Money

Consumer Christianity: How Much Money Does It Cost to Be a Christian?

Christianity and money illustration,  design36 and vso / Shutterstock.com
Christianity and money illustration, design36 and vso / Shutterstock.com

Christianity can quickly devolve into caste systems, where faith communities are divided by the haves and the have-nots, the rich and the poor. Instead of unifying ourselves in Christ, we are dividing ourselves by how much money we can afford to spend.

How much money is required to be a Christian? Imagine how much money we’ve spent throughout our lifetime on “Christian” activities and products (not including tithing or mission-related donations) — now imagine if we gave this money to people who really needed it.

“Consumer Christianity” has turned our faith into a set of costs, and it’s becoming increasingly costly to maintain the Christian status quo. In John 2, the Bible tells the riveting story of Jesus entering the Temple and becoming furious at what He sees: vendors who have turned something holy into a commercial marketplace. Jesus is irate, and he basically tears the place apart because of their sin. But how different are our churches today?

Money: The God of This World

Golden calf, Genova / Shutterstock.com
Golden calf, Genova / Shutterstock.com

Last week Pope Francis spoke out against the cult of money. Here is how Catholic News Service's Carol Glatz summarized his remarks:

Pope Francis called for global financial reform that respects human dignity, helps the poor, promotes the common good and allows states to regulate markets.

"Money has to serve, not to rule," he said in his strongest remarks yet as pope concerning the world's economic and financial crises.

A major reason behind the increase in social and economic woes worldwide "is in our relationship with money and our acceptance of its power over ourselves and our society," he told a group of diplomats May 16.

"We have created new idols" where the "golden calf of old has found a new and heartless image in the cult of money and the dictatorship of an economy which is faceless and lacking any truly humane goal."

No Room at the Inn

REV. SUSAN QUINN BRYAN walked into a meeting of the Friends of the Anna Louise Inn fully prepared for a room brimming with people. Instead, Bryan and the five other Presbyterian pastors she had brought with her doubled the meeting’s total attendance. Bryan was stupefied.

When she moved to Cincinnati in 2005 to pastor Mount Auburn Presbyterian Church, several of her congregants had taken her to the Anna Louise Inn, claiming it as one of the things they loved most about the city. And yet, in its time of need, hardly anyone had come to the Inn’s rescue. It would take several minutes before an even more startling realization came to Bryan.

“As [people] began talking, I thought, ‘Where’s the church? How can the church stand silent while this is happening?’” she said. “So I organized a breakfast and just sent out emails to all the clergy I could find.”

About 25 Cincinnati faith leaders came to Bryan’s breakfast, and out of it emerged an ecumenical force, crossing denominational divides to rally behind one of Cincinnati’s most revered institutions.

THE BATTLE FOR the Anna Louise Inn began in 2007 after Cincinnati Union Bethel (CUB), the social service agency that operates the Inn, decided the Inn needed updated facilities.

The Anna Louise Inn has provided housing for single women since the turn of the 20th century, when women from rural areas began migrating to cities for work. In Cincinnati, single women faced rent discrimination from landlords who would charge them more for extra security and for the use of a bathroom apart from the one used by male tenants. Other housing was available, but it was usually in unsafe neighborhoods.

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A Testimony of God's Grace and Love

MARRIAGE IS A wonderful thing. Yet it seems to be taking a hit in our society, and I must say it is taking a hit in my community at rates I am very uncomfortable with as an African American.

My wife, Donna, and I have been working in ministry and missions for a long time, and we see our marriage as a key to our work. We live and work in the city in a mostly black neighborhood, and the percentage of married black couples is extremely low. Modeling a great marriage is something we take seriously and make very public. If we didn’t make our marriage and relationship public, some of the young people we know and work with would not know personally any happily married African-American couples.

It is our intent to live out our lives as a couple and family so others can see its beauty and challenge. Our community has upwards of 90 percent single-parent homes, with few dads present and even fewer marriages. Marriage is one of our greatest “testimonies” of God’s grace and love in our lives. How we love each other and our children is a important part of our work, so we are very intentional about the health of our marriage. This has given us the opportunity to love each other well.

