“Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is the Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.” Luke 12:32
This year around Dr. King’s birthday, I’ve been thinking a lot about economics.
In fact, I’m often thinking about economics, particularly how we as church can recover the Spirit-charged, energetic impulses toward economic sharing, friendships across difficult class differences, and general transformation around human relationships to money and possessions that the gospel of Jesus Christ has brought to life in every generation.
In Dr. King’s “Beyond Vietnam” speech given in New York City (April 4, 1967), King went public with his convictions about the grave injustices we as a nation were perpetrating daily in Southeast Asia. He went further to name all the interwoven webs in which we had entangled ourselves—which had a lot to do with economics and justice.
Dr. King named realities we see today: a nation that had abandoned its poor folk, not investing money to improve poor neighborhoods or support young people with little resources in finding meaningful work, and simultaneously sending poor folk “in extraordinarily high proportions relative to the rest of the population” to fight, kill, and die—or come back deeply wounded spiritually, physically, and emotionally—in a conflict whose justification and purpose was deeply questioned, at best, by many Americans. I could be writing the same sentence about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
King saw and named our taking money from efforts to develop a decent life for poor black folk at home, using it instead to destroy poor brown folk and their land in Vietnam and Cambodia. The US was using money and military force to manipulate politics and protect our economic interests in Latin America as well, sometimes cooperating with the wealthy elite to the deprivation of those nations’ poor. Again, changing a few place names, this could be 2014. Protecting “our way of life,” as I heard repeated after 9/11, has become a national idol to which Christians bow as frequently as any others, and it is made of money.
Are we asleep? Has our compassion has dried up? I don’t think so. Putting food on the table for our kids and giving time, and leadership in church, school and community groups takes about all we have. I do wonder if we are lulled and simply exhausted by the pace at which we live and work, a pace driven by our economic beliefs.
These economic beliefs seduce us away from the gospel. We have all learned to believe we always need more. We have adapted to inhuman expectations and perceptions about what is important and what is expendable.
When placed side by side with the gospel of Jesus, these expectations and perceptions are often revealed as backwards. Things are expendable; people are not. My own comfort, convenience, and maintenance of lifestyle are expendable – and in the light of God’s great love, pursuing justice in love and hope is not. In practice, though, that is not how many of us have been taught to live. It’s not what many of us have learned to expect from life.
We are able to choose people over things until we’re invited to give up, or share uncomfortably, our things. We give money to feed our hungry neighbors but are seldom able to build friendships with these neighbors and learn why they are hungry. We really don’t have time. We have to keep making more money to keep the life we have learned to expect. So we divide the part of ourselves that feels drawn to friendship with our neighbors from the part that tells us we have to work 40 or more hours per week to be respectable. We hurry from appointment to appointment and look for ways to work and serve more efficiently. We set aside the part of ourselves that says, “Shh. Slow down. Sink deeply into the Love that requires no production from you.” These parts of ourselves don’t speak to each other. We are fragmented.
Living fragmented lives does a kind of violence to us—disconnecting from the deepest parts of us that respond in love to the presence of our Creator within and around us. When we encounter God in moments of openness, we are aware and know with all our being that the Spirit of Christ is moving in us. We can learn to be aware of it, even in our bodies—and this requires a measure of slowness. Dwelling deeply in the love of God is not well suited to our expectations of the common work week. It was this love that so transformed Dr. King that he found himself clearly linked with the plight of people 8,000 miles away. It is why he turned the energy of the movement toward uniting poor whites with poor blacks with poor Latinos with all poor folk in a common campaign for a just and human place in America. The profound love of God birthed in King the courage to align himself in these ways, which also got him killed. Sounds a lot like the path of Jesus.
When we are fragmented and disconnected within, we can hardly care for ourselves, and we lack energy to care deeply for others. If we want the spiritual resources to choose to put our skills – yes, even the skill of making money – in the service of costly and deeply nourishing love, we must wrestle with the practical possibilities of working fewer hours, owning fewer things, and creatively sharing expenses and goods.
A huge part of the purpose of living more simply is to have more time for relationships with all kinds of people, and to attend to our relationship with the living God, as Martin Luther King clearly found time to do in the midst of his activism. And as Jesus carved out time for solitude and prayer in the midst of his short ministry. Time to be transformed by Love that sees people completely unlike me as made in the image of God. Love that trusts, that is being set free from the fear of death. The love of Christ. The tiny pearl for which we inefficiently, absurdly purchase an entire field.
“Who among you by worrying can add a single moment to your life? If you can’t do such a small thing, why worry about the rest? Notice how the lilies grow. They don’t wear themselves out with work, and they don’t spin cloth. But I say to you that even Solomon in all his splendor wasn’t dressed like one of these. If God dresses grass in the field so beautifully, even though it’s alive today and tomorrow it’s thrown into the furnace, how much more will God do for you, you people of weak faith! Don’t chase after what you will eat and what you will drink. Stop worrying. All the nations of the world long for these things. Your Father knows that you need them. Instead, desire his kingdom and these things will be given to you as well.”
“Don’t be afraid, little flock, because your Father delights in giving you the kingdom. Sell your possessions and give to those in need. Make for yourselves wallets that don’t wear out—a treasure in heaven that never runs out. No thief comes near there, and no moth destroys. Where your treasure is, there your heart will be too.” Luke 12:25-34