Jesus Was Not a Self-Made Man

I know what people mean when they say someone is a “self-made man” (I’ve rarely heard the phrase “self-made woman” spoken): a person who has risen from dire circumstances to success by hard work and ingenuity. Benjamin Franklin – the tenth son of a humble candle maker – printed, invented, flew a kite, authored, and became a great American patriarch. Frederick Douglass – the son of an unknown father (most likely his original master) and a slave mother – escaped slavery to preach, write, speak, and become a foremost abolitionist and statesman. These two giants of American history have exemplified the term in question for generations.

Franklin I appreciate and Douglass I revere. The credo of hard work and ingenuity I wholeheartedly support. But the term used to describe Franklin’s and Douglass’s accomplishments – self-made? I’m not a fan of the term, nor do I ever use it. Franklin went to school until he was ten at a time when few did, and apprenticed under a brother to learn the printing trade. The wife of a subsequent Douglass master taught young Frederick to read (later, her husband coerced her to renounce this radical activity). Even though Franklin’s beginnings were humble and Douglass’s cruel and unjust, neither could claim complete freedom from the guidance and assistance of others. A community of some sort provided a foothold and direction.

Later historical figures – Carnegie and Rockefeller – and contemporary figures – Oprah Winfrey and Nasty Gal proprietor Sophia Amoruso – fit the bill of achieving success while overcoming difficult circumstances. But again, none of these four could or can honestly say that they did it all on their own. Contemporary figures who have enjoyed business success, such as Ross Perot, Mark Cuban, Michael Jordan, Sean Combs, and Michael Dell all rose from middle class or upper-middle class beginnings.

Little human beings need more caretaking and rearing than any other mammal. Newly born bears, orangutans, and elephants all require less time and effort to develop into adults than do newly born Olivia and Ezra (two of the most popular baby names in the US during 2016). When the raising up of our young ones is negligent or haphazard, catastrophes often result. Combine this proven reality with US society’s increasing inequality, and current troubles could ripen into future disasters.

Robert Putnam, in Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis (Simon & Schuster, 2015), joins many in the last few years to say that the phrase “self-made” has outlived its usefulness. Economic mobility in the US (the ability of a person to improve – or lower – their financial status) has not improved in the past fifty years. We no longer lead the world in economic mobility and many older Americans consequently overestimate its vibrancy. Other countries, such as Canada, France, and Denmark, boast higher rates of economic or social mobility than does the US. The cycle self-perpetuates: inequality makes the great American attribute of social mobility a myth because of its availability only to a minority. The majority of American males born today, for better or worse, will live into the same financial status of their fathers. For these, economic immobility is their American reality.

Putnam advocates public policy and private citizen action to support all that can be done to raise up (a phrase of striking symbolism) children born into impoverished situations: investments social and financial in poor neighborhoods, establishment of more mixed income housing developments, and ending the pay-to-play aspect of extracurricular activities in public school systems. Simply relying upon an American attribute increasingly unattainable won’t make for a better society for the generations that come after us. Individual initiative emboldened by hard work and ingenuity is still an absolute necessity, but it must be manifested within the greater context of communal support and societal resolve.

That today’s “self-made man” is a raging financial success who can live the life of ease and luxury is a clear bastardization of the term’s original understanding. In contrast, during Douglass’s day, the self-made man was a positive force in society for integrity, honesty, and love. The point of making money was not personal enrichment, but liberation from the necessity of work, freeing oneself to labor for the betterment of society.

Jesus was not a self-made man. A strong mother, a supportive family, and an established communal tradition raised up, in the course of thirty years, a son who advocated the renewal of society based upon love of neighbor, forgiveness, and compassion – values representative of the coming kingdom of God. Additionally, Jesus criticized excessive trust in wealth, labeling it a worldly, not kingdom of God, attribute.

What twenty-first century America needs: fewer “self-made” millionaires and billionaires who want to tell how they did it (so the rest of us can also strike it rich) and more citizens, be they rich or poor, who understand that strong and healthy communities produce the best and brightest individuals.


This blog and website are representative of the views expressed in my book Just a Little Bit More: The Culture of Excess and the Fate of the Common Good. Distributed by ACTA Publications (Chicago), JaLBM is available on Amazon as a paperback and an e-book. It’s also available on Nook and iBook/iTunes, and at the website of Blue Ocotillo Publishing.

isbn 9780991532827

If you’re a member of a faith community – Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist, or other – consider a book study series of Just a Little Bit More. The full-length book (257 pgs.) is intended for engaged readers, whereas the Summary Version and Study Guide (52 pgs.) is intended for readers desiring a quick overview of the work. It also contains discussion questions at the end of all eight chapter summaries.

