Well, I’m late to this party but, whoa boy! Our friend, Dave Ramsay (we’re not really friends; I don’t know him, but I think we’d get along) sure took some heat last week. Re-posted on his blog site was the Tom Corley article, 20 Things the Rich do Everyday, outlining a number of behaviors akin to the successful in our developed context. While the list of 20 things – a check-off list of behaviors that most of us resolve to do annually on or about January 1st – reads as a quick set of inspirational mandates. Unfortunately, it was also read it as a referendum on the behavior of the poor and, for those who wish to read it this way, can suggest that the results are self-executing and deserved. I don’t read it that way, nor do I believe that was the intent. I’ll take Corley at face value when he says he is “…on a mission to end poverty.” Intent aside, the content ignited a decently large and loud collateral discussion online which, in today’s mediums, can look and feel like long-distance flame throwing contest executed from the safety of semi-anonymous comment bunkers. There were also some very open blog responses, significant enough – mostly to the negative – that Dave posted an explanatory addendum that is worth the read. Patheos.com has compiled the higher level critiques for us here. The most prominent, and, undoubtedly, the most read, was the Rachael Held Evans piece on CNN.com. Evans got a number of pile-on comments from all corners. While I can’t disagree with her Biblical breakdown on how God feels about the poor, I think her take on Dave was not completely fair in that it assumed a theology and leaned toward an assumed contempt for the poor. I don’t say that to be critical of Evans (she’s on my list of people I’d like to meet), I just think her commentary on Dave was incomplete; maybe like the post on Dave’s site was. Our friend, Paul Louis Metzger (actually an acquaintance so we’ll go with friend) weighed in. He seems to always be the steady, non-angry, and sensible voice when evangelicalism gets into an argument with itself. His piece is called, “What Can Dave Ramsey’s Evangelical’s Learn from Ebenezer Scrooge?” found at his site, Uncommon God, Common Good. Metzger addresses Dave’s post, Evans, and quotes at length Kenneth Copeland’s comments on the Evan’s post. In a few simple paragraphs, I’m reminded why I like Dr. Metzger. And on Copeland’s comments about evangelicalism, they are well taken but really can’t be pinned on Dave for teaching common sense principles.
The three points of criticism out there, as I observe it, are the idea that Dave is: 1) Preaching a prosperity gospel; 2) That Dave holds to a do-it-yourself brand of ‘God helps those who help themselves’ reform yourself theology lending to a self-righteous disposition; and 3) Dave has a lack of actual Biblical understanding about the poor. In the case of Corley’s article, it is certainly possible to read it as a problematic presentation of the poor especially if you don’t have any further context to work from. This is unfortunate, but to level Dave as one who disdains or hates, or sees himself as intrinsically better than the poor, or even one that misunderstands the distinct heart of Jesus for the poor, is patently unfair.
I think the biggest of the misunderstandings is the idea that Dave is actually promoting a theology. While he is obviously open with regard to his worldview, clearly centered on a belief in Jesus and the authority of the Bible as the Word of God, I don’t think he’s promoting his plan as theological or authoritative. I think he’s promoting it as a good plan with Biblical guidance. Neither do I think that Dave is pushing a brand of theology by observing repeatable results – good or bad – that come with the input of their respective choices. That’s just life. And as for how he feels about the poor: Who can know another person’s heart? It seems clear that plenty of us think we can. What I know, at this moment, is that you have to navigate around a lot of charity giving opportunities on his website and blog site to get to the core content.
I have friends in the ministry who don’t like Dave. I honestly don’t understand their dislike other than I observe that they’ve just picked another team on certain things of identity. They feel like they’ve untethered themselves from presumptive evangelical identifiers on politics and perceived cultural norms. So the bigger-than-life Bible-believing financial guy with a Southern drawl doesn’t fit the new branding scheme. It could be for them that Dave embodies that evangelical ‘Republican-by-assumption’ pigeonhole that they’ve worked so hard to identify away from. Good enough.
