Jason Lydon is a 26-year-old white queer clergy person living and organizing in Boston, Massachusetts. I interviewed him in December to hear more about how he approaches the wealth/income/money questions that come up in his work as a pastor and activist.
What is your class background?
I grew up to say that I was “middle-class,” just like everyone who makes between nothing and great riches. The term feels completely useless to me. However, I come from a professional class family, mom and step-dad both with masters degrees and who were social workers; father with an undergraduate degree who worked as an engineer, first in the Navy and then in civilian private companies; and a step-mother with an undergraduate degree and a position as a tax accountant for a small firm. My mom and step-dad were my primary parents and declared bankruptcy twice before I graduated high school. I went to sleep away summer camp. We owned one car and leased another. I qualified for free lunch at school but wasn’t allowed to take it. My step-father’s parents have/had access to money. My mom’s mom immigrated here from Ireland, worked in a Raytheon factory, and cannot really read and never was able to pass her drivers test. I come from a family that believes in the beauty of credit cards. I have a sister who works for a museum. A brother who goes to community college. Another sister who teaches pre-school at the YMCA. Another sister who works at a barn and goes to community college to be a paralegal.
What is your current class position?
Professional class. I have no assets. I make $31,000.00 per year serving a leftist church. I have numerous thousands of dollars in debt for school and credit card use. I know extremely wealthy people. I am currently in school for a Masters Degree at a progressive Episcopal seminary school. I own two suits.
What decisions have you made about being a paid worker for social justice and why?
I serve a church that gets the majority of its money from rents of tenants in our building and from donations from members of the congregation. I have made a strong commitment not to make more than $35,000.00 a year for full time work, period. This is an arbitrary number. Currently I make $31,000.00 per year. I recently turned down a raise from the church. Our budget is $200,000.00 yearly. The majority of the money goes to maintaining our building that we utilize it to bring Leftists and progressives in the Boston area together. It seems very strange to me that I should be given a raise on a yearly basis simply because I have been there longer. It was only a few years ago that I lived on $16,000.00 in the year. I do not need to increase my standard of living every year when my church could use that money to do other programming and better serve our community.
I do not believe that anyone’s money belongs to them. Because of the history of capitalism and the function of White Supremacist capital development in the United States there is no way to say that any of the money that exists is not stained with the blood of exploited workers. Colonization, destruction of our planet, theft of labor, and exploitation of all living beings is the basis for the U.S. economy. Currently there is such a huge amount of poverty existing not just around the world but also here in the United States. Certainly the primary challenges must be made on a systemic and institutional level however that does not make personal choices irrelevant. As a person of faith I believe that I must make choices, as often as possible, that fulfill a call to creating loving communities. For me this means things like not putting money into a savings account or any account that gains interest. In what way am I entitled to more money because I have more money? That simply does not make sense. Interest is a price paid by banks and other systems that increase the wealth of those who allow the institutions to invest and spend the money in other places. Interest becomes a gift to those who already have money. If I have five dollars and put it in the bank why should I have more than that later? What entitles me to growth of money simply for having it? I would suggest absolutely nothing. That money, if I do not need it, is certainly needed by other people. Once we begin developing savings accounts that accrue interest what is the incentive to redistribute that wealth to those who have not been given the access and privileges to the same wealth?
How does your relationship to imprisoned people and prison abolitionist work relate to this? Do you send money to prisoners? What wealth redistribution strategies do you think are needed in the struggle to end imprisonment?
People on the inside are often forced to work in slave labor conditions getting paid pennies for their work. Other times prisoners are not allowed to work at all and have no access to even pennies. However, these same prisoners are then expected to pay for their basic necessities like soap, toothpaste, toilet paper, underwear, socks, etc. Because the food industry in many prisons are corrupt and unfulfilling many prisoners are forced to supplement their diet with food they buy from the canteen and also many religious foods are not provided by the cafeteria. Over and over again prisoners are forced into situations where they have no money but have needs for products from the canteen and thus have to trade with other prisoners, often creating unhealthy situations that can include sexual slavery.
At this time I send money to a number of prisoners. However, one must be aware of how the particular prisoner can obtain money. Every prison is different. Some prisoners are forced to pay a room and board fee, even if they are nearly indigent. Thus you have to be sure you communicate with the prisoner you’re supporting before you put money into their canteen. You do not want to give money to them that is then taken by the prison to pay a “victims fee” or “room and board fee” or an imposed fine from the courts, unless the prisoner you are supporting has asked you too. Personally, as an abolitionist, I would like to be sure that any money I give to a prisoner is spent on that prisoner’s needs. I have given money to other prisoners at times who are willing to purchase things for the prisoner I am providing support for in exchange for some extra money for themselves. I simply need to trust the prisoner I am supporting and remember to take their direction and support them in the way that most makes sense for them. Prisoners NEED financial support. I would suggest that ALL of us on the outside have a responsibility to financially support those locked behind the walls.
