In a course I taught at Candler in 2000, the final project invited students to express their learnings in a creative way. We’d been looking at how social dynamics like gender, race, and class shape learning experiences.
One student created a board game. The game worked as many board games do. Each team, in turn, rolls the die and moves its playing piece down a game board. The first team to the end wins. Simple enough, right?
The game’s designer set up the board, we gathered around the table, eager to play. Then she handed out our playing pieces. She handed my group a nice shiny new toy car. We smiled. Then she handed a smaller car to the next group. Looking from our car to theirs, their brows furrowed into question marks. Then the last group received its car–an old car that had been smashed by a hammer. Their eyes widened in disbelief.
Once the cars had been distributed, the designer reviewed the rules—roll the die, move from start to finish. There also were three stacks of “Community Chest” kinds of cards–one stack for the nice car group, one for the okay car group, and one for the beat-up car group. Oh. And the nice car group got to multiply each roll of the die by 3. The older car group multiplied by 2. The beat-up car group had to go with the number they rolled.
When the game’s designer said, “Are you ready to play?” my team smiled and eagerly nodded our heads. The second team sighed. The third team sputtered, “What? How? No fair!”
Someone from my team—of course—rolled the die first. Four. We drove forward 12 spaces and drew a card that read: “For your birthday, Grandmother gave you a house. Move ahead 4 spaces.” The second group rolled a 3, moved forward 6, and drew a card that read, “You bought a house! Mortgage payments begin in a month. Go back one space.” The third group rolled a one and drew a card that said, “Your landlord sold your building. Find a new place within a month. No money for first and last month’s rent and deposits. Go back 3 spaces and lose your next turn.” It quickly became clear who was going to win…
…which wasn’t a problem for my team. The second team stayed in the game because they kept hoping to get a break and catch up with the first team. By the fourth roll, someone from the third team got frustrated, threw the beat-up car across the room, and yelled, “I quit!”
The game designer got an A on the project….and not just because I got to drive the nice car. She got an A because the game beautifully demonstrated the economic realities of the world we live in–some people are born into privilege, the privilege of wealth, of access to adequate food, drinkable water, housing, healthcare, and education. Others, while not born into privilege, do have the means of working to achieve good jobs, nice homes, and financial security. And some people are born with a beat-up car from the get-go. They work and work and just can’t seem to accomplish very much for their effort.
These are economic realities we all can understand. But what do they have to do with faith? Why talk about these economic issues at church?
In our exploration this summer of what it takes to “build a stronger community,” we’ve considered our community’s spiritual and vocational lives. Last week, we started the section everyone’s been eagerly anticipating—our community’s financial life. J For this section, we’re focusing on one Scripture passage–Acts 2:42-47–and looking at it through a different lens each week. This week’s lens? Economic justice.
Is that a new term for you? At its heart, economic justice is about making sure that every person has the material resources they need to live…and flourish. Those of us who’ve spent time with our Family Promise guests have seen just how hard their lives are. Moving their children around week after week, eating whatever food is provided, sleeping on thin cot mattresses. It’s better than the alternative of sleeping in their cars or on the streets, but it’s not easy. In other communities around the globe, the needs are even more dire–struggling for material resources in places of drought or famine or war. Have you seen pictures of Aleppo or Mosul? How can anyone possibly survive in those circumstances…much less thrive?
Last week, we looked briefly at the vow of poverty taken by monastics. Monks’ poverty is chosen. Economic justice seekers begin with poverty that is not chosen and ask why it exists. Why do some people have the material resources they need to live life to the fullest while others struggle and sometimes even die from a lack of resources?
Historically, looking at the distribution of financial resources and asking why disparities exist has not been a popular question. J As Dom Helder Camara said of his work with the poor in the favelas of Rio de Janeiro, “When I fed the poor, they called me a saint. When I asked why they are poor, they called me a Communist.” Why is it so much easier to praise feeding the poor than asking why they’re poor?