A public manifestation of our marriage means we celebrate one another with friends as much as possible. We announce our date nights and trips we take together, and we publicize special days and anniversaries. We let people know how much we enjoy it being just the two of us, and we even disagree publicly so people know we are individuals and have our own opinions. It is our opinion that black children need to see and interact with healthy black couples.

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The $588 Million I (Thankfully) Didn’t Win

Photo: Lottery ticket, © Sean Gladwell / Shutterstock.com
Photo: Lottery ticket, © Sean Gladwell / Shutterstock.com

I played the New York lottery for the first time last week.

My $2 ticket didn't win the $588 million payout – surprise, surprise – but it did buy me several minutes of musing, most of it instructive, some of it enjoyable.

I quickly ran out of spending ideas – slightly larger apartment, new computer, clothes for my wife, a car to replace the two we sold when moving to Manhattan. I realized I couldn't even spend the income on a lottery bonanza, unless I started buying things I don't need or particularly want.

...

In the end, I liked the idea of financial security, but saw little to be gained from sudden wealth. In fact, given the misery that tends to befall lottery winners, I might have dodged a bullet by not winning.

After this brief fantasy, I wondered more than ever why the wealthy work so hard to avoid taxes and other obligations of citizenship. Even though their effective taxes are lower than they were during the Reagan years and far lower than during the great prosperity of the post-World War II era, the wealthy are lobbying fiercely to pay even less in taxes. Once again, they seem willing to crash the government for everyone, rather than pay their share of its support.

Loan Stars

THE LOUISVILLE LOAN Club, which will open early this year at a storefront in a poor residential neighborhood in southwest Louisville, Ky., is a new economic justice ministry blessed and supported by Jeff Street Baptist Community at Liberty. The brainchild of members Susan Taylor and Andy Loving, it's a company that will make small loans designed to counter predatory payday lenders. Typical payday lenders offer short-term, unsecured loans at interest rates of up to 400 percent or more per year. Average loans are $250 to $500, but many borrowers are not able to pay back the principal and interest at the end of the first loan; instead, they become trapped in a cycle of loans and fees, eventually paying thousands of dollars.

The Louisville Loan Club will offer loans at an annual percentage rate of 18 percent—and offer a path to breaking the cycle. "Any of us can need a small loan at some point," says Taylor, who will oversee the day-to-day operations of the club. "Surely we can do better for each other than to throw someone in need of a small loan into the proverbial shark pool."

Loving and Taylor are modeling their enterprise in many ways on the Pittsburgh-based Grace Period, a church-started alternative check cashing and cash advance service with a five-year track record, Taylor says, of "offering small loans and helping people learn to save their own emergency funds. They built a model of compassion."

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Getting Started

WANT TO PUT money to work for the common good? Your congregation—large or small—has more to invest than you might expect. Here are three questions to get you started.

1. Where does our church bank? "Many churches choose a bank based on proximity to the church or the church treasurer's home," Andy Loving says, but it doesn't have to end there. Approach the finance committee and say, "We want to put our money somewhere that has implications for what we value as a church," suggests Loving. Find a bank that empowers economically depressed areas through brick-and-mortar locations and socially responsible loan practices.

2. Does the bank we're considering provide options for the poor? Where are the branches located? Does it loan to people or businesses who typically don't get approved by mainstream lenders? One institution Loving recommends is Self-Help Credit Union in Durham, N.C., which has locations throughout the state—and also a web-based interface convenient for members outside the area. Another place to hunt for justice-oriented banking is the National Community Investment Fund website, www.ncif.org, which allows you to search by location and banking practices.

3. How can our church enact justice with the money we have?Loving recommends asking this of your church or a group within it, such as a Sunday school class, in order to start a discussion about surplus capital and investing. A good resource for discussion is Ched Myers and Loving's DVD series and study guide, From Mammon to Manna: Sabbath Economics and Community Investing , available at www.chedmyers.org.

