I find the challenges of Jesus (and his companions) hard. Specifically I’m finding it hard to work through the implications of being rich and following Jesus. For starters I find it hard to confess that I’m rich. I want to explain that I’m actually middle-class which is the myth I so easily use as a rationalization.
I am rich.
I am rich living in a world where access to wealth is not the case for everyone. Privilege is not bestowed on all. Privilege is another of the words that I (and I think others) use as a rationalization. What does it mean to be privileged?
Webster defines the etymology of privilege as “from Latin privilegium : law for or against a private person, from privus private + leg-, lex law.” Privilege is personal. It usually (not always) derives from taking things from the community directly or indirectly and enriching some private domain. My South African background means that I’m privileged because of systemic injustices – Apartheid. I’m privileged because of oppression.
This is uncomfortable for me and I suspect that most privileged South Africans who read this will also feel the tension of this statement. We who are privileged want to relieve this tension as soon as possible. I think we should let this tension work on us.
I am rich and privileged partly through oppression (there … I relieved bit of the tension).
In the last few years I’ve developed friendships with poor people. It works like this: we live in a comfortable suburban house and our poor friends live in the squatter camps. We visit there and they visit here, but we’re still in the suburbs and they’re in the squatter camps. I grew up on the oppressor side of apartheid and our poor friends on the oppressed side. We have good friendships with rhythms of giving and receiving, even resources and money but I’m still rich and privileged.
I am rich, privileged partly through oppression, have poor friends and live in the suburbs.
This places me in a peculiar situation. As I said, following Jesus in my situation is hard. Jesus was notorious for challenging people like me. Sure there are differences between Palestinian rich people and Johannesburg’s rich, but the similarities are also there. Jesus’ encounter with the rich young ruler had become one of the toughest Scriptures for me. I know all of the hermeneutic gymnastics to get past “… then Jesus said to his disciples, ‘I tell you the truth, it is hard for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven. Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.’
Yet the incident with Jesus and the rich young ruler is not an anomaly. Thankfully we do find rich people’s engagement with Jesus in the New Testament! So it’s not just doom and gloom.
As some of you know I’m busy writing a thesis on the early church and how they worked through the issues of wealth and poverty. To say the least, this has also created tension for me. Aside from the privilege of studying further, the content is really challenging me. The trajectory of the early followers of Jesus shows an uncompromising stance towards what we now call “a preferential option for the poor.” From very early on the church had to work out its stance towards wealthy people who were entering the church. Concepts like “rich” and “privileged” was deconstructed from very early in the church’s history. Take for instance Clement of Alexandria’s treatise “Who is the rich man to be saved?” It is the first full-length treatise written by a prominent Christian leader on this issue.
In the last few years there has been a huge awakening in terms of the social component of the gospel. I’m one of those who woke up. This has forced me into conversations with people like me. And also not like me. These conversations are labeled in different ways. Here are some of my critical observations about these conversations:
- Most of them (sadly) stay just conversations, without conversions and actions.
- Most of these conversations are between the privileged/rich talking about the unprivileged/poor.
- Most of these meetings take place in privileged places (malls or suburbs) usually drinking coffees and other expensive beverages.
- Most of the conversations get blogged about on very expensive electronic devices (Apple™ is very popular now; I'm typing this on one).
I am rich, privileged partly through oppression, have poor friends and live in the suburbs and really want to follow Jesus.
All of this creates tension for me. How about you?