SPECIAL ANNOUNCEMENT

January 30th I was burned out from my previous church. Earlier that month, I’d had a piece published about youth and burnout that caught the attention of Anne Helen Petersen. We chatted for a bit and then I told her that I was moving to Durham to help pastor a church re-start that would pay off people’s debts. She replied, “WOW. I'd actually really love to profile that, if you'd consider it.” After a long year in ministry, I was really unsure of my calling. I was unsure if what we’d do would work or if people would be into it. Anne’s been a great support of not only my writing but my work as a pastor.

And now, eleven months later, you can read that profile here. I’m really grateful for the job she did and that the story of what we’re trying to do is out the world.

The end of religious centrism

As of last night I didn’t have anything I wanted to write here. A friend of mine with a far more successful newsletter said she didn’t monetize hers was because she didn’t like the pressure. She wanted to write when she wanted to write.

During my early morning scroll through Twitter, I stumbled on this post “How the Decline of Religious Institutions Fueled the Rise of the Trump-Evangelical Coalition.”

The long and the short of the piece (and you should read the whole thing) is that what best explains the Trump-Evangelical coalition is not the endorsement of evangelical leaders or Trump’s positions (or supposed positions) on particular issues of concern to evangelicals like abortion or immigration. Instead, what best explains it is that evangelicals tend to vote Republican and identify heavily with the Republican party.

Think about the last time you did something that your entire community thought disdainful, actively discouraged, and that you knew would make you an outcast amongst your friends. It’s hard to come up with one, huh? That’s basically what not voting for Trump would’ve been like for millions of evangelicals.

In the post, Compton points out that prominent evangelicals as far back as Jerry Falwell didn’t lead the rightward movement of the group so much as they got out in front of it. There are a number of reasons for this but one is the lack of strong institutional networks that exist between evangelical churches and the influence they have over the members. I think this lack of strength is probably due to the way that capitalism corrodes all of our institutions. Capitalism, by its nature, breaks us down into individuals, component parts subservient to the accumulation of profit. The time you need for your friends, family, church, or any other community don’t matter to the capitalists making money.

The most powerful institution in the lives of millions of Americans is not a church, a local government, a rotary club, or any of the other institutions the decline of which no shortage of Christians bemoan. The most powerful institution in the lives of most people is Wal-Mart, Amazon, fast food, grocery stores, universities (if you include the hospitals). They control people’s time, energy, and attention and because there’s less and less leftover for church, there’s also less and less leftover for developing institutions and communities that have such tight relationships with leadership that leaders dictate change instead of responding to it.

Pastors are concerned with change and while some might say the kind of change we hope to lead people to isn’t reducible to voting for or against Trump, every pastor of a “moderate” church that I know that has Trump voters in their congregation wants to know what they could say or do to wake them up and help them see that by doing so they’ve voted for someone that doesn’t align with what they take to be a more Christian politics. But if what Compton writes is true, that’s likely going to be a losing effort. It also explains why efforts to build a religious left by swaying evangelicals with better messaging likely won’t work. Religious centrism doesn’t work because it doesn’t have an actual message beyond whatever happens to be in the center. (I wrote about this in regards to Pete Buttigieg for Vox a few months ago).

One of my favorite pieces of writing is Rebecca Solnit’s “Preaching to the Choir.” In it, she writes about how maybe political (and I would add religious) centrists spend too much time focused on persuading people we think the middle or even a little further to the right or left of us. Of course, the common wisdom says that there’s no virtue in “preaching to the choir.” The already convinced need no further convincing. Instead, she writes, leaders ought to focus not on convincing the unconvinced, but on firing up those that do believe so much that they’re led to act. She writes, “To win politically, you don’t need to win over people who differ from you, you need to motivate your own.”

I need to get to the church office so I’ll wrap this up. One of the co-pastors is out today so I need to make sure the trash gets put out. Work of the Lord and all. But I want to close by saying where I see things possibly going.

Because of my writing and work at Jubilee, I often get asked if I think there are a lot of Christian Socialists out there (not online). The answer is that I don’t. But I do think there’s a solid enough group of Christians Questioning Capitalism out there. And I think a lot of them are like me: struggling to find not just the intellectual resources to make sense of things, but the communal resources to feel empowered to speak and act as if their faith still matters to them not in spite of their commitments to socialism or their questions about capitalism, but because of it.

I don’t know how things will go at Jubilee Baptist. We’re officially four months in, but people keep showing up. We just wrapped up a class about how capitalism works and exploits us. We closed by reading and discussing an essay on what we should do about it because of Christian love. The answer is fight and hopefully win the class struggle. We have church members actively organizing their co-workers for unions. We have members that very well could be on strike soon and because of our life together we’ll support them in that fight. When people at church complain about their jobs, they have pastors that tell them they should organize and we’ll help them do it. We do all this because we love each other and we show that we love each other by paying off each other’s debts.

