Last week, in my post American Scandal & Disgrace: the Criminalization of Poverty, I highlighted the ways our social structures treat poverty itself as a crime. Within our public discourse and our unspoken social mores, there is a deep tradition of judging the poor – before being entitled to our compassion, charity, or justice the poor must be found “deserving” of social support. The prevalence of stereotypes concerning “welfare moms” and the scape goating of the Community Reinvestment Act of 1977 as being to blame for the current foreclosure crisis are two examples of this. This propensity to “blame the poor” is intimately connected the perpetual desire to take credit for one’s own wealth and privilege. Within Judeo-Christian communities, this desire to see one’s own success, power, prestige and wealth translates into a narrative linking wealth and holiness (wealth as a reward from God). However, from the perspective of Christian ethics, there is NO justification for connecting wealth and holiness.
A brief look at the Old Testament Prophets indicates that
- Societies in possession of great wealth seek to justify their prosperity as a sign of God’s favor and
- Yahweh sends a series of prophets to disabuse them of this thinking.
There are many books and passages to choose from, and so for space, I will simply highlight the Book of Amos. Dated at a time of wealth and extravagance, Amos chastises the Israelite complacency and condemns the wealthy for their unjust treatment of the poor.
“Thus says the LORD: “For three transgressions of Israel, and for four, I will not revoke the punishment; because they sell the righteous for silver, and the needy for a pair of shoes– they that trample the head of the poor into the dust of the earth, and turn aside the way of the afflicted” (Amos 2:6-7)
Amos directly challenges the assumption that those with wealth and power are in right relationship with Yahweh. The measure of the society is not the power and wealth of the few, but the status of those on the bottom. Yahweh’s judgment is based upon its fidelity to the covenant and treatment of the poor and vulnerable (the “Decalogue in Synthesis” in Micah 6:8 is particularly instructive – live justly, love mercy and walk humbly with God.) According to the Scripture, one cannot be in right relationship with God while oppressing the poor and vulnerable. Material success is not a sign of God’s pleasure. And yet, as the Book of Amos teaches, this desire to justify one’s prosperity and comfort as such is not new. The temptation to rejoice in material success without asking what I did to accumulate that wealth is not new.
Fast forward to Jesus and the message of the Gospels, perhaps the most famous passage concerning the connection between wealth and holiness is the “Parable of the Rich Young Man,” in Matthew 19 (cf. Mark 10):
Now someone approached him and said, “Teacher, what good must I do to gain eternal life?”* 17He answered him, “Why do you ask me about the good? There is only One who is good.* If you wish to enter into life, keep the commandments.” 18* i He asked him, “Which ones?” And Jesus replied, “You shall not kill; you shall not commit adultery; you shall not steal; you shall not bear false witness; 19honor your father and your mother’; and ‘you shall love your neighbor as yourself.’” 20* The young man said to him, “All of these I have observed. What do I still lack?” 21j Jesus said to him, “If you wish to be perfect,* go, sell what you have and give to [the] poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.” 22When the young man heard this statement, he went away sad, for he had many possessions. 23* Then Jesus said to his disciples, “Amen, I say to you, it will be hard for one who is rich to enter the kingdom of heaven. 24k Again I say to you, it is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for one who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.”
Jesus’ statements in this parable are shocking both to the young man and to the disciples. In Jesus and Virtue Ethics: Building Bridges between New Testament Studies and Moral Theology, Biblical scholar Daniel J. Harrington, SJ explains,
He is shocked because he and most of his contemporaries (including Jesus’ disciples) regarded wealth and material possessions as signs of God’s favor upon righteous people (see Deuteronomy 28:1-14). In word and deed, however, Jesus challenges this assumption. He goes so far as to declare: how hard it will be for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God!” (Mk 10:23). The lifestyle that Jesus and his followers adopt is one of itinerant radicalism – going from place to place, spreading the Gospel, and relying upon the kindness of strangers along the way. This way of discipleship is rooted in absolute dependence on God. And it has the effect of protecting against making money or material possessions into divine entities: ‘you cannot serve God and wealth.” (LK 16:13).
In the Parable of the Rich Young Man, the Beatitudes, the Parable of the Lazarus and the Rich Man, and the Parable of the Last Judgment, Jesus severs the connection between wealth and holiness. Furthermore, he redirects the focus to the poor and vulnerable. The measure of the society is how it treats the poor, oppressed, sick and marginalized. The current mantra of the USCCB and other Christian leaders in the debates concerning the budget, deficit, debt and the most recently work of the new Supercommittee all reiterate this. (I am not arguing that you cannot have a holy rich person. A brief glance at the lives of the Saints, offers examples of rich individuals who are in fact holy, such as St. Elizabeth of Hungary. However, her holiness is not found in relation to her wealth but in her service to the poor and devotion to God.)
