On a stormy day a while back an old woman came into my office and gave me a donation.
“You do good work here,” she said, slipping me twenty, “I wanted to contribute a little bit.”
I knew the woman had lost her husband a few months ago and, judging from her clothes and what little I knew about her, I figured she could use the food pantry herself – but I took the money anyway. Refusing it would’ve been insulting. After she left I clipped her Andrew Jackson to a deposit slip and walked it down to the finance department. By tomorrow it would join the rest of the funds generously donated by my town’s citizens.
Back in my office, I sat back in my chair and watched the frayed American flag outside my window flapping furiously in the wind. I have an friend who’s an amateur vexillologist and places flags on veteran’s graves every Memorial Day. If he saw that flag he’d probably insist it be replaced. There are rules about that stuff I guess. But I quickly forgot about the condition of Old Glory and began thinking about another widow – one who lived two thousand years ago.
You all know the story of the Widow’s Mite. Jesus was in the Temple watching rich people putting offerings in the treasury when a poor widow came by and placed two mites, a fairly insignificant sum, into the kitty. If you know anything about history, during biblical times a destitute woman without a man to care for her was incredibly vulnerable. Seeing the woman’s act of generosity Jesus said, “Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put in more than all the others. For they all contributed out of their surplus, but she out of her poverty has put in all she had to live on.”
Preachers often trot this story out when they’re looking for donations, saying the widow was an example of the glory of sacrificial giving. “Give until it hurts” and all that jazz. Religion sucking money out of the poor is a well-established dynamic. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve listened to clergyman haranguing their congregations for money when many of their parishioners could barely care of their own families. And don’t get me started on those prosperity gospel hucksters who con their financially disadvantaged flock out of money in order to buy private jets. And the refrain these sacerdotal con men give is always the same, “You will be rewarded a hundred-fold. Build up treasure for yourself in heaven.”
Verily I say unto you – that’s bullshit.
Do we honestly think Jesus wanted that widow to give up the last of her cash? To go hungry? Notice, Jesus doesn’t say, “What a wonderful woman! Her reward in Heaven will be great! Everyone should be like her!” No. Jesus just contrasted the proportionality of her gift against those of her well-heeled neighbors. That’s because Jesus wasn’t talking about the widow. He was talking about the wealthy hypocrites around her. Don’t believe me? Read the lines immediately preceding the widow’s story.
“Watch out for the teachers of the law,” Jesus said. “They like to walk around in flowing robes and be greeted with respect in the marketplaces, and have the most important seats in the synagogues and the places of honor at banquets. They devour widows’ houses and for a show make lengthy prayers. These men will be punished most severely.” Jesus wasn’t happy the widow gave up the last of her money. He was angry at the people who kept her poor and defenseless – ignoring exhortation of the Prophet Isaiah, “Defend widows and orphans and help the oppressed.” That widow wasn’t a hero. She was a victim.
There’s a line in the movie Hell or High Water that illustrates this point. In the movie two bank robbing brothers in Texas discover that their recently deceased mother was conned into a reverse mortgage for a bit of cash to live on – but the bank didn’t tell her there was oil under her ranch. If the debt wasn’t paid by a certain date the bank swoop in and profit from the black gold untapped beneath her property. “You have the bank loan just enough to keep your mama poor,” a sympathetic person told the brothers. “But they could swipe her land.” So the brothers knock off every branch of that bank and pay off their mom’s debt. It’s a great movie.
That fictional bank was literally in the business of devouring widows’ houses but that line about giving people “just enough to keep them poor” has burned in my ears ever since. That’s because I see this happening every time I turn on the news. There are legions of under employed people this country – you know, only getting part-time work so their employers don’t have to pay health benefits, Uber drivers getting paid next to nothing while their corporate overlords make billions in the stock market and millennials putting off marriage, children and homeownership because of crushing student debt. And then there’s the greatest scam of all – the “gig economy.” Millions of people hustling from one piecemeal job to another at the expense of family time with no guarantee of income, sick leave, vacation, health care or pensions while their companies rake in gargantuan profits. Just enough to keep folks poor or barely above water – while the top 1 percent of American households might own as much wealth than the bottom 90 percent combined. That’s messed up.