Solnit writes, “The performance of integrity is more influential than that of compromise. Rather than meet people where they are, you can locate yourself someplace they will eventually want to be.” At Jubilee Baptist we’re trying to locate ourselves someplace we think people will eventually want to be and where a good number of them actually want to be right now. We might lead a few there. Others are probably going in that direction and have no sense a church could be waiting on them. It might all fall apart or maybe we’re only taking our own cues from demographics and what I or the other pastors say or do doesn’t matter. I don’t know. Neither do you. I only know that we (all of us) aren’t going back. We aren’t going back politically or religiously. Figure out where you think things should go, locate yourself there, and try to live a life together with more integrity than compromise. Then hope people show up and then you act.

My Pleasure

I recently got a number of new subscribers to my newsletter. Welcome! My name is John Thornton Jr. I’m a pastor at a church in Chapel Hill and also a writer whose work has appeared at Vox, Sojourners (new piece went up this week!), Commonweal, and Plough (new book review going up this week!). My two most read newsletters are this one about why our church pays off each other’s debts together and this one on burnout.

For those of you that are new here, I usually try to write out a particular thought I’ve had for the week, to stretch it and see where it goes and then let it go. It’s for stuff that’s not quite a full pitch and edited piece but could be. It’s also a nice exercise in not thinking too too much when I write. Thanks for subscribing.

When I tell people I grew up in Texas, many of them comment that I don’t have a noticeable accent. I usually joke that it’s because I grew up in the suburbs in the 1990’s. I use the word “y’all” which is about my only holdover from my upbringing and even then I use that more out of convenience than anything. To illustrate the placeless-ness of suburban Dallas/Ft. Worth I often joke, “I was actually raised inside of a Chick-Fil-A.” This seems to get the point across.

Chick-Fil-A’s had a prominent spot in the news lately. Over the last few years as conservative Christians have lost the public culture war over matters of same sex marriage and abortion, Chick-Fil-A seemed like the last battleground they held. Its founder, Truett Cathy, was a Christian and his sons, Dan and Bubba, that now own the company are as well. They famously close on Sundays. Over the years the company has continued to grow but also faced pressure for their owners personal stances on LGBTQ+ rights and donations made by the Chick-Fil-A Foundation to organizations that discriminate against LGBTQ+ persons. Their resilience and success in the face of calls for boycotts from liberal progressives showed that Christians could still run a business and operate it according to Christian values. This last week, they announced they’d no longer be giving to the Salvation Army and Young Life, two organizations with strong stances opposing same sex marriage.

For many conservative Christians, this showed that the secularists won and that they’ll stop at nothing until they’ve achieved total victory. What’s alarming for many on the conservative side of things is that liberals didn’t even need an effective boycott. Chick-Fil-A’s an $11 billion company that continues to grow. The company caved to cultural pressure and in doing so betrayed their Christian values and the Christians that so loyalty supported them. It was another sign of the end of things.

In a piece at Vox this week, Ezra Klein spelled out the “apocalyptic psychology [of conservative evangelicals] that motivates the strained defenses of even Trump’s worst behavior.” He goes on to try to describe this psychological disposition in which Christians recognize the end is here, that they’re losing an all out war against everything they hold dear. I think the whole Chick-Fil-A thing figures into that mindset. It’s another sign that all is lost.

I’ve heard a lot about how because evangelicals believe in the End Times or the Apocalypse they’re more prone to nihilistic stances on climate change or just improving things in this life. There’s certainly something to this. I grew up reading the Left Behind books and hearing about how a rapture would take all Christians up to Heaven in one swoop leaving unbelievers behind. When you’re an insecure kid, it definitely helps to throw some insecurity about the state of your soul in the mix and then a theology that says that everyone you love might disappear leaving you behind.

What’s interesting to me is that Left Behind and the end times theology seems to have fallen out of favor a bit with evangelicals. I’m no longer in that world, but I try to keep an eye on it and have friends that are. The apocalypse (at least not the one I grew up with) doesn’t seem nearly as prominent in their thinking these days. While I don’t think evangelicals filter all their political leanings through the end of the world, they do seem to see an end to their world (though I’ll confess that a fine line runs between them at least in terms of our perception). What they see is the end of a way of life and they need someone to blame so it must be the secularists, the atheists.

The whole thing basically centers on what Chick-Fil-A does with their profits. Conservatives and liberals have a real sense of urgency around the question of whether or not the company gives to particular non-profits. That they changed that reveals the total victory of the atheist left. For them this was a betrayal of Christian values. But what the hell are Christian values in 2019 and why does giving to one non-profit over another matter so much? I think there’s something missing here. If you’re a long time reader of this newsletter you’re thinking to yourself, “I bet it’s capitalism” and, yep, it’s capitalism.

