Downward Mobility

Growing up in a white, middle-class, Christian home, and regularly attending a protestant church, I learned the concepts of the protestant work ethic and upward mobility from an early age. I didn’t use the terms, but I was fully indoctrinated into the overarching belief system.

“Work hard.”

“Do well in school.”

“Take advantage of your many opportunities.

“Get a good job.”

“Save money.”

“Spend wisely.”

I heard all of these exhortations quite often while I was growing up. At home. At church. At school. These concepts played a large role in forming me into who I am today. For much of it I feel quite grateful. I’m glad I am well educated. I’m glad I have never had to really worry about money. I’m glad I learned how to work hard.

But something about all of this doesn’t sit right. I believe in working hard. I believe in being wise in how I use my money. I believe in the importance of education. But somehow all of these things became very connected with faith while I was growing up. It wasn’t just that I should work hard, do well in school, and spend my money wisely. There was also an underlying assumption that these qualities were not just “keys to success” but also characteristics of a “good Christian life.”

I don’t buy that anymore.

This belief system I grew up in, a belief system that has been handed down from generation to generation in America, must come to an end. The marriage of these concepts with Christianity must be annulled. Jesus did not live a life of upward mobility. In fact, it’s hard to argue against the idea that his message should lead to a certain kind of downward mobility for people like me.

But it’s not easy to change.

By getting a good education, working hard, making good grades, going to graduate school, buying a home, and starting a family, I have joined myself to this system with bonds that are very difficult to break.

I hardly know how else to live. How can I begin to climb down this ladder? How can I get off the ladder altogether?

These are the questions I am asking myself right now.

What does Jesus’ message of downward mobility for the middle-class, white, American mean for me?

What does it mean for my career?

How should I even think about my career?

What about my budget? My expenses? My debt? Where I live? What car I drive?

And perhaps most importantly, what does the alternative look like? How does one live the Jesus way, rather than the way of upward mobility, with a family, a job, and a mortgage?

What do you think? Is anyone else asking these questions?


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19 Responses

  1. Hi Adam,

    For sure there are others grappling with what defines who we really are, and what/who is it that truly defines us anyway!

    I’m not trying to promote or send traffic my way re: my blogs, but I have been trying to put down some of what you’re asking into perspective on my blogs.

    Also, I don’t know if you have ever listened to any of the pod casts by Wayne Jacobsen (Co-hosted by Wayne Jacobsen and Brad Cummings, The God Journey facilitates a growing conversation among those who are thinking outside the box of organized religion). but so much of what you have been processing from what I have seen by reading your blog is being addressed there big time.

    The latest pod cast, Beyond the Harness is one of best ever imo.


  2. I’ve had a hard time for the past three years reconciling my beliefs about Christianity and family, specifically children. Jesus calls us to so just what you’re talking about, yet, it seems incongruous to raising a family. Does that mean that Jesus does not want us to have families? And that those of us that do want to take good care of their children aren’t following the gospel? I have no idea. But it seems it’s virtually impossible to pick up a cross and follow Him, when I have to get more diapers at the store and pick up our daughter from day care.

  3. GK – that will be my next post – thinking about downward mobility while married with kids…I have no idea what I’ll write…

  4. I think downward mobility in itself has the exact same capacity as upward mobility to take on a godlike sheen. It looks so nice, theoretically, and either direction can seem more holy to us, depending on where we stand. I agree that much of modern Christianity presents financial stability and even affluence as godly, and I agree that it’s wrong. But I don’t think the key to following Jesus lies in downward mobility (hear me out). Just as the kingdom of God doesn’t lie in success and riches and fame, it doesn’t lie in giving up our houses and cars and careers to go do…whatever. UNLESS…unless that’s what we are called to do.

    I know this “called” terminology can get old, but we’re right back at the “do what Jesus tells YOU” thing. Because, yes, for some people, downward mobility is right, because it’s what Jesus has called them to/told them to do. For others, it would be wrong, just another form of chasing after a certain kind of status. It certainly seems like it would be easier to see and follow Jesus without the baggage of debt and mortgage and family…but isn’t that what the upward mobility trend is about, too–ease? There is something incredibly real and important about finding Jesus where we are, showing and sharing him with the people who surround us, and following him where he leads us. But I just don’t know if downward mobility *in and of itself* makes that any easier of a task.

    I am interested to hear your further thoughts on all this.

