A Basic Income Sermon for Christians
For some who are new to the idea of universal basic income, it may reflexively strike them as being somehow immoral. Be it seen as a form of theft, or in violation of the Protestant work ethic, or just plain feeling wrong, basic income can pose a challenge to those of faith. The following sermon makes the very strong Christian case that what's truly immoral, is not already having established an unconditional basic income for all.
(The video below is courtesy of Reverend Dr. Roger Lee Ray of Community Christian Church in Springfield, Missouri, which I have transcribed into text. For more sermon videos you can subscribe to his YouTube channel and for more sermon texts you can visit his archive. You can also follow him on Twitter.
For most of human history, poverty was caused by scarcity. There simply was not enough food, not enough drinkable water, not enough housing. There were not enough seats in classrooms for everyone to receive a quality education, to be comfortably housed, to be adequately fed, but the past half century has changed that. For the first time in human history, the world has more than enough to provide all these things for everyone. What we have now is not a lack of resources. What we have now is a lack of morality, a lack of will, a lack of basic common decency. Our poverty, especially in the United States, is created by those who both hoard wealth and who cling to power.
By the mid-1990s this fact was being broadly discussed among both economists and agricultural specialists. There was no longer a need to focus on how to produce more food. We were already producing much more food than was being eaten and, in fact, more than could be eaten. We are subsidizing turning food into gasoline to find a way to get rid of it all while we're still surrounded by starvation. And when arguably there is no longer a shortage of gasoline, but a glut of it.
I've been involved in poverty and hunger related charities for most of my adult life. I've helped build feeding centers in rural Nicaragua. I've cooked for our local homeless and still every week I'm on the serving line feeding as many homeless and hungry people as I can find, but I know that charity is not the answer. Charity is not a solution to poverty. And I don't want to diminish charity in any way. I don't want to slight it. I sent a gift to Nicaragua this week because I still really believe in what the Rainbow Network is doing there.
I know that these gestures are symbolic. You never have to explain that to me. I get it. It's like trying to put out a forest fire with a squirt gun. The problem is not that food is not available. The problem is that most people can't buy it. They can't get into the economic flow of people who get a regular pension or paycheck that lets them go to the marketplace and buy what they need to eat and take it home and cook it the way they should be able to.
As Dorothy Day was fond of saying, "The problem is our stinking rotten system, and our acceptance of it."
Our ancient scriptures, our hymns, our cultural myths and stories, all evolved in a context of food shortage, so that they derived images of generosity, of sharing, of showing charitable concern for those less fortunate... but all of those tenderhearted, well intended images are not accurate in the 21st century. They are not accurate descriptions or reactions to what is going on in the economy of the present moment.
I've seen Dickens' A Christmas Carol maybe a hundred times. I've personally played the Ghost of Christmas Present at least three times on stage myself, and I still cry every time Scrooge has his epiphany at the end. I have cried watching the Mr. Magoo version of the Christmas Carol. But I'm telling you, charity is a kind of a feel good tipping in the face of the real problem, and the real problem is an economic system that keeps nearly half of the population locked into poverty when we have more than enough to take care of them.
There are more empty repossessed houses in the United States than there are homeless people. There are more empty houses, than there are homeless people. There is more food going into the landfill every day than would be needed to feed every hungry person in the world. Our problem is not scarcity, unless what you mean by scarcity is a lack of conscience, a dearth may I say, of giving a damn. The system is so corrupt, and yet we have come to accept it as a necessity, that we forget to challenge it.
There's been a conversation around for the last fifty years about paying a basic income, not a minimum wage, not food stamps, not public housing, but paying a basic income to every living human being. And if you just did it in the United States, you pay a minimum basic income that is livable to everyone,and then if you want a better life, you work, and you try to start jobs, and you try to be creative. If we did that, and this is mind-boggling, now I'm not an economist and I don't want to go too far chasing this rabbit into the woods, but what it costs to administer, our public housing, our food stamps program, our aid for mothers programs... if we simply took all the bureaucratic costs out and paid everyone a basic income, we would literally save money.
Now why wouldn't we do that? Because Americans are horrified of giving someone something for nothing. We are horrified by the concept. But where they've done it, like in Alaska, where there's been so much oil income in Alaska for years that every Alaskan, whether you're a millionaire or a pauper, everyone gets a check every year. It's not a basic income. It's a couple thousand dollars, but what they've discovered is that it multiplies in the economy.