In response to the whole thing, I tweeted out a joke: “Sad to see Chick-Fil-A, a company that pays employees $8/hour while their CEO Dan Cathy is worth $5 billion, betray their Christian values.” People quickly pointed out at that Chick-Fil-A usually pays more, has good benefits, and gives its high school workers college scholarships. Fine. My point is not that it’s a bad place to work. It’s that Dan and Bubba Cathey, the two owners have $5 billion of wealth. Here’s my question: have these guys done $5 billion worth of work? Could any human actually do that? What does it mean to have “Christian values” as a company in 2019? This incident shows that the battle lines, at least culturally, center around what charities and causes a company does or does not support with their profits.

Wealth, the kind these guys have, isn’t just $5 billion sitting in a bank that they spend off. It’s their investments in Chick-Fil-A, investments they inherited from their dad. And let’s say that each year their wealth gets them a return of 1%. That means that each year they make $50,000,000 per year in income just because they own Chick-Fil-A. Not because they started it. They didn’t. Not because they work for the company. They get a salary for that. They just get a return on their investment. That money just comes to them as the reward for their ownership in the company.

(Disclaimer: I’m not entirely sure how much of their wealth is from ownership in Chick-Fil-A. Those are rough estimates that I found here. Let’s just pretend they’re accurate.)

How do they make that money? Where does it come from? The answer is pretty simple. Their company buys chicken, potatoes, fryers, tables and chairs and property. They also hire a bunch of people to prepare the food, serve it to customers, clean the floors and toilets, and occasionally wear a cow costume. They go so far as to pay them to tell customers that it’s their pleasure to refill their Dr. Pepper or give them an extra Chick-Fil-A sauce.

The Cathys do all of this and at the end of the day, they have more money come back than went out. Of course they give some of that to workers and some of it goes to maintaining their company and all that, but they get to keep a significant part of it for themselves. That’s really weird, right? The two of them do work for the company so you could argue that their work increases the value of the company, but they’d make that money from the investment even if they didn’t work for the company. Through their charitable foundation they give some of that money to charitable organizations of their choosing.

Now, maybe you’re like my friends or people on twitter that basically say, “Hey, that’s just how things work. Owners and investors make money and workers need jobs so they get paid a wage. Chick-Fil-A does a much better job of this than other fast food places or even worse jobs. The Cathys seem like good people.” Fine, I’ll grant you that. And that’s the problem. The problem is the system, the process, the way of relating to each other that we call capitalism.

Workers have no choice but to sell their time working to owners and investors. If you don’t get a job (or even if you do sometimes) you’ll end up homeless and hungry. You have to sell your time working. Because of that imbalance, owners and investors can drive down wages and when they drive down wages, they make more money. This is just the basic dynamic of capitalism. The name for it is “class struggle.” It’s how we all relate to one another and while it gets complex it has two sides: owners and workers.

The term for using someone’s dire situation to work for you for whatever you can and will pay them while you take whatever they make is “exploitation.” Exploitation isn’t a Christian value. It’s wrong. It’s not how we should live with one another. And capitalism can’t function without that exploitation. Dan and Bubba Cathy make their money because they pay employees for their time working in which they produce more value than what they’re paid for their time. It might pay a good wage, but that $50,000,000 comes from somewhere. And the only reason the Cathys (or any investor or capitalist) can make a profit is because they get to keep the extra value created by people working for a wage.

I find the whole “my pleasure” thing creepy. The company forces employees to feign pleasure in serving me my chicken strips and sauce. What I find creepy about it is that I don’t want some stranger to feign pleasure or desire. Maybe they do love serving me food or refilling my drink. Maybe not. I want them to tell me that and to actually enjoy it because they do not because they’re getting paid to say it. I know the company pays them to say it. They obviously know the company pays them to say it. It’d be better to be with one another in ways in which our pleasure isn’t exploited, in which we actually get to keep the rewards of both income and desire that we produce and enjoy.

Most working people I know are a long way off from living a pleasurable life. It does feel like we’re constantly under siege, right? Everyone seems nervous that our institutions might either collapse or crush us, and it’s unclear which would be worse. I could run through the list. Debt, stagnant wages, healthcare costs, precarious work, poverty. Everyone lives with a general sense of powerlessness at the exact same time that we’ve been fed messages that through hard work and individual effort we can make something of ourselves.

In his piece, Klein notes the work of Ryan Burge (a must follow if you like really nice, insightful graphic displays of trends in religious life in America). Burge found that in 2018 the “no religion” group basically matched with the “evangelicals.” Evangelicalism is on the way out. Klein also mentions that young people are leaving the church and have a good deal of distaste for Christianity. A 2016 Barna study “asked 16- to 29-year-olds for their top three associations with present-day Christianity. Being ‘antigay’ was first, with 91 percent, followed by ‘judgmental,’ with 87 percent, and ‘hypocritical,’ with 85 percent.” In a piece that came out this week, Burge writes that the gap in church attendance between rich and poor has grown significantly in the last 4 decades.

