Economy

Bringing Good News to the Poor

Photo by Heather Wilson - Dust & Light Photography

#FaithfulFilibuster morning prayer service on Wednesday. Photo by Heather Wilson - Dust & Light Photography

I couldn’t believe what I heard. On my television screen a member of Congress quoted the Bible in defense of cutting SNAP benefits. He stated in his testimony, “Scripture says if you don’t work you don’t eat.” The only Scripture that came to my mind as I looked on in sadness was “Jesus wept.”

You see, I had just come from the food pantry my church has operated for more than 20 years. With the economic downturn, our pantry volume has steadily increased from 15 to an average of 40-50 families each day we are open. These families are able to shop with us one time in 30 days, and we attempt to provide three meals a day, for three days, for each member of the household. Our clients are beautiful people who are struggling. Each and every day we hear statements such as, “I never thought I would have to come to a food pantry to feed my family,” or “We just can’t make it to the end of the month.” Our clients come from all walks of life and have one thing in common: they’re struggling.

So, as I listened to the congressman use Scripture to marginalize the very people I care for every day, I felt I needed to do something. I could no longer be silent as the Bible was being used to hurt vulnerable people. I had to speak, and I remembered the Faithful Filibuster. I sent a tweet to Jim Wallis asking if they needed support or extra voices, and he replied that in fact they did. This was a Friday afternoon at 4 p.m., my daughter and I were on the road from Ohio to Washington, D.C., the next morning at 5:30.

We arrived in D.C. at 1:45 just in time to change and walk to the small pulpit labeled #FaithfulFillibuster for our 2:30 time slot. As I stepped onto the grass and began to read, the long hours of the trip began to fade away as the words of the Gospel began to cross my lips. I remember feeling that I would have driven a thousand miles to be able to proclaim the good news of the message of Christ and to speak the Word out loud in a way that comforted God’s people. I would have kept on reading until I couldn’t do it anymore, true filibuster style, all the while looking at the Capitol building with all her power. Our Christian story is one of liberation, new life, abundance, and mercy. It is a story that brings good news to the poor, and I will tell it until I no longer have breath.

Inequality Means More than Just Money

Courtesy 'Inequality for All' website

Courtesy 'Inequality for All' website

Robert Reich pulls up in his silver Mini Cooper, quipping that he and his car are in proportion to each other. Reich, former Secretary of Labor in the Clinton administration, identifies himself with the underdog, the little man.

His new movie, Inequality for All, looks into the effects of wealth inequality in the United States. Throughout this semi-autobiographical documentary, Reich consistently leans on his self-deprecating sense of humor by poking fun at his own physical stature; he’s 4’10 ½’’ tall. The jokes, however, do lead back to the heavier issue at hand – the American worker is getting squeezed out of the middle class.

On Scripture: Shrewd Christians

Caricature of a penny pincher, AKIllustration / Shutterstock.com

Caricature of a penny pincher, AKIllustration / Shutterstock.com

We worry now, but we’ve been concerned about the economy for a long time. The economic recovery from the recession in America has been slower than we hoped, and people continue to suffer from the collapse of so many industries and jobs and safety nets. Much of the pain seems new for large swaths of the American population. But in reality, we’ve been worrying about money forever.

The August employment report from the Bureau of Labor Statistics shows a slight decline in the unemployment rate (down to 7.3 percent from 7.4 percent in July), according to Businessweek. But the drop is largely attributed to a reduction in the workforce of about 300,000. What’s more, the participation rate (number of people working or looking for work compared to the total working age population) fell from 63.4 percent to 63.2 percent, the lowest since 1978. The National Employment Law Project noted that much of the job growth in August was in retail and food service, industries that generally offer lower paying and part-time jobs.

Even though a growing number of economists see modest and encouraging signs in the recession recovery, the slow growth continues to cause trouble for many Americans. Businessweek writer, Matthew Philips, even questioned whether the economy might be “stuck in second gear” without hope of a more robust “third gear” to propel the recovery forward.

The economic health of the nation has long been a concern to people of faith, because we care for the poor, and poverty has been a persistent problem in rural area and urban centers alike. What’s more, we know there are people of all income levels who struggle with money and possessions, and we are concerned about this, too. We worry that people have enough to eat and that wealth not corrupt our best desires and intentions.

