Ursula lives in New York City. The apartment they own is worth $4 million. They have a weekend house in the Hamptons valued at over $1.5 million. Their children go to an exclusive private school. She is not currently earning a salary, but her husband is paid more than $2 million a year as a high-level executive at a tech firm. She states that she grew up middle class and still considers herself middle class. When asked if she ever felt guilt for having so much more than others, she said, “No.”
Karen and Keith also live in New York City. They own a house worth over $1.2 million. Their household income is over $300,000. They do not own a second house, and their children go to public school. Although significantly less affluent than Ursula, they viewed themselves as privileged. Karen said, “We’re both horrified by how much money we make.” Keith, talking about their house said, “My feeling is it’s a bottomless pit, renovation and home improvement. And I think that six Chinese people are camping out in some one-bedroom hovel in Beijing right now. So, like, the notion that you ‘need’ something is all BS” (29).
How is it that the family with significantly more wealth does not see themselves as “privileged” and view their lifestyle as extreme as Karen and Keith do? Rachel Sherman, a sociologist, interviewed 50 people from 42 New York City households—all earning more than $250,000 a year. She repeatedly heard perspectives similar to both views above. In the first chapter of her book, Uneasy Street: The Anxieties of Affluence, Sherman argues that what leads people to express one perspective or the other is not the amount of money they have, but whether they look upward or downward. Ursula, and others who said similar things, look up and compared themselves to those who earned much more, who had even more lavish lifestyles. Maya, an attorney turned stay-at-home mother, whose lawyer husband had an income of over $2 million, described her family as just fine, but not “really wealthy.” She said, “there are all the bankers that are heads and heels, you know, way above us” (33). Helen, with a similar household income said, “I feel like we’re somewhere in the middle, in the sense that there are so many people with so much money. They have private planes. They have drivers. . .” (33). So, even though the median income in New York City is $52,000, these people in the top one or two percent look up and feel in the middle.
Penny, a legal consultant, and her husband, make a more than the households listed above, yet they talk much differently about their wealth. Like Karen and Keith, Penny looks down. “You know, there’s always someone in New York, especially New York City, Manhattan—who has more than you do. And there’s always a lot of people who have less. … I would say we’re on the higher end of having more.” If one only compares oneself with those above it understandably leads to a different self-perception than those who look down as well. The deeper question, the aspect of the chapter that caught my attention, is this: what leads some to look up and others to look down? The answer is simple and has profound implications for followers of Jesus.
In essence, those who compare themselves upwards do so because they only socialize with people of similar or more economic means. They did not have relationships with people below them. “Those who faced downward tended to talk about friends, acquaintances, and colleagues in a wide range of economic circumstances” (49). Whether through family, workplace, organizations, or public schools, these people had cross-class relationships.
It is not just the contrast between calling themselves middle class or affluent. The actions, attitudes, beliefs, and perspectives of the two groups differ in various ways. As Sherman quotes and describes the people it becomes clear that who you relate with will influence you. Who you hang out with, who you eat with, who you play with, who you serve with, who you interact with matters. This is true for all of us, not just the wealthy in Sherman’s book. And, it is true of both groups in her book--not just those who befriend people different than themselves. Our actions and attitudes will be influenced by who we relate to.
The chapter led me to think about Galatians and table fellowship. In contrast to the society around them, Christians came together at one table–Jew and Greek, slave and free, male and female. I have thought of this as something that, through the transformative work of Jesus, we are able to do. With the people in Sherman’s chapter in mind, I had the thought: perhaps there is more imperative in that table fellowship than I had thought. Not just that through Christ Christians can sit down and eat with people who do not commonly eat together in our society, but that we are called to do so. Not just because it presents a beautiful picture of the fruit of the radical work of Jesus, but because it matters who we eat with, who we relate with. It will change us. Like the people in Sherman’s book, it will impact our empathy, actions, and attitudes.
I discussed Sherman’s chapter with my friend and New Testament scholar, Ryan Schellenberg. I asked, “What do you think of that interpretation of Galatians?” He affirmed it, and suggested I think about Luke 14. Jesus says when you host a meal don’t invite those from your own status circles, “but when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind” (Luke 14:13). Then he tells the parable of a host who ends up doing just that. Certainly this is a pro-poor, pro-marginalized command—give them a seat at the table! But through the lens of Sherman’s interviews we can see that Jesus gave the command thinking of the rich as well. Who we eat with, who we relate with matters. It will change us.
I recently had lunch with Anthony—just a few weeks after his release from prison. Four years ago, on his 36th birthday, he sadly shared during a jail Bible study that he has been in and out of jail and prison so much that he only had two birthdays for which he was not incarcerated since he was 17. Shortly before that birthday, however, Anthony had repented, had profound experiences of God’s loving forgiveness, and the transformative work of the Spirit was evident in his life. Of all the men who have been in my jail Bible study over the last ten years, Anthony is one of a handful I have corresponded with when they went to prison. Why? A special connection? A sense of great potential he has? A depth of sincerity? I am not totally sure, but I knew I took initiative to eat with him that day because I wanted to do whatever I could in the limited time I have to support him in his efforts to leave old ways behind. A good thing to do. I assumed I would continue to get together with him from time to time in the future. Reading Sherman’s chapter, however, left me with a desire to deepen my relationship with Anthony, not just for his benefit, but mine. I will be changed by friendship with Anthony.
I could easily respond to Sherman’s chapter by patting myself on the back and listing all the relationships I already have with people unlike myself. I could also paint a very different picture by listing how much of my time I spend with people very similar to myself. In any case I do not think Jesus or Paul had a quota in mind—neither in the number of relationships nor in the amount of life transformation that flows from those relationships. Let us extend the table. It matters who we eat with, who we relate with. It will change our perspectives, attitudes, and actions in ways that will benefit us and others.
I invite you to join me in making a commitment to seek out a new relationship or deepen a current relationship with someone significantly different than yourself—from a different social or economic class, different ethnically, different politically, different theologically, different life experience, etc. Who might it be? It matters. It will change you.