What if all this is related? What if it all matters just not in the ways we normally think about things?

Putting it all together I want to say this.

The reason young and poor people are leaving the church, the reason conservative Christians feel under attack by liberals and liberals feel like they have to attack conservative Christians, the reason “my pleasure” feels so hollow inside and outside Chick-Fil-A is because we’re in the midst of a class struggle and capitalists are winning. If you’re upset about what happens with the profits, about which non-profit it does or doesn’t go to, you’re missing the heart of the matter which is that the profits belong to the people that work not the people that own.

What do churches have to say about this? What church is out there that’s actually speaking to this situation as it exists in the moment? Obviously I know one. But if you sit there and wonder why young people and poor people leave the church maybe it’s because churches and Christians don’t address such a fundamental relationship to capitalism and how it structures our lives.

I love this quote from a pastor in early 20th century in Chicago: “The reason why workingmen are not found in larger numbers in the church is not due to the coldness of the church, nor to the dress parade, but primarily to the fact that the church has more often been on the side of capital than upon the side of labor.”

That sounds about right to me. We don’t have a choice. The class struggle is real and it’s here. Pick a side and start fighting. Maybe it won’t lead church growth but what’re the other options? Take the side of the guys that own Chick-Fil-A and whatever non-profit they want to give to?

In the end transforming this system is possible. Because I believe in the love of God, I believe that we don’t have to live in exploitative relationships with each other. I don’t believe in human perfectibility like William Barr says liberals do. I just just believe that an economy in which people own the means of production and the stuff they produce would be one that’d be a good bit better than the one we have now. What if that $5 billion worth of worth just went back to the workers at Chick-Fil-A because they own the company? Why don’t they deserve instead of some guys whose dad started the company?

I think it’s all possible though highly unlikely. It’d be a world in which we can all approach each other as loving equals as we will one day. It’d be a world in which we’d serve one another, cook for one another, enjoy one another’s presence in a way that my pleasure, our pleasure wouldn’t rest on exploitation, but love.

If you’d like to subscribe to this newsletter you can do so here. If you want to follow me on twitter you can do so here.

Christians and the Workplace

Why you can't explain what's happening in church right now without capitalism

I normally write this on Sunday evenings as a way to unwind from the week and give me something to think about besides all the work I have on Monday morning. This last week I led a workshop on “Christians and the Workplace” at the national gathering of the With Collective. Below is what I shared with the group there.

Workshop Description: The past decade has seen an explosion of books on Christians in the workplace. Rarely, though, do such books address what actually makes a “workplace” and often take for granted that our congregants live and work within a capitalist system. This system, by its nature, produces problems in the workplace and in our congregations, problems like income inequality and instability, poverty, and insurmountable debt. Come hear John Thornton Jr. share about how his church Jubilee Baptist has oriented their ministries to address these problems while also sending congregants into their workplaces to transform them in the name of God’s liberation.


At the moment, it appears to me that a lot of us in ministry find ourselves trying to solve a constellation of seemingly unrelated problems. We have to deal with dwindling attendance as people don’t go to church with the same frequency they once did or just stop going altogether. Members’ packed schedules leaves them less time for church. A lot of us would like to know what to do about poverty and homelessness as our cities rapidly gentrify. I imagine your city is a lot like mine: million dollar condos and people sleeping on the street. Without you telling me where you come from, I can probably bet that you have school districts made up of mostly white, affluent students that get a far better education than their poor, minority peers in other districts. For a lot of us this represents a failure of the church to work towards social justice for all people. Those are some of the main problems I’ve had to deal with in ministry in my relatively new career. We could add stretched budgets or polarized politics and/or theology. Racial reconciliation or the acceptance of LGBTQIA+ people. 

Now, I know this might feel like a strange setup to a workshop on a “theology of the workplace,” and I actually want to table those problems for now, but I think it’s important that you keep in mind they are related to our theology of the workplace and I’ll definitely return to them. 

Most of the time I find theology about the workplace dreadfully boring. Discover your vocation, follow your passion, root your work in loving your neighbor, don’t put profits over people etc. I recently read a few books on work and vocation preparing for this and all of them have this timeless-truths-we-just-need-to-remember quality. Just remember your vocation. Use the power you have as a CEO or an elected official for good by raising your worker’s wages a bit or making sure minorities are protected. Go to your job and do it with excellence as if you do it for God. Not a whole lot to argue with there.

I recently read a book on “the common good,” that said that the problem with people leaving the church was our culture’s selfishness and the church’s lust for power. Okay? That seems like it’s just always true. It strikes me as weird that so many people just decided to act more selfishly recently even as the author traces the causes back to existential philosophy.

The solution then is to recall our vocations, recover our roots, not move away from family, reframe work as good and sacramental. Sounds good enough.