We are, of course, complicit in all this. American’s have always lionized wealthy people to the point of idolatry. Worse, we won’t even countenance putting a limit on how much money any one person or family can have. Should any one person be worth a hundred bullion dollars? Could we cap it at ten billion? Whenever I talk about this stuff with my friends they tell me I’m a communist. Personally, I think capitalism is the best system out of all the “isims” but not untrammeled greed. But as a wise man once said, America is a land of “temporarily embarrassed millionaires.” We don’t want to limit how much a person can make because we might become rich one day.
Last time I checked there are 11 million millionaires in this country and 450 billionaires. Sound like a lot but out of a U.S. population of 327.2 million that group only makes up 3.36% of the people. The odds of joining that rarefied group are quite slim. But what’s even worse is that we’re made to feel bad we’re not rich. In a kind of secular Calvinism on steroids, wealthy people are held up as “winners” while everyone else are “losers.” Social media and its keeping up with the Joneses dynamic just serves to amplify this – egging us on to consume products that we don’t really need or can afford. Women have always rightfully complained about the impossible images of physical perfection the media bombards them with every day. But now that’s happening to everyone. Only it’s not toned arms, tight abs and killer measurements we’re made to feel bad about not having – it’s wealth. Lifestyle porn is big business. But not everyone can be rich.
So what are the effects of this massive wealth inequality? That feeling like you don’t measure up? It’s hopelessness, people tuning life out with their gadgets, political polarization, opioid and alcohol abuse, a skyrocketing suicide rate, high rates of anxiety and depression in children and teens, social isolation and God knows what else. Now, I know many wealthy people and they’re not monsters. Many of them, like Warren Buffet, are concerned about what’s happening to our country and a lot of them donate massive amounts of money to good causes. But let’s face it, if the college admissions scandal is any guide, quite a few don’t give a shit. These are the hypocrites Jesus was talking about. Sure, they’ll fund hospitals, schools, give TED talks, hobnob in Davos, get feted in banquets and make all the appropriate socially conscious noises but when push comes to shove they’ll devour that widow’s house in a heartbeat. They only seek to commoditize human beings into a vehicle for profit. Nothing will ever be enough for them. Some people are out to devour everything.
If history is any guide, people are eventually going to wake up and realize they’re being taken for a ride. And trust me, some of those über wealthy people fear that day. Maybe that’s why they’re buying land in foreign countries, building bunkers and surrounding themselves with multi-million dollar security. Maybe they’re afraid people will start acting like those brothers in Hell or High Water and start taking things back by force. I earnestly pray that won’t happen. So how will this change we desperately need come about? My hope is that we’ll emerge from our digitally induced narcotic haze, cast aside our divisions and harness the political process to make lasting changes that will benefit everyone. But that will only happen when we realize our national treasure isn’t money – it’s America’s people. It’s high time we stopped loving money and started loving each other. And love always walks hand in hand with justice.
Staring at the frayed flag outside my office, I knew changing things will be a messy process. It will take years and I may not live to see it but I’m confident it will happen. That’s because our country has dealt with similar challenges and we’ve always come out on top. Despite our cynicism and brokenness, Americans have always had a thirst for justice. We went from a slave owning society to a nation where a black man became president. Disenfranchised women gained the right to vote, children were set free from factories, whites only bathrooms were abolished and gays and lesbians won the right to get married. It all happened in fits and starts and things got ugly at times, but the power of justice eventually got us there. And when I’m discouraged, when everything feels hopelessly overwhelming, I turn to something Theodore Parker, an abolitionist preacher, wrote in 1852:
Look at the facts of the world. You see a continual and progressive triumph of the right. I do not pretend to understand the moral universe, the arc is a long one, my eye reaches but little ways. I cannot calculate the curve and complete the figure by the experience of sight; I can divine it by conscience. But from what I see I am sure it bends towards justice. Things refuse to be mismanaged long.
Parker knew that justice and love flow from the same source; that it fights inequity and evil and liberates the orphans, widows and oppressed. He knew that love always wins. We need to believe that too. Hang in there America.