If you give a poor person a couple thousand dollars, they will not establish an offshore savings account to invest it in. They will spend it. They will spend it in local stores, and they will spend it on housing, and they will spend it on trading in a car, and it stimulates the economy. In American Indian reservations, where their income is large enough that they give a distribution to everyone, they discover it multiplies in the economy. It really makes a huge difference.
A basic income to all Americans would change everything... but somehow we are suspicious.
Now, is that a personal statement? If you got a barely subsistent amount of income, would you not work? Or might you be brave enough to start your own business... to do something genuinely adventuresome?
If we had health care for everyone, like every other civilized nation in the world, and if we had a basic income, wouldn't that inspire you to work rather than taking away your incentive? It would keep you from getting captured in a dead-end job doing the same thing over and over again, then you'd have the courage to go to school. Then you'd have the courage to create new economies.
My favorite historian Howard Zinn said, "The rule of law does not do away with the unequal distribution of wealth and power, but reinforces that inequity with the authority of law. It allocates wealth and poverty. . . in such complicated and indirect ways as to leave the victim bewildered."
You have to wonder about a lot of the people who vote for the most austere, horrible political candidates when they are living in poverty themselves. But they have been educated literally to loathe their own peer group and to blame themselves for being poor.
Advertising does this to us constantly. Coca-Cola is now investing in children's athletic events, which is to say that this epidemic of childhood obesity is not because they are poisoning your children but because you are bad parents and you don't make them exercise enough. It's a complete shifting of blame and we have spent generations training the poor to believe that their poverty is their own fault.
One of the smartest, most talented people that I know is on public assistance and has been off and on for 20 years, and this is a woman who can do carpentry and plumbing and electrical work. She can fix almost anything on cars. She can cook any form of game and has managed to feed the homeless and dispossessed kids on her street with food stamps and good wishes. But she can't break into the universe of employment of having real insurance, of ever having a hope of retirement or home ownership. She is hardworking. She is talented. She has some health issues, some complicated family hurdles, but absolutely cannot break out of the cycle of poverty.
If she was only one person in that predicament, I'd solve it myself. I am so sympathetic with her situation that if that was a unique situation, I would personally make the sacrifices necessary to change it. But her situation is not a standalone circumstance. It is repeated over and over and over again.
My phone rings everyday with calls from people with very legitimate needs asking for assistance. I was awakened at five-thirty this morning. I got home about 1 a.m. and my phone rang at five-thirty with a woman asking if our church helps people pay their rent. How desperate must she be to think that even if we were a huge church that you hand out hundreds or thousands of dollars to total strangers on the telephone who just say they can't pay their rent? The whole system of what would be necessary in background checks and stuff to operate that kind of thing... but at that level of desperation, waking a preacher up at five-thirty on Sunday morning is the most rational thing going on in her universe.
Yesterday, a woman called who had fled from a violent spouse. She was staying in a local cheap hotel and she needed someone to help her stay there. Our local spousal abuse shelter is full and has a waiting list, literally months long. If we could quadruple the number of beds in our abuse shelter today, we could fill every bed by tonight. So should she subject herself and her children to violence and possibly murder waiting for her turn to get safe shelter?
I'm telling you the system is dirty. It's rotten. It's stinking. It's not fit for human beings.
It isn't like Dorothy Day and Gandhi and Cesar Chavez and Martin Luther King and me just discovered this fact in the last 50 years. We have a biblical text before us today. I know some of you had almost given up on me ever using a biblical passage again, but today, we actually have a Gospel lesson from the third chapter of Luke. If we were the kind of church that really was a slave to the lectionary, the Christian calendar, the cycle of readings, you would know that today is the third Sunday of Advent. It's not something that we talk about a lot, but that's today.
On the third Sunday of Advent, there's always a reading about John the Baptist and the rest of the world is trying to get in the Christmas spirit, but whatever smart persons put the lectionary together, they invite John the Baptist to every year's Christmas party. Just when everybody is wanting to get happy... "Repent!" You get the guy eating grasshoppers, wearing animal skins and standing at the punch bowl glaring at you. Who wants the prophet at any Christmas party?