'Break My Heart With What Breaks Yours'

High-octane contemporary worship with smoke, flashing lights, and words on huge screens energize and empower 3,400 Pentecostals from 69 countries filling the Calvary Convention Centre in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia,. This is the 23rd Pentecostal World Conference, a triennial gathering of pastors, leaders, and youth from around the globe. I’m here as part of a delegation from the Global Christian Forum, warmly invited, seated right in the front, and including representatives from the Lutheran, Orthodox, Seventh-Day Adventist, Mennonite, African-Instituted and Reformed church bodies, all members of the GCF steering committee. We’re easy to pick out of the crowd, since we’re the only ones who don’t spontaneously raise our hands in worship. I hope that image doesn’t make it to the big screens.

The explosive growth of Pentecostalism is an astonishing chapter in the story of world Christianity’s modern history. In 1970, Pentecostals (including charismatics in non-Pentecostal denominations) totaled about 62 million, or 5 percent of the total Christian population. In the four decades since, Pentecostals have grown at 4 times the rate of overall Christianity, and 4 times faster than the world’s population growth. Today they number about 600 million — one out of every four Christians in the world, and one out of every 12 people alive today. Most of this growth has come in the global South, in places like Africa, South America, and — yes — Malaysia.

The Pentecostal World Conference doesn’t look much like a typical denominational or ecumenical assembly. It’s more like a global revival service. Several of the world’s best-known Pentecostal preachers and leaders deliver stirring messages, complete with altar calls for those seeking the fresh empowerment of God’s Spirit in their lives and ministries. It’s a far cry from a Reformed Church in America General Synod, which I facilitated for many years. But these keynote speakers, along with the workshops held each day of the conference, open a window into global Pentecostalism’s present trends, challenges, and directions.

In writing From Times Square to Timbuktu: The Post-Christian West Meets the Non-Western Church, I found that one of the most intriguing questions I encountered is how rapidly growing forms of Christianity in the global South deal with social and economic issues within their societies. So in Kuala Lumpur, I was especially attentive to what might be said by the world’s Pentecostal leadership about the biblical call to justice and mercy. And I heard a lot that I wish I could now go back and add to my book.

Study: Too Much Religion Can Harm Economy

Business Bible, Siarhei Tolak / Shutterstock.com

Business Bible, Siarhei Tolak / Shutterstock.com

Too much religion can harm a society’s economy by undermining the drive for financial success, according to a new study in the journal Social Psychological and Personality Science.

The study of almost 190,000 people from 11 religiously diverse cultures is raising eyebrows among some of England’s religious leaders for suggesting Judaism and Christianity have anti-wealth norms.

What's So Great About Perfection?

Peaceful morning fishing, Jandrie Lombard / Shutterstock.com

Peaceful morning fishing, Jandrie Lombard / Shutterstock.com

Two Sunday meetings prevented my going to the country with the family.

So on Saturday, I took a long walk up the Hudson River and then sat beside an open window overlooking the apartment house courtyard and felt a cool breeze.

No, it wasn’t the same as a screened porch upstate. But it worked. Why? Because I made it work. I was motivated to step away from my desk and do something different.

Could I have had a more perfect day? Sure, I suppose so. But I didn’t need perfection. I just needed something different. Yes, I was “settling,” as they term it. But that’s part of maturity: knowing that progress matters more than perfection. Sometimes you don’t get exactly what you want, and making do can be enough. Tweaking the day can make it a better day.

Yet many people continue to chase perfection and refuse to compromise with realities that fall short.

A Simple Fix to Reduce Poverty and Encourage Work

Photo courtesy Africa Studio/Shutterstock.com.

Man holding coins, close-up of his hands. Photo courtesy Africa Studio/Shutterstock.com.

Jesus calls us to help the poor. That is a point that few would debate. One key indicator of our obedience is how we treat the poor and vulnerable among us. Where we fall into debate is how to do it the most effectively.

One thing that gets lost in the rhetoric is that many of the solutions we have are already effective — they just need to be improved. And we have plenty of ideas that already help lift families out of poverty while encouraging them to work. Sounds perfect, right?

The Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) is one such program. It provides a tax credit based on how much income a worker takes in — the more income they take in, the more benefit they get, up to a maximum point when it starts to phase out. This gives working people incentive to keep working rather than rely on assistance alone.

The Accidental Moral Mirror of Monsters University

Monsters University, photo via Disney / Pixar

Monsters University, photo via Disney / Pixar

This week an online ad informed me that Monsters University has finished first at the box office for two weeks running. I’m convicted by the statistic; I saw it somewhere between Northfield, Minn., and the Twin Cities on the “Largest Movie Screen in Minnesota” last week while visiting my brother. But it struck me that the movie presents – probably quite by accident – an opportunity to talk about a deep moral reality. So what follows will only begin obliquely by talking about cute monsters. And it will contain (mostly minor) spoilers. You’ve been warned.

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