Theology of generosity

Daily Reading for May 13 • Frances Perkins, Public Servant and Prophetic Witness, 1965

As I’ve considered Frances’ life, it’s struck me that she addressed one of the questions that all of us must answer. To use Cain’s phrasing, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” To put the question in more religious terms: “Does God have intentions for our relationships as God’s people?” “Are we responsible before God for more than our own lives?”

As you may know, Frances came of age and was nurtured in the Anglo-Catholic culture of New York City of the early 20th century. That culture, influenced by Roman Catholic and Jewish thinking, held a “theology of generosity,” which contrasted sharply with a “theology of righteousness.”

The theology of righteousness held that people get what they deserve, that their wealth and status are signs of their relationship with God. It was a theology of social Darwinism, a combination American individualism and Calvinist Predestinarianism. Good, hardworking people get what they deserve. Sinful, lazy people get what they deserve. Good people are not responsible for alleviating poverty, although they may out of their goodness offer charity if they choose.

In contrast, the theology of generosity held that all we have is a gift from a generous God. The particulars may be influenced by our own effort, but the foundation is the generosity of God who gives to all people without regard to our particular circumstances or merit. If we are wealthy, we are wealthy only by God’s grace. If we are poor, we are poor because the circumstances of our lives have blocked our access to God’s blessings. It is, therefore, the obligation of those who have been blessed to share those blessings with the poor.

That belief, along with Frances’ direct experience with the grinding poverty of the people who worked in the mills and the factories of the industrial revolution and her witness of the Triangle Shirtwaist fire, caused her to work with unrelenting passion for the establishment of what we now call the social safety net, most particularly the regulation of labor and Social Security. . . .

The tensions between rich and poor which Frances confronted have not faded. They have only increased. In our day many believe that there are not enough resources to go around and that it is our right to keep whatever we can hold. If we use 25% of the world’s oil, well, so be it. We have a right to our place in the sun. A theology of scarcity has replaced a theology of righteousness, but it still means haves and have-nots.

The question before us is whether or not all God’s children deserve a place in the sun, whether or not the abundance which God has been given might not be used in ways that enrich many more lives.

From a sermon preached by the Rt. Rev. Stephen T. Lane, Bishop of Maine, on May 15, 2010 at a festival evensong celebrating the life and witness of Frances Perkins, at St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church, Newcastle, Maine, the home parish of Frances Perkins.

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