God wants from us what is good for us. This simple principle is derived from our Christian understanding and experience of God the Giver. If God is good, then God wants what is good for all of God’s creatures. If God is not good, then why bother with such a god at all?
The Sermon on the Plain can be read as a prescription for human flourishing. It is not a list of things to do in order to avoid damnation. It is rather a description of life practices that lead to fully flourishing humanity. When we resist those practices – when we focus, for example, on being rich, full, laughing and praised – we become less than human. And we reduce the humanity of those we impact with our behaviors.
I would recommend, as I have before, Heather McGhee’s excellent book, The Sum of Us: What Racism Costs Everyone and How We Can Prosper Together. McGhee outlines in detail the ways in which anti-Black racism has ended up costing everyone in America (except the powerful, privileged, positioned, and propertied White elites) access to and the use of multiple public goods and amenities.
The lie that has been told to poor White Americans since the 1670’s is that Black people are out to steal “their” stuff and don’t deserve to have it. As a result, lower class White Americans have been deployed for centuries to police, restrict, oppress, and hate many of the very people with which they share so much in common.
This has been accomplished by convincing lower class White Americans that economic life is a zero-sum game. If Black Americans gain any public goods, then lower class White Americans will lose out in the end. That story has been used to weaponize lower class White Americans and to use them as a buffer between the elites and all others who might wish to access the public and private goods which those elites regard as their rightful entitlements.
“The old zero-sum paradigm is not just counterproductive; it’s a lie,” McGhee writes. “I started my journey on the hunt for its source and discovered that it has only ever truly served a narrow group of people. To this day,” she continues, “the wealthy and the powerful are still selling the zero-sum story for their own profit, hoping to keep people with much in common from making common cause with one another” (Kindle Location 267).
That sort of zero-sum thinking is essential to the worldview of first-century Mediterranean people, the people who spoke and wrote, heard and read, the Christian scriptures. Malina and Rohrbaugh describe this as a “limited good” view of life. They note that in our modern economies we assume that, in principle, goods are in unlimited supply. We can always produce more.
“But in ancient Palestine,” they write, “the perception was the opposite: all goods existed in finite, limited supply and all goods were already distributed. This included not only material goods, but honor, friendship, love, power, security, and status as well – literally everything in life. Because the pie could not grow larger,” they suggest, “a larger piece for anyone automatically meant a smaller piece for someone else” (page 324).
Therefore, in the ancient world, a rich person was proverbially regarded as either a thief or the son of a thief. And, in the ancient world, it was also a proverb that “the poor will always be with us.” If someone accumulated a large amount of the good stuff, that meant that others, the poor, would have to go without. This understanding was used to justify a defensive strategy, where everyone was always extremely zealous to keep whatever they had – goods, reputation, and status.
While Malina and Rohrbaugh argue that the contemporary Western system is not a limited goods system, history does not really bear out that conclusion. We see now that the goods of this life are unlimited for the powerful, the privileged, the positioned, and the propertied. The goods of this life are severely limited for everyone else. It would seem that the world of the Sermon on the Plain is not quite so distant from us as we might have thought.
The problem is that this zero-sum, limited good perspective makes life worse for all but a few people at the “top.” It is not a formula for human flourishing. McGhee uses the historical fact of public swimming pools as a way to understand how this has worked in American social history.
When segregation of public accommodations was made illegal in the United States in the 1950s and 1960s, the response of the White public was wildly irrational. Rather than share public goods and accommodations with Black people, White communities closed swimming pools and parks by the hundreds – thus depriving poor White people of those same public accommodations.
At the same time the construction of private pools skyrocketed. Private country clubs replaced the functions of public parks and recreation facilities for those who could afford such amenities. In addition, public schools were sometimes closed rather than integrated. Public schools in a county in Virginia, for example, were closed for five years rather than being integrated. At the same time, there was a boom in the opening of private “segregation academies” for those White students whose families could foot the bill.
“But did white people win?” McGhee asks, “No, for the most part they lost right along with the rest of us. Racism got in the way of all of us having nice things…. It is progressive economic conventional wisdom that racism accelerates inequality for communities of color, but what if racism is actually driving inequality for everyone?” (Kindle Locations 228, 231).
