Saturday, April 29, 2017

We are the rich

I was reading an essay in a Catholic Worker newspaper that I receive. The essay was decrying the fact that while there are so many poor, there are so many rich who seem not to be aware of or (or care about) Biblical admonitions to share with the less fortunate the gifts God has given us.

Bad rich people.

Now, I don't disagree with the point that there are indeed some rich people who seem not to be following that call to share. But I think the author seemed to be unaware - or did not care - that there are some rich people who do share. Generously. Who do try to alleviate poverty and injustice. Regularly.

I think of one family I know who are by all measures really wealthy - I remember once going to a meeting at their very large house and joking with them that they lived in the kind of neighborhood where people like me did not feel welcome. ("Jack, there's an old car going down the street driven by a bearded fellow who obviously needs a haircut and a better tailor. Suspicious. Quick, call the police.") This family is incredibly generous, supporting various groups and institutions financially, taking people in difficult situation (including pregnant teens) into their home, volunteering with organizations promoting social justice, writing opinion pieces, even protesting and facing arrest.

So, the author of the piece is a bit broad-brush in his approach. And he seems to be using the word "rich" as an insult, a stereotype, almost like an ethnic or racial slur.

Stinking rich people. You know what they're like.

I also think the author failed to define who the rich really are - other than indirectly through digs at billionaires and, of course, Donald Trump and members of his administration. Oh, and there were some unkind words about business people and hipsters.

All easy targets.

What about mere millionaires? Or what about middle class people in the U.S. - for by the world's standards, we are rich?

Indeed, there are many people in the U.S. who seem unwittingly caught up in a culture of conspicuous consumption that essentially steals from the poor. Just the other day I was talking with some high school students about friends going to the prom. The friends were taking the day off from school to get their hair and nails done, so they can then wear expensive dresses, ride in limousines, go to rented facilities for the after-party, and so on. How many hundreds - even thousands - of dollars were being spent for one dance? How many families around the world live on less per year than one student will spend on that one night?

I'm not putting down proms. They can be fun. Nor am I condemning those students. Many of them are good young people who in other ways are very kind and generous. But they have been pulled into a culture that celebrates consumption and skews their priorities.

How many of us live in houses that are larger, more elaborate than we really need? Homes built in areas that used to be natural habitats but had to be cut down/leveled/drained to accommodate those homes? Take vacations at overpriced theme parks and resorts? Constantly buy new clothes and new cars when what we have is still fine and usable? Have to have the latest smartphones? Spend tens of thousands of dollars on weddings? Buy products made by exploited people?

And what does it cost them to keep up that lifestyle? Working in jobs they don't like to keep the money rolling in. Compromising their beliefs so they can get along or rise higher. Undermining their health due to stress or lack of rest. Working long hours, losing out on time with family. Even delaying or not having a family because, well, they interfere with our lifestyle or our independence or cost too much.

I think that Catholic Worker article would have been more fair and complete if it had pointed out that we are the rich, and we have an obligation to share our wealth and time to help those less fortunate. We need to look at what we buy and where it comes from. We need to look at how we can simplify our lives so we have time for family and others, and help to change that culture of consumption.

Yes, we should criticize those unaware rich people when they ignore the need around them.

But we should also remember that in the eyes of the world - and in the eyes of God - we are the rich.

Pax et bonum

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