Friday, November 11, 2011

What About Our Class Struggle?

     A few centuries ago, the English aristocracy were trembling at the news they were hearing from France. Dukes had been decapitated.  The wealthy had been despoiled of their goods. The poor were rioting in the streets. France was wallowing in anarchy. 

What would keep the same things from occurring in England, where conditions were not much different?  In England the poor shivered in the cold while ladies danced at balls in castles and bishops discussed philosophy at Oxford. In England, as in France, the class divide had become unsustainable. The wealthy didn’t have enough money to hire enough soldiers or build high enough walls to keep out people who were hungry. Catastrophe was coming their way. The aristocrats knew this; they just didn’t know when.

Then, something unexpected happened.

An Oxford doctor of theology went to a prayer meeting. He experienced the power of the Holy Spirit and felt called to preach the gospel to England’s poor. Soon, coal miners and farmers, street vendors and orphans began crowding to the meetings to listen to John Wesley preach and to learn Charles Wesley’s songs.

In a few years, twenty percent of England’s population became Methodists. They experienced the power of God, the social lift that often comes with the gospel, and the intellectually transforming energy that comes from wrestling with Holy Scripture.

We need something like that now.Our class divide is also becoming dangerous.
I know that I shouldn’t even discuss this but I am a pastor. So, I must.

           I am responsible to tell you that Karl Marx was not the first to address the consequences of dividing human beings into socio- economic classes.

What are we to say about the constitution of a proposed kingdom that begins with the words, “blessed are the poor; for theirs is the kingdom of Heaven?”  Or to the Christ’s claim that he had fulfilled the prophecy that the messiah would “preach the good news to the poor?”

How are we to respond to the apostle James, who clearly prohibits any sort of economic stratification within the church, particularly as an evangelistic strategy?

And, to mention just one more out of many New Testament passages, how do we respond to the assertion of the Apostle Paul in Galatians that he had been obedient to the request of the leaders in Jerusalem to “remember the poor?”

Such passages have become uncomfortable to many American Christians. In today’s supercharged political climate, they seem to smack of some sort of ancient socialism; a kind of embarrassing proto-Marxist rhetoric that we must quickly explain away.

They will not go away, however, unless conservatives do to the Bible with these passages what liberals have done with the passages about the virgin birth and the Lord’s physical resurrection from the dead. We could learn from the liberals how to claim that these passages were for another time and situation; that the poor back then were not like today’s poor; that the kingdom of God has been advanced by using an evangelistic strategy that deliberately markets to the upwardly mobile; and so forth. 

What we have been doing is not right. It is a betrayal of the gospel.

It is also having bad results.

George Barna recently noted that the poor are the most un-churched group of American society, and that this is particularly true of English-speaking Whites. His research shows that White poor people in our country are actually falling away from the church in great numbers, and that in the younger generations, the statistics become even more alarming.

A recent edition of Time magazine focused on the accelerating pace at which American culture is shrinking its middle class. There are many factors to blame, not the least of which is a native working force that is now largely uneducated and unskilled compared to that of other industrial nations. In other words, too large a proportion of our middle class young adults don’t know the basics of Western Civilization. They can’t read at adequate levels, don’t know geography, can’t speak a language other than their own, have inadequate math skills, and are not aware of the basic scientific discoveries of the last many decades.

For all these reasons, American workers are having an increasingly difficult time competing with their Polish, English, Spanish, Russian, Indian, Korean, and Brazilian counterparts in a globalized economy. Corporations can often get more for their money elsewhere.

But why is that?

For one thing, other countries have been pouring huge amounts of their national attention and treasury into education for several decades.  Also, our country had no real competitors for much of the twentieth century. The other great powers destroyed had much of their infrastructure through their insane wars.  However, in the last fifty years, those same powers have been rebuilding and modernizing their infrastructure. What’s more, many of these nations have also continued to value the intellectual structures of civilization, and to insist that diplomas ought to be rewarded to people who have taken the time to learn what it means to be civilized.

We have been watching television and playing video games, while ignoring boring subjects like literature and math. It worked too. We could still find a good paying job even if we didn’t know how to think critically.

Well, its over.

Now, if a worker doesn’t have an education, and sometimes even if he does, he will have to get in line behind the Chinese, Japanese, Koreans, Germans, Canadians, Swiss, Swedes, and all the others who have been studying for years in schools that their countries funded.

