Last week, the New York Times reported that yet another Christian school—this time Tennessee’s Bryan College—is embroiled in a debate about the instruction of evolution on its campus. As a theologian, pastor, and seminary president I believe in evolution, and we certainly don’t teach creationism here at Union Theological Seminary. I also know that for this and many other issues you can’t just go to the Bible and find a passage that tells you exactly what to think.
However, reading the article left me feeling confused. Why, almost a century after the Scopes trial, are Christians still fighting about evolution—an issue wholly unrelated to Jesus’ gospel charge—while ignoring the egregious sin of systemic wealth inequality? When it comes to economic justice and the abolition of poverty, you don't need any interpretive tools to approach the Christian Scriptures. Each page in our Holy Book addresses economic realities and makes clear to those gathered under the gracious arms of God what kind of world we should seek: a world where there is no poverty. It is not ambiguous.
Since I was three years-old, my family and I have jigsawed ourselves into the proverbial station wagon every summer and driven into the wilderness for three weeks of fly fishing. This past summer, I couldn't find anyone who would agree to go along, and—mostly because I needed the kind of soul renewal that comes with it—I decided I was going to do it by myself. I signed up to go twenty miles into the Bob Marshall Wilderness on horseback with a group of people I didn't know to fly fish for 10 days. We were an amazing, offbeat coterie and we got to know each other really well, really quickly. It wasn't until the third day that I accidentally found out that everyone in the group was a member of the Tea Party.
There was great laughter when everyone realized that I had discovered it. They confessed that they quickly realized I was a liberal Yankee. What struck me most about our conversations around issues of economics was that the language and concerns that were spoken did not, on the whole, sound very different at all from those that I hear from my students here at Union, one of the most socially and politically progressive seminaries in the country. During Occupy Wall Street, 62 students went down from Union to Zuccotti Park, set up their tents, built their camp fires, and lived there for three months to bear witness to their desire for a new economic reality.
Among my new Tea Party friends and my long-beloved students, I heard three things passionately echo over and over again, with little discrepancy.
First, there is a shared conviction that the economic system in which we presently live is completely corrupt, and that Wall Street and the leaders of corporate America are not concerned about the flourishing of common people.
Second, there is a deep concern about the failure of our political system to work on behalf of the United States citizenry. Both Tea Partiers and Occupiers demand a government that is truly of the people, not one that merely masquerades as such.
Third, there is an anxiety about the destruction of the values of community—the values that mark how we care for our children; how we decide what we eat; how we build homes for ourselves; and how we constitute communities where we feel safe.
I travel with a flyer in my pocket that I was able to pull out several more days into the trip and share with them. It’s called the Freedom Budget for All Americans, drafted in 1966 by the A. Philip Randolph Institute in Atlanta under the leadership of Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Bayard Rustin. This manifesto for economic change reminds me of the work ahead.
“We are budgeting our resources,” it says, “so that our nation can achieve freedom from want.” It's not a complicated socialist or communist vision: guaranteed full employment, full production and high economic growth, an adequate minimum wage, farm income parity, guaranteed income for all who are unable to work, a decent home for every American family, modern health services for all, full educational opportunities for all, updated social security and welfare programs, equitable tax and money policies. It's a Christian vision of economic justice in which people thrive because their basic human needs are met.
It is startling that fifty years later we have not—on a national level—taken steps toward the realization of any of these desires. In fact, in some areas, we’ve moved backwards. We must be better.
Perhaps what we need are more fly fishing moments, where our perceptions are challenged and we glimpse the possibility of a movement. Anything less than the abolition of poverty is too costly.
Serene Jones is President of Union Theological Seminary in the City of New York where she holds the Johnston Family Chair in Religion and Democracy. She is Vice President of the American Academy of Religion, an ordained minister in the United Church of Christ and the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), and author of Trauma and Grace: Theology in a Ruptured World. This piece is adapted from one of her recent sermons, preached at Trinity Episcopal Cathedral in Cleveland. She tweets online at @SereneJones.