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.’