Readers of both books can join together for study, conversation, and subsequent action in support of the common good.

The Spanish version of the Summary Version and Study Guide is now available. ¡Que bueno!

¡El librito de JaLBM – llamado Solo un Poco Más –está disponible en Amazon y el sitio web!





Our Complicity in the Trump Phenomenon, Part 1

The Trump candidacy for president has turned into a raging dumpster fire. It’s tempting to place the majority of the blame on Trump himself for the disastrous floundering to the November finish line; or upon his ardent supporters, unable to amass beyond 40 percent of the electorate because of weak support from women and practically no support from the increasing population of American minorities. I’ll argue here, to the contrary, that all of us have a hand in enabling this episode of combustible disgrace, because of the over-importance and overemphasis we place upon wealth.

Wealth, unquestionably, is good. Its right utilization benefits many and advances common good. Wealth is a blessing, especially when amply distributed throughout a society.

America has done a pretty good job of creating and sharing wealth over the generations through ingenuity, innovation, generosity, and good ol’ hard work. That said, our history (including our labor history) is marred by the memories and realities of slavery, extermination of native peoples, racial and gender prejudice, child labor, and overdependence on cheap foreign labor. Yet, we still move forward in the struggle to attain “liberty and justice for all.” As we continue forward on a shared journey, we seem to be making more progress than not. We value family and friendships, perseverance and persistence, second chances, accomplishments, and successes.


But here’s where it gets even more complicated. We also revere the attainment of wealth as one of our highest social values. This value took Donald Trump to the top of the polls during the Republican primary season. Yes, he talked tough and hit a nerve with a small segment of society (very white) that wants to fix our immigration issues with deportations and walls. But because he is rich – fabulously so, just listen to him tell you – he and a number of surrogates claim that this characteristic ipso facto christens him to assume the presidency. He claims that he’s “the most successful person to ever run for president.” Mitt Romney’s nomination four years ago, in part, can be attributed to the same evaluation.

For better and for worse, Americans equate wealth with success. John Rockefeller, Andrew Carnegie, and other Gilded Age partisans, accumulating historic quantities of wealth during the boom of the Second Industrial era, unwittingly gave a new permission to the American experience: Unimagined and never before seen differences between the richest and poorest were deemed permissible. To Rockefeller’s and Carnegie’s credit, they responded to the new reality forged by their accumulated largesse by becoming two of the greatest philanthropists in history. Since that time, Americans have exhibited great reverence for their very richest and “most successful” citizens. Rockefeller and (especially) Carnegie have their detractors, but each has left an enduring legacy of benefit to the common good. Donald Trump comes in their wake, at best, as a shabby imposter; his weak showing as a philanthropist and braggadocio about not paying federal income tax reveal his contempt for greater society. Some of his followers are as overly taken with Trump’s sense of importance as is the nominee himself. But his self-indulgence – crystalized by accusations of sexual assault – has caught up with him. His own sense of entitlement drags his candidacy down into a dumpster.

Trump will leave a convoluted legacy when this election cycle is all said and done. His no-holds-barred approach during the primary season invigorated a zealous following (something Hillary Clinton lacked as a candidate and nominee). But Trump’s reach for the highest office as nominee will be forever characterized by a throng of exaggerations (he’ll get GDP “higher than 4 percent”), untruths (birtherism), and thin-skinned reactions to adversity (“the election is rigged”) deployed to defend his enormous (yet fragile) ego more so than to win over voters. After he convincingly loses the election, will the Trump candidacy will morph into Trump TV? If so, the successful rich guy and his surrogates will continue to enlighten a small, but loyal following on the merits of Trumpian alternative reality. Strip away Trump’s wealth from what he says and how he acts – would anyone pay attention to him?

When a society elevates the attainment and accumulation of wealth as its leading societal value, success becomes monopolized. Dr. Elizabeth Anderson (no relation), a philosophy professor at the University of Michigan, says “I’m wary of any society that reduces success to a single definition. If a society is free, people will pursue different conceptions of the good and define success in different ways. They won’t be unified around a single common definition of success any more than they would be unified around a single religion.”* Anderson says that a successful society is one that is diversified in its understanding of good and doesn’t allow wealth to siphon upward. Anderson calls inheritance taxes the most just in the world, because they mitigate against the establishment of a permanent upper-class.

