Thursday, January 22, 2015

Buying a Car: A Reminder About Poverty

This past weekend, I traded in the pickup truck I got when I graduated high school. That's right, I've been driving the same vehicle since 2002. It was traded in with over 170,000 miles on it. Those 170,000 miles represent plenty of life transitions. But as hard as it was to see the truck go, this isn't about the truck.

It's about buying the car. More specifically, it's about financing the car. I've thought about replacing the truck for a while now. On Friday, the weird rattle became a weirder thump. That noise, combined with a need for new tires, meant that I made the decision to get a different vehicle. Within 24 hours, that mission was accomplished. 

And here's how financing worked: I filled out three out of five blocks on a one page application. No one called my bank or any of my references. No one blinked when I said, "Yeah, I don't remember my last address." They ran my credit and gave me a low interest rate. I signed my name about a hundred times in the course of a day and spent several hours at the dealership, but the process was mostly painless. 

Here's why that's true: I had parents unable to pay for my education, but willing to help me through college in a lot of other ways. Generous people gave me scholarships so that I have a single, federally subsidized student loan. That's it, from seven years of higher education. In college, I worked on campus where we we made our work schedules after we figured out our class schedules for the semester. In seminary, both my employers were flexible in hours and workload. No one expected much from me during finals week. At age twenty, the only credit in my name was a credit card issued by my small town bank, a bank that has now expanded to seven offices and nine ATMs. Small town banking meant I didn't need any credit history to get that credit card. 

All of that means that I have limited credit history, but a good credit score. All of that has a lot to do with the world I was born into and opportunities given to me as a result. Yes, I worked for some of those opportunities, but I was given a great deal in return for my work. And the good credit score has reaped more benefits than I care to admit. Each time I move, I'm approved for a new apartment within minutes. In one case, I was a student bringing home under $1,000 a month. When I open a new utility account, I have the option of paying a few hundred extra dollars up front or letting the person on the other end of the line run my credit. I tell them to run my credit and don't put down a deposit. 

It's one of the things we don't like to talk about much at all. We charge poor people more money for things than we do people who already have money, or have been taught to manage money and done so effectively. I understand that logic behind this system. It doesn't mean it's right. 

It's just another way we exploit the poor, forgetting that it's one of the things that actually, really ticks God off. Jesus, too, in case you were wondering. "Do not exploit the poor because they are poor and do not crush the need in court, for the Lord will take up their case and will exact life for life" (Proverbs 22:22-23). I can't decide if the NRSV is better or worse: "Do not rob the poor…"

For Jesus, yeah, read the Gospel according to Luke. I'm not joking. The first time I preached through that Gospel, I wrote a Facebook status that read, "I get it, Jesus, care for the poor. But I need another sermon." If you actually read the Gospel, you can't miss the fact that Jesus cares deeply for the poor and gets more than a little ticked when people screw them over.

Back to the system. I get that previous behavior is an likely indicator of future behavior. However, maybe, just maybe, the previous behavior has to do with the fact that a person was already charged more because of when, where, and to whom they were born. Maybe their inability to make a car payment has something to do with the fact that it's $50 more a month than mine is for the exact same car. Maybe it has to do with how much more they pay for insurance because of that same credit history and the zip code where they park their car on night. Maybe it has more to do with a system that works to keep poor people poor at every single chance.

It's one of the most immoral things we do and one we avoid talking about. The realization of what we do to the poor is quite possibly the only thing that makes me worry that God is going to rain down fire and brimstone. It's one of those things that we're getting completely, overwhelmingly wrong.

Thursday, January 8, 2015

Bill Cosby & Lying to Ourselves

I love Bill Cosby. Actually, I love Cliff Huxtable, but in all honesty, those two names are pretty much synonymous in my world. I grew up watching The Cosby Show. My planned parenting technique is to make my kids watch the show, then say, "I watched this when I was your age. I've had thirty years to think up something even worse to do to you." Watch the episode where Vanessa gets drunk if you want to understand how terrifying this concept truly is.

The Cosby Show was part of our household routine. My sister and I got to stay up a half hour later on Thursday nights to watch The Cosby Show. We had popcorn that night. When I was still young enough that my parents (well, my grandmother) worried about me choking on husks, I had puff corn instead. When my mom, who started college when my sister started kindergarten, had a night class, my sister was charged with making the popcorn. The Cosby Show is culturally embedded not only for me, but an entire generation.

I confess: I haven't read a single story about the allegations against Bill Cosby. I can't bring myself to click on them. The illusion of who this man was is gone, but I don't want to know any more. I believe the allegations are true. I know beyond a shadow of a doubt that the appropriate response to any claim of rape is, "I believe you." The number of women coming forward scares me.

In this week of the Epiphany, a week when more women have stepped forward, I'm reminded again of how difficult it can be to face the truth. Christ coming upset the world and rulers so much that King Herod opted to kill toddlers and infants as his way of dealing with the new, tiny king. I like to think of myself more like the magi--excited, joyful, glad something new had come.

Here comes the more difficult confession: I prefer comfort.

I prefer the lie that comforts. I prefer to ignore the harsher things in life. I prefer the view of the world that doesn't challenge who I am or what I do. And I don't think I'm much different from most people.

That's why our world is so broken and why we need a savior. We need a savior who promises to redeem what we have done wrong and points us to something different.

It's amazing how sobering that confession still is. I know it. Most of us, in fact, know that something's off and we need some help. Still, it's sobering, and terrifying, and overwhelming to say, "I'd rather believe the lies than deal with the truth."

God help us. Because the truth is hard to face.