Gospel & Culture blog
Jimmy Carter said that the most significant social justice issue facing us in the 21st century is income inequality. Research shows that (at least in wealthy nations) wealth inequality leads to social problems like demoralization, homicide, and depending on who runs the economy, racism (see Chua.). And as free markets take off, especially in this era of globalization 2.0, levels of inequality keep rising. In the past 200 years from 3:1 to 72:1, meaning the richest countries are now 72 times richer (and increasing) than the poorest (see World Centric). If this has happened since 1820, and industrial nations are among the most unequal, it seems to be correlated with the industrial revolution, and especially with capitalism (or free markets). But does that mean the free market is to blame? Some have suggested that if capitalism is correlated with inequality, capitalism is inherently flawed (or even evil). But let's consider the syllogism
George Hunter's To Change the World may more accurately be called "To NOT change the World" since he argues that rather than try to influence the political process, legislate morality, or achieve a moral majority, Christians should practice "faithful presence." If we successfully change the world, Hunter says, it will be precisely because we have not tried to attain a sort of hegemony under Christendom, but instead to point to the Creator. While Hunter is a United Methodist, he is arguing for a more-or-less Anabaptist view of Christianity-in-Culture, where the political system and other cultural spheres are so corrupt, and coercive power so abhorrent, that Christian involvement in secular culture is de-emphasized. The processes and pressures that lead to change, in Hunter's view, are the when cultural elites share overlapping spheres of influence.
The value of Hunter's argument is that it helps us deal with some of our cognitive dissonance: We hear that 90% of Americans believe in God, but we still see pervasive anti-religious sentiment. Or we spend so much time defending and spreading the Judeo-Christian worldview, and yet great ideas don't seem to be enough to change the cultural tide.
But I think what makes the rest of us feel uneasy about this is that -- frankly-- we're not cultural elites. And being highly individualistic and democratic we feel like culture change should alos be a democratic process. Like you and I should have the same opportunity to "change the world" as Angelina Jolie or Albert Einstein-- okay, maybe not Einstein, but at least as much of a shot at it as Jolie.
And our evangelism efforts are often reflect this conviction- isn't changing the world essentially about each of us leading our own neighbors to Christ?
It's not that Hunter's "cultural elite" view is wrong, or that the "democratic view of change" is wrong- both models play an important part. In fact, a number of other theories about culture change also come in to play, depending on the change. Sometimes all the cultural elites in the world can't hold a candle to the force that economics or environmental pressures have in creating cultural change. Sometimes worldview has everything to do with change (as in the era of tolerance). Sometimes it has nothing to do with change (as in whether fat or thin neck ties are in style). Often, a convergence of many forces (cultural elites, environmental pressures, as well as biological needs and plain old diffusion) are necessary for creating change.
The 20 foot mural depicting Jesus has been an emotive art piece for decades- some find inspiration, some mock it (leaving cookies at his feet as they would for Santa Claus) and some find it controversial (why is His skin so light? And should we depict Jesus in human form at all?)
This week, students covered up the mural to make another point. It's missions conference week, and the mural asks, "What if you had never heard?"
What if I had never heard of Jesus? I would think the purpose in life was to amass as much wealth, toys, power, and pleasure as possible, at the cost of others around me. I would be narcissistic and nihilistic. On the other hand, in the midst of climbing the corporate ladder and trying to get people to like me, I'd
Poverty is a blessing. Poverty is a curse. Riches are a blessing. Riches are a curse. Throughout scripture, all four of these concepts are taught- how can such contradictory ideas be all found in the Bible…sometimes all in the same book (like Proverbs or Ecclesiastes)? If all four are true, depending on context, what is the take home message- how would this affect our own responsibility concerning wealth, equality, and justice?
Poverty is a blessing:
Jesus said “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours in the kingdom of God. Blessed are you who hunger now, for you shall be satisfied.” (Luke 6:20-21). Some spiritualize the verse, as if the only “good” kind of poverty is spiritual poverty (especially based on Matthew 5:3)…but if you look at how Jesus willingly took on poverty (he had no home, Matt 8:20), and encouraged others to forsake riches and comfort, it’s clear Jesus was teaching us that poverty has an upside: It can keep us humble, teach us our dependence on God, and safeguards us from trampling the rights of others.
Kenneth Nehrbass, Ph.D.
Professor at Biola University, Author, Pastor