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Jeremy Del Rio: An Embarassment of Riches - Economic Injustice and the Church: Tri-State Voice, November 2004

"Money is a singular thing ... equally important to those who have it and those who do not." - John K. Galbraith, Economist

Why did God destroy Sodom?

Instinctively, we evangelicals think we know the answer. It's been engrained in us since Sunday school, and popular words - sodomy, sodomite - express our notion of Sodom's fatal flaw. An informal survey of a dozen church goers this past month affirmed it. We believe God destroyed Sodom because of homosexuality and related sexual behaviors.

But is the conventional understanding correct? Dr. Ray Bakke, theologian and urbanologist, challenged my own perceptions at the Concerts of Prayer Leadership Summit in October.

Although the Genesis account of Sodom's destruction refers to homosexuality and other passages reference "sexual immorality," the Prophet Ezekiel identifies Sodom's greatest sin.

"Now this was the sin of your sister Sodom: She and her daughters were arrogant, overfed and unconcerned; they did not help the poor and needy. They were haughty and did detestable things before me. Therefore I did away with them as you have seen." (Ezekiel 16:49-50, NIV)

Arrogant, overfed, and unconcerned citizens failed to help the poor and needy. We know from the story of Lot that not even ten people cared. So God destroyed the entire community.

Centuries later, the prophet Amos confronted Sodom's "sister" Israel about the same issue: "For three sins of Israel, even for four, I will not turn back my wrath.... They trample on the heads of the poor as upon the dust of the ground and deny justice to the oppressed.... Now then, I will crush you as a cart crushes when loaded with grain." (Amos 2: 6-7, 13)

Is there a city anywhere in America, or for that matter anywhere in the world, where the rich do not get richer as the poor get poorer? In our own City of New York - the "Capital of the World" and home to some of its greatest financial institutions - gentrification in Manhattan, and increasingly the outer boroughs, displaces the middle class and renders upward mobility for the poor virtually impossible in their own neighborhoods.

Yet how many of our evangelical leaders care enough to speak out against such injustices and the impact economic displacement has on families, education, domestic and substance abuse, and other social maladies? Some of our most outspoken voices rant about "sodomy" almost daily, and mobilize costly crusades against the politics of "sodomites." Yet they rarely draw attention to Sodom's sin that so easily befalls us in America.

In his book A Theology as Big as the City, Dr. Bakke recounts a conversation he had with a trustee of the Billy Graham Center at Wheaton College. Excited by Bakke's call for urban evangelism, the trustee confessed that he was "nervous" about the "social gospel" of "social action, social justice and social involvement." He then described his home in a "nice, safe, good, clean, suburban community where housing values increase and where ... his family can be secure when he travels."

Dr. Bakke politely showed him his hypocrisy. "Every reason you've given for living where you live is a social reason," he began. "If those social reasons didn't exist you'd leave. You've committed your whole life and family to those values." The only difference between the trustee's beliefs about systemic social justice and the unemployed migrant worker living in an overcrowded, crime-ridden shelter is the trustee has it, and the other doesn't.

The trustee's response: "I never thought about it that way."

In the 1960s, evangelicals fled cities in a phenomenon that sociologists have called "white fright, white flight." Dr. Bakke, then a seminary student in Chicago, was shaken. "They were my people, the ones who had the 'right view' of inspired, inerrant Scriptures, the 'right view' of missions - the ones who believed 'greater is he that is in you than he that is in the world.'"

As they ran out, the rest of the world was running in. In 1900, only 8% of the world's population lived in urban centers. By 2000, more than 50% had migrated into cities, most of them poor and dispossessed, searching for opportunity. Scripture speaks to their realities in 1,250 passages about cities and over 400 that address poverty and economic justice.

In contrast, the Bible mentions being "born again" just once.

Like the trustee, evangelicals as a group care deeply about the Great Commission. But "go[ing] into all the world to preach the gospel" (Mark 16:15) requires first reaching the entire world that lives in our Jerusalem's. (Acts 1:8) More than 120 languages are spoken in New York City everyday.

Dr. Bakke challenged those at the Summit to "re-dig the wells" of social and economic justice that run deep in American evangelicalism. That doesn't mean a mass relocation of suburban evangelicals returning to cities, but rather partnerships between urban, suburban, and rural Christians that transcend class and ethnic differences. It's an opportunity we all share to minister to Christ Himself (Matthew 25:40). What James called "pure religion." (James 1:27)

Think about it.

- Jeremy R. Del Rio, Esq., co-founder and executive director of Generation Xcel™, defines his life mission as "empowering people to achieve their dreams and transform their culture and communities." Read his bio here.