Shane Claiborne and economic inequality

So, for a few weeks now, I’ve been slowly making my way through The Irresistible Revolution by Shane Claiborne. The idea expressed in the subtitle, living as an ordinary radical, intrigued me enough to pick it up off its comfortable shelf in the bookstore. When I found out that the author had attended Eastern College in Philadelphia, and was a student of one of the guys I most respect in the world, Tony Campolo, so that made the book irresistible. What can I say? Impulse purchasing runs in my blood.

Chapter 6, entitled Economics of Rebirth, provided a stark contrast to some of the things I wrote in this blog a few months ago. Here is the opening paragraph of this chapter:

Not long ago, a few friends and I were talking with some very wealthy executives about what it means to be the church and to follow Jesus. One businessman confided, “i too have been thinking about following Christ and what that means, so I had this made.” He pulled up his sleeve to reveal a bracelet engraved with WWJD (What Would Jesus Do?). It was custom-made of twenty-four karat gold. Maybe each of us can relate to this man – both his earnest desire to follow Jesus and, bound up in the materialism of our culture, his distorted execution of that desire.

I like to believe that I live a relatively simple life. There are a few things about which I am willing to spend cash and buy a lot of, books and tools being the primary two. The first is relatively inexpensive, if purchasing paperback or used and the second is inexpensive if you know where to shop. Most of the work that has been done to rehab my home has been done by myself or with the help of friends. Only the new windows, doors and garage door, plus the forthcoming electrical service and heat pump upgrades, required professional help. Even then, I’ve gone with people I know, who do not overcharge, and I’ve come away with a better house and the additions have improved the worth of my house much more than the money I actually put into the place.

The two things that I do which cost a great deal of money are eating and driving. I like food that has something special about it, which usually, but definitely not always, means it costs a lot more. My fascination with fillet mignon being the primary culprit. My truck is a gas guzzler and my car, when it runs, is not much better.

Compared to most people I know, I do live a more simple life. Conspicuous consumption is not a fault I have. Usually. However, looking at the life of someone like Shane, who has nearly nothing, but has gained nearly everything important, really makes me wonder if I should spend on what I do spend on.

That said, I definitely know how that executive felt, although I think I’m a bit more honest about it. Not judging him in any way, as I just said I’m like him, but I would like to think that no matter how much money I might have, I wouldn’t put something like that on a gold bracelet. Just seems ironic that the bracelet was meant to remind the executive of a poor, homeless Judean preacher.

My best friend is known to talk about how government, and specifically his arch-enemies, the Democrats, have only one agenda, and that is the redistribution of wealth from the rich to the poor. He talks about this as being a bad thing, and I agree that done improperly it is a bad thing, as it just makes the poor dependent upon a hand-out instead of being a functioning member of society. What is hard for my friend to understand is that Jesus was all about redistribution of wealth; namely that if we have more than someone else, we freely give it to whoever is in need.

I give away things all the time. I donate all my old clothing, all still serviceable but often with a spot or two that makes them socially unacceptable to wear to my job. If I upgrade my furniture, my broken-down, distressed and dying furniture ends up being refurbished and given away. This is good, is it not? I get something new, the economy keeps going, and those less fortunate also have something they did not have before?

Not quite. All those things are true, but Shane points out that I am deluding myself to believe this is what Jesus meant by giving to the poor. By putting an organization, even if that organization is the church, between me and the poor, only makes the division between the haves and have-nots, that much more severe. Jesus said we would always have the poor with us, but he did so in front of a lot of poor people and the not-so poor people who lived with them every day. I don’t know any poor people. I used to, but as I thought about it, I haven’t known any in years. At least, I haven’t known anyone involuntarily poor. Many people are poor because they want to be, not because they don’t have any good options for not being poor. I know plenty of the former and none of the later.

Later in that chapter, Shane takes things from the micro level and moves them macro. The focus moves from individuals to the country in which I live. The country where most people reading this probably live. He makes a point that sometimes we become so wrapped up in watching what we spend that we forget the ramifications of our spending when its lumped in with the spending habits of 300 million other people.

I can go to Wal-Mart and purchase a shirt for $5. That is good stewardship of my money, provided of course I actually have a need and use for the shirt. But what about the person, often the child, who made that shirt? If they earned less than a dollar per day making it, working 15+ hours per day, is it still right for me to purchase that shirt, knowing that someone in the supply chain is starving to make it for me. That, is a really chilling thought.

As Americans, we are extremely guilty of this type of behavior. True, it is hard to find a shirt that is made somewhere outside of southeast Asian garment factories, but it is possible. It also costs a lot more, not just directly out of our wallets, but from our time, too. Even then, who is to say that the fabric from which that clothing was created, was not itself woven in yet another third-world factory with horrible conditions?

We could just throw up our hands in disgust, return to Wal-Mart and get that $5 shirt anyway. I’ve done it many times, and despite the learning I’m sharing here, I will probably go out and do something similar within the next 24 hours.

With our collective behavior thought of in this light, is it any surprise that foreign leaders such as Hugo Chavez, think of the president of our country, arguably the person who speaks for us all, as the devil? Is Chavez, a person who has been outspoken in his dislike for the meddling American World Police, not really calling us all the devil for our behavior? He may not even realize his statements can be viewed in this light, but I think they should be correctly extended to encompass this meaning.

In the end, Claiborne says, we’re called to be linked, the whole of humanity, by a mutual dependency on one another. My shirt shouldn’t be made by stealing the life and food from the mouth of someone on the other side of the planet. The solution Claiborne gives isn’t easy, but it is simple… do as Jesus asked the rich young ruler: give it all away. No, he is not saying that you specifically give everything away, but are willing to and do when you can directly provide for someone in need. The early church in Acts describes that, rich and poor, they held everything in common. Note that while they shared, some were still rich and some were still poor. Its a model we should definitely do better to follow.