Rich

People of God v. Citizens United

WHEN YOU GIVE a luncheon, Jesus says, don’t invite your rich neighbors; instead invite the poor, the vulnerable, the outcast. I was reminded of Jesus’ words recently when President Obama came to Boston. Local foodies celebrated his stop at a hip restaurant. However, only the “rich neighbors” were invited: Thirty guests who had paid up to $33,400 each in political contributions were given the opportunity to lunch with the president.

Amazingly, a $33,000 lunch is pocket change for those now entitled, thanks to Citizens United, to the ears of our politicians. In the 2012 election, one multibillionaire spent $150 million to defeat Obama. Thirty-two super PAC donors, “giving an average of $9.9 million each, matched the $313 million that President Obama and Mitt Romney raised from all of their small donors combined—that’s at least 3.7 million people giving less than $200,” stated a 2013 report that examined Federal Elections Commission data.

In 2010, the Supreme Court concluded that corporations are “people” with First Amendment rights to free speech, opening the floodgates for unaccountable money to pour into state and federal elections. In essence, the Citizens United ruling put democracy up for sale. In the “marketplace” of political representation, almost all Americans are outbid and locked out.

Now millions of Americans are working for a constitutional amendment to overturn Citizens United—and they’re gaining traction.

Darn It!

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WATCH: Fox News' 'Preferential Option for the Rich'

I don't typically watch much television. But when I can, I watch The Daily Show. Jon Stewart brings humor, satire and truth-telling to the news of the day -- qualities also characteristic of the Hebrew prophets. When I once suggested that to Stewart, he immediately denied any similarity, saying, "No, no, no, I'm just a comedian from the Borsch Belt!" But further discussion revealed a selection of topics that evoke his moral passion and even a righteous anger at political hypocrisy.

Is Wealth a Sin?

Rich man drinking wine, ollyy / Shutterstock.com

Rich man drinking wine, ollyy / Shutterstock.com

A recent report by OXFAM offered some sobering data about both the concentration and flow of wealth in the world today. A few key points, also summarized by a new business article on The Atlantic website , include:

  • The richest 85 people in the world control as much wealth as the poorest 3,000,000,000 people;
  • Nineteen out of 20 “G20” countries are experiencing growing income inequality between rich and poor;
  • In the United States in particular, 95 percent of the post-financial-crisis capital growth has been amassed by the richest 1 percent of Americans;
  • While domestic income inequality continues to grow, the income tax rates for wealthiest Americans have steadily dropped.

My first reaction to seemingly immoral concentrations of wealth, and the systems that enable it, is anger and a compulsion to call them out, to change them and to distribute the world’s treasures evenly among all of God’s people.

But what if we need the insanely wealthy to realize a kingdom-inspired vision for our world?

The Problem of Poverty in 'The Great Gatsby'

Courtesy Warner Bros. Pictures

Leonardo DiCaprio as Jay Gatsby in 'The Great Gatsby.' Courtesy Warner Bros. Pictures

The Great Gatsby doesn’t exactly fit the mold for a story about poverty. It doesn’t play into the typical genre created by Dickens or Sinclair meant to incite social change by depicting feeble orphans or working-class suffering. Gatsby is a story of excess: of tall buildings, big parties, fancy clothes, shiny cars—all that 1920s glam and glitz.

And yet — distilled to its core, The Great Gatsby is a story of poorness from the lens of richness, a rags-to-riches story where we only get to see the riches. Though high school English classes across the country paint Jay Gatsby as the poster child for the American dream and its subsequent loss, The Great Gatsby gets its poignancy not from what is lost but rather what lingers — Gatsby’s offstage childhood poverty that not even money can erase. For underneath Jay Gatsby’s million-dollar façade is James Gatz, a college-dropout, janitor-turned-swindler “young roughneck” from a poor family. 

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.

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.

Can Rich Folks Go to Heaven?

(Camel photo by Tatiana Belova /Shutterstock.com)

(Camel photo by Tatiana Belova /Shutterstock.com)

That whole camel through the eye of the needle thing: What is that about?

And, yes, the eye of the needle means exactly what you’re thinking. Not some gate in Jerusalem. Jesus said it’s easier for a camel to go through the eye of the needle that you used to stitch that Noah’s Ark for your child’s bedroom — than for a rich guy to get to heaven.

Let. That. Sink. In.

Unless some freakishly unexplainable phenomenon occurs where camels all of the sudden start popping out of needles (imagine the Discovery Channel documentary on that one), I have to conclude that no rich person will be in heaven.

Except that’s not the end of the story…

Mitt Romney, the Poor, and Women’s Breasts

“The poor will always be with you,” Jesus once said, and for centuries his followers have struggled to understand what he meant.

Or maybe not.

“The poor will always be with you” — especially if you’re not poor — seems straightforward enough: Look around, people ! The poor (and their problems) are very much with us!

Viewed through this kind of realpolitik lens, this verse (and the Bible generally) pose no real interpretive challenges to our reading or our living. The world, regrettably, is simply thus. The poor, alas, will always be with us.

Must Watch: Richard Wilkinson's TED Talk

Richard Wilkinson on TED.com: How economic inequality harms societies

We feel instinctively that societies with huge income gaps are somehow going wrong. Richard Wilkinson charts the hard data on economic inequality, and shows what gets worse when rich and poor are too far apart: real effects on health, lifespan, even such basic values as trust.

Watch Wilkinson's TED talk inside the blog...

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