Conversion of the Purse:
Economic Injustice and the Middle Class

“There are three conversions necessary,” said Martin Luther, “the conversion of the heart, mind and purse.” Of these three the “purse” is often the most obdurate. The biblical word for conversion is “metanoia”, a Greek term meaning a change of mind. A change of mind and our way of thinking, however, becomes notably more difficult when it comes to issues of money and wealth.
Surprisingly, while Jesus often talked about the subject, we generally lack a theological foundation for our views on money. Too often we Christians simply baptize the economic assumptions that align with our side of the political spectrum. I’m no exception, of course, but because it is often easier to remove the speck from someone else’s eye than to remove the log from one’s own, I wanted to use an example from my friend Dan Edelen.
His post caught my attention because it was ostensibly about “economic justice issues.” Instead of being about the poor, though, the post was about injustice to the middle class. In his conclusion he writes:

And in the end, that’s what this post is all about. I just completed a series on community , and I believe that our churches must start working toward some kind of money pool to help fellow congregants who fall on hard times. With so many families’ money highly leveraged, and the reality that the middle class is fighting a losing battle against rising costs, something needs to be done on a macro level to fix some of the financial injustices people face today.
But the pulpit is silent. Sure, you’ll hear about Ron Blue or Crown Financial stuff from time to time, but they only address individual issues. Who in the Church in America speaks out against the real problem, our broken system?
Sure, we Americans spend too much of our incomes. But if the middle class continues to erode, it won’t be a matter of spending too much on a consumeristic lifestyle. The real problem will be how to cope when curtailing excess spending simply won’t halt the slide. You can shave expenses down to the bone, but when the bone’s gone missing…
All it takes is a minor recession, I think. Or Ford or GM collapsing. With so many precariously perched families with no savings, high credit card debt, loans taken against homes of decreasing value—it won’t take much.
Church, are we ready? Truly?

With all due respect to my friend Dan, his application of the biblical ideal of economic justice to the middle class is absolutely bizarre. The biblical standard of economic justice is that everyone has the resources needed for living. As I’ve argued before, by the bible’s criteria even the “poor” in America have a financial obligation to help their neighbors in need. Attempting to expand the standard to include the “middle class”–a group of the wealthiest people in the history of the planet–is sinfully hubristic.
Consider what it means to be in the “middle class.” Based on 2004 data, the median household income of people in their prime working years (ages 25-59) is $63,300. For married households it’s $70,000 and close to $80,000 for two-earner households. This is the result of “our broken system”? Most people throughout history could only fantasize about being subjected to such “financial injustice.” The standard of what is “poor” hasn’t changed. What has changed is that fewer of us in the West are living at sustenance level.
I agree with Dan that the Church isn’t ready to deal with the situation. In fact, I believe that the church is largely responsible for the situation. Our churches do not speak out about Christians being such reckless stewards of God’s resources that they become “precariously perched families with no savings, high credit card debt, loans taken against homes of decreasing value.” Most of our economic problems are caused because we serve mammon rather than God. I certainly don’t know anyone who has put themselves in such financial straits because they were overly concerned with helping the needy.
Indeed, even the poor in our country have more possessions than the rich young ruler who Jesus had told to sell all he had in order to find salvation. And the middle class, for all our perceived economic hardships, have an excess of wealth that could feed every poor person on earth. “Woe to you who are rich!” exclaimed Jesus. “For you have received your consolation.” In hearing those words it would be foolish to think He isn’t talking about us. After all, Christ warning isn’t based on a progressive tax scale.

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Joe Carter

Joe Carter founded Evangelical Outpost in 2005. He is the web editor for First Things and an adjunct professor of journalism at Patrick Henry College. A fifteen-year Marine Corps veteran, he previously served as the managing editor for the online magazine Culture11 and The East Texas Tribune. Joe has also served as the Director of Research and Rapid Response for the Mike Huckabee for President campaign and as a director of communications for both the Center for Bioethics and Human Dignity and Family Research Council. He is the co-author of How to Argue like Jesus: Learning Persuasion from History's Greatest Communicaton.