  5. Well put Amy – I don’t think “downward mobility” is the way to go either.

    My wife and I are about to buy a house. Why? Because it makes the most financial sense for us right now. Does this mean we’re buying into the “upward mobility” theory? I don’t think so. We are doing our very best to get away from American consumerism. Rather than throwing money away every month for rent, we’ll be investing. And Jesus talked about being a good steward of even money.

    It’s certainly not wrong to be successful. I think we can use success for the kingdom of God. It’s when we sit on that success without giving back and actively participating in the Kingdom that it becomes a problem.

    Certainly, the popular notions of climbing the corporate ladder, as it were, can easily get out of hand. Our lives can be consumed by success. But I can’t think that God would hold it against us if we get higher education and buy a home for our family, especially if all the while we are trying to follow Christ and love the people around us and give back to the communities around us. I think that there are some good things about the success system. It’s important not to swing the pendulum the other way. As much as we talk about releasing the world of poverty, for instance, it would seem absurd to actively pursue poverty for ourselves.

  6. Amy – a couple thoughts. First of all, I’m not saying I want more “ease” with downward mobility. Maybe that’s what happens, but maybe not. But that’s not what I’m saying. I just think we shouldn’t be pulled into the system of capitalism/consumerism/careerism, etc. These things are simply not the way of Jesus. And these things are married to Christianity and western culture. And to get out seems very difficult. But I think we must get out – the way of Jesus calls us out and leads us out.

    I’m also not saying we should necessarily give up “our houses and cars and careers,” etc. I’m saying we need to give up this system that Christianity has helped to create. It’s against the way of Jesus. The way of Jesus is always going to be simplicity and giving away what we have and not being controlled/consumed by things (which can happen whether you’re rich, poor, or in-between).

    About your thoughts about being called, etc. I think there is much room for where individual Christians are called. But I also think Jesus says a whole lot about money and possessions. I think we need to take those things seriously. I don’t think those things are a matter of calling. I think those things are the natural result of Christian transformation – the natural result of following Jesus. And it’s not a matter of calling.

    Does any of this make sense? What do you think Amy?

  7. Hey Richard – thanks for the links and info. I’ll check it out.

  8. First off, let me clarify. I wasn’t saying you were looking for ease, etc. I’ve just seen a trend lately of people talking about feeling guilty, burdened, etc. because of their upwardly mobile lifestyle. And I’m not resistant to that. My main beef is, as a much lower than middle-class American, I can say emphatically that my having less money, stuff, position, education, career, etc. does not give me better or higher spirituality. The poor (in any classification) are not better or holier than the middle-class or the rich. I needed to say that, but perhaps I didn’t say it so well the first time around.

    As to the rest–Jesus calling all of us to get out of capitalism, careerism, consumerism–I think there is something to it, but I personally struggle with it for several reasons. I am WELL aware that my family is better off than the majority of people around the world. At the same time, we are worse off than the majority of Americans. It’s hard for me to say (admit?) that I am consumeristic when, compared to so many of my countrymen, I am poor! Again, I realize, and am thankful for, the massive amount of comfort I live in, and I know I am not truly poor. But I am frankly so sick and tired of struggling financially, and it’s nigh impossible for me to conceive of living on less. And perhaps in my case it’s more my attitude that needs to change, but I honestly don’t know. How does true downward mobility apply to someone who is (by American standards), already poor? Again, I don’t know.

    But my uncertainty on my own position is one of the reasons I look forward to hearing more on this from you. It has certainly sparked an (uncomfortable) question in my brain/spirit.

  9. My old pastor used to say “Money doesn’t make people happy, but it does make happy people happier.” I think this is in line with what Amy is saying. Money, position, power, etc. does not determine your spiritual state. You do.

    I think Amy would agree with me on this- until you’ve been one paycheck (or less) from homelessness (or already there, as I once was) you’ll never understand the intense need (and not desire) to never be there again. Especially when you have others depending on you.

    The main problem with not seeking financial security is that finance is all you can think about. You can’t think about anything else but money when you don’t have any. And it’s difficult to say “Jesus, feed me spiritually.” when what you really need to say is “Jesus, feed my daughter.”

    Also, as the oldest of six kids, and the child of a father who never once planned for the future, I know that my father failed me and my siblings in part because he did not provide us with financial security. Therefore, I have realized that part of my job is to provide financially for my younger brother and sister, and my family when I have one, because it is my duty to help them be in a position to be educated, healthy, and capable of helping others.

