Review of More Than Enough: Living Abundantly in a Culture of Excess

A Review of More Than Enough: Living Abundantly in a Culture of Excess
by Lee Hull Moses
Westminster John Knox Press, 2016
Clergy & Laity United for Justice and Peace, February 14, 2017

Today’s reviewed text is different in style and in substance from our previous studies over the past two years. We have read and discussed books by academic economists and experts, including Joseph Stiglitz, Thomas Piketty, Michael Sandel, Raj Chetty, and Robert Reich. We heard an historical perspective on Abraham Lincoln and American opportunity, and we appreciated the remarks and wisdom of a long-time employee of the Office of Management and Budget. We even gained new insights from two demographers, Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett, who documented the many negative social impacts of economic inequality.

We can now articulate the nature of economic inequality and describe its pernicious effects on whole societies, especially those in the lower socio-economic strata. We now understand how inequality is created by self-serving policies and economic subsystems, such as trade and tax policies, by and for wealthy people of power and influence. And we understand what needs to be done to correct the many destructive “rules of the game” that create and sustain inequality.

Finally, we have become painfully aware of the immense challenges of changing an unfair and deleterious system. Most of us feel overwhelmed by those challenges, especially after the shocking recent presidential election. We may be in danger of becoming unmoored from our basic value systems by what we are facing. And so your leadership team determined that we might benefit from a break in our approach by looking at what each of us can do in personal ways.

In her 2016 book, More Than Enough: Living Abundantly in a Culture of Excess, Lee Hull Moses shares with the reader her wide-ranging thoughts on the topic aptly described by her book’s title. Moses asks the question: Given our fortunate positions as reasonably well-off people living in the world’s most prosperous nation, “How do we live?” (p. xii)

Moses acknowledges two disturbing realities: 1) “The gap between rich and poor is getting bigger all the time,” and 2) “…people in the United States … use a hugely disproportionate amount of the world’s resources.” (p. xiii)

Then Moses begins to get personal. She acknowledges that she and her family enjoy a comfortable life, due in no small measure not only to having made wise choices but also to inherited advantages of coming from upper middle class majority-race families with resources.

Then she poses a quandary for faithful people. “Some might use the word ’blessed’ here, but I am hesitant to do so – not because I don’t feel blessed; I do, absolutely. But things get a little squishy when I start to talk about the good things in my life as blessings. Because what about people who don’t have as much as I do? Or who have been hit by those disasters, large and small, that we’ve managed to miss? Have they not been blessed? Does God not care about them?” (p. xiv)

Then she includes the rest of us who live at least somewhat comfortable lives. The question now is: Are we rich, and therefore obligated in some way to address the needs of others less fortunate? Moses suggests: “… I can’t really tell you if you are rich or not. I can’t tell you if you ought to be reading this book or not. … But consider this: If you could afford to buy this book and have time to read it…if you own more than one technological device that requires a charger…if you’ve got a safe place to sleep tonight…if you know what you’re having for dinner or at least know that you can afford dinner…if you’ve got even a little savings to fall back on, if you’re starting to think about how you’ll put your kids through college, if you’ve eaten at a restaurant this week or swung through a drive-through… then I’m going to go out on a limb and say that you’ve got more than most people in the world.” (p. xiii)   So, “How    do we live?”

Moses is perturbed. How can she enjoy her experience of “the good life” when others are having such a different, and more difficult, experience of life? How can she enjoy her version of “the good life” when some of her good fortune comes at the expense of those less fortunate?           “How do we live?”

Moses is senior pastor of the First Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) in Greensboro, North Carolina; but she speaks not only as a Christian. She speaks as a member of an amorphous collective of aware people, people whose vision extends to the lives of those less fortunate. She is arrested – pulled up short – by the chasm between her life and the lives of too many others. And, so, she asks: “How do we live?”

More Than Enough: Living Abundantly in a Culture of Excess is her attempt to answer that basic question. Writing conversationally, Moses shares with the reader her ponderings of various answers, and she invites us into that conversation.

 

Moses opens her first chapter with an accounting of her trip to Nicaragua to visit friends who are serving as missionaries. Their lives provide a stark contrast to hers, and she tries to describe and to understand that contrast in terms of her faith. As she mentions other people’s answers to her basic question, she concludes: “There are a lot of faithful ways to live this life, to live responsibly and gratefully with the abundance of gifts we’ve been given. But there are also some not-so-faithful ways to live. There are, even, some sinful ways to live. … I want to live the most faithful, most grace-filled, most life-giving life I can.” (p. 7)

Always quick with a story, Moses opens her second chapter, entitled “Enough,” with a tale of snow sledding near her town’s only ice skating rink. Her young son, Jonathan, dutifully stood in line for his turn, but there was a problem – there were many kids lining up to sled, but there were only some 6 sleds. After a brief period of anxiety about whether Jonathan could borrow a sled, they got one and he held it still near the end of the line. Others were fretting about getting their own sleds when she heard a voice from the top of the hill. “Pass up the sleds!”

After some hesitation, she realized what was happening. The kids at the back of the line did not need, and could not even use, the sleds they had anxiously acquired. Only those at the top of the hill could use one of the few sleds available; those in line had to wait their turn to get to the top. So, by sharing – passing the sleds up to the head of the line – everyone got a sled when they needed one, and no one was left out. It turned out that the few sleds were enough, even for a large crowd!