Here’s the thing about timeless truths: they’re always true and rarely useful. That’s kind of how I feel about a lot of theology and work stuff right now: it’s not very useful. It just doesn’t explain much. Is the problem really that we’ve grown to consumeristic or individualistic? And if so, what explains that drift other than general human sinfulness? But sinfulness, like redemption and resurrection, happens in history. We don’t sin in general just like we don’t practice grace in general. What’s historically significant about how we live and work now?

Here’s the question I don’t see a lot of Christians asking right now: what the hell is capitalism? What is capitalism? Why is it distinctive from other economic models and why does it matter for the workplace and then why does that matter for our churches? We all agree that we live in an economic process and system called capitalism but why don’t we talk about what it is, how it works, and why individualism, consumerism, inequality, the loss of common good result from it rather than cause it? 

At my church we teach a financial literacy class. We think that people should understand their relationship to work and finances. Our class, however, differs greatly from a Dave Ramsey Financial Peace University class. Karl Marx serves as our main guide and each week we read about 5-8 pages of his book Capital and discuss what he says. Capitalism has no shortage of cheerleaders so we think maybe we should also take time to listen to one of its foremost critics and see if what he has to say about capitalism actually makes some sense. If it’s true then we don’t have to hide from it, and it would help us understand the problems we deal with in ways other explanations don’t. 

Think for a minute about what would happen if you just stopped showing up for your job. The first day, your boss might call to check on you or like most workers in America, they’d just fire you. So after some time missing work you run out of vacation days and then you lose your job. Okay so now you lost your job, but you still have to pay rent or your mortgage. You still have to pay for food for you and your family. You still have to pay off your student loans and that medical debt and those credit cards. And so now you’ve got to find a new job because you don’t have any communal land to fall back on and work to grow your own food or build your own shelter. You have to get a job to survive.

And what’s a job? Well it’s a thing where you say to someone, “I’ll show up and do what you tell me to for a set amount of time if you give me a set amount of money.” They can hire you because they (or likely someone much higher up than them) owns a bunch of stuff, and needs someone to work with it to make it valuable. An agricultural capitalist owns land and seeds and a tractor, but needs to hire someone to actually turn them into food. Someone that owns a construction company owns a bunch of steel, concrete, power tools, and yellow vests, but needs some people to actually put the vests on and to produce a house that the capitalist can sell to someone that wants to buy it. 

Here’s what makes capitalism as a system so distinct from previous systems or alternatives: work, the workplace. That situation I described, where you have to earn a wage to just to survive, means you have to do something very unique in human history: you have to sell your time as a commodity to someone that owns all the stuff needed to make things. More often than not, you don’t produce something on your own and then go sell it. Someone pays you to produce something, a chair, an ear of corn, a feeling of customer satisfaction. You make a bunch of those over the period of time you’re paid for and then you go home and your employer gets to keep the thing and sell it for more than what they paid you to make it plus the stuff you needed to make it.

Let’s put it really simply. An investor owns a bunch of stuff he bought (supplies and machinery) and he paid 20 for it. He then pays you 10 to use the stuff to make a Thing. You go home with 10 and he keeps the thing Thing. He then turns around and sells the Thing for 40 and gets to keep 20 for himself. Why? He didn’t work on it. He just owned the stuff and had enough power over you because you needed 10 just to get by for the day. You might say that the investor worked hard to get the money to buy the stuff and to hire you. Maybe. Maybe he just inherited it in which case he definitely doesn’t do any work in this whole thing.

So now you’ve got this process going. Workers sell their time working to the owner in exchange for some percentage of what the stuff they make is worth. Marx calls these distinctions “classes” and what makes capitalism unique is a “working class” that ultimately owns nothing but their ability to work and has to sell that to a “capitalist class” that owns a bunch of stuff and buys the working classes ability to work for them. 

I realize this is all really simplistic and I’m not doing all the math that Marx does or talking about the M-C-M circuit or the working day or whatever. I’m not well versed enough in this stuff to really spell it all out . But what I want you to get is that this is a fundamental, and historically unique way of working and it’s everywhere. It’s what makes capitalism capitalism and not something else. 

And here’s the big thing: because of the system and the need to make more and more profit, in order to drive their competitors out of business, in order to get more money to invest and create new businesses, capitalists have to try to pay workers as little as possible for as much time as possible. It’s because of this relationship, around work, one side paying for it the other one having to sell it, that the capitalist will always make more money. And because workers totally depend on the money they make from owners they’re both going to be constantly locked into a battle for bigger shares of the profits. Maybe it’s by going on strike together or asking for a raise because of performance metrics. They’ll always try to get more of the profit from their labor.

And because of the system, no matter how altruistic they might be or how many books they read on the common good or vocation, matter how much they might want to be generous, when push comes to shove the capitalist will try cut wages or demand more work for the same pay to increase profit. They have to because their competitor might do the same and drive them out of the market. The name for this back and forth is “class struggle” and it’s inherent to the process of capitalism. 

