Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Downsizing the Dream (Irresistible Revolution, Part 3)

But we live in a world that has lost its appreciation for small things. We live in a world that wants things bigger and bigger. We want to supersize out fries, sodas, and church buildings (25).

I'm one of those people who falls into the "bigger is better" traps all the time. It's not healthy. I mean, think about it: you want your fries and your coke biggie size? Have you seen the amount of calories in that stuff? And locked in all those calories is the potential for weight gain, diabetes, heart disease, heart attack, stroke, etc. Physically, it's not healthy.

It's not healthy spiritually either. We can lose our perspective. Bigger churches can allow us to think that everyone lives like us. We spend all our money on building bigger buildings when we should really be using that money to help others. We think we need more space, when the better answer might be meeting together at different times, instead of all at the same time. Bigger things spoil us and make us think more highly of ourselves.

We live in a consumer culture with enough stuff gathering dust on our shelves (32).

I have stuff I don't use. About a year ago, I started cleaning out all this stuff. I think it started with magazines I'd been holding on to for one or two recipes. One day, I decided enough was enough and I cut the recipes out, put them all in one place, and recycled those magazines. Then I recycled old computer magazines that hadn't been looked at for a few years. After that it was toiletries and clothes, some of my son's old toys, and then I went through drawers and got rid of stuff in there.

I try not to think of all the money I spent on those things I was getting rid of. That's money that could have been saved for something obviously more important.

And that's the key: we have all these things we spend out money on, and most of them become stuff gathering dust on our shelves. I'm not against knick-knacks (completely) or books, but some of these things were made just to look pretty. That's their sole function. How do we have enough money to buy stuff that gathers dust, but no money to buy a homeless guy a meal?

So I would suggest we need a third way, neither the prosperity gospel nor the poverty gospel, but the gospel of abundance rooted in the theology of enough (172).

For those of you who don't know what the prosperity gospel is, it's the theory that God wants you to be rich. Some call it "name it and claim it" theology - tell God what you want and claim it in His name.

The prosperity gospel also has been called the "name it and claim it" theology. God wants His people to prosper, evangelists like [Joyce] Meyer maintain. Those who follow God and give generously to his ministries can have anything, and everything, they want.

Meyer spends most of her three-day conferences on lessons in giving, and she is blunt when she addresses what the critics say about her seed-faith interpretation of the Bible. She says that those preachers who believe that to be godly is to be poor are the ones who have it wrong.

"Why would He (God) want all of His people poverty stricken while all of the people that aren't living for God have everything?" Meyer said. "I think it's old religious thinking, and I believe the devil uses it to keep people from wanting to serve God."
Bill Smith and Carolyn Tuft,"The Prosperity Gospel." The St. Louis Post Dispatch, 9/18/03

I don't think God wants us any of us to live in poverty - nor do I think he wants everyone to be rich. I don't think he really wants anyone to be rich when there are hungry and homeless people in the world. It's quite obvious that He has allowed some of His followers to be rich. When God asked Solomon what he wanted, Solomon asked for wisdom. God gave him wisdom, but also made the young king rich beyond even our wildest dreams. But Solomon was the exception rather then the rule, and the Bible is full of people who had what they needed, but they certainly weren't rich.

The point that Claiborne is making is that we need balance. Jesus told us that when we pray we should ask for our daily bread; we should ask for the things we need, not the luxuries we want. God may provide much more than we need, or He may not.

After all, what's crazier: one person owning the same amount of money as the combined economies of twenty countries, or suggesting that if we shared, there would be enough for everyone (344)?

It's crazy to suggest we share. After all, that sounds like communism.

But sharing is better than waste. How many times have you spent money on groceries, only to have a loaf of bread or a head of cauliflower go bad? I have, and I'm ashamed. If I had planned ahead, I wouldn't have allowed that to happen.

This is why we need to share. We have an abundance of resources in America, and every day some of them go to waste because we have a surplus we don't know how to use. The surplus is there because we demand more and bigger, and we demand more and bigger because we've always had more than we need.

Is this really what it's all about? Is that really the American Dream?

We knew that the world cannot afford the American dream and that the Good News is that there is another dream (119).

1 comment:

Eric Hadley-Ives said...

Yes, it seems people aren't interested in being poor. Being poor is hard, and not really much fun. But here is a point saying just as we shun poverty, so we should shun the desire to become wealthy. It's better to find contentment when we have enough.
And what, I wonder, would be enough? I should look for some outside standard, and two that come to mind would be the median household income and the median year-around full-time worker earnings.

Median household income in Illinois is in the low $50K figures, perhaps $53,000 in 2008, as it was $52,000 in 2006. Nationally the median household income is over $42,000, but probably not above $43,000 just yet. A year-around full time wage earner (male) in Illinois makes about $47,000. So, a middle-class family is probably learning somewhere between $40,000 and $55,000. If your household is earning over $70,000 you're relatively affluent. If your income is under $30,000, you're relatively deprived.

And since my family fits pretty near the middle of that middle class range, and since I know nearly exactly what I pay in taxes and give to charities, I can make some suggestions about "enough" and giving.

