Mary and Money
by Paul Alexander
Jesus’ mom rocks. In Luke 1, Mary has the nerve to say that, because God is at work in the world, “The hungry have been filled with good things and the rich sent away empty-handed.” Very few people have the courage to say that God is at work to send the rich away with empty hands. Neither Democrats nor Republicans dare talk this way about rich people. (Full disclosure: I am rich.)
When a young Palestinian Jewish girl in occupied Galilee is filled with the Spirit to carry, birth, and rear the Messiah, amazingly bold things get declared. This teenage phenom from the backside of the Roman Empire made a claim that can be reacted to in at least two ways.
First, it can be written off as ridiculous if there’s really little or no structure or policy in place to help this happen other than the occasional heart change within individual rich folk—God or conscience or argument might persuade a few people, but there’s nothing to worry about (or be hopeful for) society-wide. So maybe Mary’s crazy.
Second, if Mary had some substance or system to back up this claim, those of us who are rich might have something to be concerned about (and those who are poor might have something to be happy about). Some of us would say that the church is God’s system for doing this redistribution of wealth. The church does share radically in Acts 2, 4, and 6, and Luke claims, “There was no needy among them.” However, Ron Sider points out in Fixing the Moral Deficit: A Balanced Way to Balance the Budget that of all the food assistance provided each month in the US, 94 percent comes from the government and 6 percent from private sources. Each of the 325,000 churches in the US would have to add $1.5 million to its annual budget to replace the government aid that helps keep Americans out of poverty.
Churches, synagogues, mosques, and other religious institutions and people can and should continue to redistribute and reinvest the wealth of their rich into the lives of the hungry. But we should take Mary’s prophetic word seriously not only for our individual or institutional religious lives but also as inspired direction for public policy. We as a society can operationalize Mary’s magnificent proclamation by defining “rich,” “hungry,” “filled with good things,” and “empty-handed.”
These will always be debated, but one of the least controversial ways to define “rich” is the top 1 percent of income earners (above $343,000 in annual income). But I want Mary’s voice to have more influence, so I suggest we operationalize it as the top 20 percent of income earners and wealthy, since the top 20 percent bring home 50 percent of all US income. This is every household that makes more than $100,000 per year. In 2010 the top 20 percent owned 88.9 percent of all net worth and 95 percent of all financial wealth in the US (yes, the other 80 percent of Americans own 11.1 percent of the net worth and 5 percent of the financial wealth).
We as a society can operationalize Mary’s magnificent proclamation by defining “rich,” “hungry,” “filled with good things,” and “empty-handed.”
There are in fact 46 million people in poverty and 17.2 million actual literally hungry (food insecure) households in the US. There are close to 1 billion hungry people in the world. Integrally related to “hunger” are low nonliving wages for soul- and body-crushing work, the poverty of poor housing and education, and lack of medical care. Safe work and decent housing, education, and healthcare are “good things” that operationalize Mary’s call and hope for the poorest. Twenty-five percent of American households live on less than $25,000 per year (around 75 million people). I think Mary thought that God thought each of these friends should be filled with good things. The resources for them to have the good things they need are actually in the hands (or the bank accounts and assets) of the rich. Raising the minimum wage to a living wage, providing quality free public education, universal healthcare, inexpensive healthy food, and affordable housing are public policy ways of fulfilling Mary’s prophecy—and it means legitimately raising taxes on the top 20 percent of earners who bring in 50 percent of US income.
I won’t go as far as Mary went and operationalize “empty-handed” by claiming that the wealthiest should give it all away (as Mary’s firstborn suggested) or be taxed at 100 percent. But if the top 1 percent were taxed at 100 percent and that wealth was redistributed as Mary might have suggested, there would be a system in place for this former top 1 percent to be okay. They would be empty-handed for a minute and then be welcomed into a society that has systems in place so that they and their families would have a living wage, good housing, good education, and healthcare. Even those who give so much are not left desolate in a society where the poor are brought up and the wealthy are brought down. Mary’s view of money is more radical than America can handle; it’s even crazier than the church can handle. But she was onto something good and true, and we should support the policies that help any society get closer to it.
Thanks, Mary (and PS, even if taxes are raised on the top 20 percent, we’ll still be rich).
Paul Alexander (Ph.D, Baylor University) is the Ronald J. Sider Professor of Theology, Social Ethics, and Public Policy at Palmer Theological Seminary, the co-President of Evangelicals for Social Action, and the co-Director of the Sider Center on Ministry and Public Policy at Eastern University.