Today I was inspired to continue my long abandoned series relating to wealth, poverty, and social justice, and my motivation came from an unexpected source: Evangelicals on the Canterbury Trail: Why Evangelicals Are Attracted to the Liturgical Church by the late Wheaton professor Robert Webber. As a part of a chapter about his gradual development of a more holistic spirituality, he mentions a conference he attended in the 70s which was organized by Jim Wallis and other justice-minded Christian leaders (p. 81-82):
All of us at the conference were organized into various groups for discussion. I was assigned to the economic responsibility group. I remember how appalled I was at the discussion. The issue at stake was the meaning of Jesus’ words, “Take up your cross and follow after me.” The specific question under debate was, “Could one be rich and be a Christian?” The word “rich” was never really defined then so it is difficult for me now to state categorically what was meant by the term. But one of the members of the group was a man very interested in social issues. He also happened to be a successful businessman. He shared with us that his salary was over $100,000 a year, that he drove a Mercedes-Benz, and that he owned a small yacht. Could he qualify as a Christian? His question was sincere. Finally we went around in the circle and each person responded to the gentleman’s question. The consensus was that if he really wanted to follow after Jesus, he would need to give up his job, sell his belongings, and give the proceeds to the poor. Then he would be in a position to follow after Christ.
I firmly believe in ethical spirituality, but in this case I felt it was carried too far. Like the other kinds of spirituality I had encountered in my pilgrimage, ethical spirituality was being turned into something legalistic and wooden. It was coming from the outside asking for a legal conformity to a set of man-made room.
I do not judge Jim Wallis, John Alexander, or Ron Sider. Although they have taken personal vows to live on a poverty level, I don’t feel that they negatively judge others who have not chosen to follow an ethical spirituality to this degree. What I am concerned about is the legalistic interpretation that others have made from this lifestyle choice.
Confession: Jim Wallis may not judge Mercedes Guy, but I totally do. I can’t help it. I roll my eyes at people who own luxury cars and yachts. On a marginally related note, we are temporarily in an apartment in Waco while we wait to close on a house, and we get free basic cable, something I haven’t had since the free basic cable they had in UNC’s dorms. Because of the excitement of being less than a month from homeownership, we have been watching an embarrassing amount of HGTV. The unfortunate thing about this is that I am constantly face-to-face with how judgmental I actually am. Eighty-seven percent of the people on House Hunters are downright evil in my mind. Today we saw someone looking for a $600,000 vacation home complaining about their budget. Another day some uppity single woman with a more modest $250,000 budget insisted on buying a large four-bedroom house and complained about all the luxury features the homes didn’t have. The worst are often the international house hunters. They always want everything to be exactly like it was for them in the United States, but they also want to live right on the water and within walking distance of their job. On top of that, last week we encountered a family that moved to Latin America to literally do nothing for two years, now whining about how their money was running out and they needed to get back to work.
It is a little disturbing how much I love to hate these people and their ridiculous sense of entitlement. That said, Webber seems to so perfectly articulate some of the things I’ve been trying to wrestle with in this series. First, I think he is right that many leaders aren’t explicitly encouraging Christians to judge one another but that it is still something that happens all too often. (See the above example.) Even though I often count myself among the judgers, I also know what it feels like to be judged. Sometimes I have been judged by others, but most often, I think I experience judgment at my own hand. Which brings me to my second agreement with Webber: What he reports as the “answer” given to Mercedes Guy by the other group members is definitely the same “answer” I have often heard from other justice-minded Christians, as well as in my own head. A totally reasonable answer might be, “You might not need to keep spending money on luxury items.” But living more simply—to avoid debt, to allow more giving, or simply to avoid ridiculous excess—is rarely where the instructions stop. Mercedes Guy was told to quit his job and sell his stuff and give it to the poor. At one point I might have agreed, but now I’m not so sure.
I mentioned before that there is a tendency to assume everyone is coming from the same place and needs the same message about money. While Mercedes Guy was better off than most people, I do think many people in very different stations sometimes receive the same message, whether explicit or implicit. I also question whether this is the right message for Mercedes Guy to begin with. It might be, but it might not. For that reason, I think he should have been given a more nuanced message from the beginning. With this quote from Webber as a springboard, I hope to finally move forward in the coming days/weeks and explain these two problematic tendencies in greater detail, suggesting some alternatives.