My Response to Fleming Rutledge (@flemingrut) on Stewardship

In the run-up to Advent, the eminent Episcopal theologian Fleming Rutledge has posted an interesting piece entitled “Jesus’ Parable of the Money in Trust.”  It’s an interesting and informative piece, informative not only in its Biblical exegesis but also (doubtless unintentionally) about the Episcopal Church itself, and the changes wrought from the days when multi-generational Episcopalians (as I started out to be) gathered to worship “Gawd” on Sundays.

First the key takeaway: Rutledge is entirely correct to call out laity and clergy alike on the confusion wrought by the word “talent”:

As you can see, the master does not give out what we call “talents,” as in “gifts and talents.” The master gives out money. It’s unfortunate that the English word “talent,” meaning natural ability, is the same as the word for the gold coin in the original parable. As soon as we start talking about “talents,” we’re going to lose sight of the point altogether. We need to get “talents” out of our minds. This parable is about money. There’s this little slogan that Episcopalians use during stewardship season; I’m sure you’ve heard it—“time, talents, and treasure.” I don’t know who invented that, but in my perspective of the wider church, it’s done more harm than good. Putting time, talents, and treasure together distracts our attention from the real issue, which is money. For one thing, we don’t use the word “treasure” when we talk about money. Having those three “t”s sounds clever and quaint, but it also sounds irrelevant. It makes it too easy for us to avoid the issue of money. The slogan is ineffective because it lets people off the hook. If we can divert attention to time and talents, which aren’t very threatening, we don’t have to think about what really makes us nervous, namely, giving up some of our money. Over the years, various new titles for the parable have been proposed to correct the misunderstanding about “talents.” The best one is “The Parable of the Money in Trust.”[3] That we can understand.

Anyone with a decent classical education will spot this: the talent was a measure of the weight of gold in the Greco-Roman world, not a human attribute.  Having just marched through several books of Livy, the number of talents paraded in triumph becomes mind-boggling after a while.  Rutledge is right: in the narrative of the talents, we’re talking about money.

I think, however, that the biggest change that’s taken place is not in the correction of our understanding of what Our Lord was talking about when he referred to “talents” (and I would interpret the parable a little more broadly than she does, for reasons I will discuss.)  What’s changed more than anything else is the way Americans in general and Episcopalians in particular look at money, and that, IMHO, is what has made it possible for Rutledge to set forth the thesis she has done.

Particularly as a product of a multi-generational Episcopal background (on my paternal grandmother’s side) Episcopalians saw themselves as the keepers of a nice, aesthetically pleasing, old-money religion free from the intrusions of tasteless nouveaux-riches making a statement and getting away with it.  From a religious standpoint, Episcopalians were free from fulminations  before the offering of money-grubbing rednecks across the tracks.  Ironically, that was a major attraction for people like my mother, who was trying to escape (with mixed success) her dogmatic Baptistic past, not only about the money but about everything else.  Ironically the Episcopal Church gave cover to the many upwardly mobile people after World War II who wanted the supremely respectable form of Christianity without having to fight the uphill battle of changing the churches they were raised in.  The Episcopal Church’s greatest growth period was from the end of World War II to the mid-1960’s, a growth fuelled in part by that desire, and it’s been a bumpy ride downward ever since.

In any case, the hegemony of the “old money culture” has been swept away, not only by the social upheavals of the 1960’s but also by the Boomers’ stunning volte-face in the wake of that decade towards a “get rich” mentality.  Today we have people who have accumulated enormous sums of money in a short period of time being lionised as the moral guides of our society, additionally able with their new-found wealth to spread money-favouring patronage.  Their self-image as the moral guides of society is undeserved,  but in these United States, we’re obsessed with the money because that’s what it’s become about.

In this way, the traditional Episcopal paradigm about money, Biblical or not, has been blown away for good.  That demise is accentuated by the simple fact that, as the Episcopal Church has declined, Evangelical and Pentecostal churches have risen.  Especially with the latter, generous stewardship is not only encouraged, it’s expected.  It’s a revelation to many traditional Episcopalians, but churches which expect a great deal from their congregants fiscally also expect much–and generally get it–with other aspects of their congregants’ lives.  The “time, talent and treasure” triple of traditional Episcopalianism is  package deal: you get one, you get the rest.