Okay so that was a lot, and of course it’s far more complicated than that. And now you’re probably thinking, “Okay, but what does any of this have to do with ministry? I thought we were talking about people leaving church or poverty and homelessness.” The answer is just about everything. Let’s take a look at our problems and see if this dynamic helps explain them.

In every church I’ve worked in the big question everyone seems to ask is “How do we get young people (millennials) to come to church?” There are a lot of answers to this question and everyone probably has a different one. The music felt stodgy, the oppressive theology, irrelevant messages, their identity was shamed and harmfully attacked.

Take a look at this chart.

Notice anything that happens about 1973? Productivity keeps going up and hourly wages plateau. Remember our story of the capitalists versus the workers? Because of the nature of the system, they’re always trying to up productivity and lower wages because they make the most profit by lowering wages. And in 1973 they started doing this really, really well. And in 1980 you have the birth of the first millennials. The entire time we’ve grown up workers have been getting it handed to them in the class struggle.

Why don’t millennials show up to church? Church takes time, energy, and attention. It takes stability and commitment. It takes work. That chart above translates into massive student debt. It translates into people moving constantly looking for a better job that can pay just a bit more. It means losing a job because a ton of people will take it for lower wages. It means more of a paycheck (and consequently time, energy, and attention) going to health insurance or rent. It’s burnout.

I can’t recommend the books The Great Risk Shift or The Financial Diaries enough. They look at the fact that while income inequality has risen in the last 30 years, it hasn’t risen as fast as income instability. Why does it feel like people have less time to commit to church or family or the “common good”? It’s because they’re losing the class struggle. 

 The working class is losing the class struggle and for a couple of generations of churches in both their practical and theological habits, they assumed that the working class would hold their own. They saw steadily rising wages and stability. These churches built gyms and had weekly Wednesday night meals because for 2 generations, they had the excess time, energy, and attention to do that sort of work.

What about poverty? Ask any proponent of capitalism and they’ll tell you that no greater force for lifting more people out of poverty exists. So in church the way to combat poverty centers on opportunity and education. Basically get people on their feet to compete in the marketplace and with enough hard work and discipline they’ll get out of poverty. For 10 years I’ve worked in churches and nonprofits with this as the model. I worked at an elementary school tutoring kids living in poverty. I worked at an after-school program mentoring middle schoolers. I lived in a Catholic Worker House with formerly homeless guys. I’ve seen it up close. I’ve volunteered in job skills training, shelters all of that stuff.

Here’s the thing that I find so frustrating: it doesn’t work. Don’t you hate that? Don’t you hate devoting time and energy to something that doesn’t work?

So how’s that story above, the one about capitalism and the working class and all that explain this better than the story of opportunity, job skills training, and education? 

I used to work at a church in Winston-Salem in Forsyth County, NC. Like pretty much every county they realized they had a poverty problem and set out to look at what caused it and what to do about it. I noticed two really interesting charts they came up with from their study. The first just a slide on their website and the other in the final report. Here’s the first chart. Child poverty looks horrible. It’s a blight on the city and our country that so many kids live in poverty. It also appears fairly similar to adults living in poverty. And if you tend to think education, economic opportunity, and hard work solve poverty, you likely prescribe them to both children and adults. 

But the final report had a chart that tells a very different story.

Notice anything different? The poverty rate for adults 65+ drops significantly. So, you have to ask yourself, “What do people 65 years old and over do that they makes so much more money than kids do?” They must budget and work really hard and have a ton of economic opportunity. But have you ever met someone in their 70’s? Does that describe their life? Here’s the secret to lowering elderly poverty: Social Security. Before you introduce Social Security, the elderly poverty rate sits at 31%. After, it’s 11%. 

Remember our story above, the one that explains things for us. Under capitalism, the profit gets divided between two groups: workers and owners. But what if you’re not a worker? Maybe you’re a child or an elderly person? Well you have to get income from somewhere else and for the elderly we’ve made significant strides with Social Security. We just don’t have anything like that for children (though SS does get several million children out of poverty every year).

So churches that devote time and energy to “economic opportunity” or tutoring or mentoring children as the way to alleviate poverty are going to get undermined by capitalism. I know a lot of good, well-intentioned people that have devoted themselves to helping children in poverty through tutoring, mentoring, and teaching. Here’s the really sick thing about capitalism: it makes a mockery of our best intentions. in the long run, capital wins. What’s worse is it makes you feel bad for not doing enough, not tutoring enough, not giving enough, not working enough.

I’m not saying all of this applies in every single situation or that it’s not incredibly complicated in the ways that it plays out. I’m also not saying that just explaining it can change it. But doesn’t it feel nice? Don’t you get frustrated wondering what’s happening in our world or churches and not having an adequate explanation?

