Category Archives: Economics

The Macro-Problem of Helping Others

Sometimes you can use Scripture to interpret Scripture and it can be very enlightening, but other times you can’t.

Case in point, Matthew 26:11 – “The poor you will always have with you, but you will not always have me”; cross-reference with this the previous chapter, Matthew 25, where Jesus describes separating the sheep from the goats, here v. 37-40 “Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’ “The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’

So we go from a transitive property of “least of these” = Jesus; to the statement that poor are ever-present, but differentiated from the real presence of Jesus. And I can resolve it by simply acknowledging that Jesus is distinguishing his presence in flesh, versus his presence through the poor. I get that.

But hopefully you sense my internal tension when it comes to how to care for, live, and help others. The hungry, stranger, poor and sick may not always equal the actual presence of Christ.

And even if you wanted to say the two are equivalent without question and qualification, I think there are some real problems there that still avoid the responsibility of thought and compassion. And I say that because I think compassion requires responsibility. Random acts of kindness are just random, not necessarily kindness. I’ve said that before, and I maintain that stance. Here’s an example of a problem that arises if you equate the poor to Christ unconditionally: if you provide for the poor to the point that they are no longer poor (again, a fairly indefinite demarcation), then do they lose their Christ-like status? When someone who was sick recovers, then are they no longer Christ? Also, if the poor are the presence of Christ, do we have an investment in perpetuating their condition so that Christ would be present? That’s ridiculous, right? Exactly my point.

The problem becomes more complex when you think about the larger economic system we participate in as churches and individual consumers/producers in the West. Everything becomes distant and disembodied, so that even our generosity and charity is separate from direct relationship with us. In other words, I can give money to a child on the other side of the globe, but have very little control and influence to what is actually happening. My act of kindness is disembodied, which means I didn’t do the least of these, I just gave off some of my disposable income and in some sense, maintained that which I perhaps consider less disposable – my time, comfort, personal space, routine, etc. Does that still qualify as kindness to the least of these?

These days, charity and help from Christian circles is under scrutiny. I’ve mentioned the books, Toxic Charity and When Helping Hurts before, and I think we really have to question the ways in which we are still complicit with not only how we give, but how we consume. Because in a capitalist economic system, our consumption is being moralized, which somehow leads us to want to either increase our consumption or selectively bear the burden so that others might be able to partake. But still we help in part, but not the whole. There is something that deeply departs from a theology of incarnation if our charity continues to be unaccompanied by embodiment, responsibility, and relationship.

I know this is a bit outside the purview of Christian thinking, and filled with liberalist thinking, but the critique that Slavoj Zizek offers here by saying that charity is problematic can still be applied to help us think through what it means to give and give faithfully. What do you think?

Fasting From Your Technolust

I’ll admit it – I’m a gadget geek. I read Engadget way more than is necessary and yes, I have an iPhone 4S and can tell you without even looking that it has an A5 processor, same as in the iPad 2, and a better camera than the iPhone 4 (8 MP v. 5 and HD video too!), both of which are better reasons to buy over the regular iPhone 4 than the gimmicky Siri voice assistant that Apple keeps running ads for. I read most of my books these days on the Kindle app. I have multiple styli for my iPad2. I have a DSLR. I fawn over slick and shiny. I have to slow down any time I pass a Best Buy, even those Best Buy vending machines at the airport. I always want to see what is new. I did 90% of my Christmas shopping online and I try out new apps regularly. But I also call myself a Christian and consider myself to be fairly up on matters of social justice.

So this article troubled me – 150 workers at Foxconn (the manufacturers of many Apple, HP and Kindle products) threatened to commit suicide due to unfair wages and intolerable working conditions. This is after a wave of suicides (18 attempted, 14 died) last year at Foxconn for similar complaints. I think the negotiations worked because the threat was real. And obviously the attention of the media is squarely on the company to ensure that conditions improve, but I wonder why the demand side of the equation isn’t considered — namely, me. I wonder why I feel so detached from this situation. I understand that I’m physically very detached, and that I exercised great obliviousness when purchasing my products. After all, I was just trusting  Apple had made these products well and ethically. Well, I don’t know that I was thinking ethically at the time. I just wanted the iPhone. Would it matter if my iPhone was made with ethical practices? Isn’t that the same question I’m asking of my coffee and chicken lately?

