30 Days of Anti-Racism: #8 Selective Scarcity

While living on the U.S. Mexico border, I once asked an FBI investigator how difficult it was for his agency to discover evidence of the illicit drug trade. “In most cases not hard at all,” he said, “we just follow the money.”

His point was that the use of money, not the amount of money, was the best indicator of the values of the person using it. Vain, self-indulgent behavior is not just expensive, it is obvious.

Within a complex organization, money is blood. In a healthy situation, it will carry much needed oxygen and nutrients evenly throughout the organism. When blockages develop, one blockage can produce a blood clot leading to an even more serious blockage.

When a person is suffering symptoms of cancer or heart failure, a doctor will often order an examination of the veins and arteries, looking for unhealthy structures. A special contrast dye is injected into the bloodstream to help the detector better image the flow of blood.

Anti-racism injects that contrast agent. It will expose where money is flowing, freely and evenly throughout the body or around a cancerous tumor or arterial blockage.

Structural racism hoards money and creates scarcity. Within a structurally racist society, true scarcity is likely experienced by many. The appeal to scarcity, therefore, can seem very credible or ordinary.

Selective Scarcity is a tactical appeal to scarcity in order to create and justify scarcity. This tactic is so pervasive, so common, that most of us will remember it in the words of a parent, “We can’t afford that,” translated, “I want to use my money for something else.” Paternalistic hierarchies appeal to scarcity in the same fashion.

Jesus taught “For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also” (Luke 12:34). The use of money reveals our values even as it influences our values. This gives money a special power within structural racism.

Money will flow as those in power determine even as it reinforces the gradients of privilege that establish that power. The heart follows the treasure. The inequitable use of money hardens racist structures even as it corrupts those who direct and benefit from those structures.

The following statements are examples of selective scarcity:

  • We have too many elders.
  • We need to lower apportionments (for the rich churches).
  • We need to direct bill the cost of benefits (previously paid through apportionments).
  • We need to significantly cut the Campus Ministry budget.
  • We can’t afford to staff a Hispanic/Ethnic Local Church coordinator.
  • We can’t afford to provide equitable compensation.
  • We can’t afford to fix our church camp.
  • We can’t afford to provide scholarships for seminary.
  • We aren’t in the business of maintaining retirement homes.
  • We can’t afford the Mexican-American program at the seminary.
  • We can’t afford to keep the (Hispanic) associate pastor.
  • The Rio Grande Conference is financially unsustainable.
  • We can’t afford to include new Hispanic work in the conference budget.
  • I can’t afford to move to that church or appointment.

Each of these appeals to scarcity was untrue, conditioned solely upon the values and priorities of those making the responses, those whom one cabinet member would call “the deciders.” The rejected priorities shared the common attributes of re-distribution of wealth, flattening the economy of the church, and extending missionary outreach through collective financial responsibility.

SELECTIVE SCARCITY AND ITINERANT MINISTRY

Selective scarcity impacts how United Methodists understand itinerant ministry, the ancient practice of traveling from place to place in the sharing of the gospel.

Jesus practiced itinerant ministry and taught about it, sharing a parable of a sower going out to sow seeds. In his parable, the sower generously spreads seed over four different kinds of soil: thorny, rocky, trampled, and fertile. Three of the soils are undermined by their context. Light and water cannot reach the seeds in the thorny soil. Roots cannot form in the rocky soil. Birds swoop down and eat the seed sown along the road, but the fertile soil yields fruit in abundance.

In this biblical model for itinerant ministry, the same sower is sent to all four types of soil.

If this were a United Methodist parable, however, the story would go like this:

A wealthy investor hired four people to sow seed. One was a woman. One was Hispanic. One was Black. One was White. The investor decided where each should work.

He sent the woman to work among the thorns. Perhaps she could clear the thorns. He sent the Hispanic to sow in the rocky soil. Perhaps he could dig up the rocks. He sent the Black sower to sow along the road. Perhaps he could build a raised-bed garden. He sent the White sower, who also happened to be his son, to plant in the fertile soil.

When the harvest was complete, the investor looked over the fruit that was produced. He said, “three of you failed to produce much fruit, but this one produced much fruit. He then took from those with little fruit and gave it to the one who was more fruitful.

Selective scarcity is at the core of the appointment system of the United Methodist Church. Within that system, the most privileged clergy are tasked with the work of distributing privilege, selecting a few for affluence and many others for scarcity.

The practice of selective scarcity is so prominent that it is enshrined in a prayer often spoken during the fixing of appointments.

I am no longer my own, but thine.
Put me to what thou wilt, rank me with whom thou wilt.
Put me to doing, put me to suffering.
Let me be employed by thee or laid aside for thee.
Exalted for thee, or brought low for thee.
Let me be full, let me be empty.
Let me have all things, let me have nothing.
I freely and heartily yield all things to thy pleasure and disposal.

https://www.umcdiscipleship.org/blog/the-wesley-covenant-prayer-and-the-baptismal-covenant

This prayer, originally penned to challenge wealthy laypersons within the Church of England, now elicits mass consent to selective scarcity.

When pastors are told to offer themselves “without reserve,” they do so within a system that may select them for scarcity or determine that they are not a “good fit” within an upper-middle class Anglo-dominant church.

SELECTIVE SCARCITY AND CHURCH POLITY

Selective scarcity impacts the church at its highest levels of organization.

Consider the recent plans to carve up the United Methodist Church along Anglo-dominant lines of partisan ideology. Compare those plans, and their justification, with the anti-segregation rationale for the recent merger of the Anglo-dominant Southwest Texas Conference and the culturally specialized Rio Grande Conference.

I asked one cabinet member, “When is a separate structure considered specialization and liberation, and when it is considered segregation?”

The answer was honest. “That depends on whether you have money.”

SELECTIVE SCARCITY AND KARMA

Like the philosophy of Karma, selective scarcity is self-justifying. The experience of scarcity becomes the criterion by which an individual or community is selected for scarcity. This, in turn, serves to justify, harden, and amplify historic inequities that themselves are the product of structural racism.

Selective scarcity does not respond to scarcity. It selects who will experience scarcity. It speaks not of what an institution can afford but rather what it chooses to afford.

Selective scarcity is a lie.

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