Let Us Now Praise Wealthy Men? Structural Poverty, Religiously (Re)Considered

Warren Buffett receives President Medal of Freedom from President Obama, who declared that Buffett is “not only one of the world’s richest men, [he is] one of the most-respected.”

Joerg Rieger, a leading theological thinker in relation to economic injustice, is also a principal presenter at a forthcoming conference in Houston that seeks to galvanize a stronger and religiously-infused bottom-up justice movement.

RD’s Peter Laarman, who has been working with the D.L. Dykes, Jr. Foundation to shape this week’s event, asked Rieger, the Wendland-Cook Endowed Professor of Constructive Theology at the Perkins School of Theology in Dallas, to unpack structural poverty and to address religion’s stake in the dramatic growth of economic inequality in American society.

RD: You are a major participant in and architect of the forthcoming conference in Houston that will address the issue of structural poverty within a religious frame. Tell me what you think is significant about such a convocation?

Rieger: Religion is not something that has an existence of its own apart from everyday life, and neither can religion be limited to the private realm or to the life of the mind. Those who use religion to support their private quest for money and/or power already know this very well and make the most of it.

Radical inequality will not self-correct.

Those of us who have alternative visions and are linked to alternative movements need consciously to come together to challenge all religion that valorizes—literally—a deeply unjust system. This is what we will be doing in Houston. We will draw upon potent if sometimes neglected strands within our religious inheritance, and because we know that we cannot change the world by ourselves, we will bring together all those who make positive contributions in their own ways: intellectuals, activists, community organizers, labor leaders, and religious leaders.

These collaborations are still fairly new, but we should not underestimate what can happen when progressive people with new visions join forces.

In the U.S. poverty is most often explained in terms of personal moral failure, an “explanation” deeply rooted in the American religious tradition. Can you say more about the difference between framing poverty as the personal moral failure of the poor and framing it as a different kind of moral failure—one that gives a prominent role to what (former U.S. Labor Secretary) Robert Reich has called “rot at the top”?

An early working title for the Houston gathering asked Why are so many poor? And why do we hate them so much? Only in this radically individualistic culture do we hear it proclaimed that people who are not able to make ends meet are not working hard enough. Do we even realize how odd that is?

The opposite is usually the case: low-income workers often work more than one job and are among the hardest-working people in the country. Add to that the fact that most of these workers never had the opportunity to attend elite schools and colleges and that they do not have the social networks that provide business opportunities, and it should become clear that their predicament has nothing to do with their moral shortcomings.

What still shocks the mind is how the majority of America’s religious people also accept the God helps those who helps themselves ethic and simply ignore what is plain enough from the biblical testimony: that Jesus, like the Hebrew prophets before him, consistently supports the “least of these,” declares that he is bringing good news to the poor, and warns against wealth as a dangerous trap.

Like Isaiah thundering about those who “join house to house and field to field” so as to squeeze out everyone else, Jesus directly links suffering at the bottom to greed at the top. Jesus says very clearly that it is not the poor who are failing morally but the rich who are flunking the morality test by extracting wealth at the expense of the poor.

And of course this is exactly what is going on in the current economy, where we see an economic “recovery” that mainly benefits the 1 percent even as compensation, benefits, and job quality for the majority of working people continue to get worse. You don’t have to take my word for this; you can ask Janet Yellen, the new chair of the Federal Reserve, or you can ask Thomas Piketty.

You recently reviewed Piketty’s best-selling book, Capital. Why exactly is economic inequality accelerating, not moderating, and why is the so-called “trickle down” theory being discredited? I recall that you address these issues in your own book, No Rising Tide.

The old proverb that “a rising tide lifts all boats” has never been more than an unfounded hope and is also something very convenient for those in power to toss off. While more and more everyday people have awakened to this, the spurious rising tide ideology nevertheless still rules the way the economy is managed: taxes are still being reduced at the top, corporations and their shareholders still gorge themselves on government support, and we are still being asked to believe that as the rich take an ever-larger share, everyone else will somehow also do better.

The great value in what Piketty and his colleagues have done is to marshal overwhelming evidence to show that the gap between rich and poor has grown and will continue to grow, absent an intervention. Radical inequality will not self-correct. This is exactly what I discussed in No Rising Tide, written at the beginning of the so-called Great Recession and published in 2009. I wrote that while the economy goes in cycles, the wealth surge bypasses more and more people, including most of the middle class.

It is essential for us to see wealth not only in terms of money but also in terms of power. Have progressives really understood that yet? As wealth keeps growing at the top, the social power of those at the top grows by leaps and bounds as well. This dynamic assures that inequality deepens and that what little wealth and power may have dripped down in the past has now dried up.

If bad religion has both absorbed and contributed to an unhelpful ideology in relation to structural poverty, is there any possibility for raising a different religious voice to help turn this around?

Before we can talk about alternative religious voices, we must first acknowledge that religion has, for the most part, been a huge contributor to the problem. Not only has our colonized religion demonized those at the bottom, but it has also been happy to heap praise upon those at the top.

