In 2007, Brian McLaren published Everything Must Change: When the World’s Biggest Problems and Jesus’ Good News Collide. It was a controversial book at the time, but made little impact on evangelical teaching.
However, we are now experiencing the Occupy Wall Street movement and similar movements around the globe. People are upset with the current economic structures, and many theologians are reconsidering their unquestioning endorsement of American capitalism. And so it’s time to take a fresh look at McLaren’s book.
Shane Claiborne was recently asked what he thinks about Occupy Wall Street. He responded,
It doesn’t get much better than Luke chapter 12. Jesus begins by saying, “Watch out! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; life does not consist in an abundance of possessions.” And then, as per usual, he tells a story. The story is about a rich man whose business makes it big. He has so much stuff he doesn’t know where to put it all. So he decides, “This is what I’ll do. I will tear down my barns and build bigger ones… and I’ll say to myself, ‘You have plenty of grain laid up for many years. Take life easy; eat, drink and be merry.’” But Jesus says God looks down and is not happy.
God says to the rich man, “You fool! This very night you will die–and what will happen to all your stuff?” And Jesus ends the teaching by saying this is how things will be for folks who store up stuff for themselves.
It does make you wonder what to do about 401k’s and pensions. But it seems pretty clear that Jesus isn’t a big fan of stockpiling stuff in barns and banks, especially when folks are dying of starvation and preventable diseases. One of the constant threads of Scripture is “Give us this day our daily bread.” Nothing more, nothing less. Underneath this admonition is the assumption that the more we store up for tomorrow the less people will have for today. And in a world where 1% of the world owns half the world’s stuff, we are beginning to realize that there is enough for everyone’s need, but there is not enough for everyone’s greed. Lots of folks are beginning to say, “Maybe God has a different dream for the world than the Wall Street dream.” Maybe God’s dream is for us to live simply so that others may simply live.
Maybe God’s dream is for the bankers to empty their banks and barns so folks have enough food for today.
Now, it’s tempting to point out that many of our banks are about as penniless as Jesus was on earth. After all, all the money they lend belongs to their depositors and many banks have lost all or nearly all their equity (wealth in excess of depositor’s money) by making bad loans. It’s not as though the banks could actually distribute someone else’s money, which would be theft.
But it’s more to the point to recognize that Jesus does indeed teach simplicity as opposed to the mindless accumulation of wealth. Perhaps some of those depositors should give their wealth away? Maybe they should withdraw their fortunes and send it all to the Horn of Africa to cure starvation?
On the other-other hand, no one really knows how to use even billions of dollars to cure starvation in the Horn of Africa. It’s not as simple as sending money, since there are warlords keeping the food from going in and who steal much of the food that does make its way there. Sending a billion in food aid might just result in very well fed armies that pillage and prey on the people and may do very little for starving children — unless done very thoughtfully indeed. You see, if we’re not careful, our compassionate hearts could feed the armies of Satan. It’s a tough problem.
And so, here’s the rub: it’s much easier to give away money than to actually make a change. The institutions and structures that create poverty are more subtle than merely “we don’t give away enough money.” Indeed, if the goal is to feel better about yourself, write a check and send it to someone in need. But if you want to attack the root causes of poverty, to actually make a difference, well, you have to be much more thoughtful than that.
I had a conversation with a sincere young man whose heart has been deeply touched by the suffering in Africa. He declared, “The cause of poverty is wealth.” And that’s just not true. That logic assumes that wealth is not created but stolen and the only reason anyone is poor is that wealth has been stolen from him. And that’s sometimes true. But the 70-year experiment of Communism in Russia and Eastern Europe proves that absolute equality can result is absolutely equal poverty. Indeed, many people who are wealthy created that wealth and many who are in poverty made some really poor decisions. It’s not always someone else’s fault.
We do no one any favors by romanticizing poverty (it’s never their own fault and so they are all victims) or stereotyping wealth (all corporations are greedy and get wealthy by stealing). But neither do we help by taking the capitalist party line (corporations love bunnies and children and all poor people choose poverty). Both views are unrealistic and unhelpful.
That hardly means that the West is exempt from criticism, but we do need to learn some lessons from history. We don’t need “solutions” that have already been tried and failed. We don’t need to merely throw money at problems that might actually be helped if we loved those in poverty enough to think seriously about how to make things better.
Imagine a forest fire covering thousands of acres blazing toward you. If you see a singed animal fleeing the fire and in need of help, you would, of course, grab the poor animal and try to nurse it back to health. But if your only response was to rescue scorched animals, the fire would keep blazing and would burn up thousands more animals than you could ever reach.
I’d not at all condemn those who rescue the animals, but someone had better bring in helicopters and firetrucks and build fire breaks. Someone has to put out the fire, even if it’s less emotionally rewarding than caring for the animals that flee the fire.
Sometimes we try to fix an economic forest fire by picking up the strays, which is not so much wrong as woefully inadequate. Yes, yes, yes … help the suffering as best you can, but you’d better attack the problem at its root if you want to stop the flow of victims.
Therefore, it’s my personality, I suppose, to want to look at the large-scale problems rather than the immediate, smaller-scale problems, because they’re the harder problems to solve — but in the long run, they’re the most important problems to solve.
And this brings us to McLaren who provides some thoughtful analysis of the problems on the large scale. I don’t agree with all that he says, but at least he’s thought seriously about the questions — which is rare, in my experience. And I enjoy discussing challenges with thoughtful people, especially those who disagree with me.