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Stewardship of Power for Flint

I think about money a lot. I think about it in a way that I’m told was passed on to me through my Dutch heritage: namely, I think about how to spend the smallest amount possible. Last night, for example, I couldn’t fall asleep so I was doing math in my head to figure out if I would have paid less if I had bought my dishwasher detergent on Amazon in bulk rather than at Target with a coupon. It’s a sickness, really.

So as Tax Day approaches, I’ll resentfully pay my portion -- begrudging the ways I wish I was spending those thousands -- dishwasher detergent, car repairs, a vacation, a yacht. (All frugal Dutch folks dream of a yacht, yes?)

In church, we talk a lot about stewardship. Usually we mean, I think, the responsible use of our money. Usually we mean, I think, honoring God’s call to give our “first fruits” to kingdom work. Usually we mean, I think, the 10% in the collection plate.

But what if being a disciple of Jesus in a democracy meant that “stewarding my money” also included my tax dollars? What if I didn’t hand over my check to the State of Michigan with a scowl, and then walked away with a chip on my shoulder without looking back? What if my belief that the resources are actually God’s, not mine, and that being a “steward” means that I do my best to care for what God has given me control of… included the control I have as a citizen of the State of Michigan?

A crisis has unfolded in Flint, and it began in the name of frugality. I imagine there is enormous pressure on lawmakers to report their frugal use of tax money -- I think the message we have sent is that money is wasted when it’s spent on programs for people, but it’s wisely used when it’s spent on protection and defense.

If this is all I have asked of my government leaders, then I have failed as a steward of the resources God entrusted to me. I have failed if I have not expected these funds to be used to defend the vulnerable, nurture the poor, serve the marginalized. My tax dollars aren’t, after all, mine -- they’re God’s. Everything is God’s.

So friends, Flint Michigan is a flashing-neon-sign-wake-up-call-loudspeaker-in-our-ears reminder of the importance of justice work. We are doing the charity work -- bravo to churches hosting bottled water drives. We will do the development work -- it will be churches who will commit to the decades-long work of tutoring and mentoring kids with brains damaged by lead. But we cannot stop there. In Flint, it was a failure of leadership that led to this disaster -- leaders who felt their chief responsibility was the slashing of spending. As a Michigan taxpayer whose money they claim to have been attempting to save, this was done in my name.

Christians who are stewarding all that God has given them must also steward their voices, their power, their advocacy. We must ensure we are engaged not only in cleaning up after our leaders’ horrible decisions -- we must ensure we are also engaged in the truth-telling and light-shedding process of accountability for these leaders. We must ensure that we are working to change the system that so failed the families of Flint Michigan -- families beloved by their Creator, but abandoned by the powers in Lansing. We must ensure that we are building systems that function as well for poor communities as they do for rich ones.

The CRCNA has an office dedicated to justice -- to identifying ways that the system itself can better work for the good of all people. As Synod committed in 1979, “We work to reform the structures that keep people hungry and impoverished so that all — especially the powerless and vulnerable — can enjoy God’s good gifts.”

When we look at Flint today, these words ring true. The structures that were meant to serve the good of all the people of Michigan -- even poor people, even African American people, even immigrant people -- failed. Those structures robbed people of power. They made them vulnerable. They created poverty. The call of the church is to reform those systems.

So what does that mean? Some in Flint are demanding that they not be asked to pay their water bill for the polluted water. Some in Flint are concerned that immigrants who were poisoned by the water aren’t going to get the same access to health care and mental health services due to their immigration status. Some are concerned that Governor Snyder is not being fully transparent about how this was handled by the state, and therefore is standing in the way of accountability for the damage that has been done.

Flint reminds us that we are not called solely to charity, but Scripture calls us also to seek justice. It’s my prayer that the church will lends its voice to those advocates in Flint calling to change a system that caused them so much harm.


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