This is a strange thought process to have, but don’t you think it’s strange that we want capitalism to be ethical? Is that too much to ask? And then, ultimately, it seems that all I can do is ask…as the end user, how would I really know if Foxconn did treat their employees with fairness? I’m not going to go to their factories and check if they are truly fair. But this is the problem with global capitalism to begin with, we are so limited in our decision making process that ultimately we have very little influence on how something is created. Whether it’s human trafficking or child labor, the odds are that we contribute to some aspect of these things by consumption. The global economy, our banks, our retirement funds, and certainly our blind purchases support, even create the demand for these practices to be born. After all, if corners can be cut in a production process, there’s just too much incentive to do so when money is the name of the game.

But ignorance can’t be an excuse once you know there is something wrong. The question is what do you do with the knowledge once you know? What do you then?

So should I consider fasting from my technolust? Would you? What’s a Christian gadget geek to do?

How They Learned To Love The Bomb

This post was originally posted on the blog, Next Gener.Asian Church on October 11, 2006, but somehow my thoughts were drawn to it again in the shadow of the death of Kim Jong Il and with his son installed to keep up the curtain. 

Here’s the story in today’s news of North Korea Threatens War Over Sanctions.

There are few instances when mentions of North Korea do not make me shake my head. But news about North Korea feels somewhat different to me than other countries run by megalomaniacs. Perhaps it’s because two of my uncles were kidnapped into North Korea as the country was divided after World War II. Perhaps it’s because my mother’s family hailed from PyongYang long before Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il’s faces were plastered all over the city. Perhaps it’s because when I had the chance in1995 to serve missionaries in Yanbian, China, I saw many North Koreans who found their way in China, escaping the desperate fate of their brothers just to the south of them. Sometimes I wonder, where would I be, what would I believe and who would I be if I were the son of my kidnapped uncle and not my free mother. Perhaps I am half-horrified at the possibility that I could be in utter poverty and that I would love the power of the bomb.

As I learn more of the history of Christianity in Korea, I cannot help but wonder how PyongYang went from center of Christian revival to this strange, backwards, dictator-loving bastion of communism. I understand that communism had a lot to do with this. And I understand that capitalism had a lot to do with this. I know there are a lot of historical reasons that allowed this to happen.

They learned to love the bomb because they felt they needed to, and they justify it in their belief that capitalism corrupts absolutely, that power must be wielded by those that are powerful and just enough to wield it, and to give sacrificially to the defense of those causes for their demigod, the “father” of the nation. They want peace for their people.

They learned to love the bomb for the same reasons that I have learned to love them.

I do believe capitalism corrupts me to have my own will apart from the will of my Father. I do believe that power must be wielded by the one who is powerful and just enough to wield it. And I will give sacrificially to the defense of those causes for Jesus. I believe Jesus is the hope of peace for my people.

And while I’m sure that they would hope that I would know the love of their “father”, I want them to know the love of my Father, who will give them food that will not perish, drink that will quench eternally. I pray for revival in PyongYang again. There must be a remnant there…if there are this many obstacles to the Gospel there, I can’t imagine how much more God loves them and desires to see them freed.

I am one of the 99, they are one of the “one”s.

I don’t know what the Christian response to their bomb testing is, but I wonder if my long lost cousins would think differently about America if they knew I was here. I long to know who they are. I long to hear your story. I long to break bread with you. I want you to love me more than the bomb.

#OWS Now in Color!

Occupy Wall Street just got a taste of Colored People Time!

100 days after the movement started, Black churches just announced joining the Occupy Movement, calling it, “Occupy the Dream.” Over “1,000 concerned African American clergy, business owners, entertainers, and professional athletes have signed on to Occupy the Dream, the title of which referring back to MLK’s speech. So, does it take almost 3 months for this to become a priority for Blacks in America? Or do we just like to arrive casually late to the party?

