My response to my Friends response to Rachel Held Evans response to Dave Ramsey (or reason No. 145 why RHE annoys me…)

My friend and former ministry colleague Grace Biskie recently penned an angry rant-y, hot-mess response to Dave Ramsey getting lambasted by Christians.  The lambastation (that’s not a word I know) first came to my attention via a link to something Rachel Held Evans wrote in response to a post Dave Ramsey had on his website.

(Edit:  Grace has made it clear that her post was not in response to RHE.  I’m not suggesting that it was…)

My reaction to the critique of Ramsey was not quite as rage-filled as Grace, but it was strong… very strong.  Grace writes of Dave Ramsey:

FOR GOD’S SAKE PEOPLE, he is NOTHING like Joel Olsteen and why I can’t think of any single comparison for the ENTIRE LAST YEAR that has offended me so terribly much.  And how I think the people who have made that comparison have very little experience with ACTUAL prosperity preachers or have had to sit and trenches with or disciple people trying to break free from the EVIL of prosperity preaching & false gospels in general. And how if they had, they WOULD NEVER compare a man like Dave Ramsey who FREE’S people from the bondage of poverty & bankruptcy compare those two…or Dave Ramsey to ANY prosperity preacher.  As someone who’s discipled countless students away from the bondage of prosperity preaching I am repulsed by this unhelpful comparison.  REPULSED.

I feel you.  I was pissed too, and not just because I personally have benefited from Ramsey’s principles (though I have) and not just because the critique lodged against him were shallow, uncharitable, and unfair (they were.  In fact her second line, “he makes his living telling other evangelical Christians how they can get rich, too.” is a flat-out lie, but anyway…).  It is because I think I ‘get’ Dave Ramsey and his ministry.  I ‘get’ his sarcastic humor.  Let me explain.

In a strange way Dave Ramsey is living the life I envisioned for myself.  He and I are both Tennesseans.  We both went to the University of Tennessee Knoxville and both majored in Finance.  Dave made a fortune in real estate, which was exactly my life plan.  Dave lives in my hometown.  If I wanted to, I could go to church with him.  I know how to get to Financial Peace Plaza without looking it up on Google Maps.  And like Dave is doing now, I had hoped to get rich and also find a way to help people (especially low and middle income people) manage their money.  Dave and I are also both fluent in sarcasm.  God however, called me in a different direction.

But there is something else besides.  Dave taps into something that I think is at least part of why Grace reacted so strongly, and also something that is often misunderstood or misinterpreted.  Dave understands, like Grace understands, and like I understand that there is a kind of poverty of spirit that traps people in a pernicious web.  He and she and I understand that a person can be so degraded, worn out, and worn down by their circumstances – whether circumstance of financial mismanagement, of family history, of abuse, of dysfunction – that ALL your sense of personal agency is destroyed. You feel powerless, hopeless, trapped, scared.

And then someone like Dave Ramsey comes along and meets you, as Dave says, ‘eyeball to eyeball’, and tells you the hard truth, ‘Yep you screwed up.  Yep, someone else messed you up.  Yep, the system is stacked against you. Yep, that was a stupid decision.  But you know what? You don’t have to live there.  There is a better option. YOU have power.  YOU have choices.  YOU have agency.

And the sarcasm?  The snarkiness?  It shocks your system.  It shocks you because almost all the people who have come to help you before don’t talk like that.  They listen to you, let you cry on their shoulder, sympathise with you, and agree with you that, yeah you were done wrong, and that’s about it.  Why isn’t Dave more sympathetic?  He’s so mean, etc., etc.

And then after you get over the shock at his approach, and the anger, and the frustration, and poking out your lip, you realize he’s right. That while you can’t do everything, you can do something.  You realize that your life really doesn’t have to be one of failure, of despair, of constrained choices, of inevitability, of abuse, of dysfunction.  And you wipe your tears, and you start where you are.  And people like Dave and Grace and others hold your trembling hand and walk you through it.  It’s ain’t about getting rich.

If you’ve never been there, or you don’t personally know people who live there, you probably have a hard time understanding that. I know those people. Some of them are my relatives.  People who take their children on vacation only to come back to the lights being shut off.  People who are afraid to answer the phone because of debt collectors hounding them.  People who have never known what it is to have money left over at the end of the month or to have a savings account with more than the $25 minimum required to keep it open.  People who make enough, but never have enough and so spend recklessly because they figure that they never will have anything so they may as well enjoy life while they can.  Or so that they can forget.

I’m not sure folks like RHE who so easily critique Ramsey understand really what it feels like to live in a world where money is your master and not your servant.  Where prosperity preaching is appealing in exactly the same way that the lottery is: because it offers a false hope.  Where you are enslaved to habits of materialism and consumerism and yet you are afraid to even open your bank statement, much less reconcile your check book.  Where debt collectors hound you morning and night for money that you have no idea how to pay back.  Where the biblical statement that the borrower is slave to the lender doesn’t feel at all theoretical, but real.