    But everyone is different, and you have to listen to your heart and follow that. I just ask that you seriously consider the long term impact it could have on your daughter- the struggles that she will have as a young adult if you decide to not pursue upward mobility. I’m sorry if I sound judgemental, I’m not. But I understand all too well what kind of struggle she would have (in fact it will be harder for her than it was for me), and I don’t wish it on anyone.

    But as Amy said perhaps you are being called to something different, and that is something that only you and Brooke can know.

  10. Angenaline – these are all legitimate concerns/questions. Absolutely. And I think about all of those things. However, part of what I’m trying to get at with this post is wondering how all these questions/concerns relate to the message of Jesus. Jesus just said some very radical things about money and possessions. And I don’t think the church has taken these things seriously – I’m wanting to think about how we can begin to take these things seriously.

    Amy – I can absolutely see what you are saying. I don’t think the answer is to be poor – you’re right, being poor doesn’t make you any more spiritual, etc. Again though, I’m just stuck on the crazy things Jesus says. Maybe I’ll pull out some specific examples and use that for another post. Thanks for thinking through this with me…

  11. Jesus seemed to target money more than almost anything else. That’s what makes it so challenging. He didn’t target being chaste, or faithful, or honest, or hardworking, nearly as much as he targeted physical wealth. That’s why it’s hard to shrug off material wealth issues.

    I mean, I’m not sure how more explicit Jesus could have made the rich man/camel/eye of a needle thing. While we don’t know how rich is rich, he was pretty up front and explicit about how those with money are going to have a real hard time achieving The Kingdom.

    This only raises a slew of questions: Am I rich? How much money should I give away? All of it?

    While we don’t know where those goalposts are, we know they are there, and we cannot deny that Jesus repeatedly harped on the money thing. And personally, it terrifies me.

  12. Great thoughts Adam. This this post really challenged my thinking. This has been in the back of my mind for awhile now but I haven’t had the words to express them. Similarly to you I was raised in an upper middle class family and have that mindset. It is super challenging to consider something different but Jesus’ example seems to do that.

  13. Hey, Adam. Great discussion… sorry I’m late to the party, but I have a couple of brief thoughts you might like.

    Money has it’s place. Mobility (up or down) can be good or bad. But mobility is not *necessarily* the enemy of God. Then again, *anything* can become the enemy of God in my life, so… I guess, there you go.

    I think what I hear you saying in your post and comments is that the _Marriage_ of certain assumptions to your people’s faith… that’s what bugs you. I get that. To me, what seems weird is that if such things are assumptions, maybe the faith is just an assumption, and maybe that means it’s all just hollow malarkey. I’ve been there, and often it’s impossible to tell, but something just seems off.

    Poverty ain’t automatically more spiritual, but wealth tends to make better masks.

    One last thought: William Bradford said the Pilgrims’ community flourished during hardships and died out after prosperity came. I don’t know what that’s worth… I wouldn’t make it into a doctrine either way… I don’t even know if he was RIGHT! (?) But I think there’s definitely something to what you’re getting at.

    And I heartily agree with you and all who said it still boils down to whether Jesus Christ is Lord of one’s situation.

  14. […] sort of Christian people tend to refer to as a hero.” The books follows Gall’s pursuit of “downward mobility” (uh oh) and tracks his various attempts at ministry, relationships, and finding meaning and […]

  15. I think so much of this comes down to relationships.
    Jesus taught that love is the most important thing.
    Love is all about relationship.
    You can be very weathly and have lots of stuff, but if it isolates you, it is not good.
    I’ve seen people with very little share the small amount of stuff between them.
    Someone told me about a man who’s goal is to give away $1 billion dollars.
    Throwing money at problems is not the complete answer, but it does take money to fix some problems.
    Scripture talks about the love of money being the problem, not money itself.
    When Jesus got involved in individual lives it happened in many ways.
    For the fishermen that he first called, you could argue that they didn’t give up much. But what about the tax collector? Later, another tax collector kept working but now went about it fairly and returned money. For the rich young man, when Jesus told him to sell everything, was it because the man put money first?
    There is no one answer for everyone.
    My wife and I used to imagine how much money and stuff we could have.
    Now we try to imagine what we need to get by.
    When our kids were young, providing for them was a primary concern.
    Now that they are older, the values that we tried to share, be self-sufficient and help others is taking hold in their lives.
    As our youngest gets ready to move on to college, we are looking to further reduce our finacial footprint and give more energy to our relationships at church and work.
    We’ve got this 3 year snapshot of Jesus’ life in ministry, but what did his life look like before that?
    I’m thinking he was a good citizen.
    A positive part of church, work, and friends and family.