Our household gives about 6% of our income to local government through property taxes and local sales tax and the portion of our state income tax that goes to our local government. We pay about 4% of our household income to our state government through state sales taxes and state income taxes that stay in state government. Our particular household pays about 6% to the Federal government through income taxes and Medicare taxes. So, we pay (give) a total of about 16% of our income to the common good through taxation and the spending of our government. I think would be just as happy to pay 20% or 22% and get better government services (universal health care, free higher education for qualified students, better disability and unemployment benefits, more funding for alternative energy and medical research, etc.) The IRS reports that people in our income bracket ten to pay about 12% of their income to the federal government, so perhaps other households (without children) are paying close to that 20% to 22% of total income to local, state, and federal public spending.

That is, in a sense, giving to the common good. The government, after all, is supposed to take care of the sick and the poor. And our government is supposed to give aid to people in Haiti when hurricanes hit. Maybe I should spend $200 helping to elect government leaders who would do more to take care of the poor and protect our environment.

So, after taxes, a person in the middle class has about 78% to 84% of what they earned left to them. Certainly a portion of this should be given to the poor, and a portion should be given to protect the environment, but how much?

Well, first a family must take care of basic needs. How much housing should a family have. In Springfield we could live in a decent house that was safe and pay about 20% of our income for that. We could live in a better and bigger house and enjoy more pleasant furnishings and more space and pay 25% of our income for such a home. Or we could pay 30%, or even 35% of our income for housing. We could live well below our means and stay in a cheap home or apartment and spend only 10% of our household income on housing. Which of these options is fair? We can look at other expenses and ask a similar question. We're saving 5% of our income for children's higher education, but maybe we should be saving 10% instead, or perhaps 15%. We're saving 4% for our retirement, but perhaps we should be saving 10%. We spend about 11% of our income on food, and we almost never eat out, but perhaps we could get by just as well spending 8% on food. Most people probably eat out in restaurants more often than we do, and they might think 12% or 15% or even 20% is a minimum level of spending on food.

After one has taken into account all these things we must have, there are the additional things. We have high-speed internet, and that costs about 1.2% of our income each year. We don't have cable television, but if we did, that would be another 1.2% for that. If we went out to see movies ever couple weeks we could easily spend 1.5% of our household income on movies, but instead we rent DVDs and videos from the libraries. So it goes. People deserve to spend a little bit on luxuries.

And then we come to charitable giving.
We donate to religious organizations so that those organizations can have a building where we can meet, and provide food to visitors, and provide incomes to staff who work in a national office and help us organize our national religious community. We also give money to our religious community so that our religious community can give money to poor people or provide services to the sick or disabled. But, since our particular religious congregation doesn't spend much on doing the actual work of caring for the planet or God's people by providing services or goods, most of our charitable giving for the poor goes through donations to charities. And we do give to charities. I have money taken directly out of my payroll, but it's less than 1% of my total income.
And we give to my old high school, my old college, and my old graduate school. We give to public radio and public television. We give direct assistance to some poorer friends who sometimes run out of money and need help getting things they really need.

In our household all of the various sorts of charitable giving probably amounts to about 3%. I'd like to give more, perhaps 5%, and when my income was about 5% higher than it is now I did give in absolute dollars an amount that was about 5% of what I earn now. I'm not sure this is enough. Should I be cutting back on some of our luxuries, our food, or our housing, and instead use that money to raise our charitable giving?

Maybe the problem is that our income is too low. Perhaps instead of working in my current job where I make a median income I ought to seek employment somewhere where my skills would be rewarded with a higher salary. That way I would have more money to contribute toward good political candidates and charitable causes.

I actually do suspect we could give much more than we do, and I'd like to do that. What I would like is some sort of way to convince my wife of this, and get the whole family, including my children, involved in making decisions about what we need, what we want, and what we can do without so that we can give more. And I want us to think more carefully about what we give and how we give. I think a fun way to give is to have our family work to support candidates in local and state government who will do a better job of seeing that the homeless gain access to permanent housing. We should also have our state government supporting alternative energy technology in Illinois. Going door-to-door in our neighborhood to inform our friends and neighbors about our opinions and the candidates who seem most likely to do what we think ought to be done is a way of giving time as a family to support the changes we want in our society, and doing this can cost nothing.

But still, I want to know what is enough, and what is not enough when it comes to sacrificing so that others can live a better life. What can I cut out and where can I give so that children get the medical care they need, no matter what nation they call home?

When I consider what the households in the top 4.5% of the nation's income distribution (the households with incomes over $200,000) should be doing, I see that they could be doing much more. After taxes a household earning $200,000 might be left with $130,000 (I've consulted IRS statistics to come up with this figure, using an estimate of property and state income/sales taxes to get a rough idea of what is left after wealthy people pay a typical tax burden). With such an income, a household earning $200,000 could spend twice as much as we do on everything and be left with about $40,000 to give away to charities. So, although in our household charitable giving is probably somewhere between 2% and 5%, it seems to me that an affluent family could easily get by with "enough" (twice as much as we have) and be left with so much surplus that they could give away 20% of their income. I suppose there might be a continuum of fair giving. If you earn 100% of the median household income, then giving 3%-5% is sufficient. If you earn 200% of the median income you ought to be giving away 8%-10% of your income. If you are earning 300% of the median household income, a charitable giving budget of 15% would be fair. Earning 400% of the median income? Then about 20% of your income ought to be given away.

What do you think?