[a guest post by Yaholo H]
I live in Hamilton County in Indiana. If you are not familiar with it, it is kind of the Dubai of the Midwest. Our churches look like a combination of Hogwarts and a Frank Lloyd Wright concert hall. (I will stop for a minute so you can Google all that…. Ready? Ok.) You can’t throw a rock without hitting a conservative evangelical. (BTW, don’t throw rocks at conservative evangelicals.) Yet, with all this wealth and religion, our central city, Indianapolis, struggles with poverty and is one of the largest food deserts in the country
Those who work to overcome poverty, or raise awareness of social issues, often find themselves wondering, “Why is this so hard?” Are rich people just bad? Do they hate the poor? In areas like mine, it can be infuriating to see all the need with so much wealth just on the other side of the road. But here is the shocking part, the wealthy in my community don’t even know they are wealthy.
Say What?!? – The Miserable Wealthy
You heard me. In these huge castle churches with parking lots packed full of SUVs, most people are just worried about losing what they have. The men’s prayer groups really highlight this (I am not being sexist, I am just male. I can’t go to the women’s prayer groups… inconspicuously.) Just about every other request is fear of a job loss, anxiety about a promotion, worry about moving, etc. So many rich people who can only worry about losing what they have.
Before you feel I am being overly harsh here, I want to confess I suffered the same problem. After all, I live here. Likewise, I also was never more stressed in my life than when I was making my highest level of income. All I could think about was the next upgrade and what would happen if I lost it. I never thought of myself as rich, partly because I was comparing myself to those around me. If I had never gotten involved with the community ministries in the city, I probably would never have gained perspective. So let’s ask, why don’t the rich know they are rich?
We Fear the World
“You fear the world too much,’ she answered gently. ‘All your other hopes have merged into the hope of being beyond the chance of its sordid reproach. I have seen your nobler aspirations fall off, one by one, until the master passion, Gain, engrosses you. Have I not?” – Charles Dickens, A Christmas Carol
The reason A Christmas Carol was so powerful wasn’t because Charles Dickens condemned the rich as evil, but because he saw them as lost. The conversation between Scrooge and his fiance, which I quoted above, is seldom included in the movies but is a powerful statement. Dickens reveals that the core of Scrooge’s greed is fear of the world. He wants to have enough money and resources as to be free of “its sordid reproach.”
Being poor sucks, you feel you are always at the mercy and judgment of others. Even as you hit some success in life, we all have to navigate the social pecking orders to make a living. Unless you hit an epic Warren Buffett level of assets, you still feel vulnerable. Often, people feel more vulnerable than when they had less, because they have more to lose.
We Esteem the Opinions of Those More Powerful Than Us
If you are walking down the street and a beggar criticizes your fashion sense, you will most likely not care. However, if you are walking down the street and rich man in a suit says you look terrible as he gets into a limo, you will mostly likely feel embarrassed. This social psychology is a big part of our culture. So because we only care what people more powerful than us think, we keep chasing approval and status by the “next level.”
As any of us grow in wealth, we don’t think about where we came from, we just think about how far we have to go. Just bought a house? Now you will see every house bigger and better than yours. Just got a car? Now you will see every car cooler than yours. If we don’t take effort to examine these thoughts and behaviors, they will be our first impulses. When our eyes are fixed on “more” we can’t see those with “less,” and we are always seeing ourselves as the less fortunate.
We All Just Want Respect
Related to our fear of the world, we also want respect. Be it from our parents, our peers, or the world around us, we often want stuff for the sake of status more than for the actual stuff. Let’s face it, God may look at the heart, but man looks at the outside. And when you have a great suit, the man thinks pretty highly of you. It feels good to have instant respect or status, but it becomes a source of internal slavery.
Resentment of the Weak
Those who have fought their way to wealth and power, or climbed the corporate ladder have been through a lot of stress, anxiety, and confrontation. When you have fought that many battles, you start to resent those you see as “weak.” Ultimately, this is where the “get a job, you bum!” mindset comes from. “After all, if I had to endure so much to get here, then they should have to endure it too.”
Successful careers have often come at the sacrifice of family time, personal interests, and often any idealism we had coming into the world. In the name of necessity, we often see these sacrifices as “virtuous.” We praise people for being single-minded toward success. We see success as a sign of “good decisions,” so we then of course will see poverty as simply being “bad decisions.” But when we do this, we make success our god and ambition our religion.
Don’t Envy the Rich
“Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God.” – Matthew 19.24 (ESV)
I realize how cliche it is to say “money doesn’t buy happiness.” So let’s say this instead, “money has nothing to do with happiness.” Some people have the wisdom to use money in a way to bless others and themselves, even if they are a minority, which is what Scrooge learned how to do at the end of A Christmas Carol. The bottom line is that being wealthy is often a burden, or was a burden to achieve. What we do know, which Jesus told us, is that the most spiritually precarious place to be is at the top of the ladder.
Love Thy Enemy
All this is so important because it is too easy for those of us to are working for social justice and combating poverty to demonize the rich, as if we wouldn’t have the same temptations in their position. Understanding the humanity of those in power is the key to making cultural bridges in our conversations. Appealing to the “softer sides” of those who seem so dense is an effective way to create disruption, curiosity, and receptivity. Everyone just wants love, respect, and acceptance, the rich and the poor alike.
Am I Rich?
If you are asking yourself if you are rich or not, take a look at this “Litany for a Rich Man”
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