While it’s true that I thought Occupy Wall Street was characterized by a predominantly White crowd, with the lowest poverty rates of any racial demographic, this is a welcome surprise. African American Christians do need to know that economic justice is not a complete justice. You can occupy all you want, but you do have to make sure  not to sell your soul to pay the bills.

So honestly, I’m just a little curious as to why now? Is there are game now? What is the full meaning if OWS begins to have diverse representation in its protesting body? And what does it mean that it’s the black church and not “other” churches? Do you think this will spread?

Devils Serving Up Angel Food

This story makes me furious.

I don’t even know where to begin. Have they no fear– this “Pastor Joe” and “Pastor Linda”? They are an absolute disgrace to Christians everywhere just because they share the same label.

Did they ever have good intentions? A simple idea: “Buy food in bulk and sell it at a discount to families through a network of churches.” They sold almost 600,000 boxes a food per month in 45 states and obtained millions in grants and loans. But it seems all the while they were spending hundreds of thousands on themselves, siphoning off millions from the nonprofit food ministry, fabricating invoices, giving themselves kickbacks, buying planes and using nonprofit money as down payments on real estate. And now their greed has ruined the good.

“It was a great service to the community,” said Alisha Griffin, host site director at Evangelistic New Life Apostolic Church in Forest Park. “We had a lot of disabled and elderly people, and now that service is not available to them anymore.”

But get this, they feel like that they will be vindicated in the end.

Are you kidding me? Didn’t they already enjoy their reward? What do they mean, “in the end?” Have they no sense of eschatology? Do they not fear God?

How can the church respond? What happens to those families and those hundreds of thousands of meals?

Lord, have mercy. On the families and communities who hunger without Angel Food ministries. Have mercy on the Wingos, even now you can save them. And have mercy on me for my self-righteousness. May you provide justice so that we might all be reconciled one day. We pray, soon.

Americans and the Eyes of Needles

I’ve recently been doing some work for sermons on the economy and how, as Christians, we need to have a different posture towards money and the economy, particularly when it comes to the anxiety it seems to generate and the ways in which money seems to dictate our every decision.

This is not easy subject matter for preaching to a congregation, just FYI. Because what the people in most churches expect is a stewardship or building campaign, they expect you to turn around and take up a special offering and the bottom line is that there is nothing special about it. This is not an “occasional” message, it’s integral to the way we walk our faith out. But I’m finding that is a really hard line to take, even for me, as an American citizen, son of Asian immigrants, and evangelical follower of Jesus Christ.

I’ve covered these specific texts over the course of the last few weeks:

  • Matthew 20:1-6 / The parable where the master of the vineyard pays equal wages for unequal work
  • Matthew 6:19-34 / The portion of the Sermon on the Mount where it tells us not worry or serve two masters
  • Mark 10:17-31/ The rich young ruler whom Jesus commands him explicitly to sell all his possessions and THEN to follow him

And then finally, for this Sunday I was going to tackle these few verses:

  • Matthew 22: 15-22 / Where Jesus says “Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s; and to God what is God’s.”

This is actually a pretty small sampling of the texts that give insight into what God’s sense of what economy really is, but they’ve been challenging enough for me that I get a strong sense of irony as I stand before this congregation with my nice clothes on, in a well-heated room, speaking into a wireless microphone, with a projector behind me and using my iPad for sermon notes. I am also overweight, well-fed, and eat out often (to my defense often with ministry and fellowship as the excuse). I drive a 2011 model year car. Now granted, I can turn around and make a case for myself and family: we support missionaries, kids through World Vision, Childfund, we tithe our gross not our net, blah blah blah. But I’m sure the rich young ruler could have said the same. I’m sure that I get annoyed at those people who I believe came in at the 11th hour and barely earned their wages. I claim to trust in God but can’t say that I don’t worry at all or that I clearly have differentiated between the two masters that Jesus articulated there. I mean, he doesn’t even offer other alternatives besides “Money” as an ultimate alternative to God? That’s not exactly passable in a consumeristic culture — even Apple offers some options. It really boils down to God and Money, huh? Really? Because I would at least like to get a twofer. or a BOGO. A half off. something.

And so now I am painfully aware that these texts are critical texts to preach from in American churches and the less we preach from them, the less profit-ic we will be. Bottom line — less prophets.