The social value that we as a society place on wealth helped cover up and diminish Trump’s well-known shortcomings, making his candidacy a possibility. The creed of wealth=success has some merit, but when it dominates all other possibilities of success (compassion, service, philanthropy, cooperation) it creates two specific problems: those who are not wealthy are deemed failures, and the extraction of value – whether from the environment or from other people – is seen as a mean justified by the end.

Jesus and the Hebrew prophets before him had a lot to say about money and wealth – mostly about the responsibilities to community and society of those who had wealth. According to these biblical voices, those who responsibly use wealth to uplift and support common good are deemed successful. This unforgettable and historic presidential election cycle will serve our society well if it can help create a cultural shift where wealth accumulation is not understood as the greatest marker of success, but as the emissary of responsibility. Rockefeller, Carnegie, Bill and Melinda Gates, Warren Buffet, and many others have and do understand wealth in this light. Mr. Trump hasn’t gotten there yet.

*Check out this brief, yet insightful interview by veteran journalist Sam Pizzigati with Dr. Anderson on the website e-newsletter Too Much.

This blog and website are representative of the views expressed in my book Just a Little Bit More: The Culture of Excess and the Fate of the Common Good. Distributed by ACTA Publications (Chicago), JaLBM is available on Amazon as a paperback and an e-book. It’s also available on Nook and iBook/iTunes, and at the website of Blue Ocotillo Publishing.

isbn 9780991532827

If you’re a member of a faith community – Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist, or other – consider a book study series of Just a Little Bit More. The full-length book (257 pgs.) is intended for engaged readers, whereas the Summary Version and Study Guide (52 pgs.) is intended for readers desiring a quick overview of the work. It also contains discussion questions at the end of all eight chapter summaries.

Readers of both books can join together for study, conversation, and subsequent action in support of the common good.

The Spanish version of the Summary Version and Study Guide will be available in October 2016. ¡Que bueno!

¡El librito de JaLBM – llamado Solo un Poco Más saldrá este Octubre de 2016!

The Annual Gates Letter and the Limits of Philanthropy

When we talk about Andrew Carnegie, the robber baron, we pronounce his name CAR-neg-ie. Yes, that was the guy who had his steel workers doing 12 hours days/7 days a week. When you hear his name spoken on NPR radio, however, it’s Car-NEG-ie. That’s the guy who founded and funded libraries, museums, and so much more. Carnegie – however you pronounce it – felt a moral obligation to give away his fortune for societal benefit. Ah, good ol’ philanthropy – a fantastic builder of common good, even if the utilized fortune was questionably attained.

John Rockefeller Sr. is the greatest philanthropist in the history of the world, not only because of the sheer volume of his giving (more than $1.5 billion during his and his son’s lifetimes – close to $20 billion in today’s dollars), but more so because he was the first mega-philanthropist wanting to get at the root causes of societal problems. As quoted by biographer Ron Chernow, Rockefeller explained his mature view of philanthropy: “Our guiding principle . . . to benefit as many people as possible. Instead of giving alms to beggars, if anything can be done to remove the causes which lead to the existence of beggars, then something deeper and broader and more worthwhile will have been accomplished” (Titan, Vintage, 1998, p. 314). The Rockefeller foundation has uplifted the common good by various accomplishments: eradicating hookworm in the southern US and in fifty-two countries across six continents, developing a vaccine for yellow fever and other diseases, supporting minority and higher education, establishing medical and social science research centers, among many others.

Melinda and Bill Gates at the World Economic Forum – Davos, Switzerland

Bill and Melinda Gates have followed in Rockefeller’s and Carnegie’s paths and readily share their enthusiasm for philanthropy’s continued upside. Bill and Melinda Gates, quite simply, are in Rockefeller’s category as philanthropists. They are committed to fighting inequity, and have joined with investor and philanthropist Warren Buffet to form the Giving Pledge, encouraging fellow super-wealthy to commit to give away more than half of their fortunes through philanthropy during their lifetimes or in their wills. Through their own foundation, established in 2000, the Gateses battle hunger, poverty, and disease and also uplift education. You might not know as much about Melinda as you do about her husband. A native of Dallas and 1982 valedictorian of Ursuline Catholic Academy, she has both an undergrad degree (in computer science) and an MBA from Duke University; she began to work for Microsoft in the late 1980s. After dating for six years, Melinda French and Bill Gates married in 1994. They have three children; she is a practicing Roman Catholic and has her husband’s support in raising their children in the Catholic expression of the Christian faith.

