us! If only those rich folks on Wall Street would do as Jesus says and give their money to the poor folks. The other 99% of us would really appreciate that.
But the disciples weren’t relieved to hear Jesus’s advice to the rich man; they were “greatly astounded.” They reply, “But Jesus! Then who can be saved?” Unlike 21st century USA, the disciples assumed only two categories of people: the rich and the poor. The poor were an easy-to-recognize group: widows, orphans, slaves, beggars, lepers, anyone who was crippled physically or mentally. Everybody else was rich. By degrees, perhaps, and types – farmer, herdsman, tradesman – but rich nonetheless. And that included the disciples, a group of fishermen, religious/political activists and one tax collector – all solidly middle class professions by modern standards. They were wandering homeless with Jesus, but they still did not claim to be poor.
The Bible, I believe, is profoundly concerned about wealth. Deeply suspicious of the rich. Highly preferential to the poor. It boldly demands that the rich give everything they have to the poor. Such a stance really could be interpreted as class warfare. Woe to the 1%! Woe to Wall Street!
But such an interpretation arbitrarily draws a line at 1%, deciding on a whim which of God’s beloved children have too much and allowing those with a penny less than the magic number to join the poor in wagging their collective finger.
Mathematically, we are indeed the 99%. But we’re not just the poorest 99%. We’re also the richest 99%. (I know you’re curious where exactly you rank, so go ahead, check your global wealth rank here and your U.S. wealth rank here.) And chances are, if you start factoring in the many advantages you have had in life, you’ll find that you are scoring awfully high on the “privilege scale.” (For example, if you’re clergy, you probably have a professional degree, in which case you are more educated than 97% of the U.S. population.)
Now I acknowledge that if the CEOs and Wall Street bankers of the world sold all their possessions and gave it to the poor, it would be significantly more cash than would come from your or my possessions. While the amount that the top 1% could (and should) give is bigger than what you or I could give, the obligation is shared. All of us – you, me, and Wall Street – we’re on the same side of this terrifying admonition to “give it all to the poor.”
So while income inequality and wealth distribution are serious injustices that our Christian faith calls us to address, we do not need to participate in a blame game that scapegoats the richest 1% for an economic system that they did not create alone. Treating the rich as outcasts or social pariahs is not how Christians are called to respond. Blame and demonization are simply not Christ-like approaches to rectifying injustice.
Now let me be clear. I support an overhaul of the tax system. I would advocate for an even more progressive tax policy than Obama has proposed. But I would like to do so while acknowledging my own participation in the economic system that produces such extreme inequalities. I would like to do so while also suggesting that educational inequalities, health care access, sexism and racism are contributing to the problem. I would like to do so while standing hand in hand with my neighbors who grew up on welfare and never left, my neighbors whose homes were destroyed by a tornado, and my neighbors with stock options and golden parachutes. Because standing together, we are more than 99%. We are whole.
(And that’s some math I think Jesus would appreciate.)
Gospel postscript: Having heard that “it is harder for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to get into heaven,” the greatly-astounded disciples asked Jesus, “Then who can be saved?” And Jesus looked at them and said, “For mortals it is impossible, but for God all things are possible.” And then Jesus led his middle (upper) class disciples on to the next adventure in faithfulness. Amen, I say, alleluia and amen.