by Bert Newton
“Free your mind of the idea of deserving, of the idea of earning, and you will begin to be able to think.” ~ Ursula K. Le Guin
We Christians speak easily of grace. Usually we mean God’s grace to forgive all of our personal sin. If we’re a little more thoughtful, we might think of the grace we need to have with each other from time to time. But seldom, if ever, do we understand grace in the profoundly radical way that the Bible talks about it.
For the biblical writers, grace had far-reaching social and economic dimensions. Socially, grace meant breaking down barriers that excluded the “unclean” people, e.g. gentiles, disabled people, and eunuchs (a word that sometimes referred to gay men, and possibly by extension, lesbians).
Economically, grace was the forgiveness of debts. Throughout history, debt has been a tool that the wealthy and the powerful have used to maintain their dominance over the poor. Jesus, the prophets and the writers of Torah understood this and, therefore, called for the elimination of debt and the redistribution of wealth, at least periodically.
In our capitalist culture, it’s getting harder and harder to think in these radical terms of debt forgiveness and wealth redistribution. More and more, we have come to think of a person’s wealth as an indicator of how hard he or she has worked, how deserving they are of that wealth.
But if we stop and think just a little bit about how and why some people have a greater chance at being wealthy than others, we can easily come up with a list of reasons that have nothing to do with their work ethic:
- They were positioned in the right place at the right time.
- They were born with an aggressive and competitive personality rather than the kind of personality that constantly looks out for the interests of others at great personal cost.
- Making money is their greatest passion.
- They are willing to cheat, lie and use people.
- They had better educational opportunities and/or started out with greater wealth.
- They simply inherited a fortune.
Likewise we could easily think of a list of reasons that people end up poor:
- They had few educational opportunities or chances for advancement.
- They were sexually or physically abused as children and developed patterns of self destructive behavior as a result.
- They were born with a high predisposition to major depression or another mental illness.
- Their parents were drug addicts and gave them hard drugs at a young age.
- They suffered discrimination due to color of skin, religion, sex, or sexual orientation.
These lists could go on and on, revealing to us how arbitrary wealth and poverty really are.
But many of us have to stop ourselves and really think to consider all of this rather than simply judging each other and ourselves harshly. That’s because our minds have become clouded with those ideas of “deserving” and “earning.”
Which brings me back to the quote that started this essay. Here’s the full quote.:
“For we each of us deserve everything, every luxury that was ever piled in the tombs of the dead kings, and we each of us deserve nothing, not a mouthful of bread in hunger. Have we not eaten while another starved? Will you punish us for that? Will you reward us for the virtue of starving while others ate? No man earns punishment, no man earns reward. Free your mind of the idea of deserving, of the idea of earning, and you will begin to be able to think.”
Bert Newton is the author of Subversive Wisdom; Sociopolitical Dimensions of John’s Gospel