We are family: a claim that disrupts economic inequality

John 15:9-17

As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love.

If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love.

I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete.

“This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you.

No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.

You are my friends if you do what I command you.

I do not call you servants any longer, because the servant does not know what the master is doing; but I have called you friends, because I have made known to you everything that I have heard from my Father.

You did not choose me but I chose you. And I appointed you to go and bear fruit, fruit that will last, so that the Father will give you whatever you ask him in my name.

I am giving you these commands so that you may love one another.

I. The Illusion of the Rugged Individual

Herbert Hoover was born on August 10, 1874 in the small town of Westbranch, Iowa to peasant Quaker parents. When he was 6 years old, his dad died, and three years later, his mom passed away leaving 9 year old Herbie, his older brother and younger sister as orphans. A man from the local Society of Friends became Herbert’s official guardian, and he bounced around family members homes for the next couple of years.

At the age of 11, Hoover went to Newberg, Oregon to live with his uncle, Dr. John Minthorn, a physician and businessman, whose own son had died the year before. Minthorn’s house was considered cultured, and educational, and imparted a strong work ethic on the 11 year old Hoover. In Newberg, Herbert attended Friends Pacific Academy until the age of 13 when he dropped out to become an office assistant for his uncle’s real estate office in Salem. Hoover never enrolled in high school in Salem, but he took night classes in bookkeeping, typing, and math.

In 1891, a new University was opening up just south of Oregon called Stanford. Hoover failed all of the entrance exams for the University except mathematics, but received tutoring in Palo Alto over the summer and enrolled in the fall. Hoover studied geology at Stanford, and upon receiving his degree embarked upon a career in the mining industry.

Hoover’s mining endeavors took him all over the world. He worked extensively in Australia and China early in his career, and later had offices in San Francisco, London,  New York City, St. Petersburg, Paris, and Burma. Over time, Hoover developed a reputation as a “doctor of sick mines,” and was often called in to help rejuvenate troubled mining operations.

When World War I broke out in 1914, Hoover helped organize the return of around 120,000 Americans from Europe. He would later comment, “I did not realize it at the moment, but on August 3, 1914, my career was over forever, I was on the slippery road of public life.” For the next two years, Hoover worked long days from London as chairman of the Commission for Relief in Belgium,  which arranged the supply of food to the entire country of Belgium during the war.

In 1917, after the United States entered the war, President Woodrow Wilson made Hoover the head of the U.S. Food Administration. In November 1918, after the war ended the U.S. Food Administration became the American Relief Association, and Hoover was tasked with feeding as many as 10.5 million people throughout Central and Eastern Europe during the post war years.

In 1920, Hoover became Secretary of Commerce under President Warren Harding, and later Calvin Coolidge after Harding’s death. By 1928, Herbert Hoover was the Republican Nominee for President.

Little Herbert Hoover, the boy born a peasant in Iowa, who became an orphan at age 9, and dropped out of school at age 13 –  was the GOP’s nominee for President of the United States.

On October 22, 1928, Hoover gave a speech titled “Principles and Ideals of the United States Government,” that would define his campaign, and later his presidency. In this speech, Hoover expressed his belief that the American system was based upon “rugged individualism” and “self-reliance.” He argued that though the people had necessarily turned to the government during the war to solve their major economic problems, it was time for government to retreat and cease to interfere with the economic lives of its citizens.

In this speech and throughout his presidency, Hoover alluded to the “myth of the rugged individual.” To the idea that any individual can succeed in this society if they work hard enough – just like he did. To the idea that no crisis is too large for a self-reliant, self-sufficient, self-actualizing, “rugged individual” to triumph. To the idea that we exist on this earth as independent beings, totally distinct and separate from one another. Hoover alluded to this myth, and he won the campaign in a landslide, garnering 444 electoral votes.

I don’t use the term myth pejoratively here. Myths have power. Story is the most powerful tool for shaping individuals, communities, and societies; and the myth of the rugged individual has successfully shaped ours. This myth is foundational to American doctrine. It gives meaning purpose and direction to American lives. “Rugged Individualism” shapes the way we perceive ourselves, the way we define success, the way we organize communities and systems, and construct the policies that govern our lives.

Rugged individualism is a powerful myth, but we need a better myth. We need a deeper myth.

II. No longer servants but friends

(That’s your cue, Jesus.)

Jesus is operating from a different kind of foundational myth. The kind of myth that suggests we are not independent but interdependent, that each of our lives and personal experiences are different, but we are not fundamentally distinct. We each originate from the same substance – dust, and to dust we will return. We are all a part of the fabric, the corpus, of this earth and its originating one-ness.

Jesus suggests that life is not about self-reliance, self-sufficiency, self-actualization — it’s about love.

“Abide in my love.”

“Love one another.”

“There is no greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.”

“I no longer call you servants, but friends.”

“Love one another.”

For Jesus, our lives are not disparate and distinct, but intricately interwoven. He is the vine and we are the branches. We are all one part of the whole, and if we remain in the vine, with the branches, we will bear great fruit.

Not me, but we. Us. Friends who love one another. Together, we will bear great fruit.

Economic inequality, housing and healthcare justice, and friends

We live in a world with drastic levels of economic inequality. Some are fed fruit, and others stones.

Income is one marker of economic inequality, but wealth is another.

