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“I want everybody in America to be rich,” was the answer given by Mitt Romney during the GOP Presidential debates in 2011. This is the same line that Presidential candidate John McCain dropped on us in 2008. If you are unable to locate the geyser of cash, then you must not be using the Work Harder Treasure Map, or so we were told by Paul Ryan during his speech at last week’s GOP convention. These men are smart enough to know that wealth is not an ever-flowing fountain from which everyone can drink to their heart’s content, because in the most simplistic terms, currency, resources, and goods are finite. But this beloved tale isn’t concerned with the facts, and it’s not limited to the GOP.
America’s me-centric worldview is growing exponentially thanks to a blend of post-9/11 anxiety, economic uncertainty, the doldrums of postmodernity, and unbridled capitalism. As this continues, the mainstream mindset is starting to resemble those green alien squeeze toys in ‘Toy Story,’ caught staring upwards with a punch-drunk gaze, waiting for the arcade machine’s claw to pluck us out of the group, so that we might leave behind the mundane others as we’re whisked off to our own personal paradise. Our politics and religion become customized vehicles for legitimizing a preoccupation of the self, all at a great cost to ourselves and the community around us.
We experienced a national tragedy on July 20th when a gunman stormed a midnight screening in Aurora, Colorado, taking the lives of 12 people and injuring 58 others. This was the highest number of casualties in an American mass shooting ever, but you wouldn’t know that if you followed much of the chatter on social media. I made the mistake of browsing Facebook shortly after the event, which was filled with people trying to score cheap political points about gun rights, all while human beings had just died, were dying, and were severely injured. I get that horror like the Colorado theater incident gets people talking, and that emotions produce different reactions in different people, but it’s beginning to feel like we’ve reached a place where every event is just fodder for an individualist agenda, and compassion a distant second place to being (or feeling) correct.
This is an acidic worldview in which all tragedy, all misfortune, all poverty must be explainable as the result of personal or political failure somewhere along the way. Such an assumption is fueled by America’s favorite tag team idols: self reliance and personal responsibility. As an assumption it is both inaccurate and judgmental on a grand scale.
You’ve heard the account of the rich man leaving Jesus with a heavy heart after Christ told him to sell all of his possessions and give the proceeds to the poor? This answer, given by Christ, surprised the disciples. I love that even those who literally walked with Jesus didn’t find him to be predictable, which is a great reminder for followers of Christ today, that we might not limit our view of God to what is palatable. When the disciples asked Jesus who had any chance of entering God’s kingdom, Christ said “no chance at all if you think you can pull it off by yourself. Every chance in the world if you let God do it.” -Matt. 10:27, The Message translation
Is wealth inherently bad? Of course not. Is a solid work ethic something to be frowned upon? No, but it’s also not automatically holy. Wealth and a work ethic can be blessings as well as traps.
What’s the point here, and why did Jesus order the rich man to release his fortune? I would argue that one of the reasons is not the wealth itself but what wealth or a related preoccupation can do to our spirit, mind, and heart, perhaps what had become of that rich man as a result of his fortune. There is a point at which self reliance becomes a crutch; a destination where we feel good about ourselves only when we’re gaining or have much in storage; a plateau where we spend our days working to defend or maintain what has become “rightfully ours;” a mindset from which we are made to look down on those who aren’t progressing as we define it.
This is one of the most efficient ways for a population to let go of compassion.
Compassion is the sometimes fatal capacity for feeling what it’s like to live inside somebody else’s skin. It is the knowledge that there can never really be any peace and joy for me until there is peace and joy finally for you too.” -Frederick Buechner
Compassion is not just for the benefit of the hurting, it also creates in us a humbler approach in which we lend a hand or a prayer before we lend an opinion, where we continually remember that we don’t know everything, and let that adjustment cause us to to be caring instead of always and first fighting to be correct. Compassion is nourishment for an entire community, and I would argue a nourished community is more in line with God’s kingdom than a bunch of individuals struggling to capture the prize and growing in resentment towards the people they determine are always getting in the way.
Is sharing the kingdom of God on earth not your priority or desire? Okay. For the others who feel prompted to follow God and who pray to be glimpses of God’s goodness despite our own weakness, we must always remember that being filled requires that we also be emptied. If we insist on holding on to 1,000 things and 1,000 opinions, 1,000 goals and 1,000 convictions, and none of it is allowed to budge, then we have left very little room for God.