Balancing the tilt toward the rich
The world is tilted in favor of the rich and famous, always has been and always will be. No matter where you look in the world, in almost every culture the rich are esteemed to be better than the rest of us. There is a natural tendency to believe that the mega successful people are smarter, more talented, or more worthy than we are. Networks make TV series about their lives; soap operas feature successful people living in beautiful marbled houses with fancy cars. Rich people are sought out by talk show hosts and news programs and invited to share their opinions on a wide range of issues. It does not matter if they have an ounce of expertise on the subject or not. All they need is an articulate opinion and the show hosts will nod in deference and go along with them. I doubt if there is a culture on earth that doesn’t value the rich person more than it values the poor. The scale of justice and life is tilted in favor of the rich and famous.
The church, throughout the ages, has also fallen into the trap of deferring to the rich and famous. Corrupt cardinals and clergy in league with unjust rulers are common in Western literature for the simple reason that they were common in real life. It has always been thus. Even James, in the first century, addresses this problem:
”My brothers and sisters, do not show prejudice if you possess faith in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ. For if someone comes into your assembly wearing a gold ring and fine clothing, and a poor person enters in filthy clothes, do you pay attention to the one who is finely dressed and say, “You sit here in a good place,” and to the poor person, “You stand over there,” or “Sit on the floor”? If so, have you not made distinctions among yourselves and become judges with evil motives? Listen, my dear brothers and sisters! Did not God choose the poor in the world to be rich in faith and heirs of the kingdom that he promised to those who love him? But you have dishonored the poor! Are not the rich oppressing you and dragging you into the courts? Do they not blaspheme the good name of the one you belong to? But if you fulfill the royal law as expressed in this scripture, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself,” you are doing well. But if you show prejudice, you are committing sin and are convicted by the law as violators.” James 2:1–9
James literally says “Don’t hold your faith with bias/prejudice”. He sees that his world, his culture is naturally tilted in favor of the rich, but IN the church it should NOT be that way. He even points out the irony — that we discriminate against the poor who are chosen by God, and show deference to the rich who oppress us. The landlord who evicted you because you used your rent money to pay for your child’s hospital bill, is ushered by you to the front of the church where you ask your poor neighbor (who has also been evicted) to give up his seat to the landlord. WTF? It’s sad and enraging, but in reality this is what we do. So James calls them on this practice, points out that is wrong to value the rich over the poor. We need to stop deferring to the rich and famous, and focus on caring for the poor. But that is not enough: if we acknowledge that the world is tilted in favor of the rich and famous, shouldn’t we then bend the other way to even the playing field? Shouldn’t we as a church and as a society informed by Christian values enact policies that tilt the system toward the poor and away from the rich?
The early church should not be faulted for their deference to the rich. Like us, they lived in a society that valued the rich over the poor. Most of us simply cannot see the influence that the culture has on us. Not until the stand up comedian, the minority activist or the fiery prophet take us to the woodshed do we step back and look at who we are and what we have become. Our values are shaped by the culture we live in. James calls us to see things from a different cultural perspective, from the cultural values of God’s kingdom as revealed through Jesus. The culture of Jesus is radically different from the surrounding culture, and the followers of Jesus need to hold values that differ from the dominant culture, and act according to those values. If not, the dominant culture will squeeze us into it’s mold and our values will not be aligned with Jesus.
If we accept that our dominant culture is tilted in favor of the rich and famous, what should we do? As Christians are we “cool” with policies that systematically favor the rich over the poor? Are we okay with a system set up to ensure that “the rich get richer and the poor get poorer”? If the playing field is tilted in favor of the rich, what can be done to level the playing field? How can we become aware of our tendency to defer to the rich and famous, and stop giving them preference? How can the church begin to align itself with the poor and the disenfranchised?