GET IN TOUCH
between Atlantic and Beach
Beach Haven, New Jersey 08008
Perhaps you're a visitor on Long Beach Island. Maybe you haven't been in Church for a while and would like to start back. Whatever is going on in your life, you are welcome at Holy Innocents. Your past affiliations don't mean nearly as much to us as your present affiliation with us.
I grew up in a family that enjoyed listening to the radio. My grandparents had an RCA Victor radio in their living room. It was in a beautiful mahogany cabinet, and that cabinet was a principle piece of furniture as well as an appliance. On that set we listened to domestic AM and foreign shortwave broadcasts. Early in my life I came to love radio. Hearing a live voice originating from another continent fascinated me, especially when we could raise the British Broadcasting Company.
By Christmas 1961, I’d been listening to radio for several years, and Daddy thought I was ready for my own AM-FM Shortwave receiver. He and Mama gave me a GE World Monitor. The radio was slightly smaller (but much lighter) than a concrete building block; in spite of its size it was capable of operating as a battery-powered portable as well as on domestic household current. I loved that radio. It didn’t take long on that Christmas afternoon in 1961 to find the BBC- the same BBC I knew from my grandparents’ radio, now heard on my very own shortwave receiver. The World Monitor was true to its name; I listened to that radio every night, and through it I discovered and heard so much of the World. That radio has long since disappeared, but my affection for listening and the habit of tuning to the BBC hasn’t.
Recently, I was listening to the BBC, now on my iPhone. I heard a feature story that staggered my imagination, and I went to the BBC website to confirm that I’d heard correctly what I thought I’d heard. The report stated that Oxfam1 “made headlines at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland last year with the revelation that the 85 richest people on the planet have the same wealth as the poorest 50% (3.5 billion people).” That statistic is breathtaking all on its own….85 people have a net worth equal to the combined net worth of half the human race. Additionally, Oxfam’s research shows that by 2016, 1% of the human race will own or control more than 50% of the wealth of the World. Said another way, 1% of us will own or control more than the other 99% of us combined own or control. I found that statistic stunning.
Knowing statistics can be arrayed to say almost anything, I was skeptical, and I was glad to read that BBC's head of statistics, Anthony Reuben, was too. Fully weighing his skepticism, Reuben nonetheless was forced to acknowledge the enormity of Oxfam’s numbers when he offered his own interpretation of Oxfam’s research; he took Oxfam’s figures to define the wealthiest 1% of the world's population as anyone worth just over half a £500,00000 ($757,00000). Now ½ million pounds Sterling (¾ million US dollars) sounds like a lot of money, and it is until you realize that anyone owning a house on Long Beach Island, New Jersey has a net worth of at least that much. Reuben said, "So it is not necessarily talking about people who own yachts and ski chalets. Owning an average house in London (without a mortgage) would just about put you in the 1%. " We read such items and think they’re talking about somebody else. They’re not. They’re talking about us, and even if Oxfam arrayed their statistics to demonstrate the disparity between the 1% and the rest of the World in the most dramatic light, the proportions remain staggering as they reveal us not as the 99%.
A part of the disparity reflects our own aspirations: “Don't forget that most men with nothing would rather protect the possibility of becoming rich than face the reality of being poor.”3 As cynical as that remark may be, we nod knowingly as we hear the truth of it. But beyond the aspirations of people who are actually in a position to think about such things and strive to have more, there are billions- literally billions- of people who have no such aspirations, framing their lives instead in terms of eating regularly and being able to sleep with both eyes closed. They calculate their wealth in consumable food and sleeping in a modicum of safety; such a calculus exists not for lack of ambition but for lack of opportunity.
These are hard things to articulate without being accused of being a socialist. Our individualistic character and the striving genius of a free market economy bristles at anything that questions the present distribution of wealth. There is much in the economic circumstances of our lives that commends those circumstances, and even as prickly a group as Occupy Wall Street has said so, claiming not that the system is bad but that it is rigged. I think they were onto something in identifying where and how a basically good system is rigged to favor a few to the exclusion of many.
Economic policy and personal feelings about the poor are matters of faith as well as politics. Lent provides the time and context to pray and think about such things and how we are called to repentance and amendment of life. Oxfam’s report is a fine way to begin. Oxfam’s statistics do not inspire us to repent and amend our lives by giving away our wealth, though doing so indeed would be a godly sacrifice. No, Oxfam’s numbers invite us to examine why we do not care very much about what they say. Oxfam’s research asks that we as the 1% act from our place of great blessing in behalf of the 99%. Do we really believe that the poor choose to be poor? Do we really believe that there is a fundamentally flawed and indolent character present in those who have so little? Do we have any sense of what really might be enough for us? Do we honestly believe that one can never be too rich or too thin? My guess is that we are better than that. The Cross says we are, and The Cross calls us to act upon God’s action in our own lives by acting in ways that bless other lives as well.
Please take significant prayer time in the weeks ahead to 1) say thank you to God for the privileged place you occupy, and 2) then locate the will and the energy to act so that more and more of our fellow creatures might know such blessings as well. Noblesse oblige is not a cliché, and among human beings we are indeed “noblesse.” The obligations that our blessings demand of us require of us not simply kind thoughts but also strenuous action. IJM is good. Family Promise is good. These and other activities are ways for blessed people to become a blessing…not as a Lenten discipline but as an amended way of life.
Love you. See you in Church.