He has performed mighty deeds with his arm;
he has scattered those who are proud in their inmost thoughts.
He has brought down rulers from their thrones
but has lifted up the humble.
He has filled the hungry with good things
but has sent the rich away empty.
You might have seen the story this week of the North Texas teenager who avoided jail because his family is wealthy.
That accusation is made pretty much anytime someone of means avoids punishment for a crime. Usually, you can’t tell for sure that it’s true. In this case, you can say it unequivocally: he got off because his family is rich.
That was part of the defense, after all.
The teen’s defense attorney argued that his client is the victim of a psychological disturbance called “affluenza.” According to his attorney and a psychologist called to the stand as an expert witness, the young man was incapable of taking responsibility for or understanding the consequences of his actions because he grew up in a privileged, entitled environment where he got whatever he wanted and his bad behavior was cushioned by his parents’ wealth.
His bad behavior, in this case, being the theft of two cases of beer, driving with a blood alcohol level three times the legal limit (with seven passengers in his pickup) and, finally, slamming into and killed four pedestrians.
“Affluenza” is not a recognized disease, disorder, or syndrome. It’s a term coined to explain the way children from affluent families sometimes act, but it’s not intended to justify their behavior (or to be used as a defense in a criminal trial). In short, it’s just a slightly nicer way of saying “spoiled brat.” But, based on his defense, the judge sentenced him to 10 years probation and a $450,000 rehab center in California.
I wouldn’t want to have to, well, defend that defense. I certainly don’t think that a person’s wealth should make him less responsible for a crime, any more than I think a person’s poverty should excuse him. It feels like a wrist slap, based on the fact that the poor child is, well, rich. “Since he’s wealthy, he doesn’t know any better,” is the message the disposition of the case seems to send.
There are explanations, and then there are justifications. The teen’s wealth, in this case, seems to fit solidly in the first category. It might partially serve to explain why he acted as he did, with no regard as to how his actions affected others, but it doesn’t justify it.
That said, I do think affluenza is a real thing.
When I use my relative wealth to build a nice little cocoon around me and my family that leaves no room for helping the poor, I may have affluenza.
When I resent how immigrants move into “our” country and take “our” jobs, I may have affluenza.
When I feel frustration over the way kids from “bad” neighborhoods in my city get some degree of preference over kids from “good” neighborhoods for seats in the best high schools, that may be a symptom of affluenza.
When I turn up my nose at the way someone is dressed on Sunday in my church, I may be suffering from affluenza.
When I feel just ever-so-slightly superior to someone who has a menial job, or who’s chronically unemployed, it suggests a diagnosis of affluenza.
When I explain away my unwillingness to help the poor, justifying myself with judgment on their motives or character, I may be dealing with a bad case of affluenza.
And when I preoccupy myself with increasing my holdings, upgrading my portfolio, and acquiring the latest and greatest of everything, it may be because affluenza has taken over my system.
Ironically, at this time of year affluenza seems to peak as an epidemic. Retailers depend on the fact that their customers, and those for whom they’re buying, have galloping cases that have progressed to the point where shoppers would rather go deeply into debt than skimp on presents. This time of year brings the acquisitiveness and materialism that are the symptoms of affluenza into stark relief with what we know Christmas should be about, the one it should be about.
The Magi, the Wise Men, came to Bethlehem with gifts. Reminds us of us, doesn’t it, stuffing the SUV full of kids and presents and heading to Grandma’s? But, before the Magi, the shepherds, before the angels singing and the manger and no room in the house for the tired young, expectant mother and her husband, that girl sang a song. Better to call it a prophecy. She talked about the meaning of the baby growing in her womb in terms of power and weakness, privilege and humility, wealth and poverty. “(God) has brought down rulers from their thrones but has lifted up the humble,” she said. “He has filled the hungry with good things but has sent the rich away empty.”
From the beginning, almost from the moment the angel told Mary what part she would play in God’s great work of redemption, she knew that it was about reversal. From the beginning, Christmas has been about God upsetting the social order, lifting up the marginalized and bringing down the movers and shakers of the world. He didn’t call it Christmas, of course; that was our idea, centuries later. The trees, the decorations, Santa Claus, the feasts and the gifts - that was all us. Mary knew what it was: it was reversal. Redemption. It was God forgiving the sins of his people and then raising them from their humble condition to take the places of wealth and power held by those who oppressed them and failed to obey him.
The problem, of course, is for those of us afflicted with affluenza. Mary figured out what the disease is. It’s about power. Security. Who’s in charge. And when you’re in charge for any length of time, even if you’re a Christian in name, you have to watch out for the signs of affluenza: the lack of compassion for the poor, the anxiety that someone might take away what I’ve earned, and the erosion of trust in God’s goodness and mercy that trust in wealth and power - at least buying power - brings.
The good news is that there’s a treatment path, a way to beat affluenza.
One word: Give.
Give sacrificially. Give radically. Give indiscriminately. Give to your friends and family, but also give to those you don’t know and even those you don’t like. Give without a thought as to what you’ll get in return. Give of your money, your time, your prayer, your store of emotional energy.
The only way to stop affluenza, once and for all, is to take part with those for whom God cares in particular: the humble, the poor, the marginalized. To align ourselves with those whom his Son came to serve. And no better way to align ourselves with them than to take their burdens as our own and to see our wealth as ordained by God to help them.
So watch out for the signs of affluenza this holiday season. And remember to inoculate yourself by giving.