Our images of God are part of the problem: even many progressives still assume that God is somehow found at the top of the system, which implies by default that those at the top are closer to God. This is one of the key distortions that alternative religious voices need to address. Fortunately, there are other and far more compelling images in our religious traditions that correct this distortion.

In the Exodus tradition, which is shared by Christians, Muslims, and Jews, God is found not on the side of the Pharaoh—as one boss standing with another, so to speak—but God joins the side of the Hebrew slaves and even sinks Pharoah’s army. In the Jesus tradition, God becomes human in the person of someone who is referred to as a “carpenter” but who is really more like a day laborer in construction: not the guy driving the pickup but one of the guys riding in the back. And this Jesus chooses to remain in solidarity with the poor; he is no Horatio Alger type trying to claw his way upward.

We need to preach and teach these other traditions and narratives because these exodus and liberation currents all deliver the unambiguous message that God’s vision for how people should live is diametrically opposed to Pharoah’s. The two orientations cannot be reconciled, meaning that people of various faiths have to choose sides. You cannot serve God and Mammon.

You said earlier, and you often discuss, how savage inequality also poisons representative democracy itself. Can you say a bit more about this?

I said earlier that wealth is about power and not just about money. What is worst about this is that we have now created a culture in which the wealthiest are seen as the role models and the leaders, and in which the goal is to please them and to follow their wishes.

Regrettably, we can detect the same servility and deference to the rich in the university and in religious life that we see in our corrupted politics. We can see it also within the so-called Left. And because this deference and servility has now become normalized and can take place with hardly anyone taking notice, resistance is only gradually developing (in contrast to, say, resistance to current corrupt campaign finance practices).

While most of my friends agree that big money needs to be kept out of politics, far fewer of them realize how the power of money shapes us all the way to the core—shapes the way we think, shapes our innermost hopes and dreams, shapes even our faith. That’s where the ultimate power of money rests, and that is where an awakened resistance has yet to develop.

One point you always stress in your work is that everyday workers are much more than the sum total of their wages as units of production. You often speak of working people as fully-fledged human agents in the transformation of society. Say more about the traction you see in amplifying the voice and social power of people who have usually been rendered voiceless in the conversation.

Most of the current debates are hung up on the problem of the distribution and redistribution of wealth. Most progressives, and even Piketty, fall into this trap as well. In No Rising Tide and elsewhere I have argued that we need to shift the focus from distribution to production.

The first basic step is to acknowledge that workers play an important role in production that is only rarely acknowledged in our culture. In many other countries workers and their contributions are much more highly regarded; in some European countries, in fact, worker representatives hold seats on corporate boards, which is one way of acknowledging and honoring the value and wisdom of working people.

But working people do much more than make valuable contributions at the level of production; they also uphold democracy and counter the power of corporate owners. We forget that things like sick days and weekends and pensions and various protections against unfair and unsafe practices were all achieved through the organized power of working people. Who today can remember that many of the churches supported these causes when they were first fought for over a century ago?

The combined power of labor and religion made the critical difference at a time when nobody believed that things would ever change. This can happen again if a sufficient number of people in the churches and in the unions wake up. The good news is that people are indeed waking up, often in places where we least expect it, including within the large evangelical churches and their networks throughout the South and Southwest. That is partly why holding our event in Houston is so promising.

You co-authored a powerful book with Kwok Pui Lan about the continuing potential of the Occupy movement. Your subtitle was “A Theology of the Multitude,” which I thought was really great. Describe what you mean about the potential for change that is driven from below? 

At present most people (including progressives, sadly) believe that change has to be implemented from the top down. They then become disappointed when things do not change, when appealing young presidents are not able to make much of a difference, and when promising leaders in all spheres end up letting them down.

We should know by now that effective and lasting change is rarely implemented from the top, not even through the visions of the great intellectuals and theologians. All real democratic gains in the U.S. have been won through hard struggle. We obviously would not have universal suffrage today without the liberation movements led by enslaved people and their allies and then by disenfranchised women.

In the history of religion, the divine is frequently found working in and through the lives of the common people, raising up leaders from humble beginnings, empowering women who were kept on the margins in patriarchal society, and modeling greatness not through domination but through solidarity and service.

This insight is currently growing all around the world. In our book Occupy Religion, my colleague Pui Lan and I look at global developments that embody the divine at work among the people. Here we are not just re-hashing the clichéd liberal idea of bottom-up power; we are actually identifying examples of this power and demonstrating how it is transforming the world.

The Occupy Movement offered merely a glimpse of this ferment. And while the dominant powers are quite good at keeping it hidden, resistance to their domination continues to grow. Top-down organization will not prevail. The future is already taking shape in alternative movements that are discovering each other and beginning to join forces.

As our Latino and Latina friends say, taking up the noble chant of the United Farmworkers, Sí se puede! It has been done before, and we can do it again.