We can thank Dave Ramsey for bringing clarity to the economic justice debate. Ramsey wasn’t trying to shock and dismay thinking Christians, mind you, it was all very accidental. He innocently published Tom Corley’s “20 Things the Rich Do Every Day: So what do the rich do every day that the poor don’t do?” After giving us his list, Corley says:
I spent 5 years studying the daily activities of 233 wealthy people and 128 poor people. What I discovered was that wealthy people have vastly different daily habits than poor people. In fact, I tracked 140 daily activities that separate the wealthy from the poor and in this article I will highlight 20 of these activities. These Rich Habits are the financial equivalent of the Holy Grail. Because there is no research like this of any kind, these discoveries are revolutionary and will challenge everything you thought you knew about becoming wealthy. The Rich Habits will transform your life from one of financial failure to one of unlimited financial success beginning in as little as thirty days. I will show you how easy it is to reinvent yourself in these 30 days. In order to become wealthy you must learn how to walk in the footsteps of the wealthy . . .
Notice, Corley isn’t saying that the impact of poverty is worsened by poor decision making; poverty, in this view, is caused by those choices. There are no other contributing factors. Losing your job, a major illness, a serious downturn in the economy, a major drop in the value of your home, taking a leave of absence to care for a dying loved one . . . none of that stuff has anything to do with your economic standing. It’s all about you and the decisions you make.
When Ramsey posted Corley’s list of 20 habits on his website, the Christian blogosphere lit up. Apparently, a lot of bloggers aren’t among the six million Americans who listen to Ramsey’s syndicated radio program, so they weren’t aware that Ramsey regularly blames the poor for their misfortune or that this blame-game is gradually becoming the standard outlook among white evangelicals, especially in the South.
If you want to learn more about Dave Ramsey, Helaine Olen’s “The Prophet: Meet Dave Ramsey, the most important personal finance guru in America.” Here’s her summary of Ramsey’s outlook:
1. Purge yourself of debt;
2. Live on cash;
3. Pretend economic trends don’t affect you;
4. Blame yourself when they do.
I’m not suggesting that Ramsey has nothing to offer, nor is Olen. Much of his teaching is a repackaging of John Wesley’s maxim: earn all you can, save all you can, give all you can. Other than a 15-year mortgage, Ramsey doesn’t believe in taking on consumer debt. Therefore, it is a mistake to take out student loans or car loans. Nothing should be purchased on credit; if you haven’t got the cash, don’t buy it.
My wife and I have pretty much lived by this philosophy and it has served us well. Wealthy people can disregard Ramsey’s warnings because there is always plenty of money left over. Middle class people, those making between $50,000 and $400,000 a year, can save themselves a lot of grief by taking Ramsey (and those who share his philosophy) seriously.
But what happens when the only job you can afford pays $8.00 an hour, your wife is too sick to work, and you have two kids at home and two more who would like to attend college but can’t afford it? Essentially, Ramsey has nothing to say to the victims of a lagging economy because, in his world, the only variable that matters is you. If you’re poor, in other words, Ramsey has nothing to say to you because his system assumes a survival level income. And yet he insists on speaking to poor people anyway–and that’s where the problems begin.
When dozens of prominent bloggers took exception to Ramsey’s posting on the habits of rich and poor people, the personal finance guru issued a mean-spirited response. Here’s the gist:
If you are broke or poor in the U.S. or a first-world economy, the only variable in the discussion you can personally control is YOU. You can make better choices and have better results. If you believe that our economy and culture in the U.S. are so broken that making better choices does not produce better results, then you have a problem. At that point your liberal ideology has left the Scriptures and your politics have caused you to become a fatalist.
Notice the false dichotomy: either you believe that the US economy is so broken that personal choice makes no difference; or you believe that personal choice determines everything. What if both personal choice and the state of the economy both impact financial outcomes? There is no room for “and” in Ramsey’s world; it’s all either/or.
If I didn’t think Dave Ramsey spoke for white evangelical America I wouldn’t be questioning his perspective; but he does speak for white evangelical America. Not everyone in this world shares his views on poverty, of course, but there is no prominent alternative to his perspective so, by default, he carries the day.
Actually, I don’t think Ramsey invented his views on the roots of poverty; I suspect he is simply absorbing the zeitgeist, the worldview in which he is ensconced, without realizing it.
Dave Ramsey is an effective public speaker with an engaging, authoritative manner. But the real secret to his success is his willingness to reinforce the tough-love and hyper-individualism that pass for Christianity in our America.
If you are wondering why Pope Francis singled out American-style trickle-down economics in his apostolic exhortation, “The Joy of the Gospel,” the prevalence of Ramsey’s you’re-on-your-own scorn for the poor provides a good starting point. Pope Francis can’t understand why so many Christians, especially in America, have turned their backs on economic justice.
For people like Ramsey, the term “economic justice” is nonsensical. Either we blame the government for our misfortunes, or we blame ourselves. If you blame the government, you’re a liberal fatalist. Everything must be viewed on an individual basis. As Margaret Thatcher infamously said, “There is no such thing as society. There are individual men and women, and there are families.” Thatcher wasn’t saying that the government has no responsibility to the poor, simply that entitlements must be balanced by personal responsibility. But in the new order of things, there is no balancing act: it’s one way or the other. No wonder Pope Francis is scandalized.
In responding to his critics, Dave Ramsey has a lot to say about the Bible, but he never mentions Jesus. Perhaps this is not surprising. There is no way to square Ramsey’s approach to the poor with the teaching of Jesus.
When “a lawyer” asked Jesus what he must do to inherit eternal life, Jesus asked him what the law of Moses had to say on the subject.