The thing is, Dave Ramsey doesn’t have to do what he does.  He’s rich.  He’s a financial whiz.  He’s made money, lost money, and made it again in real estate.  He doesn’t need this gig. And he understands that it isn’t really about money anyway, because the ‘only way to have real financial peace is to walk daily with the Prince of Peace, Christ Jesus our Lord.’

Advertisements

Give me neither poverty or riches…

Two things I ask of you; do not deny them to me before I die: Remove far from me falsehood and lying; give me neither poverty nor riches; feed me with the food that I need, or I shall be full and deny you, and say, “Who is the LORD?” or I shall be poor, and steal, and profane the name of my God. Proverbs 30.7-9

These words, so powerful and so true, should be inscribed on the heart if not the wall of every Christian, especially in the wealth and prosperity of American society. Indeed this proverb most profoundly encapsulates the very heart of what have been the most troublesome and persistent problems in our society and in the church. So much of the injustice, racism, environmental and economic exploitation that has plagued our society finds its root in a failure to be satisfied with, “the food that I need.” Scripture tells us that the love of money is the root of all kinds of evil, and that those who desire to get rich fall into a trap and are ensnared by evil, and the Proverbs are filled with admonitions like this one against the deceitfulness, transience, and emptiness of wealth.

Despite this it seems the chief day to day preoccupation of believers (much like everyone else) is the acquisition of more and better. In fact purveyors of the much maligned prosperity gospel have built a theological house around the notion that God not only wants to meet our needs, but desires for every believer to be materially wealthy.

Prosperity preachers, maligned though they may be, are not the first or the only to promote such views. Indeed it could be said that the scorn heaped upon them by mainstream evangelicals is a bit hypocritical when one drives into the parking lot of the typical suburban evangelical church and observes the well coiffed parishioners leave half million dollar suburban homes in $40,000 SUV’s to worship in sanctuaries plush with thousands of dollars worth of carpet, and tens of thousands of dollars in the latest multimedia equipment. The rich always decry the indulgences of the poor.

Prosperity preaching is in some ways merely a continuation of what has always been latent in American evangelicalism: an equation of God’s blessing with material goods. After all the massive prosperity of the United States was built on free land (taken from natives) and free labor (taken from Africans) the use of which was often endorsed by protestant Christians.

In any event, as a observer of immigrant culture in the context of the immigrant church, this correlation has caught on quite readily. It is an unfortunately easy leap to make; the pursuit and achievement of the American dream is often perceived (if not overtly stated) to be the best way to be a good Christian. And while it is easy to see and critique it in the Asian church, it is quite apparent in other places as well. After all the Christianity they practice is the Christianity to which they were converted.

The Peril of Privilege

I am just exhausted from a wonderful weekend of service in the inner city with over 50 students from around the state of Tennessee. My church was gracious to host us, although some students sleep was cut a bit short by an overly zealous chipsanim* opening the sanctuary for early Morning Prayer on Saturday. Lesson: 6 AM prayer really means 5:30 AM.

In any event, I and the students had a great time and we learned quite a bit about God’s passionate concern for our “neighbors”, and I had the privilege of mounting the pulpit Sunday to preach to both the normal English Ministry crowd, and the InterVarsity students who were gathered. It was great to stand at the “Intersection” (note subtle but shameless insertion of my blog name!!) of at least two parts of my world.

I preached from Exodus on the call of Moses by God, and emphasized our need to get beyond our reasons and excuses for not being involved in God’s purposes. God had placed in our hands the very instruments we need to achieve, by his grace and power, the things he calls us to.

As I reflect on this sermon and the weekend, I am reminded about how much of my preaching focuses on our responsibility, on our stewardship, on our need to get involved actively in what God is doing. These sermons are so different than the ones I preach to my father’s congregation, which is much poorer, and ironically needs much less motivation to serve either in church or in the community. It seems that more privilege people enjoy in terms of wealth and education, the more effort it takes to goad them into service.

It is a well attested fact that poor people are more generous in their charitable giving than wealthy people (as a percentage of income), and that poorer people tend to be more religious, and more committed in their religious observance. In fact, Christianity was initially and currently is globally, a religion of the poor and disenfranchised. It seems that privilege carries with it the increased perils of loss of generosity and even of faith.

A recent article in the New York Times citing a Pew Research poll indicates that an increase in wealth is correlated with a decrease in religiosity. How prescient are the words of the apostle that “those who desire to get rich fall into a snare and find themselves pierced through with many sorrows.” Unfortunately we don’t hear much preached about this.

Could it be that part of the reason for the so called “silent exodus” of Asian Americans from the church (which is paralleled in the Black community as well) is partially caused by the wealth experienced in these communities? Although the average household wealth and income of Asian American families is higher than even that of Whites, what is often obscured is that it is the wealth of families, many of whom work very hard and sacrifice greatly in order to send their children off to the best schools.

In the process of securing the future for their children financially, are they perhaps selling them out spiritually in the same way that Israel’s decision to move to Egypt to avoid famine eventually led to the enslavement of his descendants to the Egyptian pharaoh? The irony of their enslavement is that they were so busy working at the behest of Pharaoh, they did not even have time for a three day spiritual retreat. Even more ironic for us is the ways in which this pursuit of wealth has routinely been spiritualized and made to seem itself as an exercise in discipleship.