What relationships do you see between doing faith-based work and redistributing wealth? Or what role do you see for faith-based communities in wealth redistribution goals?
As a Unitarian Universalist I affirm the inherent worth and dignity of ALL people. In a capitalist society we assign individuals greater worth by paying them more and less worth by paying them less. That is inherently against my understanding of Unitarian Universalism. I would suggest that all faiths hold the same primary truth and that capitalism and wealth accumulation is anti-love thus antithetical to true living in faith. Specifically as a Unitarian Universalist I exist in a faith community with a large amount of wealth. Certainly the majority of Unitarian Universalists do not see Unitarian Universalist values in the same way I do. However, I think there is great potential in the use of religious spaces to help relieve people with money of their wealth. That does not mean the particular religious institution should be entitled to that money but I do think religious leadership and the history of voluntary poverty is a possible place for wealth redistribution to occur. I have a friend who pastors at a church that passes the basket each week for a different family that is financially in need. This is a Black church with hugely different financial access in the church and each week they raise between 4 and 8 hundred dollars for one of the church families. The next week it is another family. There is an understanding in the church that you give whatever you can to help those who are in need. This kind of wealth redistribution could work on a larger community level if people chose to do so. Religious institutions provide one outlet, secular communities can do the same.
What kind of structures do you want to exist in terms of how wealth and well-being are distributed? What are your wildest dreams?
I think we should all reflect more regularly on Marx’s slogan, “from each according to their ability, to each according to their need.” In my wildest dreams workers would own the means of production and have a say over what happens with their product after it is produced. Clearly we have to think more realistically about a global economy and a hugely service-based economy in much of the so-called Western world. I would like to think smaller communities would have the ability to control their own smaller economies. I would like to believe that trade would exist between these economies that benefit all of those involved. I would like to think that no one would be allowed to acquire wealth at the expense of another. On the way to get there I dream of us passing maximum wage laws next to minimum wage ones. I imagine a system where one does not have to worry about access to money to assure access to health care, housing, food, education, and appropriate transportation. I imagine a culture shift where we understand that money is a symbol as much as it is a tangible reality. I imagine we would abandon the new age ideas that we simply need to think positively and money will show up but still understand that money exists as an energy that causes pain and destruction but does not have to. I am not an institutionally educated economist. I am sure many of my dreams are “not possible” by economic ideals. I do, however, think we can imagine things far different than the capitalist system we currently live under. I think we need to borrow from concepts of participatory economics as well as anarchist communism and economic democracy. My dreams include an end to the state as a requirement for real democracy to be possible and the capacity of humanity to exist in economic equity.
Do you have any other personal practices you want to share that you think might be useful or inspiring for Enough readers thinking about the personal politics of redistribution?
I say a quiet prayer every time I spend money. I understand this can feel hokey to some however I find it to be a good reminder that I must utilize my greatest capacity to work for the end of capitalism. After I give someone some cash or swipe my credit card I say, to myself, “In the spirit of loving community may capitalism fall with revolutionary fury.”
If you have an interest bearing account, consider closing it. You are not entitled to that money. If you do choose to keep your interest bearing account consider giving away 100% of your interest every year. Even if you do believe you are entitled to the money you “earned” you did nothing but have money in an account to accrue interest. Will this act end capitalism? Of course not. However, we must remember to make choices in our lives that show our values and possibility for change.
Consider capping your wage. Do you really need to make more money? Even if you have a job where the company isn’t going to use the money for something particularly useful you can start a real conversation. Imagine your boss’s face when you turn down a raise. I must tell you it starts a funny conversation. Consider the same with retirement. Suggest that your employer put your retirement money into a local social justice campaign. How can we feel good about putting money away for the future when there are so many in need of that money right now? When people ask you how you’re going to take care of yourself when you can’t work for money anymore remind them that there will be other people who will financially care for you. It’s a good reminder that you must care for others who cannot take financial care of themselves now. Truly reflect on why we should feel entitled to the money we make. If you live in a community where everyone can financially take care of themselves think about why it is that you are in such an economically homogenous community. How can you be accountable to others in financial need? Think about what action you can take. It won’t end capitalism over night, but it’s part of our process of creating different communities.