Jesus said, “No one can serve two masters; for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth.” Matthew 6:24
America’s first two Anglo settlements were Jamestown, Virginia, and Plymouth, Massachusetts. The first was a business founded by the Virginia Company of London that mentioned God in its charter as an afterthought. Plymouth, in contrast, was a group of pilgrims hoping to find spiritual refuge. Since the 1600s, the United States has wrestled between its love of God and money. Unfortunately, today it seems the pursuit of wealth is winning America’s heart while God is becoming more of an afterthought.
Take the following:
According to a recent Washington Post article, the United States ranks just above Romania in children living below the poverty line. The richest country on earth ranks below Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, and Hungary in terms of childhood poverty. According to the National Center for Children in Poverty, 22% of children (greater than one-in-five) live below the poverty line, and these numbers have only grown over the last four decades. Could there be a more brutal examination of this country’s heart?
There are almost daily reports about the new wealthy in Silicon Valley or billionaire hedge fund managers buying extravagant homes, yet one in five children will go to bed tonight living in anonymous poverty. Last year, while speaking in an Italian municipality, Pope Francis said, “The world had become an idolater of this god called money,” adding, “men and women have to be at the center as God wants, not money.” The pope’s comments reflect how dire the situation has become, where economies across the world recognize those who have achieved great wealth without recognizing how many are suffering.
American citizens are comfortable with politicians calling this the greatest nation on earth, but would the greatest nation on earth be comfortable with more than 20 percent of its children being poor? The Bible does not ascribe greatness to the wealthy; quite the opposite. When Peter was charged as the head of the Church, he almost immediately made the following statement to a beggar: “I do not possess silver and gold, but what I do have I give to you.” Peter’s strength, and the Church’s strength, has always been demonstrated through love, not financial gain.
While child poverty might be obvious, there is another topic that may seem partisan, but it reflects the hearts of Democrats and Republicans, and the Church as a whole: people of both parties and all denominations and faiths have voted for candidates who have cut welfare. While in office, President Bill Clinton (Democrat) cut welfare on the federal level in an historic way. As a governor and president, Ronald Reagan (Republican) cut into and spoke out against welfare whenever he had the opportunity. President Jimmy Carter (Democrat) proposed monumental cuts to welfare while he was president.
Yet when banks needed a taxpayer-subsidized handout in 2008, there was the President of the United States (a Republican and son of a Republican president) handing out $700 billion to a handful of banks. Arguments can be made as to how dire things may have gotten in the United States had the government not done this, but why does the federal government value the well-being of banks over the well-being of its poorest citizens? U.S. Congressman Paul Ryan, a Republican from Wisconsin and former Vice-Presidential nominee, submitted a Congressional budget this year that proposed more than $700 billion in cuts to Medicaid and $1 trillion in cuts to programs like food stamps and college grants. The poor sit back and watch social programs get slashed, while both political parties give billions of dollars to companies, taking that money from taxpayers. Corporate tax breaks on the state and local level reached more than $100 billion in 2014, and the Cato Institute estimates that the federal government gives roughly another $100 billion in corporate subsidies every year. Every year, the top five oil companies (ExxonMobil, BP, ConocoPhillips, Chevron, and Shell) get billions in combined tax breaks. The total value of those five oil companies alone is more than $1.7 trillion.
Turning from love of money
In the Gospel of Luke, Jesus says, “…where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” Americans struggle with this, the battle between prosperity and spirituality. It’s in our bones to buy a house, have a retirement account, and drive a nice car. Many of Jesus’ teachings cut to the core of our nation’s history. We sing of freedom, but millions of children are oppressed by poverty. We believe we have a Christian heritage, but our heritage includes endorsing slavery as a way of driving the economy.
Yet, there is hope. While we are called a nation of consumers, we were also founded to be a “city upon a hill.” While there are Christian spiritual leaders who claim wealth is a sign of godliness, we have been blessed with a pope who is unafraid of turning the Church’s attention to the neediest among us, a pope who said, “Just as the commandment ‘Thou shalt not kill’ sets a clear limit in order to safeguard the value of human life, today we also have to say ‘thou shalt not’ to an economy of exclusion and inequality. Such an economy kills.” Pope Francis’ words cut right to the heart of it, that Americans must not value corporations above humanity. When Wall Street seemed to rule America in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, God raised up political, cultural and spiritual leaders to free the nation from this bondage.
Today, leaders like Kendall Fells are taking on billion-dollar corporations to help working people get a living wage. Politicians like Senator Elizabeth Warren are standing in the gap between the working poor and the 1%. Isaiah 59:19 says when the enemy comes in like a flood, the Spirit of the Lord shall lift up a standard against him. It seems at a moment when the United States is struggling with wealth and purity of heart, God is raising up champions who want to protect America’s spiritual ideals even if it’s at the expense of its wealth.