Before I share what this looks like at our church, I’d like to share why it’s important. I think we all struggle to love one another. We struggle love each other because we have weak wills. We struggle to love each other because we lack perfect knowledge and others remain obscure to us know matter how we try to reveal ourselves to one another. With all of that, why would we want a system that has as its bedrock a fight, a struggle? The gospel says that against all our inclinations to believe otherwise we can live in love and unity with each other because God loves us. That’s the heart of the gospel as I understand it. The problem with capitalism beyond the practical, suffering of poverty and instability is the ways poverty and instability undermine our ability to love one another. It inherently sets us against one another. Our congregants leave work feeling pissed off and ripped off and it’s because they are ripped off. One of the co-pastors I work with once said the main marriage advice he gives is that maybe people aren’t pissed off at their partner, but at capitalism. I’d amend it and say, they should be pissed at capitalists. 

Personally, all of this has saved my life in ministry. It’s made me attentive to so many more of the real, true problems I and my congregants face. It helps me understand that the best thing our church can do to help someone out of poverty is pay for the things they need to get out of poverty. It helps me explain what happens in the lives of my congregation in a way nothing else does. It also helps me understand the world towards which our church should work together: one in which we do away with this antagonistic relationship of capitalism.

Am I saying that naming this stuff will get droves of young people to your church? Of course not. A good explanation of these problems for ministry in 2019 doesn’t automatically translate into the power to fix them, but you can’t begin to imagine the solutions to these problems until you properly understand them, and I think understanding the work relationship in capitalism holds the key to beginning to unravel

I don’t think that eradicating capitalism with socialism will transform us into perfectly loving people. I just don’t think we can be more loving until it’s gone.

If you’d like to subscribe to this newsletter, you can do so here. If you want to follow me on twitter, click here. You can learn more about Jubilee Baptist Church here.

You just never know

This last week I had two tweets that people seemed to connect with. I didn’t really think of them as related or the fact that they both sprang to mind because the book review of Jonathan Foiles’ This City is Killing Me that I have coming out soon.

In the first one, I reflected on the ways my dad (both my parents really) raised us to treat working people with kindness, dignity, and respect. I should note that he didn’t reserve this attitude just for working people, but the poor and oppressed more generally. But, and I said this in a tweet about it, my dad’s version of compassion and dignity worked in reverse from how I think a lot of us have learned that compassion, sympathy, dignity, and the actions they inspire ought to work.

I remember vividly sitting around the kitchen table. We’d pray and begin eating and then, of course, a telemarketer would call. My dad would calmly answer the phone and listen to what they had to say. “Uh, uh. Well, hey, I tell you what I’m not interested but I really do appreciate your phone call, and I hope you have a great rest of your day.” He’d then turn to us and say, “You just never know why someone had to take that job. I bet they didn’t want to. Maybe their kid has cancer and they couldn’t find anything else. You just never know.”

My dad didn’t grow up poor, but he never had much more than enough. His mom worked in a factory until going on disability after getting hit by a car. When told she needed to exercise to stay healthy and because of the state of her leg after the accident she could only ride a stationary bike. She rode it for 20 minutes every morning. She logged 200,000 miles on it by the time she died. His dad paid child support every month. My dad attributes those two regular payments, disability and child support, to the fact that he and my grandma never really struggled financially though of course they lived in a very small town in Louisiana in a time when government benefits paid okay. I think when he picked up the phone to talk to the telemarketer, when he saw a server at Cracker Barrel struggling to get the food out in time, when a recovering alcoholic or a depressed truck driver showed up at church, my dad realized that could’ve been his mom. It could’ve been him. You just never know.

I appreciate that my parents gifted me a compassion born out of ignorance, not knowledge. They taught me (unknowingly) that I should treat people with kindness and respect, generosity and justice not because I listen to their story, find something moving in it, and then act on that feeling to help them out, but because I haven’t done those things. And because I haven’t, I don’t know what that person on the other line has gone through. I don’t know what that server is dealing with. How could I unless I got to know them and their story? Since I don’t have the time to do that I should just treat them as if they’ve undergone the worst, as if they live with a pain I don’t know.

The standard formula for change goes something like this. In order to bring about change for a better world or just better circumstances for someone, you have to learn to hurt for and with them. I see your pain and in feeling something of it myself, I’m moved to action. Feeing your pain dries me to build a better world or rectify the injustice that caused you to hurt in the first place. This usually entails a certain form of knowledge. I need to know the circumstances that led you to this place and believe they were unjust. I need to hear you tell your story to know where you come from and what happened to you before I can give you some money for food or pay for your housing or work politically for better schools for your kids. On this understanding, shared pain forms the basis for common action.