Income refers to a flow of money over time in the form of a rate (per hour, per week, or per year); wealth is a collection of assets (like homes, retirement accounts, investments, etc.) owned minus liabilities. In essence, income is specifically what people receive through work, retirement, or social welfare whereas wealth is what people own.

In the United States, the top 1% of the population owns 38% of the nation’s wealth, while the bottom 90% holds 73% of the nation’s debt. Predictably, these numbers run along racial lines as well. In America, white people own 88% of the nation’s wealth, while people of color combine to hold 12%.

Wealth is usually not used for daily expenditures or factored into household budgets, but combined with income, wealth comprises the family’s total opportunity to secure a desired stature and standard of living, and pass along one’s class status to one’s children.

In other words, white wealthy people will continue to remain wealthy over time, and their lower class peers (both whites and people of color) will remain in debt. Struggling to get by. Just trying to survive.

These drastic levels of economic inequality are on display in cities all across our country right now as gentrification occurs due to the incentivization of development in downtown areas. Giant buildings are being constructed to hold the wealth of the top 1%, causing property taxes to rise, driving up rents and displacing poor and middle class people from their homes.

A study conducted by Zillow in 2017 on rising rents and increased homelessness showed that for every 5% rent increase in Los Angeles, 2000 people will literally become homeless.

This phenomenon is dramatically on display from the 38th and Blake A-Line Station in Denver, where a south facing train rider looks out and sees a peculiar cluster of 8’x12’ tiny homes set against a backdrop of cranes and rising high rise apartments. In those tiny homes, some of the poorest people in our city are just trying to survive, and trying to say that they belong here, they are a part of this city too. They don’t need much, just a little bit of space to survive.

In a few more months, the village and those who make their life there will be gone from that location, forced to move due to permitting and profit motives that fail to prioritize people in the heart of our city. In the fourth quarter of this year, another developer will cash in when our tiny homes are moved along so that they can break ground on a 17-story market rate apartment complex.

The rich will continue to get richer, and more people will be forced out of their homes, neighborhoods, and communities; and will wind up trying to survive on the streets.

Advocates (like me) seek to combat the dramatic issues of economic inequality and the ways that inequality shows up in our local and national housing and healthcare systems. We advocate for law and policy here and there that gives us just a tiny foot in the door, hoping that one day we’ll be able to get enough feet through that door to fling it wide open.

The problem is that the little strides we’re making take the shape of disparate band-aid solutions.

We’re weaving a patchwork quilt, but apparently there is not enough left-over fabric to cover everyone that we need. There are holes in our blanket where the biting wind blows leaving members of our community out in cold.

We need a better housing, and healthcare system. We need an economy that works for everyone, but in order to make that possible, we need a new story. We need a better myth.

One that focuses not on our independence but our interdependence. We need a story that says we belong to one another. We need a self understanding that identifies we are not individuals on an island, we are friends.

III. We are family!

We are in fact, family.

The human beings sleeping in our streets and alleyways are not strangers to be feared, they are our very sisters and brothers. We need a story like that, one that acknowledges how interwoven our lives are, that regardless of race, class, religion, gender identity, sexual orientation — we have the same beginning and end.

We are all family.

There was an article that came out in a Seattle publication in 2017 called, “The City that Solved Homelessness.” The article points to the Austrian capital city of Vienna, where homelessness numbers are strikingly low. The Vienna model, where 60% of all residents live in economically diverse public of housing has been called “Housing for the 21st Century.”

The article notes, “Vienna’s tradition is vastly different than ours; it’s supported by people who are willing to pay taxes for housing, health care and transit. There’s no prospect at the moment that national politics in the United States will lead to the kind of federal support that would make a huge difference in housing affordability.”

In the 1928 campaign speech that propelled Hoover’s presidency, he explained that Americans living in the post-war era were facing a decision “between the American system of  rugged individualism and a European philosophy of diametrically opposed doctrines.”

I would suggest that something more foundational was at stake than simple policy decisions about how the government would interact with the economy, Americans were faced with a question about what kind of story they wanted to believe in. A story of rugged independence, or a story of interdependence.

We’re stuck believing in a myth in this country that suggests our lives are not bound up with one another.

Instead of coming up with real systemic solutions for housing and healthcare, we rely upon the heroic efforts of individuals who care to create islands of support here and there… 11 tiny homes, one room in your house for hospitality, 6,000 units of affordable housing over 10 years, one free health clinic that serves the uninsured.

These individual efforts will not solve our drastic levels of economic inequality. In addition to leaving people without good access to housing and healthcare, they will leave the individuals that care burned out and struggling for air… wondering how to make it… how to do something about the issue… how to live their values with authenticity and integrity… and how to remain sane at the same time.

The result of the myth of rugged individualism is a patchwork quilt that’s missing pieces, but the reality is that it is leaving ALL OF US out in the cold.

Not just a few of us, all of us.

Not just me, but we.

On the sixth Sunday of Easter, we ask what the resurrection has to say about economic inequality, about broken housing and healthcare systems that leave all of us in a predicament that we don’t want to be in.

Jesus responds by saying, “Love one another.”

Now is not the time for “rugged individualism,” but an evolving self-understanding that returns us to our origins. From dust we came, and to dust we shall return.

We are one body, one family. That is our foundational story.

And story is a powerful tool.

Story is the tool that sticks enough feet through the door to fling it open.

Story is the lever that moves the world.

We are family. May we believe that story. May we be healed and whole. May we work together to reorient our rugged society. Amen.

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