If Asian American and Black Christians are to have a future as people of vibrant faith, we need to take a serious look at the our wholesale swallowing of the pursuit of economic security (really wealth) and what such pursuit does not only to our souls, but to the faith of those who will come after us.

*chipsanim = deacon

Gain the world, lose your…

The easy and clever thing to say would be Seoul, since this blog is a commentary on the intersection of faith and life. It would be fitting too, since questions of immigration and assimilation for Christians involve an intersection of the issues of material prosperity and living faithfully as disciples of the Lord Jesus Christ.

America is a country founded not on a national principle of ethnic solidarity, nor even of geographic commonality. It is founded on an ideology that can be definitively traced back the European Enlightenment. Men of great wealth, extensive property, and high idealism formulated a republic loosely connected to Christian ideas, but more firmly rooted in “liberty,” whatever that means. This is encapsulated in our Declaration of Independence which affirms that men are endowed with the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. The expansion of the American ideal has taken more than two centuries, and can still be said to be a great unfinished experiment.

Beneath these lofty and idealistic sentiments however, lie another, baser reality which has been as fundamental to the formation of this nation, and which must be taken seriously by Christians who want to engage the culture that surrounds us. If America can be said to have any god, any national religion – it is the god of wealth. Almost every controversy, every major social and political realignment, from the Articles of Confederation to the Civil War to Civil Rights is intimately connected with a “pursuit of happiness” that has all too readily devolved into the pursuit of material and economic prosperity. It was not, contrary to what some people believe, any innate hatred of Africans that led to their enslavement by Europeans, nor was the conquest of indigenous peoples driven primarily by a messianic vision of manifest destiny. Rather both racism and manifest destiny were post facto ideologies developed to justify what is a much baser motive: greed. Free land and free labor were the foundations of the American prosperity we today enjoy. The accumulation of material good is the contemporary manifestation of that religion.

The church, not only in America, but throughout history, has contended with the very real god of Mammon . From the beginning, the apostle had to write warnings against the pursuit of wealth as an end in itself and against the association of material prosperity with God’s blessing. Ironically, I have hardly ever heard a sermon on I Timothy 6.9 about the snares that inevitably trap those who desire to be rich and who find themselves pierced through with “many sorrows.” It is perhaps too unpalatable a passage for those who have swam in these cultural waters for so long.

Part of the mythology of America is that immigrants have flocked here because it is the “land of opportunity.” Like all myths, this one is rooted in fact. America was and is a beacon of economic and even political opportunity. What is obscured in this myth is that in most cases the driving motivation has not been political, but economic, and that those who immigrated are often those with at least some means within their own countries of origin. The poorest cannot afford to escape and the wealthiest have no incentive to leave. So then the immigrants that have come to America often come with the social and cultural skills to “make it.”

What does this have to do with the gospel? If it is difficult to dethrone the god of Mammon for those of us who have been born here; it is even more difficult in the lives of those who came here to pursue Mammon’s fruit. Most contemporary immigrants do not come for the privilege of being better disciples or of worshipping God more freely than in their home countries. Indeed many do not come to worship of the living God until after they have immigrated. Immigrants come to make the best living possible for themselves and for their children.

The cost of that decision is paid not only by the parents who leave comfort and familiarity for what is all too often years of sacrifice. The cost is also paid by their children who are bequeathed an inheritance of a twilight ethnicity and an irrelevant gospel that seems utterly abstracted from the challenges they face day by day.

Reared by parents who prioritize material success over gospel adherence and assimilation for the sake of such prosperity over the value of culture, is it any wonder then that many 2nd generation find themselves also worshipping at the altar of Mammon while experiencing an existential and spiritual void that remains unmet by the culturally neutered gospel to which they’ve been exposed? How can they worship a god who is dis-incarnated – removed from their lives and experience, and irrelevant to their concerns? A Jesus who does not sympathize with the issues faced by latch-key kids with distant parents who demands academic success or at least the façade of social propriety seems less a mighty savior and more a Confucian tyrant dressed up in Western garb.

The Scylla of an irrelevant gospel is met on the other side by an equally ravenous Charybdis that threatens to shipwreck the faith and life of those who ply the waters of this existence. It is the monster of un-ethnicity, a ethnic reality that is affirmed in one place, declared unimportant in another, and altogether ignored in the church, which should be the one place where the totality of our humanity must be confronted and reformed in the image of Christ.

So then over and again the wealth obtained through great sacrifice and worthy effort often issues forth in the destruction of those things held most sacred by all cultures and particularly by Christians. Relationship with God through Christ becomes less important than relationship with “stuff” through VISA. The sharing of hearth and table, the places across which identity and culture are transmitted becomes less important than simply being “a person” distinguished only by the shape of ones eyes, the color of ones skin, and the brand name of the label of the designer purse. All else of history, legacy, story, and culture are sacrificed to Mammon. Gaining the world and losing what matters most.