Response to “An Economy of Grace: From the Margins of the Margins”

[1] There is much to agree with in Dr. Cumming’s presentation. Among other things, his economy of grace rejects the notion that poverty is a sign of a character defect. His proposed economy rejects profiting at the expense of another and calls us not to be complacent in the face of inequality. He argues for a structural analysis of poverty, an acknowledgement that we live in a society of centers and margins, and that we consider the most vulnerable among us.

[2] I must admit, however, that with a focus on our most vulnerable neighbor, I kept waiting for a discussion of race to be raised, as people of color, especially women of color, and American Indians are the most economically vulnerable in the US, when it comes to income inequality. My anticipation of such a discussion has led me to focus on race as it reflects on Dr. Cumming’s economy of grace in two ways. First, it considers the extent to which women of color and American Indians are the most vulnerable among us from the perspective of income inequality. Second, this point is intertwined with a consideration of the structural nature of poverty that brings about centers and margins.

[3] As a result, my main suggestion if I may be so bold, would be to propose a nuancing of Dr. Cumming’s discussion that gives more prominence to unequal distributions of power. This nuancing would address not only inequality generally, but more specifically the critical matter of imbalances of power for those on the margins and for those who are the most vulnerable.  Such nuancing requires looking at who is the most vulnerable of my neighbors while considering income inequality, by overtly and directly considering the degree to which race and gender intersect with the issue of income inequality, or class.

[4] Why is it necessary to overtly and directly discuss this intersectionality? Frankly because it is has not been sufficiently addressed or seriously considered as a specific flaw or issue in our economy of merit. It has been dismissed and downplayed because the dominant culture through the exercise of privilege has been able to relegate it to the status of an uncomfortable topic rather than an issue of racial and gender equity.

[5] Turning to a consideration of income inequality for the most vulnerable we see that the statistics are as startling as those provided by Dr. Cumming for overall income inequality. According to the US Census Bureau in 2014 white, non-Hispanic households had a median income of $60,000 in today’s dollars.1 American Indian families had a 2014 median annual income of 37,000, 54% that of their white counterparts.2 Also as of 2014 American Indians had the highest rate of poverty, 28%. For white male non-family householders3 and white female non-family householders, the 2014 median income was $41,500 and $28,000, respectively. Hispanic and Black women non-family householders had a 2014 median income of $22,000.4 Hispanic and Black women therefore earned only 53% that of white men and 79% that of white women.

[6] In 2017, white male, non-family householders earned $49,000 while white female, non-family householders earned $32,500. Hispanic women non-family householders earned 25,000, while Black women, non-family householders earned $24,000. Thus, in 2017 Hispanic and Black women, non-family householders earned 51% and 49%, respectively, that of white male, non-family householders and 77% and 72%, respectively that of white women, non-family householders. These numbers reflect that racial income disparities have continued to increase since 2014.5

[7] Unemployment statistics are not any better. The unemployment rate for Black and Hispanic women workers is roughly double that of white workers.6 Moreover, minority hiring is clustered in industries such as food service, retail and logistics that tend to pay less and have been quicker to layoff staff when the economy slows.7  All of this allows companies to profit at the expense of the most vulnerable.

[8] With these vast differences in income and unemployment rates, we can see how the intersectionality of race and gender contribute to Black and Hispanic females and American Indians being the most vulnerable among us from an income perspective, that is, they are on the edges of the margins of income inequality. This is not to make light of the plight of anyone living in poverty. Nevertheless, Black and Hispanic women as well as American Indians experience income inequality to a more significant degree than their white counterparts.

[9] How did Black and Hispanic women and American Indians come to be the most vulnerable of our neighbors? To be sure individual acts of prejudice, bias, discrimination and racism play a part, but it is also due to a large extent to the historical structural and institutional racism of the economy of merit criticized by Dr. Cumming. Two examples. First, the 1935 Social Security Act8 excluded two categories of workers, agricultural workers and domestic servants. The workers who filled these jobs were predominantly African American, Mexican and Asian. As low-income workers they were least able to save for retirement and least able to pass on wealth to their children. These disadvantages continue to accrue today since, as we saw, minority hiring is clustered in industries that tend to pay less and have been quicker to layoff staff. Their incomes make them less able to save for retirement and their lower net wealth makes them less able to pass on wealth to their children.

[10] Second, a trio of laws has continued to work to affect the economic well being of American Indians. The 1830 Indian Removal Act9 forcibly relocated eastern Indians to west of the Mississippi River to make room for white settlers, thereby depriving American Indians of the land necessary for their economic well being. The 1851 Indian Appropriations Act10 created the Indian reservation system. And the Dawes Act of 1887,11 between 1887 and 1934 allowed 60 million acres of Indian land to be taken and sold or given to non-Indians. Today, the Bureau of Indian Affairs manages tribal lands held in trust by the US government. In most instances, Indians are unable to own their own homes on tribal lands, thereby preventing the acquisition of home equity available to most whites.  The historical impact of this trio of 19th century laws continues to have effects on income inequality today for American Indians.

[11] Luther wrote prolifically on the subject of obligations to neighbor. What, if anything did he have to say about our neighbors who reside on the margins of the margins? While time does not permit a thorough examination of these writings, I would point to his Treatise on Usury where he wrote, “if thou make a meal thou shalt not invite thy friends or thy neighbors, [rather] invite the poor, the sick, the lame, the blind.”12 Here Luther is giving a preference not just to the neighbor, but also to the neighbor most in need, the most vulnerable, those on the margins. Similarly, in his commentary in the Large Catechism on the 5th commandment Luther stated, “If you send a person away naked when you could clothe him, you have let him freeze to death. If you see one suffer hunger and do not feed him you have let him starve.”13 Here again, Luther is insisting that those most in need, the most vulnerable among us, those on the edges of the margins, ought to have their needs met as obligation to neighbor.