And he answered, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself.”
Jesus commended this answer. In Luke, he says, “Do this, and you shall live.” In Mark, Jesus tells his questioner, “You are not far from the kingdom of God.”
The kingdom of God is a corporate, or communal, reality. The kingdom idea is predicated on God’s love for all humanity. God loves everybody, all the time, no matter what. Our love for God is the appropriate response to God’s love for us. But love for the neighbor, all neighbors, especially poor neighbors, is part of the package. Because God loves everyone, all the time, no matter what, so must we. In fact, we must love other people in the same way, and with the same urgency, that we love ourselves. The line between me and my neighbor fades to the point of extinction. That’s the goal, anyway.
First John sums it all up beautifully:
Beloved, let us love one another. For love is of God, and everyone that loves is born of God and knows God. Those that do not love do not know God, for God is love.
In John’s Gospel Jesus prays that his disciples will achieve the depth of unity that exists between the Father and the Son. Just as the line between God and God’s son blurs to the point of extinction, so should the line that divides one person from another.
This explains why Jesus was so insistent that we find our lives by losing them or, in John’s variant, that those who hate their lives in this world will keep them for eternal life. Jesus is talking about saying goodbye to the separate, differentiated ego. The isolated self must die so the kingdom can live.
This explains why, in Matthew 25, Jesus doesn’t just say, “blessed are the poor”; he says he inhabits the poor: “I was hungry . . . I was thirsty . . . I was in prison.”
Following traditional Catholic social teaching, Pope Francis refers to God’s “preferential option for the poor.” But if we follow the Bible’s salvation logic, we will understand that we must share God’s preferential option for the poor. God wants to bless the poor through us. Therefore, we must identify with the suffering of the poor and the marginalized so deeply that their pain becomes our own.
That’s a tall order, I admit, but I’m not describing a reasonable course of action; I’m talking about what the Bible calls “the gospel of the kingdom.” For our present purposes, the issue is not how much you and I are standing in deep solidarity with the poor; we’re just getting clear that this is the goal for Christian disciples. It is non-negotiable. Which explains why Pope Francis decided to break the silence.
Dave Ramsey’s harsh outlook suggests that there is nothing we can do for the poor; only the poor can help the poor. We might put a stop to predatory lending and the lottery, but we can’t give the poor anything without hurting them. In fact, “the poor” do not exist as a group in this view; all we have are solitary individuals in poverty who will either adopt “Rich habits” (in which case they will soon be affluent), or they will continue in their habits of poverty and get poorer still.
Either way, Ramsey constantly reminds us, it is on them. Neither we nor the government bear the slightest responsibility.
According to trickle-down orthodoxy, government’s are powerless to help the poor. Every gift that is not earned creates dependency. I fail to see why the same logic, if valid, should not be applied to the Church. When we feed the hungry, clothe the naked, or house the homeless, aren’t we making poor people dependent on our largess? Wouldn’t it be best to leave them to their own devises or, following Dave Ramsey, exhort them to pull themselves up by their own bootstraps?
The only thing governments can do to improve the economy, free market fundamentalists believe, is to fire up the economy with tax cuts and tax breaks for corporations and the wealthy 1%. If we do this, we are assured, the economy will take off like a rocket and a rising tide will lift all boats. That is, if the boats wish to be raised. Either way, we are told, direct government assistance to the poor is counter-productive. This fatalistic outlook isn’t normally applied to churches, but there is no logical reason why it shouldn’t be.
If we refuse to take on debt and save at least 15% of what we earn, Ramsey says, we will eventually be in a position to contribute generously. But to whom? We certainly wouldn’t want to make the poor even more dependent by giving them tangible forms of assistance like food, clothing or shelter. In fact, we should lobby the government to cut “entitlements” so the poor will be driven to the level of sheer desperation that fuels entrepreneurial creativity.
I guess generous Christians just give their money to the church, or to wealthy institutions with “Rich habits”. The rich get richer and the poor get poorer, but, hey, that’s just the way of the world.
How anybody who reads the Bible on a regular basis can miss the glaring contradiction between the teaching of Jesus and the Gospel according to Dave Ramsey baffles me. Maybe it’s just the time of year, but when I read through Ramsey’s defensive response to his critics, Dickens’ A Christmas Carol comes to mind, particularly the early scene where a couple of red-faced do-gooders ask the flinty Ebeneezer for a small contribution so the poor can enjoy a little Christmas cheer.
“Are there no prisons,” Scrooge replies, “are there no work houses?”
“And the Union workhouses?” demanded Scrooge. “Are they still in operation?”
“They are. Still,” returned the gentleman, “I wish I could say they were not.”
“The Treadmill and the Poor Law are in full vigour, then?” said Scrooge . . .
“Under the impression that they scarcely furnish Christian cheer of mind or body to the multitude,” returned the gentleman, “a few of us are endeavouring to raise a fund to buy the Poor some meat and drink and means of warmth. We choose this time, because it is a time, of all others, when Want is keenly felt, and Abundance rejoices. What shall I put you down for?”
“Nothing!” Scrooge replied.
“You wish to be anonymous?”
“I wish to be left alone,” said Scrooge. “Since you ask me what I wish, gentlemen, that is my answer. I don’t make merry myself at Christmas and I can’t afford to make idle people merry. I help to support the establishments I have mentioned — they cost enough; and those who are badly off must go there.”
I am not saying that Dave Ramsey would put the matter so bluntly, but the flow of his logic leads to much the same conclusion.
You may agree or disagree with the Gospel According to Saint Dave, but can we at least agree that it isn’t the Gospel of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ?