Trends in America 3: Disparity

In our last two posts, we have looked at the trends affecting people living in the United States. Our hope is that in reviewing these, we can more effectively reach out to Americans with the gospel because we are able to deal with the issue that are most affecting them.

Two weeks ago, we saw that stress was on the rise for Americans, which had an impact on their physical health. Last week we saw that people felt their relationships were being frayed by incivility. This week, we see how our social fabric is being affected by perpetual inequality.

Many minorities point out that the stress that has become so prominent in the United States of late is nothing new to their communities. Stress related illnesses have long beset them because they have had to deal with the double reality of what is affecting the larger culture and the specific social, political, and economic disadvantages that have been their lot. The only reason that stress is being noticed now is because the White population is beginning to deal with it in larger numbers.

The Stanford Center on Poverty & Inequality has tracked these inequalities over the years. Most recently, it published a special report in its magazine Pathways called “State of the Union 2017.” In this report, it pointed out that the United States remains a divided country, especially along racial lines. Approximately 20-25% of Blacks, Hispanics, and Native Americans live at or below the poverty line, whereas only 10-12% of Whites and Asians live below it. There are similar gaps in employment, safety net use, housing, education, incarceration, health, earnings, wealth, and mobility. In each case, White and Asian people are in far better situations than Blacks, Hispanics, and Native Americans.

Approximately 20-25% of Blacks, Hispanics, and Native Americans live at or below the poverty line, whereas only 10-12% of Whites and Asians live below it.

The primary reason for these disparities are the “starting conditions” of the people that belong to various groups (p. 4). The United States has largely allowed its racial divisions to settle into geographical divisions, as well, with different races largely populating different neighborhoods and regions. Since neighborhoods define the access people have to education, employment, recreation, and many other opportunities, this differentiation sets a trajectory that many people will follow their entire lives. Those in neighborhoods with greater opportunities in them start with the capacity for greater achievement.

This trajectory is often generational. While individuals who are set in resource-poor neighborhoods can certainly rise above their circumstances, this is difficult to do and is not a reflection on the character of those who cannot. As a result, children who grow up in these neighborhoods often become parents in these same neighborhoods, whose children have the same disadvantages that they did.

This has led Stanford to argue for greater disruption of the systems and have allowed for this level of inequality. As explained in the executive summary, this disruption would involve the need to “cut off at the source those processes of cumulative advantage and disadvantage that convert smaller differences early in life to larger ones in adulthood” (p. 4).

As evangelists called to speak the good news of God into these situations, we must do more than remain agnostic and apathetic about situations that leave so many people in a double-bind of stress. The good news of God must not just be about life-after-death, but about life. That life should be here-and-now as well as into eternity.

The good news of God must not just be about life-after-death, but about life. That life should be here-and-now as well as into eternity.

The evangelist needs to start by hearing the particular pain that people are experiencing, and then working to ameliorate it as a demonstration of the good news. Just as Jesus healed and fed alongside of inviting people to participate in the Kingdom by joining the church he was establishing, so evangelists today must help create communities that offer to aid people’s quality of life even as continue to share the gospel and invite people to receive it. The goal is always to welcome people into a life of discipleship. Making it possible for people to enter that life requires removing the barriers that bar them and their children from living in the first place.

The need for this sort of evangelism is more necessary than we might realize. Mark Juergensmeyer, in Terror in the Mind of God, points out that a culture which allows for a specific group of people to stay perpetually disaffected from the mainstream, under consistent stress, and expectant of incivility that leads to violence, is a culture that becomes a fertile recruiting ground for radicals. It should be little wonder that the number of radicals from the United States who have either left to join terrorist organizations, or who are self-radicalized into terrorists, has increased substantially over the years. (See my video on evangelism and radicalization for more details on this.)

The best way to defeat radicalization is to counter its bad news of never-ending pain that must be overcome violently with the good news of a Kingdom that offers purpose and value for all. Better than a gathering of angry people who push each other to be violent is a community of hopeful people who love one another and reach out in love to those beyond them.

The best way to defeat radicalization is to counter its bad news of never-ending pain that must be overcome violently with the good news of a Kingdom that offers purpose and value for all.

Given the danger of radicalization in our present situation, evangelism is not just about saving souls, but about saving the world from destroying itself. Loving evangelists who deal with the disparities around the United States are not pushing a religious agenda. They are calling those who have faced the worst this nation has to offer back from ruining their own lives and others. In this way, evangelism is meant to save the world, not just individuals.