Protest and Invest
by Rodolpho Carrasco
Christians need to change the way we teach and preach economic justice. Most of us have been to the one-hour workshops where the leader spends the entire hour pointing out injustice, highlighting the negative side of democratic capitalism, cautioning against the misuse of America's superpower status, explaining various ways to protest injustice, and overall emphasizing that the glass is half empty. There is great truth to this perspective, but let's give it half our time.
Then let's give the other half to affirming the ideas that can lift people out of poverty—ideas that include free enterprise, long-term investment, societal conditions that encourage prosperity for all, and certain aspects of globalization. Let's protest and invest. Let's give equal time to each aspect of economic justice—half to the protest, then half to investment strategies that focus on what is possible rather than on who the enemy is.
The problem is that few urban ministers or justice fighters are equipped to teach the second half of the workshop. We've got our protest speech down pat, but we have little data to offer when it comes to teaching how to lift people out of poverty. The typical justice fighter in urban America is often a person of relative or serious privilege who is captivated by a vision of justice. This is wonderful, but too often the focus remains on them and their experience, and they fail to understand—or accept—some basic truths. Let's use David Batstone's defense of an instance of child labor as an example. Batstone shows how, in the light of day, the concept of and need for "just child labor" emerges out of on-the-ground necessity.
In his article, he writes about how a highly respected center for street kids in Lima, Peru, actually puts kids to work. Most American progressives would immediately decry the injustice of child labor, but Batstone writes: "The director of [the center] argues that work does more than put money in kids' pockets—it gives them a discipline otherwise absent in their lives. Placing them in a school—even if that were a viable option—is untenable, says the director. There are no breadwinners at home…"
"Political progressives need to be careful not to turn their own privilege into a road block for those who are not so lucky."
Batstone makes the case that this particular circumstance of child labor is a blessing. However, if progressives believe that child labor is always bad, they might be moved to protest the center's practices. Batstone's conclusion is something every justice fighter in America should memorize and apply: "Political progressives need to be careful not to turn their own privilege into a road block for those who are not so lucky." Are there times when we unwittingly do likewise? When our particular view of justice gets in the way of accomplishing the justice that the poor actually need?
Know your audience
As a college student I took part in a small group Bible study. One night I shared that I was no longer interested in returning to my poor East Los Angeles neighborhood immediately after graduation (my long-professed goal). I had grown up with little in the way of resources, and I was feeling the need to make some money and establish myself first. One woman in the group cautioned me about the temptations of money. I took her words seriously and questioned the wisdom of my thinking. Later, however, I learned that this woman was sitting on a large inheritance. She was struggling to make sure her financial concerns did not override her obedience to the gospel. She had grown up with investment thinking, and she was striving to learn protest thinking. In her zeal she looked at me but saw herself—and advised me accordingly. But I did not need the same speech she needed.
I needed a speech tailored to my life's experiences. I was a person who knew a lot about justice, about God's heart for the poor, about the need to sacrifice and commit all. My family had been poor, I understood what it was to be poor, and I understood how the poor are often locked out of our systems of prosperity. I didn't need a reminder or admonishment about the protest. I needed to learn more about investment, about the things that would help me break the cycle of poverty in my own family, about how I could establish a financial base through which I might bless others. Thank God that I did not follow this woman's advice. If I had, I would have continued to close my eyes to the investment side of life. Instead, I continued forward with my hunch about ways that I needed to grow personally.
Today, as I steward resources beyond what I ever imagined, I am grateful that I have many years of experience in studying and practicing investment principles. I pray that this woman now understands how to look beyond her own issues to the true plight of other people, and then to practice justice in both spheres. But this caution goes for me as well. Once very poor, I am now, years later, a member of the middle class in the wealthiest nation the world has ever known. I have youth in my community who talk about getting rich and making money. I'm afraid they will lose their spiritual bearings if they overemphasize or glamorize money, if they believe that money can do for them what only God can do. It's been easy for me to speak to these young men in the same way the young woman in college spoke to me, and I've heard their reaction on more than one occasion: "You can say that, but you've got money."
What I believe I need to do instead is to match my words of biblical caution about wealth (protest) with teachings of the principles that will help them rise out of poverty (invest). This balance of protesting and investing is critical, because the average teen in my community does not believe his life circumstances can change. For example, there are jobs available—tough and low-paying jobs that, when done well, can be springboards to better jobs—but many teens do not believe they can ever rise out of poverty by working hard, saving their money, keeping away from all sorts of trifling behaviors, and investing wisely.
I spend a lot of time trying to convince them to take the along, persevering road. My list of speeches sounds oh-so-square. Don't spend your money. Start with an old, cheap car. Work two jobs, even three. Get some college. Start a business on the side. This is how people all over America, regardless of ethnicity, get ahead. But it's a hard sell because these principles go against human comfort, and they are especially hard to embed in a young heart. So, extra time and attention are needed to convince poor urban youth that this is the way to go. What I do not need to put extra time and energy into is teaching them about the existence of injustice. They already believe they have to fight for themselves against what they view as a cold, prejudiced system. They know that greedy capitalists often get away with massive, multi-million-dollar crimes, while many poor people are sent to prison for years for relatively minor offenses. This and other anecdotes about economic injustice are easy to come by on the streets of the city, and city youths' hunger for them is great. Some kids have already participated in protests against police and educational administrations, lobbied city councils, marched in demonstrations against war, walked out, sat in, and held the line in union-led strikes.
What I see is a generation carrying picket signs in their hearts but running no businesses, owning no property, creating no wealth, tempted to commit crimes, and doomed to wallow in poverty.
But from the vantage point of my home, next to a corner store in a black and Latino neighborhood, what I see is a generation carrying picket signs in their hearts but running no businesses, owning no property, creating no wealth, tempted to commit crimes, and doomed to wallow in poverty. The very kids who should be disciplining themselves, saving money, working long hours, practicing how to write a business plan, and learning how to win investor confidence, are instead walking around complaining. They talk about what can't happen and who is against them, preoccupy themselves with endless conspiracy theories, and otherwise squander their God-given time, talent, and opportunities.
Urban youth today know the protest side. They need to be taught—and to practice—the investment side. Let's think about it another way: We go into the city and teach a poor kid how to fight for justice, but not how to invest for the future. A better-off kid gets trained to invest, then comes into the city and learns about injustice and how to fight it. The better-off kid is well-rounded because she knows both investment and protest and thus is able to take care of herself and her community as she seeks what is right. But no one stands up to teach the poor kid about investment, so that kid grows into an adult who does not know how to take care of herself or her community. Is that just?