When I first conceived of this article, I was going to make a case that the economic inequality Millennials faced following the 2008 financial crisis had left them the most impoverished generation since the Great Depression. This class divide between the generations meant that those in leadership—mostly Gen X and older—inhabited a parallel America. Their housing was already secure, their children born, their careers started. The poverty Millennials have faced are not the typical struggles of youth, but a severe economic and public health crisis that has been mocked and left unaddressed by both secular and religious authorities. We Episcopalians are facing a twofold demographic problem: aging parishioners and a smaller contingent of millennials approaching middle age with a tenth of the wealth their parents had. That situation is not likely to change when their parents pass; aging is expensive. Practically, we must become a church of the poor for our survival because poverty is our future. More than that, the Church cannot show Christ’s love to the wounded if it refuses to see them. Perhaps younger people have not drifted away because of the evils of the secular world and how fun they are. Rather, God is love, and the Church has not loved young people. Of course they’ve fallen away.
That’s what I was originally going to say. And then the coronavirus pandemic hit.
I think older Americans are still in denial. As I am writing this, at least one member of 20% of U.S. households has been laid off. Some projections say we’ll have 30% unemployment by May. That exceeds Great Depression unemployment figures and creeps into Weimar Republic territory. Conservative projections estimate tens of thousands dead in this country, mostly among the elderly. The cost of the 2008 recession fell disproportionately on the young. That will not be the case for this one.
We are now, or will be very shortly, all in this together in a way we weren’t before. The challenge is no longer asking church leadership to acknowledge the poverty of my generation in preparation for a future, darker time when Millennial poverty is the norm. That future has arrived. The already incredibly stratified income and wealth disparities will be blown even further apart. Nearly all of us will be on the poorer side of that divide.
Class strife is not a new problem for the Church. Communion in the early Church was a meal; both a sacrament and means of making sure everyone ate. Paul is very clear in his first letter to the Corinthians: a communion where the rich don’t share their food with others is no communion. His warning not to take communion in an unworthy manner (and thus divide the body of Christ) directly follows his reprimand of the rich.. It would be a very myopic reading to suggest these two admonishments so close together have nothing to do with one another. The communion of the Church is broken—I would argue has long been broken—by the division between the rich and the poor. There never was a generation gap. It was a wealth gap that our more affluent members dismissed as a generation gap. This framing allows them to ignore it.
If there is a lesson to be learned from the aftermath of the Great Recession up to the present day, it’s that people who are not poor have every incentive to unsee poverty. Now, we all are about to become very poor. We will have a church divided between those who don’t know where their next meal is coming from and those who can afford to tithe. That second group will have undue influence. The Church cannot serve both Jesus and money. Any attempt to split the difference may, in the short term, allow the current structure to survive. But it was built for a different time and a different set of challenges and must change to meet the new ones.
The poor must come first.
I am, here, flirting with liberation theology, that darling of left-of-center American Christians. American politics has been so conservative that the more radical aspects of it are unlikely to be politically implemented. That makes it, perhaps, seem like this safe, cuddly ideology; one that makes us feel nice when it is front of the mind, but which can be put out of mind quickly. It is plainly biblical, and so difficult to disagree with. But outside of Gospel readings and general warm fuzzies towards the idea of economic justice, the Episcopal Church is unlikely to call wealth an outright sin and demand its members give it up. That is a shame because Jesus made that exact demand several times. This is a way the Church fails to love its members. If it is more difficult for a camel to get through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to get into heaven, if wealth imperils the soul, then pussyfooting around that issue harms all of us. Again, we are about to become a church of and for the poor. We can’t spend any time in this crisis coddling the rich. We must serve the poor with teeth.
If we fail to be an example of Christ’s love through this crisis because we prioritize money over people, then the Church will not die, but Anglicanism might. If we allow divisions in the Church because of wealth, and worse, take the side of wealth, then I fear we won’t meet the material needs of our members and the wider community. If that happens, many people will, rightly, say that Christ’s love lies elsewhere. That would be a shame. There are ways to love our neighbors that are hard to do without an infrastructure. I hope we will take this time to reconsider the fundamentals of how we think and speak about poverty, as well as implement structural changes to safeguard against the undue influence of wealth.