That experience reminded Moses of similar stories from the Bible. There was the manna that appeared each morning to feed the Israelites as they wandered through the wilderness. Always there was enough manna for each new day, and it could neither be hoarded nor saved for later, for it would dissolve. Jesus fed a crowd with only two fish and five loaves, and when shared that was more than enough. Moses concludes: “Not everybody can have the most. But everybody can have enough!” (p. 13)

Moses hints at the content in her 3rd chapter, “The Complicated Life,” with its subtitle: “Simple Living Just Isn’t.” After quoting from a bumper sticker, “Live Simply So That Others Might Simply Live” (p. 17), she offers another sobering thought: “… there’s something significantly different between choosing a simple life and having one forced on you. … The choice to live simply is, in many ways, another by-product of privilege.” (pp. 21-22)

Moses offers several examples of exemplary living, from the Desert Mothers and Fathers to Francis of Assisi, Gandhi, and even Jesus. She then commends a book by Doris Janzen Longacre, Living More with Less, which includes “five life standards:”

  • Do justice, being mindful, conscious, and aware, so that never again can we make a decision about buying and using without thinking of the poor.
  • Learn from the world community, that is, paying attention to the life practices of our global neighbors and considering what we can learn from them.
  • Nurture people, [bringing] others to this full life and growth in the kingdom of God.
  • Cherish the natural order, honoring the earth and all of creation.
  • Nonconform freely, swimming upstream against the current of culture. (pp. 22-23)

Such principles are not unknown to those of The Way, the Christian faith, leading Moses to point out that Longacre is a faithful Mennonite. (p. 24)

In chapter 4, Moses bases her reflections on Psalms of lament, even offering her own transliterations and parallel thoughts.

Chapter 5 is subtitled “Much Ado about Money,” and Moses here stresses the practice of generosity. She commends the organization, “Share Save Spend,” founded by Nathan Dungan, as offering helpful approaches for both individuals and families. (p. 38) Citing the New Testament story of Zacchaeus, Moses suggests that a good “model for living with money [is] … Give generously, make amends, and do as little harm as possible going forward.” (p. 41)

Summarizing a chapter (7) on material goods, Moses writes: “Sometimes our stuff is a blessing. Sometimes it’s a curse.” Here her question is, How can we make our stuff be more like a blessing? One answer is to buy those products which are certifiably good for others, such as Fair Trade coffee and tea. (p. 65) She also suggests that we could live well with a lot less stuff, if we chose to do so. (p. 66) “Doing without has to be OK sometimes,” she writes. (p. 69)

Moses acknowledges that 21st century lives are busy, oriented to production, and connected, even tethered, to the larger world around us. In order to begin to make changes in our lifestyles, we need to take some breaks from our frenzied lives. We need to disconnect our electronic tethers, rise from our desks, and go outside for some “real air.” (p. 76) Of course you already know what name or terminology she assigns to these changes of behavior – yes, observe a sabbath! The same principle applies to spending our money – take a sabbath from buying, she suggests. “[D]isengage from the system, even briefly, so that we remember we are not enslaved to it.” (p. 77)

Moses has a chapter (9) on reaching out to others, especially to those whose lives are not as abundant as our own. Here our temptation is to assume that it is good enough if we make donations to ameliorate the difficulties of others. Instead, she avers, we need to recognize that donations may be a way of treating others as “thems,” objectifying them and remaining ignorant of the reasons why they are unable to do more for themselves. She offers a perspective described in the book, Solidarity Ethics, by Barbara Todd Peters. Peters presents three “categories of “moral intuition”: sympathy, responsibility, and mutuality (or solidarity). (pp. 83-84) We need to make every effort to move beyond mere sympathy, as valuable as it is in getting our attention and encouraging our generosity.

Once we see ourselves as acting with, and not just for, those in need, we need to take “a step beyond.” We must “open our mouths and speak out” against the powers and systems that create and perpetuate the world’s misalignment from the justice of the kingdom of God. (p. 105) Quoting the Jeff Bridges character in A Place at the Table, she offers this rationale: “Charity’s a great thing. But it’s not the way to end hunger. We don’t fund our Department of Defense through charity. We shouldn’t see that our kids are healthy through charity, either.” (p. 107) And for some of us, action may go beyond speech to marches or other actions. There is certainly a large number of worthy causes that need our involvement.

Moses offers two reminders in her final chapters (12 and 13). The first is an invitation to remember to take delight in the world, as it is, in all its beauty, despite its brokenness. The second is to remember that Christianity began as a countercultural movement, a grassroots movement called “the Way.” (p. 122) The church needs to uphold that tradition by pushing back against the empire, against all those systems and powers that keep some “from living the abundant lives God offers us.” (p. 123) Then, clearly referring to the global West, she reminds us that, “Like it or not, we are participants in the imperial parade.” (p. 124)

Moses’ conclusion offers a thoughtful list of claims and truths that can help to sustain us on our journeys towards abundance for all, towards enough (p. 130):

  • We can name that the world is good and that the world is broken;
  • We can trust that there is enough. We can pay attention to how our lives affect people and the planet and make responsible choices accordingly;
  • We can acknowledge the harm when our choices have negative impacts, even if there’d no other good choice;
  • We can weep for the ways the world is broken;
  • We can delight and give thanks for what we have;
  • We can learn from our neighbors;
  • We can put our hope in God’s promises;
  • We can participate in a tradition that tells us there’s an alternative story to the one we’re living;
  • We can live with the ambiguity of unclear answers;
  • We can love the world the best we can.