“But You’re in the Wealthiest 2% of People on the Planet!!!!!”

Today I wish to take aim at a phrase that I frequently hear from well-meaning individuals whenever they hear people complaining of some problem or another.  You’ve probably heard it yourselves.  You know the drill:  Someone is having a bad day at work.  Their car wouldn’t start in the morning.  Or they had some trouble getting the kids ready for church.  “But you’re in the wealthiest 2% of people on the planet!!!!!”  Translation:  There are a whole lot of other people in the world out there for whom the problems you’re talking about aren’t even on their radar screen.  98% of the people in the world have concerns much more basic and urgent than this, such as “Where is my next meal coming from?”

Recently I heard it used as a critique of present-day evangelical worship music.  This is from Brian McLaren’s “An Open Letter to Worship Songwriters” which I linked here a few days back:

If you doubt what I’m saying, listen next time you’re singing in worship. It’s about how Jesus forgives me/us, embraces me/us, makes me/us feel his presence, strengthens me, forgives me, holds me close, touches me, revives me, etc., etc. Now this is all fine. But if an extraterrestrial outsider from Mars were to observe us, I think he would say either a) that these people are all mildly dysfunctional and need a lot of hug therapy (which is ironic, because they are among the most affluent in the world, having been materially blessed in every way more than any group in history), or b) that they don’t give a rip about the rest of the world, that their religion/spirituality makes them as selfish as anyone else, but just in spiritual things rather than material ones.

I don’t think either of these indictments are as true as they would sound to a Martian observer; rather, I think that we songwriters keep writing songs like these because we think that’s what people want and need. The scary thing is that even though I don’t think these indictments are completely true … they could become more true unless we take some corrective action and look for a better balance.

This response is usually a well-intentioned corrective, a reminder that our problems really aren’t that big a deal given the much broader scope of human suffering in our world.  To be sure, there are times and places when such a corrective is perfectly appropriate, such as the person who gets a scratch on his brand new BMW, or the wealthy suburban megachurch congregation that spends a whole Sunday morning singing nothing but “Jesus-and-me” worship songs.

Other times, not so much.

What about the newly-single mother of two who just went through a nasty divorce and is now faced with a host of challenges, financial and otherwise, that she didn’t have before?  Or the bachelor who sees his chances at marriage dwindling with advancing age and believes that he must be damaged goods if he has managed to remain unmarried for so long?  Or the child who has just lost her parents in a horrible accident?  Or the parents who have struggled with infertility for years?

Is it really appropriate to say to such people that we are among the most affluent and materially blessed people in all of history?  Does that make the pain go away?  Does it mean that we are not supposed to experience trouble or hardship, or that if we do, it pales in comparison to what people in the rest of the world have to deal with?

Suffering and brokenness are pervasive throughout the world.  Material affluence is no cure-all for hardship.  The trials, sorrows, and troubles suffered by those in the wealthiest 2% of people on the planet are just as real as those suffered by others elsewhere, even if they take a different form.

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