Reading: James 5
I cannot hear the words of James 5 without remembering when I visited China. My parents and grandparents had moments in their lives where they knew what poverty was; my grandparents could remember the great depression, and my parents had a stretch of desperation caused by a shortage of work at the factory where my father was employed. I have worried about money, I’ve gone without doing things that I’ve wanted, but I’ve not personally faced desperate poverty.
I remember one morning, about dawn, I got up to take a walk, and I saw something that opened my eyes to a kind of desperate poverty. I saw a sidewalk covered with people who were waking up. I saw these people who spent the night outside walking to the place where they worked. I watched, and I realized that these homeless people had jobs, and that they put in long days of work, and yet they still slept outside at night.
This was in 2003, at that time China had a rapidly growing economy. Cities were building as fast as they could, and people from rural areas were flocking to cities to find opportunities. At this time there was a bit of a robber baron mindset in China. There were opportunities to get rich, and the government was not able to regulate nor enforce what people did. I was in China when some of the companies started getting in trouble for lying about what they were selling.
Some examples of what was done are: Fertilizer was added to milk and to flour, so that when it was tested for the nitrogen content, to estimate the amount of protein, it would test high in protein and sell for a higher price. The flour was sold as high protein gluten, and it was made into dog-food. Some pets in the United States died, and several brands of dog food were recalled. The milk was turned into baby formula, and many babies died.
I learned that one other scandal that was happening at the time is that when migrant workers would come to the city for jobs, they would go to the work site, and work week after week and not receive the pay they were promised. Somewhere, somebody would embezzle from the payroll, and the people at the bottom would go without. Those who were poor and desperate would have nothing they could do to get the money they were owed — they would just have to find another job and hope that this one would pay them. Part of the cause of the desperate poverty that I saw was that there were those who were quite happy to make themselves happy by committing fraud and robbing the poor.
I know that China is a special case, fraud is still rampant there; and that part of doing business is China is losing assets to fraud as suppliers cut corners and employees embezzle. I know there are many good and honest people there, but they have a problem policing those who steal.
I also know that we have no shortage of people in the United States who pine for the days of the robber barons when the rule of the day was: “buyer beware.” From time to time, I hear of the courts sorting out claims that a company has cheated its customers, or that they found ways around paying their employees. Now, I know that this happens here — and I know when it happens, there are a number of people who jump to the defense of the people who stole wages or cheated customers. There are a number of people who believe that acquiring wealth is virtuous, no matter how it is acquired, and that customers do not deserve protection, and those who do the labor are not worthy of their wages.
James really does speak to our culture — because many of us see wealthy people as somehow more virtuous than others. We somehow believe that they deserve what they have, and that they benefit society by being wealthy. It is common to call the wealthy: “job creators,” and even to see them as patrons to all those people who do the work that fills their pockets.
The truth is, there is nothing moral, or noble, or lasting about wealth. James is alluding, as he often does to the sermon on the mount. Matthew 6:19-21 tells us not to store up treasures on Earth where moths and rust consumes and thieves steal, but instead to store up treasure in heaven. Material wealth is just things; it is neither virtuous nor lasting; like everybody, I would choose wealth over poverty, but we must not choose it over integrity.
The Old Testament is full of condemnation against those who don’t pay their workers. The Torah commands that a laborer is to be paid right away, and his wages are not even to be held overnight. The prophets Jeremiah and Malachi both condemn the leading people of Judah for hiring workers, and not paying their wages. There is a sense that the poor were taken advantage of because they were poor and unable to take care of themselves.
Now that my eyes are open to how the poor are abused, I see that there are ways it is done, even here. It is expensive to be poor; because if don’t have money, you find yourself forced into more expensive options for various services. I am amazed at how predatory the financial services for the poor are. I wince at the thought that some people bring their paychecks to check-cashing places that charges a fee per check, and then charges similar fees to pay their bills. I wince even more that these places do not hide that they offer loans at an APR of several hundred percent — one of them advertises on their website that their rates are as high as 782.14%, and that they have fees that add 10% or more to the original amount of the loan. It is easy to blame people for making bad decisions, but this is an example of robbing the desperate; and one would need to be extremely desperate to accept such terms.
There is nothing virtuous about being the kind of employer who becomes wealthy while the employees go on food stamps to pay their bills. No matter how much people talk about the employer being a `job creator’, and the workers being `takers’, it should be clear who the taker is. There is also nothing virtuous about seeing somebody who is desperate, and figuring out how to take his spare change. There is nothing virtuous about seeing employees or customers as “revenue generators” — I know it is just business, and that business is about money, but we can never forget that people are people, and that God created humanity in God’s image.