(EDITOR'S NOTE: Faith Matters is a column written by the social concerns committee of the United Churches of Lycoming County. The monthly feature will include local faith-based comment on significant social issues facing us today. Letters reacting to the columns should be brief and clear and may be submitted to firstname.lastname@example.org. Opinions expressed in the columns are those of the writers and the social concerns committee, not necessarily the Sun-Gazette.)
Economics and the eroding middle class are on everyone's mind this election year, and growth is the operative economic word. More than 300 years ago, British philosopher John Locke, a famous influence on the Founding Fathers, surveyed the American shore, and saw a land of abundance, where people could keep all of the products of their labor and pile up the surplus for themselves.
America, as the colonial settlers believed, was the kingdom of God on earth. It was a nation chosen for blessing. Faith meant material blessings. In fact the opposite also became true - they saw material blessings as evidence of the Christian faith. Those with material goods were blessed by God's infinite grace. If the world, as physicist Freeman Dyson says, is "infinite in all directions," can there possibly be limits to God's grace or God's blessings?
To suggest limits seems cruel to us. Dietrich Bonhoeffer has the serpent in the garden say these words to Adam and Eve: "There cannot be any limits to God's love, can there?" Yet the serpent's lie is the beginning of human problems.
God's love created human beings, who are finite or limited by definition, with limits established in love. However, Adam and Eve figure that the limits of the garden are not a blessing, but a curse. We, too, are in denial that there are no limits to resources or economic growth. At its root, this is a spiritual battle. We are in denial that human beings have God-given limits.
The major problem today, as it was in the ancient world of Jesus, was an understanding of limits and responsibility. The problem of limits is seen most acutely in the ancient world of Palestine where Jesus lived. In the ancient world, economics, religion, politics all were bound up within a concept called "the Limited Good." It was understood that everything in the ancient world, from food to housing, from honor to blessings, were in limited supply. More to the point, people understood that an increase in someone's food or provisions meant that someone else suffer a corresponding decrease. Even honor and shame were in limited supply. I must decrease, says John the Baptist, so that Jesus may increase. As a collectivist, rather than an individualist society, those in Jesus' time were much more aware of their connection and dependence upon one another.
The limited good also meant a socially sponsored responsibility to those in one's community. Even rich and poor were not economic terms but terms of honor or shame. A rich person was someone who refused to give to others in need when he had resources he was not using. Most of the people were poor, so "poor" was not a pejorative term, as in the "poor we will always have with us always" - these people were poor because they had no choice and were put in that condition by the rich.
What can we do today? Sallie McFague notes that it would take four planets the size of earth to afford a Western middle class lifestyle. The consumer life is not good for the planet. If we continue to do nothing but live for our "stuff," the Survivors TV show may soon become reality, a world of scarcity where ruthless people fight for limited resources.
The corporate elite have their own responsibility; they shouldn't be allowed to hoard money overseas, pay lower tax rates than we do and control Congress with their special interest groups. Jesus overturned the moneychangers' tables in the temple and prophesied its destruction for much the same thing. We must all take responsibility.
- Manzinger is pastor at The First Baptist Church of Williamsport.