Rev. Thomas, the former General Minister and President of the United Church of Christ, is now a professor and administrator here at CTS. Follow his timely, provocative writings on the issues of our day.
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Worried About Money?
Those of us born into the rising middle class in the Baby Boom years have spent most of our adult years living with the assumption that each of our family generations would be at least a little bit better off economically than its predecessor. My grandparents struggled through the Great Depression. On my father’s side life was just “getting by.” An acceptance to MIT had to be set aside in favor of a commuter school with a co-op program. My mother’s family circumstances were also grim during the 20’s and 30’s, though she was shielded a bit from its harshness by the kindness of well off relatives and friends. All of my grandparents died in small apartments or in the extra room in our house, dependent on their daughter and son for just about everything
My parents started off married life in a tiny apartment near the tracks while my father worked and commuted at night to New York to study for his PhD. A good, stable job with one company and promotions throughout his career enabled them to buy a house in the 50’s that was a modest, but very pleasant home for me and my brother and sister growing up. In later years, after putting us through college and enjoying the fruits of a good company pension, my parents enjoyed amenities like world travel and the ability to entertain their children at nice restaurants. After my father’s death my mother was able to sell the family home in the housing boom, allowing her to live out her days in a very nice retirement community while still having enough to leave her children and her church an inheritance.
My brother, sister, and I each graduated from the college and, in my case and my brother’s, from the graduate schools of our choice. All of us have had professions that have ensured good health care, money to educate our children, sufficient resources to be home owners, and a good bit left over for travel and play while still putting away a nest egg for a comfortable retirement of our own. It all seemed to be working.
But in recent years the American dream has grown less certain. For many of us, the golden egg of home equity has become a goose egg, even a noose. We dutifully obey our pension and investment advisors and hold tight, hoping the market will recover, but the hope of retiring at 65 or 66 seems more and more unrealistic. My one son has a job he enjoys, but an income that doesn’t allow for extravagance let alone putting much away for the future. He’s afraid to leave a secure job and look for new, more lucrative work for fear of becoming the last one hired in the event of layoffs. Home ownership is a distant dream. My other son still waits for a meaningful job, having managed by enlisting in the National Guard which paid off student loans and, because he was deployed to Afghanistan, ensures him of a measure of health care for life. We’re all doing ok and, truth be told, are far better off than many who are losing homes and jobs. But we’re getting by with lowered financial expectations and some new anxieties that hadn’t been there before.
No, it doesn’t all seem to be working the way I thought it would. Some of it is because of major life decisions I’ve made. Some of it is through no fault of my own. None of it is catastrophic. But life for me and for my children no longer feels like one of limitless financial expansion. Rather it looks like a future dealing with the reality of emerging constraints. I’m hardly succumbing to Tea Party anger. I recognize my privilege when compared to many of my neighbors in this country and certainly in comparison to most people in the rest of the world. I cherish my relationships and enjoy my work and still have money for some extras. But I think hard about how I spend my money. I am sad that I can’t be as generous with my children as I’d like. I worry that I wouldn’t be able to bail them out if the economic crisis undermines what little security they have. And I don’t want to work late into my sixties or spend retirement years anxious. This summer’s daily drum beat of bad economic news certainly doesn’t help.
There’s nothing particularly compelling, distinctive, or perhaps even interesting about my story. What is important about my story is that it is becoming an increasingly universal story among middle and even upper middle class Americans. Something fundamental, I think, has shifted in the way we think about the future. Where is the church in all of this?
Tea Party Christianity channels all of this into white middle class rage. Prosperity Gospel Christianity suggests that right belief and right worship will translate into economic security, even blessing. Evangelical Christianity, broadly understood, reminds us that true security comes from places other than the family bottom line. Progressive Christianity reminds us that God is fundamentally preoccupied with the plight of the very poor and so should we. But does any of this really help? I’m not interested in being enraged about my circumstances. Self-indulgent anger is not very becoming – ever! And God is not in the business of offering financial reward for faithful living. I do need the prophetic voice of the church calling me to find my comfort and security in my relationship to Christ and I also need that prophetic voice challenging me to understand my responsibility for the poor and, yes, even my complicity in what makes people poor. But if this only makes me feel guilty for not being faithful enough or selfless enough, have I really been helped out of the bondage of my anxiety?
Maybe in the midst of this shift in our economic expectations we need to invite people into deeper pastoral conversations. I know that when I worry about my financial future, or that of my children, I waver between guilt and gloom. Both are isolating – from others and from God. Can the church find ways to begin to name what many of us are feeling, not in judgment, but with an invitation to acknowledge and confess? Until I and people like me are liberated from our fear, we will swing between rage and despair. Neither is good for us. Neither bode well for our shared life in community. The future does look very different for many people. Churches and pastors need to help us become reacquainted with the Good News in the face of this, indeed, to perhaps discover the Good News in the very midst of this.
John H. Thomas