I needed to break free two frozen screws to remove a solenoid from a starter motor. Lacking an impact driver, I went to the local Pep Boys auto store. I waited as a salesperson explained a tire sale to a customer. The customer weighed the prices and decided all were too expensive. He was a worker dressed in a company uniform.
As I explained my need to the person at the counter, the tire shopper said he might have a tool in his truck that would do the job and the counter person said a mechanic in back might also be able to break the screws free.
It occurred to me that I had walked into the underneath side of the recession, the one that hasn’t been bailed out like Wall Street. The two thought I was saving money by doing this job myself, and both wanted to help. If the government won’t bail out working people, they, at least, will help out each other.
It’s always been like this.
Except I wasn’t looking for a freebie. I expected to pay. The mechanic took the part, and returned minutes later. The screws were loosened. I asked, "how much?" He said, "I don’t know, it’s not on my rate sheet."
It was his way of saying, "No charge." I protested but no one listened. The counter person became busy with a phone call. I stood there a bit embarrassed, and eventually I slunk out.
But the event still bugs me. I’ve just sat through several days of meetings in which I heard lots of talk about the effects of the economic downturn on giving to the church for which I work. A little bit of talk about the effects of the economy on the very poor, but no talk of how the recession is hitting working people. And that bothers me–a lot.
If faith is to be seen as relevant it seems to me it must address the real life concerns that give us meaning and purpose, or stand in the way of us living the fruitful lives that we say we are created for. If, as we are taught, this is what the Creator intends, that we live abundant lives in service to one another, then faith must provide us the guidance to do just that. And people of faith must live by these teachings.
Analyzing how much giving has declined doesn’t lead me to that end. It leads me to wonder if we have lost our way, asking how people are serving institutional needs but not asking how we are serving the needs of those who are struggling and losing in this economy.
If religious faith is to be meaningful today it must address the social settings in which life is shaped, or misshaped. And anyone who doesn’t understand that this relates to Jesus’ teachings doesn’t understand why Jesus was put to death by the Romans. He was a menace to the social order of empire.
If faith is to be relevant, it must address our quality of life individually and collectively. It must assist us to live fruitfully. This isn’t limited to economics, but surely it includes economic policy. And it includes change in individual lives, and surely the economic abuses that have put us in the ditch are crushing many individual lives.
Have the mainline denominations become enclaves of upper middle class wealth? It looks that way, and after listening to the conversations I’ve heard, it sounds that way. Some members, to be sure, are hurt by this economy. But many are not, and among these are many of the leaders of these denominations.
Bob Herbert writes this morning: "The financial elites have flourished in recent decades to a great extent because they have had government on their side, with the politicians working diligently to ensure that rules, regulations and tax policies established an environment in which the elites could thrive. For ordinary Americans, it has been a different story, with jobs shipped overseas by the millions and wages remaining stagnant, with labor unions under constant assault and labor standards weakened, with the safety net shredded and the message sent out to workers everywhere: You’re on your own."
This is where relevant faith will be lived out today because this is where people are facing the struggle for meaning and purpose. I must make it clear this isn’t about good people or bad people among the leadership. It’s about economic polices and a theological understanding of them and their effects on the lives of ordinary people. It’s about the biblical teachings of justice and respect for human dignity. It’s about Jesus teaching us to serve those who are least among us for when we see them we see him.
It’s about faithfulness and relevant faith.
And if we in the mainline don’t find the voice to discuss these issues along with concern for declining revenues we will be neither relevant nor faithful.