Why are the rich, the full, the laughing, and the praised being warned in the Sermon on the Plain? First, the accumulation of such power, privilege, position, and property by the few does not produce human flourishing. It may result in a very good life for a few. But it also results in a very bad life for the many. That bad life is a consequence not only for the visibly oppressed but for all the non-elites who have been coopted into supporting that system of oppression.
I would refer you to a CNN editorial written by Rev. William J. Barber II and Jonathon Wilson-Hartgrove. “Since the murder of George Floyd sparked mass protests across the country,” they note, “many conservatives have responded by appealing to White Americans’ fear and suggesting that collective efforts to address systemic injustice are anti-White.” That suggestion is the latest installment in the four-centuries’ long effort by White elites to use other Whites to control Blacks and to violate their own rational self-interest.
“But this is the big lie White supremacy has always told to sustain itself,” Barber and Wilson-Hartgrove write, “and history shows the fight for equality is not a zero-sum game. Americans must learn Black history if for no other reason than to understand that Black political power has been good news for many White Americans” (my emphasis). They argue that one of the reasons for the current rage against a full and fair teaching of American history is the elite fear that the majority of White Americans may come to realize that they have been duped.
“We cannot allow reactionary campaigns against critical race theory to frame Black history as a threat to White Americans,” they argue. “Though poverty disproportionately hurts communities of color in the United States, more White women are living in poverty than any other demographic in the country. Black history helps us see that it doesn’t have to be this way.” Human flourishing is a zero-sum game only if we make it one.
“When Black people have fought for the promises of democracy, all Americans have benefited,” Barber and Wilson-Hartgrove conclude. “If it were not true, then the narrow interests committed to dividing us for their benefit would not be investing so much money in their anti-CRT campaigns.” This is how you can tell when the truth is being told – when the powerful, the privileged, the positioned, and the propertied expend real energy to call it a lie. Of course, in some eras, telling that truth can get a person crucified.
In the Sermon on the Plain, elites (whether outside of the Lukan congregations or inside) are warned that they are working contrary to God’s intentions for full human flourishing for all. They have what they want now, but that’s not satisfactory to God in the end. Jesus puts up a stop sign and calls the elites to change their behavior while there’s still time (remember the Rich Man and Lazarus?).
Finally, when we treat other people as less than fully human, we become subhuman ourselves. This is why I think it’s helpful to see the “woes” are warnings. There is still time for the elites to rejoin the human community and to make life better for all. The Lukan author doesn’t call upon the rich, the full, the laughing, and the praised to give it all away and become poor. Instead, he invites them throughout the text to use their resources for the good of all, as God has intended from the beginning.
Good news for the poor is good news for all. Good news just for some is not good news at all. Dignity for some is not dignity. Dignity for all is blessing for all. This is built into the very fabric of Creation, at least from a Christian perspective.
“Since this country’s founding, we have not allowed our diversity to be our superpower,” Heather McGhee concludes, “and the result is that the United States is not more than the sum of its disparate parts. But it could be. And if it were, all of us would prosper” (page 289). I like it. I know, it makes me sound like a damn socialist. I’m ok with that. God wants from us what is good for us.
References and Resources
Botha, Pieter J. J. “Community and Conviction in Luke-Acts.” Neotestamentica, vol. 29, no. 2, New Testament Society of Southern Africa, 1995, pp. 145–65, http://www.jstor.org/stable/43048218.
Channing Brown, Austin. I’m Still Here. The Crown Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.
Chen, Diane G. Luke: A New Covenant Commentary. Cascade Books, an Imprint of Wipf and Stock Publishers. Kindle Edition.
Gonzalez, Justo L. Luke: Belief, A Theological Commentary on the Bible. Westminster John Knox Press. Kindle Edition.
Harvey, Jennifer. Dear White Christians (Prophetic Christianity Series (PC). Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co. Kindle Edition.
Malina, Bruce; Rohrbaugh, Richard L. Social Science Commentary on the Synoptic Gospels. Kindle Edition.
McGhee, Heather. The Sum of Us. Random House Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.
Swanson, Richard. Provoking the Gospel of Luke: A Storyteller’s Commentary, Year C. Pilgrim Press, 2006.
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