By Whose Rules Shall We Construct Our Lives?

Bill Goettler

In every church, on every Sunday, and on most of the days in between, pastors and church leaders come face to face with issues that connect the church and the economy, faith and human thriving, the interplay of gospel values and market values. 

Oh, the questions don’t appear in those terms, not most of the time. Most Sundays, it looks more like this: The third-grade Sunday School teacher arrives late again, because his other part-time job, taken to make ends meet, has exhausted him, body and spirit. “How am I supposed to build a healthy life when I’ve got so many bills to pay,” he asks. The head of the usher team, whose usually optimistic smile is missing, confides that her health is failing, just as she is realizing that she just doesn’t have enough money to retire this year as she had hoped. Then a family enters, a family who has gone yet deeper into debt to pay for the college education of their twins. Just behind them, a successful financial manager heads for the back pew, looking tormented as ever. And then there is Daniel, hovering outside the pastor’s office, ready to ask for a bit of money again so he can ride the bus to the mall and spend the day inside instead of out on the street. 

Tough to Preach 

If only a few more dollars from the offering plate could solve the myriad of economic challenges that the pastor’s congregation is faced with every Sunday. But trained to be a thoughtful pastoral theologian, mindful of biblical imperatives against dismissing the needs of the poor and requiring the faithful to do justice, build community, and live faithfully together, she finds herself wondering yet again just what sort of word God intends for her to preach to this congregation on this day, on any day. 

Like most pastors, she has often preached about responsible stewardship, about the need for the congregation to give generously, fund the local shelter, stock the food pantry, promote jobs programs and classes through local non-profit agencies. But the questions facing the faithful in American society these days are bigger than that. The struggles of those who come through the door every Sunday makes that clear. 

How is it possible to live faithfully, she wants to ask, in an economic system that demands endless hours of labor for most, and seems to steal the very souls of those who are most successful? The acquisition of tremendous wealth by a few, over the last decade, has little to do with Christian promises for abundant life. But those models of success have ensnared all of us, and we are exhausting ourselves in our struggle to live up to the standards of the rich. 

A Daring Theology 

What does Christian theology have to offer to a people who value good work that is well done, and who strive for economic stability? Does that theology dare to assert that good work and financial security must never be an entirely private matter but must be shared by all of God’s own, by those who have much and those who have little, or else it is surely not of God? 

That is tough to preach – tough to preach to those who truly believe that it is their hard work alone that has led to their thriving. And it is tough to preach to those whose money problems are real, who wish that they too could achieve some success in making their way in this system, in spite of the racism and sexism that has hurt them every step of the way, in spite of the untreated addictions and seemingly insurmountable barriers that have so often thrown them off course.

Success and Exhaustion 

If that gospel word of balance and sharing is hard to hear for those who are rich, it is also difficult for those stuck in the middle … working two jobs or three, making ends meet but hardly thriving, continually exhausted and somehow still wanting to believe that their moment is just a short way down the road, that they too will enter the company of the so-called successful. 

So the theologians and the preachers alike do their best to avoid challenging the wealthy in ways that might be perceived as unfair, instead addressing issues of injustice in broad enough terms that no one will feel threatened. And we address in primarily pastoral terms those who are severely compromised by economic inequality, offering our support and promoting modest fixes instead of economic analysis. 

What if, instead, we helped one another formulate alternative ways for structuring our lives, alternative visions of what might make for “enough,” for full and satisfying lives that are less tied to the culture of consumerism, or what Kathryn Tanner calls finance-dominated capitalism?

Where Every Soul is Valued

There is a yearning, in every congregation, in every faithful gathering, for a vision that stands in opposition to the societal norms of recent decades, for a vision that makes clear the need for that space of holy intention, where all will find a home, every soul is valued, and real needs are unquestionably met even as the excesses of society are called into question. 

Some old models of inclusive religious communities are being explored anew these days, often built around fresh modes of gathering, perhaps returning to wise ways once known. New congregations are using borrowed space, and focusing their time together on shared meals, the reading of sacred text, and singing songs that suggest holy ways for knowing and being known. At Yale Divinity School, we often welcome students who have just completed a one-to-three-year communal living and service program in a town or city, sponsored by a denomination or other justice initiative. Those students arrive at YDS with light in their eyes, having been immersed in new approaches to both meaningful labor and economic livelihood. Elsewhere, for decades, older folks have sought to create intentional shared living communities, where friendship and flourishing might be made possible by sharing material resources and burdens alike. 

Early in the Spring of 2020, we are experiencing a time of necessary social distancing and isolation in response to the COVID-19 crisis. The web is abuzz with congregations urgently experimenting, trying to find new ways to reach out to members and strangers alike, to make meaning in a global period that seems suddenly out of control. What we will learn from this time is yet to be revealed. But it will surely have implications for the kinds of meaningful connection that is so central to the practice of faith. 

Daring to reimagine the possibilities for engaging gospel values and economic justice is challenging enough. Taking risks to step away from the norms of American society is harder still. But what other choice do we have? The market has no regard for the call of faithfulness. So, finally, by whose rules shall we construct our lives? 

The Rev. Bill Goettler, a Presbyterian pastor, is Associate Dean for Ministerial and Social Leadership at YDS. He leads the YDS Office of Vocation and Leadership and oversees the School’s Transformational Leadership program, which offers intensive, two-day courses taught by leaders in church and society.