Yet, every year, here he shows up again. This year we're in what's called year C, so our readings are from the Gospel of Luke. This is the only year that you even get a suggestion of what John prays. It's the only year where he really gets a decent line. Now, John actually enjoyed a good deal of fame in the first century probably more than Jesus did for a long time. There was actually a church of John the Baptist. There was a religious sect that continued to meet in his name long after he was dead, a quasi-Jewish sect that gathered until it was finally eclipsed by the Jesus movement.
So the four canonical Gospels that we have in the New Testament, all are obliged to tip their hat to John. John was too historically important, too well-known to not at least tip their hat. They had to somehow polemically make the claim that even John personally acknowledged that Jesus was more important than he was. I've never met a preacher that said there was another preacher that was more important than he was, so you know that's not historical. That's literary.
The Gospels even insist that John was beheaded before Jesus began his public preaching career. Josephus has it the other way around. Josephus says that John outlived Jesus, but the Gospel writer sometimes had to play fast and loose with the facts in order to make their point. Josephus may have gotten it wrong too. It's hard to say. I can certainly see why it was convenient for the Gospel writers to say that John died first so that Jesus kind of took over the family business, but it could have been the other way around.
In the version of Luke as we have it today, there are these verses of a message that is an anti-empire message. There's nothing about a messiah. There's nothing about dying for your sins. There's nothing about going to heaven or avoiding hell. It's much more down to Earth. It's Economics 101. It is practical theology.
If you've got two coats and somebody doesn't have one, you give him one. If you're a soldier, you've got an actual job and that job is not extorting money through false accusations and lies about the people that you are supposed to be protecting. If you are a government official, you've got a job to do. Don't try to make yourself rich at the expense of others. It's very very practical advise against abuses of power.
When I was in seminary, one of our professors dared to offer a course entitled "Practical Theology", which made everybody else on the faculty quite angry because if someone can offer a course in practical theology, that implies that all the other courses were impractical theology. Even in a prestigious university, the simple fact that the shoe fits doesn't mean that they have the slightest interest in wearing it. I don't have any idea if these seven verses are a historical reflection of what John really stood for, what he actually said, what he actually was about, but I like to think that it is. I like to think.
There's no hard historical evidence either way so scholars will disagree, but as it turns out at this present moment, I have the only active microphone in the room. It turns out that it pleases me to believe that this is an echo of John's real preaching because it is consistent with how other historical religious reform movements began. If we have any sense of the genuine history of Moses or Buddha or Zoroaster or even the Maccabees or Jesus or Muhammad, Frances, maybe even Martin Luther, there was an opposition to the abuses of power, and an advocacy for the poor.
It seems that almost every meaningful religious reform movement begins when someone manages to see through the stinking rotten system and to advocate for the rights of the poor, the marginalized, the enslaved, the landless, the homeless, the poor and say, "Look, you jerks! Just because you've got the spears and the swords doesn't mean that you get to lock most of us into poverty and get fat yourself. If you've got more than enough to eat, you share your bread with someone who is going hungry."
No one could be much more cynical than I am about organized religion. Yet, here I am, I'm the pastor of a church. I'm the voice on a religious podcast. I'm the image on a YouTube religion channel, and even though when someone on a plane next to me asks me what I do, I tell them that I teach philosophy. The truth is when I get my W-2 form every year, it says that I'm a pastor. I am an ordained tax exempt institution of organized religion and yet what I hold onto is that I am not a part of the guilt-ridden, manipulative, self-serving purveyors of misinformation and magic.
I want to lay claim to being a part of the history of the prophets who fought to free slaves, to liberate the oppressed. The guys that spoke up for the poor and demanded that people open their closets and send their extra shoes to Nicaragua, their coats and hats to Bill's place, and devote in a way that brings the poor into the economy rather than keeping the laws and the banking rules in place that awards the few with great wealth and the many with endless generations of suffering.
No one here is in realistic danger of hunger, but we are all in danger of being on the wrong side of history if we don't work and sacrifice and prophesy and vote to actively seek to change the dirty rotten system that leaves hundreds in danger of freezing to death this week right here in the Ozarks while many of the rest of us argue over what we are going to watch on HBO. John said that the axe is already laid at the root, ready to throw the useless into the fire. He may have been guilty of overstatement. Without overstatement, there's not much preaching really, but maybe it was pretty close to the truth, so Merry Christmas you all.
Thank you for reading this and if you attend church somewhere, please share this with your own pastors as something to consider creating their own sermons around.
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