    Something to be wary of is substituting cool for wealthy.

  16. Hi Folks,

    I have one thought that I hope you will all consider, especially if you come to think it is wrong. I want to know, because I am considering making some serious decisions based on it.

    The thought is this: often it is not what we call the love of money, but the money itself that is the problem–if it is still in my pocket.

    Let me restate this as simply as I can. If I have more money (or stuff) than I need, and my neighbor has less money (or stuff) than she needs. And, if I keep such money (or stuff) against my sibling’s needs–then I am sinning greatly.

    I do not have to be “in love” with my money at all.

    I don’t see anyway around it, unless you want to ignore Jesus altogether.

    Said in another way, hoarding anything against the need of another IS the love of money.

    Please, someone show me where this is wrong.

    If someone sees someone in need and fails to provide for him, rather says, “be well”–how can the love of God be in such a one?

    Jesus, did not tell the rich young ruler to go and quit loving his money and then come follow him. No, he told him to give his money and stuff to those who needed it.

    Jesus did not send the goats to his left because they ‘loved their money’ too much. No, he sent them to his left because they did not give to those in need. Love of money had nothing to do with it. Hoarding money against someone else’s need had everything to do with it.

    The Good Samaritan was not good because he did not love his money. No, he was good because he gave his money to someone in need–not to mention his love and compassion.

    It seems to me that if our bank accounts, homes, and hearts possess something someone else needs then they are in fact possessing us. We are owned by them–and not owned by God. We are not fully God’s children.

    I know this seems harsh. But we are to pick up our own cross daily and follow him, right? Unfortunately, the cross is not a pleasant thing to bear. And, also unfortunately, I don’t think the merely downwardly mobile have taken it quite far enough. It seems to me the only the voluntarily destitute come close to the measure required. This is hard news indeed.

    I am also afraid that it might get worse. It seems that we need to radically adjust our expectations of following Jesus. The type of downward mobility we need to follow is no good unless it puts us face to face with the distinct possibility of not only falling off the last rung of the ladder–but six feet under!

    Carrying the cross can only lead to being on one. That end is not pleasant, happy, or financially secure in any way. Only by giving our lives can we save them, right?

    Finally, unless you think I am all gloom and doom. I’m not. The only way to Easter is through be it. They are not my rules. I (we) just need to run the race in front of us!

  17. Kai – I think what you are saying really does fall in line with the things Jesus said. I also have a great difficulty getting around it. But we do find ways around it, don’t we?

    I think Jesus’ way was to give and give until you become one of the poor. There are all kinds of arguments against this, and they make a lot of sense, but I can’t see how else to read what Jesus is saying. And I agree with you, that leads to “falling off of the last rung of the ladder” and even going “six feet under.”

  18. Thanks for the note Adam. I should say, for the record, that I am the Chief of Sinners, especially in this area. If anyone wants to dispute that–they need only know that I work for a hedge fund!

    Finally, it occurs to me that the situation with Christians in the developed world is a bit like a moment in the Lord of the Rings. OK, I know, I can hear the collective groan going up all over cyberspace (ok, that is way too generous, since I doubt more than three people will read this), but bear with me.

    There is a moment where Gandalf is in Bilbo’s house at Bag End after Bilbo has just had a bit of fun with The Ring. He enjoys the ring and the privileges it brought (long life, wealth, adventure, fun, etc.) After the party, Gandalf stands in his house waiting, asking, hoping, that Bilbo will voluntarily give it up. He wants to know exactly how much power it has over Bilbo. He is worried that he may not be able to give it up. So, he prompts Bilbo to give it up. Bilbo goes ballistic, even though he knows he needs to do exactly that–give up the ring.

    Of course, my point is obvious, but for those who don’t like metaphors, let me make it plain. If you make the ring a picture for the things that money can bring, both good and evil, you have a relatively accurate picture of the modern church in the developed world in Bilbo. We all know we are “hooked” on this stuff. It brings us longer life, wealth, fun, adventure, etc… but it is killing us inside. We are in some real and insidious sense all money junkies. We need to get off the sauce. The only way to do it is to voluntarily give it up–completely.

    The upshot is that Bilbo barely survives his entanglement with the ring. It makes him feel like, “butter spread over too much toast.” God seems to suggest that none of us will survive it if we decide we can’t live without it.

    Dear God, I really really hope I am wrong. It would make life so much easier!

  19. […] discussing downward mobility and the way of Jesus, I think it is important to stop and consider Jesus for a […]

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