This is one place where the Episcopal Church’s elevated demographics have worked against it: in general, the higher the income level and wealth, the smaller portion of it goes to any kind of charitable work, church or otherwise.  (I’m excluding the business of foundations, which aren’t Biblical either and are a source of patronage.)  And that goes for the rest of the contribution, too.  For all it’s social justice striving of the last half century, the Episcopal Church has not quite figured out how to transform the preferential option for the poor into the preferential option of the poor.  Had it done so, it would have also changed the commitment level of its congregants, too.

It’s interesting that Rutledge notes the following:

Affluent churches have a particular challenge in this regard. Building up large endowments is a hedge against an uncertain future. An endowment needs wise, shrewd management, that’s for sure. But it is human nature to be overly cautious in this regard. We don’t typically look for ways to give away money. Consequently, we’re likely to be uneasy about Jesus’ message. Instead of recognizing it as our charter of freedom, we feel it as a threat. So we cling to what we have and we don’t risk anything. The more comfortable we get in our churches, the more likely we are to hang on to our money, so that it just goes round and round in a tight little circle.

As the Episcopal Church’s membership has declined, its reliance on endowed money has increased, with the occasional looting of the endowments.  Rutledge’s call for better money stewardship amongst the parishioners can be seen as a response to that reality.  If the rest of the church world can get along without over-reliance on endowments, why can’t we?  It’s a serious question, but until the Episcopal Church figures out how to attract new people with a new level of commitment, that question will go unanswered.

And the biggest danger of emphasising the money aspect of this parable is that some will take it as reducing Christianity to giving in the offering plate.  I don’t think that’s Rutledge’s intent.  That reduction is the biggest fault of prosperity teaching: it reduces our relationship with God to a money transaction, and that’s patently false.  As noted earlier, the Christian’s commitment to God is a total one.  Although this parable is about money it’s also about more.

I think that Rutledge has given us a valuable contribution to the understanding of this parable.  But I also think that this understanding does not need to be taken out of context in the current climate in the US about it being “all about the money.”  It isn’t.  It includes that, but it’s much more, and the sooner we all recognise that fact, the better.

It Really Isn’t a Meritocracy, Is It?

A Brit is finally “woke” to the truth:

There comes a point in a New York expat’s life when you suddenly realize that the liberal elites that run this town have feet of clay. You have watched them joining anti-Trump marches, opening their beautiful homes for Democrat fundraising parties and noisily bidding ludicrous sums at charity auctions. Then the time comes for their children to apply to university and the whole elaborate façade comes crashing down.

What he’s talking about is the “legacy” system of admission preferences to the children of alumni practiced by the Ivy League schools (and most other elite institutions in this country.)  Much of this has come out in the course of the recent litigation by the Asians, which has revealed a great deal of the arcane–and biased–process by which people get into these institutions.  As the article points out (I commend the whole thing to my readers):

The court has heard all the evidence and now awaits a judge’s ruling. It was told that Harvard’s admissions Gauleiters give low ‘personality ratings’ for criteria such as courage, likability and kindness to Asian applicants — often without even meeting them. The university insists it doesn’t discriminate against any racial groups.

However, these allegations pale beside what the case has revealed about how Harvard falls over itself to ensure rich parents and alumni parents — preferably both (and in elite Harvard’s case, they usually are) — get their children accepted. Far from being a Harvard quirk, the legacy system operates at three-quarters of America’s top 100 universities, including all but one of the very smartest ones (the exception being Massachusetts Institute of Technology).

Having grown up with elite people, I find the fawning Americans on both side of the political spectrum bestow on their elite educational institutions nauseating.  That includes Evangelicals, who have no reason to want to associate with an elite that never liked them to start with.  The whole effort by the Asians to right this wrong is one of the best things that has happened in this country in my lifetime.  Maybe–just maybe–it will get people see past their own careerist ambitions, especially those for their children, and realise that those who lord over us really do have feet of clay.

Broward County: Where the Animals are Tame and the People Run Wild

It’s back in the news again:

So what’s the matter with Broward? Republicans tend to blame one-party Democratic rule, and even some Democrats agree that the lack of serious partisan competition has led to bad incentives and bad habits for county leaders, just as uninterrupted Republican rule at the state level has helped make Tallahassee’s political culture dysfunctional. Broward’s decentralized political structure, with a new and largely ceremonial mayor chosen every year from a nine-member county commission, has also reduced accountability: Broward’s independent fiefdoms like the election office, sheriff’s department and schools are essentially free to run wild. Broward’s public health system has been particularly problematic. Its CEO committed suicide in 2016 amid a federal investigation into shady contracts, and his successor, who got the job despite having a degree from a defunct diploma mill and despite being under indictment, recently resigned after less than a year in office.

