A few days ago I watched a viral video which has been going around about the ridiculous income gap in the United States, and since then, I’ve been continuing to ponder something I’ve been considering for the last few years: the issue of generosity and justice. I’ve been slow to speak out publicly about this because I don’t want to swing too far in the opposite direction of my previous leanings, but I’m starting to think that the way I thought about wealth, justice, and giving during my college years was out of balance.
I started caring about social justice circa 2005, just before Shane Claiborne was mega-cool, and right around the time justice issues were just starting to build a bit of momentum in evangelical circles. I felt I was part of the vanguard, drawing on the wisdom of an older generation of leaders like John Perkins, telling my peers they needed to care more and leave their safe middle-class neighborhoods. I put a lot of pressure on myself to give generously, not only monetarily but also by doing things like summer urban projects while other college students were getting internships to build their resumes or jobs to build up savings. For example, I gave up a really great summer job with my orthodontist—making more money per hour than I have ever made in the nearly ten years since—to do a service-learning experience in the inner city. This was a valuable experience and I wouldn’t say I regret it, but it was definitely a sacrifice.
Unfortunately, I don’t think I realized until long after college just what a sacrifice some of these things were. I thought of myself as being part of an upper-middle class elite and needing to divest myself of my privilege. In some sense this was very valid for the daughter of a doctor who attended a private prep school. What I failed to realize, however, and what I feel other justice-minded Christians (many of them only known to me through the books they wrote) neglected to mention was that things would change when I wasn’t a college student supported by my parents. It is easy to give up a summer of earning money or gaining experience when you don’t have any real financial obligations. And while it was possible and valuable in the short-term, I sometimes find myself questioning its value in the long-term.
It’s not that I don’t want people to be committed to social justice. But I was already convinced justice was important. I just felt that because I was committed to justice that I owed God this sort of sacrifice. And that’s the part I now question. I question it, in particular, with the knowledge that the economy in the United States has been increasingly harsh towards those with college degrees, so that having grown up well-off and having an education no longer means you can avoid unemployment or underemployment. I also question it with that viral video in mind. As the income and wealth disparities in the United States continue to grow, I wonder if pressuring the bulk of Americans to divest themselves of significant amounts money is really ethical or wise.
As I write this, my past self screams at me that I’m an evil rich American who doesn’t understand anything about the gospel… but I have enough questions about this currently that I think it would be worth exploring in a blog series. I’d love to get some of your initial thoughts on this!