Look, both my parents kind of believe in this too. We all kind of do. I don’t oppose hearing people’s stories or sitting with them when they have pain. But what about those people on the other end of the phone or the server at the restaurant? We have to understand that justice means accounting for those people that we can’t or don’t feel anything for or whose stories we’ll never know.

Far too often, proximity helps people build in exceptions. I know a bunch of rich people that grew up in circumstance similar to my dad that don’t understand the ways that the structures of society provided for them to succeed financially. They think “well I made it. Why can’t they?” I’m currently reading Jennifer Silva’s We’re Still Here about people she talked to in a poor coal mining city in Pennsylvania. She discovered that the plight of poor people in the city didn’t build out leftist solidarity or conservative politics. They just disengage. They turned inward. She found that a number of people on SNAP (food stamps) think the government shouldn’t expand the program. Many SNAP recipients in the book know someone else on them that they claim don’t deserve them. Proximity seems to give us the kind of knowledge that lets us see ourselves as exceptional. Maybe we can know too much.

The other tweet that people seemed to latch onto just said that on Thursday a woman, T, came by the church looking for help and I helped her with what she needed. She and her five kids had lived in hotels and her car off and on. If you haven’t watched The Florida Project yet, you should. T works two jobs and had finally secured a lease on an apartment, but she needed $1,000 by the end of the day to move in. I met her because she drove around to a bunch of churches to ask for help. Just so happened I decided to work at the church that morning and just so happened we have a fund setup to help with those situations. We designed it to function less responsively and more proactively than I had to act in that moment, but the basic philosophy of the fund says that we help get people out of poverty by paying for the things they need to get out of poverty.

T and I went and got a money order for her rent and a couple of Visa gift cards. I ordered some air mattresses, blankets, and pillows for her and the kids. Absolute least we could do given the late notice, and I will confess that I have turned away far more people than I have helped at every church I’ve worked at.

Someone might look at this situation and say that I heard her story, felt and related to her pain and it moved me to action. Moved by compassion, I acted. But that story doesn’t tell the truth. Compassion didn’t move me. I didn’t feel much of anything. I just had to do the right thing as best I saw it. And this comes back to the question of compassion born out of ignorance not knowledge. I try my best not to feel too much in these situations. I don’t want a surgeon overcome with emotion about the patient they operate on. Poverty’s a problem much more akin to surgery: a practical problem that requires the movement of money. The more a surgeon or person with money is overcome with emotion the less likely they are to act wisely or justly.

I remember my dad on those phone calls or at Cracker Barrel or the gas station: you just never know. What more could I need to know about T that would change the fact that she has five kids and they need a place to sleep and that $1,000 stands in the way? I could run a credit report and find out how she plans to spend her money in the future, but that’s going to take a bunch of time. Who knows? What difference does it make?

It also shouldn’t depend on how I relate to T. I don’t think I have to feel the pain and anxiety that a black woman in America feels to understand that our church ought to pay for her to have an apartment. I could never have an experience in which I feel the pain that a poor, black person feels. It shouldn’t matter how many times they tell me their story or how sad I get. Doing the right and just thing just is what it is regardless of if I do it because I believe it’s right or because I feel sad after hearing someone’s story. I won’t ever know what it’s like to be black or a woman. I can know the right thing to do, and I can do it. Or not. Who knows?

Ultimately it comes down to what we want to do together, with and for one another. We can’t feel each other’s pain. That’s just not the nature of pain. No matter if you stub your toe or your mom dies or someone thinks you shouldn’t have housing because you’re black, I can’t actually feel that pain in the same way you do. We can only possess so much knowledge about the circumstances that led us to where we are now and how we will live in the future. So we only have each other and the possibility of doing the right thing, something we all fail at more often than we should.

We can know what we want to share. I can know that it would be better for T not to have to come to the church asking for money to have housing for her kids. I can know that it’d be better for people not to have to scrape by. I can know that it’d be better for people not to have to sleep outside under a bridge in Durham. I can know that I don’t want people to be in poverty or go hungry. We can’t feel another’s pain, but we can meet each other as equals and that’s much easier to do when one of us doesn’t have to come to my church to ask for $1,000 to get into an apartment. I’m glad she did. I wish she didn’t have to.

Ultimately I want us to have what we need. We don’t get there by trying to feel with or for each other. We don’t have a wellspring of compassionate feelings within us just waiting to be tapped by the right story or the right display of emotions. We’re fragile and exhaustible and stories of pain wear us out. That’s not to say we shouldn’t tell them, just that we should recognize our limits. We should also tell stories of the worlds we might build together that don’t include the pain of homelessness, racism, exploitation and oppression. I believe sympathy and compassion will get us there but only because we can never feel each other’s pains and we can never know each other’s stories well enough. We should be humble enough to admit that other people’s lives are probably as fragile as ours, their stories as unknowable as ours and then structure our world accordingly. You just never know.

If you’d like to subscribe to this newsletter, you can do so here.

Loading more posts…