Image: Coins and sprout, Anthony Berenyi / Shutterstock.com

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Multiplying Loaves

"WE DON'T WORK toward justice; we bring about justice through systemic change," says Rev. Cindy Weber, with a fierce and loving smile, when asked how her congregation, Jeff Street Baptist Community at Liberty, seeks justice through reaching out to the community. There is no pride or bravado in her statement, but a firmness that comes from more than 20 years of pastoring a small, community church that actively helps bring about God's peace on earth.

Jeff Street, located in Louisville, Ky., has an active membership of approximately 100 people—a David-sized congregation compared to many mainline or mega-churches. However, the creativity, dedication, and passion of the church's members, manifested in hospitality programs for and with the homeless, have made a giant-sized impact on local economic justice issues. And the congregation didn't stop there; as part of a coalition of area churches, Citizens of Louisville Organized and United Together (CLOUT), the church has made an impression with policy work and community organizing on the state level as well. Jeff Street's commitment to empower poor people has even reached internationally: Members have invested in Oikocredit micro-lending programs to the tune of $180,000.

"We are a church that knows the difference between justice and charity, and also between charity and hospitality," says Weber.

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PACs Gone Wild

JUST AFTER THE election, a New York Times editorial implored the president and Congress to "get to work fixing the current badly flawed, out-of-date campaign finance system." The Kansas City Star called it "painfully obvious" that the system needed change.

Those were after the 2008 and 2004 elections.

We all know how the cycle works: Every four years, politicians mount ever-more-expensive campaigns. After each election, the nation's papers call for reform. Meanwhile, business as usual—the business of the lobbyists, that is—continues in Washington.

So here's a proposal: Let's put an end to this cycle. Call it the "Reform in Four" campaign.

Step 1: Build a bigger army. We need to immediately broaden the coalition for reform—from environmentalists to the faith community to pro-reform Republicans, corporate leaders, and Tea Party members who are concerned about cronyism. The good news is that, in a July 2012 Gallup poll, 87 percent of Americans said that "reducing corruption in the federal government" should be a "very important" or "extremely important" priority for the next president. It ranked second, just below job creation (at 92 percent).

Step 2: Create a wave of Teddy Roosevelts. Reform needs champions; right now it doesn't have enough. Candidates in both parties will need to be recruited and supported to run against the Big Money system. Reformers are sometimes uncomfortable with this step, in part because they work for nonprofit organizations that are barred from getting involved in elections. But as the CEO of a national environmental group told me: "When I first came to Washington, 30 years ago, I didn't think that you had to get involved in the messy game of politics and elections to have an effect. Now it's clear to me that that's the only way. Not having a political edge is a killer. Reform groups don't have one."

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Rotten to the Core

LATE LAST YEAR, President Obama made a pilgrimage of sorts to the sleepy town of Osawatomie, Kansas, to talk about the economy. He went there because it’s where, in 1910, Teddy Roosevelt gave one of his most famous speeches, called “The New Nationalism,” which was, in part, an attempt to unite his party around a common vision of a well-managed economy.

Obama’s mission was similar, although more focused on philosophically framing up the 2012 elections. The White House communications staff had built up expectations about the speech, and the president delivered, movingly describing how America can better encourage innovation, shore up the middle class, and expand opportunity. For the most part, the media were aglow.

A few minutes in, he quoted from Roosevelt’s speech: “‘Our country,’” Obama said, “‘means nothing unless it means the triumph of a real democracy ... of an economic system under which each [person] shall be guaranteed the opportunity to show the best that there is in him [or her].’”

But, notice those ellipses. What he omitted was an important phrase from the original quote: “the triumph of popular government.” Five words may not seem like much. Perhaps the president felt as if “real democracy” said enough, or perhaps his speechwriters felt as if it wouldn’t be politically prudent for him to speak so highly of government. But the omission also points to a larger exclusion, not just in Obama’s speech, but in his presidency and, most significantly, in our country’s priorities.

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