It’s not that complicated, really. It’s easier to feed the poor than to ask why they are poor because feeding the poor reinforces the narrative that we are good people doing good things. We like seeing ourselves as good people doing good things. Asking why the poor are poor requires us to look deeper…and when we look deeper, we have to begin confronting our complicity in social and economic systems that create poverty. Feeding the poor is easy. Changing the system that makes them poor is really hard. Changing our own minds, hearts, and habits is harder still.
There was one part of the game I mentioned earlier that I didn’t tell you about. By the second or third roll of the die, I started feeling guilty. Really guilty. Every time the beat-up car team got sent back another 5 spaces, the knot in my stomach tightened. I kept a smile on my face, because having all those advantages was supposed to make me happy, but inside I felt so bad. I wanted to share my wealth so the beat-up car team could get a leg up, but the rules of the game didn’t allow it. In truth, I was relieved when the beat-up car team member threw their car and got out of the game that had been designed to make them lose.
So, what do we followers of Jesus do about economic disparities? What can we possibly do to narrow the gap between rich and poor? How do we assuage our first-world guilt?
If only there was some Scripture passage to guide us on this. Wait a minute! Today’s might do nicely! Again, we see what happened as a result of that first day of Pentecost— Jesus’ followers pray, study, and eat together, and have all things in common. Right after that, Peter and John hit the streets preaching and healing people, just like Jesus had done. Also just like Jesus, some people loved them, while others—like religious officials—were less than pleased.
After this first foray into the wider community, Peter and John return to their faith community, where again we’re told the community had one heart and one soul and that no one owned anything apart from the community. The passage ends with Barnabas selling some property and leaving the proceeds at the feet of the apostles.
On the face of it, today’s readings sound the same. Reading more closely, though, you see that in Acts 2, “having all things in common” is set within a larger context of study, prayer, fellowship, and communal meals. In Acts 4, the apostles’ teaching is mentioned, but the passage focuses almost exclusively on people selling their possessions and distributing the proceeds so that “there was not a needy person among them.” Why the shift in focus? What happened between Acts 2 and Acts 4 that led to the greater emphasis on this radical sharing of resources?
I wonder if it was going out into the world and actually seeing the gap between the rich and the poor that led to the shift. Acts 3 begins with Peter and John on their way to the Temple for prayer. A beggar—someone who hasn’t been able to walk since birth—asks for alms. That was the only means of employment the social system of the time allowed someone who was otherly-abled. Peter tells the man he doesn’t have any money. (He’d already given it to all the community, right?) Then he tells the man to get up and walk. Which he does.
The healing is significant, but even more significant, perhaps, is Peter’s quiet indictment of the system that made this man, because of his other-ability, a beggar. So, maybe by the time Peter and John get back to the community, they realize that what they’re doing there—sharing all their resources—is key to helping establish God’s kindom on earth as it is in heaven. If everyone is to become fully who God hopes for them to be, they must have the material resources they need to live. And the best way for people to get the resources they need is for everyone to share.
So, why aren’t we? Why aren’t we sharing? Why is the gap between rich and poor in our world widening? What might it take to get everyone to share? Just one thing, really. A change of heart…an internal shift from self-reliance and building up one’s own stature to recognizing just how connected we all are and working to see that every person on the planet has the material resources they need to live…and to thrive.
Here’s an idea. Let’s create a new game! We’ll call it, “A Just World for All.” First off, let’s use just one set of “Community Chest” cards. Then let’s give everyone cars of the same size and condition. And don’t you think everyone should move one space per die dot?
If we did these things—if we changed the rules of the game—what might happen? What might happen to the least of these? What might happen to the hearts of first world people? If we changed the rules of the game, might we get a step closer to establishing God’s kindom here on earth as it is in heaven? What might happen if we changed the rules of the game? (Roll die.) Your turn.
In the name of our God, who creates us, redeems us, sustains us, and hopes for our wholeness. Amen.
Kimberleigh Buchanan ©2017