I wondered where I was in the 99% opposed to the 1%, so I typed my stipend into Global Rich List and awaited the measure of my oppression. Blow me, I am in the top 3% of earners on the planet. If you add my wife’s income we are in the top .89%. Despite all this “wealth” we are still entitled to child tax credits.
Do we think of ourselves as wealthy fat cats in our everyday lives? No, because we measure our wealth in spending power and against the ultra rich rather than the basic standard of living we enjoy. In my experience it takes a lot of money in your pocket for someone to admit to being “rich” in the west.
I learned this lesson serving my curacy in a prosperous Surrey village. Across the street from the church was a school which cost thousands of pounds a year to send a boy to. They used our church like a chapel for Harvest and Christmas.
One year I drew Harvest duty. This meant standing in my best vestments, representing the Established Church with a smile and a harmless word as the boys and their parents arrived with traditional harvest gifts of produce and tinned food. This annual service was part of the process of forging them into the fine Englishmen who would run the country and economy for the rest of us. We sang traditional hymns and prayed traditional prayers thanking God for this abundance.
Then in all my finery I stepped up for the talk. I started by asking people to put their hands up if they thought they were rich. No one did in a mix of false humility and suspicion of a trick question.
I proceeded to ask questions about being employed in a steady job, regular holidays, flying on planes, running water (hot and cold) on demand in their house, car ownership, money in their pockets, readily available food on demand, transport, shelter etc. As you have probably worked out, the point was that by the standards of the rest of the world, they (and I) were rich beyond the dreams of most of the planet and all of it displayed by the simplest of things that we take for granted.
When you do this sort of thing in church usually lightbulbs appear over people’s’ heads as they get what you are saying, even if they don’t agree. Afterwards at least one person says, “lots to think about vicar”.
Here, it was stony silence. The headmaster didn’t thank me and led the rest of the service with not even a glance towards me. Clearly I had deviated from the script by drawing attention to wealth and how easily it sits with us. I guess they thought I was being critical. All I was trying to do was acknowledge how rich our everyday lives are in the west and to be thankful.
A couple of days later a group of boys from the school arrived to ask me questions. They were researching a project about the community they lived in and they were interviewing people who worked in the community. They asked, “What one thing do you think would make this village a better place to live in?” Without thinking I said, “If everyone made less money”. Their teacher went white and wrapped it up quickly. I was never asked to do anything associated with the school again. Apparently it was okay to be rich but not to have it pointed out or questioned.
It is easier to hide behind this 99% figure than to come clean about our own addiction to unsustainable standards of living funded by the capital we are all suddenly against. Maybe we need to be a bit uncomfortable at our own wealth which has come at the expense of others. Maybe it’s time to let the true global poor point at us and single us out as the fat cats they must see us to be. And unlike the City and global capital, perhaps we should be moved by their accusations enough to attempt a different way of living as far was we have the power to do so.