You drive the women of my people from their pleasant homes. You take away my blessing from their children forever. – Micah 2:9
“The bank is something more than men, I tell you. It’s the monster. Men made it, but they can’t control it.” John Steinbeck, The Grapes of Wrath.
Dave Ramsey is a so-called Christian financial planner, who mixes in a few Bible verses with his garden variety advice. Thousands have paid to attend his seminars, where he presides like a fundamentalist preacher, folksy delivery and self-assured scolding included. It’s made him a multi-millionaire many times over. His empire includes Ramsey Solutions, his signature for-profit company – featured as a“2020 Best Workplaces” – plus various investment spin-offs and 501(c) (3) non-profits.
What is less well-known is that Ramsey Solutions also functions as church. In order to be hired, applicants undergo an extensive process – including a spousal interview. The employees attend a mandatory chapel/pep talk each week. Their work day is scrutinized and their private lives snooped upon to see if they are truly living righteously 24/7. Some allege it leads to a dictatorial culture of suspicion and gossip. Discovered secret sinners get shown the door. Dave can run his company any way he wants, as he often reminds the entire world. I don’t care about his spiritual rule over employees; his business culture is not the point of this post.
Trending lately have been comments he made on his radio show, that if his tenants are displaced because he raised the rent to meet market price, it does not make him a bad Christian. “I did not displace the person out of that house if they can no longer afford it. The marketplace did. The economy did… I didn’t cause any of that,” he challenged.
Who caused that, the renter? No, the renter is a victim. The landlord is a victim. We’re all victims. Ramsey points the accusing finger at a marketplace that demands it. This admission is a significant departure from evangelical insistence on individual sin as the cause of all evil.
For the cold-heartedness of his advice, Ramsey got a mild spanking from Christian Post. Another critic tweeted, “He benefits from the unjust weights and measures that cause housing prices and rent go up faster than wages. He wouldn’t change that if he could, because he values his wealth over his soul.”
Wealth has an amazing power to deceive us. In his Powers Trilogy, theologian Walter Wink emphasized that both individually and collectively, we are vulnerable and exploitable by structural evils – the whole Kosmos that lies in the power of the Evil One. The domination systems, to which we give imperceiving obeisance, make up our culture and society. Individualistic evangelical theology that only recognizes sin only in terms of personal behaviour is inadequate to explain how our souls are manipulated by the faceless, supernatural power structures (Ephesians 6:12) that surround us.
Thus, as a godly landlord, I can’t be personally blamed for a universally accepted economic system which compels me to pursue my own interests, even if it puts people out on the street. In fact, no single individual is guilty. We are all guilty of individual responsibility for corporate sin. As Jürgen Moltmann observed, “anyone who exists in these structures becomes sin’s accomplice, even if he wants only what is good.”[i] The domination system of mammon is participatory; no one is excluded. It entraps even “good” people into valuing money more than people. Particularly those having the power to impact the lives of others because of their authority or position. Ramsey’s comment reflects our complicity in the mammon system such that we cannot recognize our idolatry for what it is. Jesus calls us to a domination-free blessed community where, contrary to Cain’s impertinent reply, we together are our brother’s keeper.
[i] Jürgen Moltmann, The Spirit of Life: A Universal Affirmation, Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2001, pp. 139-40.