[12] What does this mean for Dr. Cumming’s economy of grace? Here our positions converge. Dr. Cumming pointed out that in his economy of grace we must protect “the ability of each participant in the economy to make meaningful decisions about the shape that economy must take.” This is so because the radical equality of grace has not yet translated into radical equality of economic resources.

[13] As Cynthia Moe-Lobeda said in Healing a Broken World, “We must renounce and reject economic practices that transgress the ‘second principle of Christian faith’ – loving neighbor as self. Practices that concentrate wealth for some while compromising others’ capacity to sustain sufficient livelihood for self and household are to be condemned and replaced with alternative economic practices.”14

[14] From a theoretical perspective we need to continue to theorize and develop subversive ethics and ethics of resistance to the economy of merit in the US; as well as ethics of resistance to racism, white privilege and white supremacy. We also need to continue to theorize more just economic systems such as Dr. Cumming’s economy of grace from theo-ethical perspectives. Such theorization provides the groundwork for practices that will continue to challenge the economy of merit.

[15] I would also suggest a set of ethical proposals based upon a radical equality of grace, given to all. These are rooted in practice. My proposals would start with working toward economic racial and gender equity, efforts so our most vulnerable neighbors are no longer left behind. It might include a series of concrete steps such as full employment for all who are able to work, with or without assistance, adoption of a living wage, and/or advocating for federal and state legislation to address income inequality.

[16] But since these concrete steps may not be enough, an economy of grace that works for racial equity should be conscious of the unequal distributions of power between those in the dominant culture and the most vulnerable among us. To that end, any extended, open debate and discussion of an economy of grace alluded to by Dr. Cumming must not have a table comprised of a white majority, but must be a plurality that includes Blacks, Latinx, Asians and American Indians, as well as those of other races and ethnicities. This is necessary in order to avoid either unconscious or intentional disregard of the most vulnerable, by those who will be defining an economy of grace, making decisions and/or policy determinations for such an economy.

[17] We ought to consider how we will reach and motivate those outside the academy to work for racial equity and to embrace Dr. Cumming’s economy of grace. It could be by preparing and raising up dissenting leaders, those willing to publicly and actively challenge unjust economic practices. Indeed, there are such leaders in this room. It might be by altering the curricula of a seminary education or supporting rostered leaders who preach prophetically on the topic of income inequality. A related goal is the need to reach congregants so that they choose to no longer avoid topics of race and gender income inequalities, choosing instead to consider historical discrimination, current discrimination, and to begin to consider what an economy of grace might look like. This might be accomplished by the development of new liturgies or more effective educational tools such as the Transforming White Privilege curriculum currently in use by the ELCA.

[18] Finally it requires each one of us to ask ourselves, what are we really doing to care for our most vulnerable neighbor whether that is our work in academia, whether it is our activism outside the classroom or whether it presents itself in some other form?


[19] An economy of grace, that is fully inclusive and equitable on the bases of race and gender, is a goal that is worth striving for. It makes a country of drastic economic inequality one where the radical equality of grace is a governing principle. In such an economy we would expect to see income inequality diminish and disappear, especially for those who currently reside on the margins of the margins in the US.

[20] As Dr. Cumming pointed out our Lutheran heritage provides us with a basis for moving toward an economy of grace; we should enthusiastically embrace that heritage as it allows us to begin to address the needs of the most vulnerable among us.



2> 2014 was the last year for which data for American Indians was available; this is why the year 2014 was chosen for comparison purposes. Cf., n. 3 for the increasing income disparities among white men and women and Black and Hispanic women for the year 2017, the last year for which Census data was available.

3 This category was chosen as it was the only one consistent across gender and race lines in US Census data.

4 Ibid. In 2017, white male, non-family householders earned $49,000 while white female, non-family householders earned $32,500. Hispanic women non-family householders earned 25,000, while Black women, non-family householders earned $24,000. Thus, in 2017 Hispanic and Black women, non-family householders earned 51% and 49%, respectively, that of white male, non-family householders and 77% and 72%, respectively that of white women, non-family householders. These numbers reflect that racial income disparities have continued to increase since 2014.

5 Ibid.

6 Ibid.

7 Soo Youn, “Donald Trump Boasts That Unemployment for Black Americans is at an All Time Low”, SBC News, October 19, 2018. See also Howard Schneider, “Trump is Right, Jobs for  Black Americans Abound: Here is Why it May Not Last,” Reuters, (November 26, 2018).

8 42 USC, Ch. 7 (1935)

9 May 28, 1830, Ch. 148, §§1-8 1 Stat. 41

10 February 27, 1851, Ch. 14, 9 Stat. 574

11 25 U.S.C. Ch. 9 §331 et. seq.

12 Luther, Martin. Works of Martin Luther, Volume IV, ““A Treatise on Usury,” (1520), translated by C.M. Jacobs, 37-69, (Philadelphia: Muhlenberg Press, 1943).

13 Luther, Martin. “The Large Catechism.” In The Book of Concord. Translated and edited by Tappert, Theodore G. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1959, 391.

14 Cynthia Moe Lobeda, Healing a Broken World: Globalization and God, (Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress Press, 2002), 137.

Donna R. Matteis

Donna R. Matteis is a Ph.D. Candidate in Christian Social Ethics in the Graduate Division of Religion at Drew University, Madison, NJ. She is also the President of the European Descent Lutheran Association for Racial Justice, an ethnic specific ministry of the ELCA.