Me, I like Dave. I like that his ideas are really helping people. Evan’s says as much. I like that he’s probably saved more marriages than can be counted. I like that his principles are simple and the steps are realistic and, somehow, he inspires couples to get on the same page with each other. I like the excitement that couples gain as they successfully progress through the steps. I like the peace and joy that replaces the stress, resentment, and sense of defeat. I like that he and others are helping to change the economy within the church and ultimately releasing a powerful wave of generosity that brings solution to poverty. And where the church is concerned, I see great change: In simple terms, it seems there is a growing desire to change the world through giving and charity and, perhaps, a corresponding decrease in desire to change the skyline with new church buildings that sit empty for much of the week. Things like the Advent Conspiracy and similar campaigns at Christmas have taken hold in thousands of churches with an encouragement to “worship fully, spend less, give more, and love all.” Take a peek at the Advent Conspiracy video and tell me that it doesn’t sound like a message and themes that you would hear from Dave. Who knows how much of this tracks back to him in terms of actual effect. My guess: Plenty.
Given my endorsement, you can surmise that we’re adherents of the Baby Steps (or at least an adaptation of them). We’ve done almost everything that Dave says as we rumble along. And we’re in no way inspired by prosperity gospel hucksters. Our hope is that our lives are actually being lived out for the sake of the poor in terms of what we do professionally and personally. We’ve been able to turn around years of indebted living – some of it circumstantial, some of it behavioral. There were multiple items on the poor side of the Corley ledger that very much described us. For me, I read them as a cautionary tale as though I was the intended audience. I’m sober to the fact that I AM capable of stringing together enough bad choices that I could do damage to myself and to my family both. But, with some guidance, we now live under a growing list of benefits and a reduced list of consequences; we regard these as blessings: The millstone of debt and all of it’s emotional toxicity is gone; we feel like we’re making it; we can focus on other stressors in our lives that are in need of attention. It’s not so bad, you know. And, by the way, our household income is well within the margin of ‘modest;’ we’re running a young non-profit here. We’ll never be rich and the potential of wealth will never motivate us. Peace and joy definitely motivate us. We know that those things come from God who we regard as our provider.
And, for us, Dave’s input is not lost on the poor. Outside of Compassion First’s domestic and expatriate staff, we employ 30 or so people in our ministry work overseas. The wealthiest among them were not raised anywhere close to middle-class even in their context. For most of their lives, they have all been severely under resourced. They’re not overpaid now either – not by any means. We are always working to establish salary levels that are just above the market rate by a few percentage points – looking for the moral sweet spot of paying generously for good work without disrupting the norm of the economic context. We find ourselves on the eve of across-the-board raises that we believe will be a significant blessing. We will accompany these raises with a basic education on the baby steps and will be providing incentive matches for the exercise of the first four steps. We’re setting up a similar education for the trafficking survivors in our care, again, all originating from situations of severe poverty. For a handful of people who were raised in poverty and still have a foot in it, if you asked them what they thought about Dave’s program, my guess is that they would say it was pretty cool.
With hope to avert arrows going into my back as I try to pull a couple from Dave’s, I have some commentary about poverty and Corley’s post: I read his observations as an encouragement to take full advantage of the resources that we have. I don’t read it as an indictment on those who don’t have any; I realize that it could have been presented differently or, at least, more completely – There are risks to posting blogs instead of books. All of our work is in the context of poverty. I’m realistic to the fact that many don’t have boots or straps. Children don’t choose the setting of their birth and raising. I’m further realistic that a person can be born in to very severe situations even here in America. More, the environmental factors around endemic poverty are oppressive and, all too often, rife with multiple forms of violence against those who are trapped in it which only strengthens the trap. Because people give, some out of relative wealth and some very sacrificially, out of modest means, we are able to do our work. My guess is quite a host of our donors have had a date with Dave at some point in their journey.
My perspective is as one who sits at a big table. I have no expectations that anyone agree with my theology or my perspective. It is a disposition that leaves me more apt to understand the very good that someone has to offer even while not finding full agreement with them. At that, I really enjoy everyone at the table; but I think the guy down at the far end advocating for the poor shouldn’t be too quick to give the boot to the guy on the other end who is advocating for financial health. Chances are he has something of great value to offer. He might even be the one funding your advocacy.