Furthermore, our situation is not going to turn around; at least for some time. In fact our situation will never turn around unless we stop ignoring vast portions of our population. If our poor people keep going to bad schools and our teachers never make enough money to feed themselves, our cycles of poverty will keep turning. As a result, our workforce will not be able to compete at global standards.

America will not be successful just because.

A recent edition of Time Magazine focused on the economic dangers ahead of our country, which unfortunately we seem willing to ignore. For this reason, our future does not appear to be bright at the moment.

So, what will happens to our poor? And, if you consider yourself to be middle class at the moment, I may be speaking about you.  Your own family may be slowly descending into poverty in years ahead unless you are preparing your children to do otherwise.

I know, blogs are supposed to be short.

So, I will now confess that I do not have an economic solution for our country since I am neither Marxist nor Libertarian, I also don’t have a revolutionary solution – armed or political.

What I offer is a spiritual solution.

Our churches are not offering this type of solution. They are too busy fighting to stay on the right side of things, as secular society defines it. 

It’s not the first time Christianity has done this. We have often come precariously close to offering Christianity without a Christ.

Oh, we adore the Christ we sing and theologize about. We have proven ourselves perfectly capable of worshiping Jesus without listening to a thing he said.  Pictures of Jesus, statues of Jesus and songs about Jesus move us to tears; it’s the Sermon on the Mount that we find impractical.

            That was true in his day too. Jesus didn’t die because he refused to honor Caesar, Herod and the High Priest but because he didn’t honor them any more than he honored anyone else.

            It was true in Wesley’s day as well. The Church of England was about doing well rather than about becoming good. The rabble was staying away from church because there was nothing there for them.

            The English church had become a means of maintaining the culture’s status quo.

            The only alternative the English church leaders saw was a French-style revolution that they prepared to fight to the death. 

            Since all of that, we have been wrestling with Marx.

            Like the French revolutionaries, Marx hated the upper classes. His followers were willing to kill people in order to bring about a classless society.  

Jesus didn’t hate anyone.  He did not want his followers to do that either. However, He did refuse to acknowledge class. He loved the rich young ruler. He received with respect a member of the Jewish Supreme Court. On the other hand, he ate with a tax collector.  He allowed a sinner woman to wash his feet in public. He didn’t hate the rich and powerful. He had come to save them too! He just didn’t prefer them or esteem them more than he did others,

            The Jesus way of attacking class structure is simply to stop empowering it.

A Christian loves a man or woman because he or she is made in the image and likeness of God. Titles, rank, money and societal importance are noted as one notes the color of a person’s hair or the shape of his nose. It is there. It is part of that person’s identity.  But all of that is like the value of foreign money; it’s not accepted as legal tender in our realm.
          This is a form of class struggle, I suppose. At least many would view it that way. Nonetheless, I disagree with the assertion of liberation theologians that Christianity must necessarily prefer the poor. No, it shouldn’t. On the other hand, it should not prefer the wealthy or the talented or the powerful. Or the Tories or Whigs.

            Christianity is good news to the poor because for the first time in their lives they have no hurtle to jump. They can get into our club simply because they breathe air. They do not have to sit in coach class. They don’t have to eat inferior food. They are not passed over when the church decides to promote people to positions of influence. They are in.
End of story.This kingdom is theirs.

Jesus made that decision.

By the way, the French revolution never came to England.

Jesus got there first.

Oh, the aristocracy sneered at the Methodists. They kept enjoying their port and cigars, as their humble neighbors became citizens of another world.

But their poor neighbors no longer cared.

They had forgotten how to view themselves as poor.

They also did not view their neighbors as rich. They saw them as lost. They no longer hated their wealthy neighbors. They had pity for them.

They no longer cared because they had won the class war.


Lisa Hewitt said...

Wow--perfect timing, thanks, Pastor Scott! As someone who just finished her master's applied project paper on liberation theology, I found this fascinating.
: D

Lonnie Thoms said...

In the past week I've been thinking about an idea that I heard as a youth. That of "Social Lift" of the Gospel. This is the first reference that came up upon searching. (maybe the only one!)
I can tell you from experience that I was lifted out of the poverty that I lived in a a child because of Christ. That is a movement that needs to take place in America today. Your observations are spot on and give even a hint of warning to us! We need to allow the Gospel to permeate our culture and the power of God to change who we are at the deepest levels. Until then we will continue the slide into a nation divided by race, creed and deed. Bless you!