I Have Seen the Problem, And It Is Us | Sojourners

I Have Seen the Problem, And It Is Us

Photo: Aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, Anton Oparin / Shutterstock.com
Photo: Aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, Anton Oparin / Shutterstock.com

NEW YORK — It's a short walk from Ground Zero to the Staten Island Ferry terminal.

If you're a dedicated tourist, you can see where a terrorist attack occurred on 9/11 and then hop a ferry to see where Hurricane Sandy devastated Staten Island's oceanfront last month.

Sad to say, but that's exactly what many tourists are doing. Instead of going to Staten Island to help traumatized residents, they go to gawk. Then they go back to Manhattan for lunch and holiday shopping.

This is what happens when people lose a basic sense of obligation to one another. It no longer seems sane or necessary to be charitable. Instead, people feel justified in looking away from need. They feel disconnected from neighbors who are suffering. When the storms of life hit, they call themselves “makers” and dismiss the “takers” as lazy.

So it is that a losing presidential candidate blames "gift"-hungry voters for being too weak and ignorant to support him. His running mate blames "urban" (i.e., dark-skinned) citizens for daring to vote at all.

While some storm-damaged areas in New York and New Jersey are still without power, water, heat and hope, luxury goods merchants on Fifth Avenue are pushing the ostentatious, as if the Far Rockaways in Queens occupied a distant planet.

The David Petraeus affair reveals a rarefied world in Tampa, Fla., where military leaders sending warriors off to battle live large and party hearty with contractors and socialites.

In effect, the "social compact" that underlays the formation of American democracy has been rewritten by money. Instead of everyone giving up some freedom in order to enjoy the benefits of moral society and enlightened government, the wealthy buy back their freedom to do exactly what they want without regard for anyone else. The burdens of sustaining society are left to those lacking wealth.

That's what the current fight over taxes is all about: pretend that only the weak benefit from government and therefore only they should pay its bills. Pretend that government bailouts didn't happen, that government favors didn't build mighty fortunes. Pretend that the wealthy got wealthy entirely on their own merit. Then pretend that the wealthy create jobs, when in fact the vast majority of jobs in America are created by small enterprises whose owners earn less than $250,000 a year.

This, in my opinion, is the failure of establishment Christianity in America — not our sagging attendance, aging constituencies, and unpaid bills. Those are just consequences. Our failure was being self-absorbed when the social compact was being shredded. Our failure was catering to the wealthy by not teaching them about humility and gratitude. Our failure was providing comfortable places for the comfortable.

We have taken inordinate satisfaction in our occasional mission work among the needy, but we have not challenged each other to seek transformation of life. It's as if the great chasm between us and the needy were no big deal, and certainly no factor in their impoverished state.

When we should have been proclaiming the Gospel that Jesus actually preached, we were building an institution whose maintenance depended on our not offending the wealthy.

Now we discover that money is loyal only to itself, not to God, and our way forward lies in solidarity with the have-nots. This could be the next "great awakening" -- when we dare to do what Jesus did, namely, speak truth to power, not stand in line for power's crumbs.

Tom Ehrich is a writer, church consultant and Episcopal priest based in New York. He is the author of Just Wondering, Jesus and founder of the Church Wellness Project. His website is www.morningwalkmedia.com. Follow Tom on Twitter @tomehrich.

Photo: Aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, Anton Oparin / Shutterstock.com