The Gates’ 2015 annual letter makes a bold claim: “The lives of people in poor countries will improve faster in the next 15 years than at any other time in history. And their lives will improve more than anyone else’s . . . These breakthroughs will be driven by innovation in technology — ranging from new vaccines and hardier crops to much cheaper smartphones and tablets — and by innovations that help deliver those things to more people.” Wow – that’s pretty ambitious. For the most part, I think they are right.

The long-running industrial era with its call to work and accompanying rewards has lifted so many from the grips of poverty (including, for those reading this blog, most of our own ancestors). And that process continues today in poor countries – look what’s happened in China and India in the last twenty-five years, and most recently in Tanzania, Rwanda, and Cambodia. The improvements that can be made in underdeveloped countries are astounding and are enhanced by today’s technological possibilities.

Have you heard of the term technological optimism? It refers to a type of thinking that expects the problems of the world – economic, social, political – to be solved, or at least, assuaged, by technological advances. Bill and Melinda Gates, unequivocally, are technological optimists.

For the large majority of us in developed countries, living with the benefits of industrialization, technological advances are less advantageous. Being able to watch a movie on one’s phone – an example of technological advance – is not a life-or-death issue. In the developed world, we more so deal with something called the energy-complexity spiral (see Joseph Tainter and Tad Patzek’s excellent book, Drilling Down, Springer, 2012). The availability of incredibly cheap energy (coal and oil) has made possible – literally, fueled – the industrialized development of society. As we try to solve problems in the advanced world (how to play a movie on a hand-held device, or how to make a new anti-cancer drug less nausea-producing) more energy, knowledge, and money are typically required. Remember when the thermostat in your living room had a simple on-off switch and a dial temperature control? Now your “climate control device” houses a mini-computer and you often need to consult the manual, or call a technician, in order to manipulate it. Part of the energy-complexity spiral is that problems and solutions tend to get more complicated (and costly) as time marches forward.

The Gates’ annual letter says we’ll need to figure a way “to develop energy sources that are cheaper, can deliver on demand, and emit zero carbon dioxide.” Agreed – but, unfortunately, we are a long way off. We’re still drilling and burning oil like never before and the waste sinks on this poor planet get more exhausted all the time. The temporary low price of oil – mid-2015 near a five-year low – doesn’t help the situation. At the very least, we need to utilize an additional tax on gasoline to restore a sense of value to this precious commodity.* And because we’ve not yet backed off of oil, we’re stalling on the technological advances that will help produce better energy sources for tomorrow.

The main problem with an economy-produced fortune, like Rockefeller’s or Gates’, is that it necessarily comes imbued with technological optimism. I’m a supporter of technological advance, but I’m also wary of its allure and promises. Skyping on my phone is cool, but face-to-face relationships that create trust are the foundation of a good democratic society. Drought-resistant seeds in Africa, more cell phones for the women of Bangladesh, and widespread vaccine coverage for children in Nigeria is good . . . but we can’t duplicate developed world devices, machines, and technologies for the rest of the world based on how much fossil fuel we currently use. It would be a carbon emissions melt-down and waste sink nightmare. Perhaps we could also have some major philanthropic support to fund studies and projects that look at steady state economies, inclusive of how to slow down American consumerism while considering the disparate state of standards of living around the globe. Is there a current technology to remind us that less can be more?

Philanthropy is good, but it’s not the highest good. If philanthropy is understood to be the highest good we can produce, it then becomes no more than a paternalism that perpetuates the status quo. Creating systems of economy that are thoroughly just – where people don’t get left behind or left out – is the highest good. Capitalism in the 21st century is very good, but it can be and it can do better. We are responsible for making it better for today and for tomorrow.

At the end of the Gates Foundation letter, Bill and Melinda make an invitation to readers to join the movement by becoming “world citizens.” I’ve joined. The end of the letter calls for the “expanding of compassion” among world citizens. Part of that expansion, ironically, is using less – a mindset which absolutely cuts into grain of today’s conventional wisdom that more is better. How to get more out of less – that’s not only efficient, but also compassionate.

* Proceeds of an additional energy tax could be used to fix crumbling American infrastructure and support development of better energy sources.


The views expressed in this blog are reflective of my work in the 2014 book, Just a Little Bit More: The Culture of Excess and the Fate of the Common Good.  

Click here to purchase Just a Little Bit More: The Culture of Excess and the Fate of the Common Good. Paperback, $14.95. You will be redirected to the Blue Ocotillo Publishing website.

Click here if you prefer to purchase JaLBM from Amazon. Ebook available on Amazon, iBooks, and Nook.

Click here for Summary Version and Study Guide from the Blue Ocotillo Publishing website, ideal for book clubs and community of faith study groups.