I’ve used the modified Monkey Jungle phrase “where the animals are tame and the people run wild” to describe all of South Florida, but the original impetus to do it came from Broward County, that Strange Place to the South (for those of us in Palm Beach County.)  Broward County, however, is Ground Zero for South Florida’s basic problem: it’s made up of people groups who basically don’t like each other and don’t form a community, even when they vote alike, as they do in Broward.  The result is that, when community problems arise, nothing gets done, because there is no community, even with political unity.  People just yell at each other.

But isn’t the whole country getting that way?  To grow up in South Florida was to see the future, and sad to say it hasn’t been very nice.

Some People Want to “Build the Wall” Anyway

In this interesting piece on how “meritocracy” is killing youth sports, this note:

Parenting doesn’t have to be a zero-sum game, but it often is. As Matthew Stewart wrote in an Atlantic cover story this year on the new aristocracy, those in the nation’s upper-middle class have “taken their money out of productive activities and put it into walls”—physical walls and social barriers—that make it harder for any child not born into privilege to reach the same level of success.

This is the same bunch, by and large, that gave the Democrats the House yesterday, who deride Donald Trump for wanting to build the wall at the border.  However, as long as their own walls can stand–gated communities are the most visible manifestation, but there are others–they’re happy to allow what goes on outside go on as long as they can insulate themselves from it.  That has driven much of the push-back on both sides of the Atlantic re immigration and other issues, and will continue to do so for the foreseeable future.

Personally I think it’s sad that the “meritocracy” (which it isn’t) that dominates our suburbs are choking youth sports’ ability to help people move up.  It’s also hurt our competitive edge as a nation in some sports (soccer comes to mind first) because it’s shrunk the pool of athletes who have access to the club sports. But until both sides of the political spectrum get real on how we got the inequality we have and how to fix it, problems like this will only get worse.

Rusty Runs No More in Florida

Amidst all the other election results, this, from Florida:

Amendment 13, a highly charged proposal to end greyhound racing in Florida, passed. It means the roughly dozen racing tracks in Florida will have to shutter by 2020. Animal protection groups celebrated the victory, calling the win a “historic effort.”

“Tonight, in an historic vote, Florida voters have delivered a knock-out blow to a cruel industry that has been hurting and killing dogs for nearly a century,” the Yes on 13 campaign wrote in a statement. “This is a small step in turning the page on a relic of the old economy, but a giant step for animal protection nationwide.

Florida is home to 11 of the remaining 17 greyhound racing tracks in the country.

“Because of the decision of millions of Florida voters, thousands of dogs will be spared the pain and suffering that is inherent in the greyhound racing industry,” said Kitty Block, acting president and CEO of the Humane Society of the United States.

Greyhound racing was a part of the landscape when i grew up in Florida, which inspired one of the oldest pieces on the site: Running Rusty.  I used the mechanical rabbit which the greyhounds chased to make a point about American life:

I suppose this is fine for dog racing but unfortunately too much of life for too many of us has turned into a dog race where whomever we feel is in control of our situation is “running Rusty” in front of us. From youth onward we’re motivated — pushed and shoved in some cases — to achieve goals which we may have had nothing to do with formulating and which we really feel we neither want nor are able to accomplish. If and when we reach these goals it seems that success is more elusive than ever because the “track owner” is moving Rusty faster than we can keep up by either making new demands or enticing us with new things to go harder for. This is called “being challenged” and of course has its upside but in many cases it’s manipulation, pure and simple.

It looks like Rusty, like so many Floridians, is being retired along with the dogs.  I really think this is another example of sentiment and respectability taking precedence over substantive good, but that can be said about just about everything in this country, and that includes the rest of the election last night.

And, sad to say, it does nothing to address the great paradox of American life: while many call for a more humane and just society, the corporatist nature of our system keeps “running Rusty” on all of us for their own benefit.

The only way out is this, and my prayer for you is that you will make the step.