What I find striking, however, is that this desire to connect wealth and holiness appears to be something of a primordial social sin. In his seminal work, Nature and Destiny of Man, Reinhold Niebuhr characterizes the human condition as marked by a fundamental contraction: to be human is to be both free and finite. Unable to reconcile this reality, the overwhelming anxiety of this fact causes human beings to fall either into pride, over magnifying freedom, (Niebuhr’s primary sin) or sensuality, the denial of freedom (emphasized by Valerie Saiving and other feminist theologians) as the primary sins of the human condition.
Within this tension of being both free and limited, the reality of wealth and poverty poses a great problem. Throughout human history, those who possess great power and wealth seek to justify that comfort through a connection to holiness. If it is a sign of favor from God, then I am free to rest in it and be comfortable. If it is a sign of favor from God, then I do not have to look at how I accumulated such wealth? Wealth as a sign of God’s favor and something I deserve removes justice from the equation in any meaningful way. Thus, we look for ways to rationalize our privilege which in turn requires us to find fault in the poor. And, this is not simply a tendency or sin of individuals, it is a social sin. It becomes built into the very fabric of the status quo – including the structuring of social services aimed at alleviating poverty (public housing, disparities in public schooling, structuring of programs like TANF, etc.).
Linked with the sin of pride, 21st century upper- and upper-middle class Americans find it very difficult to view their power, privilege, status and wealth as largely an accident of birth and circumstance. I do make choices, and I am responsible for my choices. However, my choices are also highly socially conditioned and one can only choose from the range of available options. The powerful image of the American Dream (when divorced from the necessary social structures it presumes) and the myth of the rugged individual pulling himself up by his bootstraps fuel this Americanized version of material wealth as a sign of God’s favor and become a dangerous weapon with which to blame the poor for their inability to get out of poverty. (A particularly insidious example of this is the Prosperity Gospel movement).
The current global financial crisis is a clear product of the greed is good mentality, lust for power and idoltry. It should demonstrate for us quite clearly that there is no connection between wealth and holiness. However, as the blame which belongs on those behind the subprime lending and derivatives market gets shifted to the Community Reinvestment Act, and the results of unethical business practices of Wall Street get put instead on teachers, firemen, and other public sector workers – it is quite clear to me that we have not learned the lessons of Amos or the Gospel. The poor and working classes are the easy scapegoat. However, much space in Scripture and the Christian tradition has been devoted to disabusing us of this sinful social narrative.
Thanks for this post. The Christian tradition really is radical in its claim that wealth is less a sign of moral goodness than a potential stumbling block into sin. It’s striking that so little is said about the “worthiness” of the disadvantaged. The obligations to treat others justly and give to the poor are never qualified. I think that’s challenging news for most middle class Christians.
The difficult part for me is what to do all of this. As a middle class parent, I spend most of my money on what I consider to be worthwhile things (i.e., education, food, health care, housing, savings for college and retirement), knowing that my family is extremely privileged to be able to afford all of this. I also give away a percentage of my income and I’m willing to sacrifice certain aspects of a middle class lifestyle in order to do that.
Still, even though I acknowledge that I do not deserve all that I have, I support government spending for the poor, and I give some of my income away, I spend most of what I have on my family. Isn’t this effectively saying that my wealth is mine to spend as I see fit? Can a middle class U.S. family really be true to the prophetic words of Amos and Jesus?
Thanks for your comments.
On your first point, Gutierrez is quite helpful – if the poor are “holy” great, but whether or not the poor are “holy or morally good” is irrelevant to the question. Inhuman poverty (Lacking of basic necessities and opportunity) is unjust based upon the full human dignity of the poor and marginalized. This is particularly difficult for middle class Americans, like myself, as well becuase it requires recognizing that we are beneficiaries of a system that excludes, marginalizes and oppresses others (often through no conscious choices – ie. I didn’t choose to be born into a white, middle class, highly educated family – and often through actions considered good and desireable – my own decisions to go to college, graduate school, etc). Still, both consciously and unconscously, I participate in and benefit from a power structure which harms and excludes masses of people for similarly unintended/accidental happenings.
On your second point, I completely agree Chrisitan discipleship is and always must be RADICAL when it comes to the poor and marginalized. However, I don’t think the situation you describe is saying my wealth is mine to spend as i see fit in a flippant way…..on the contrary:
I would propose we think of this in similar ways to private property….everything is derived and conditional. So my “wealth” as in my salary, for example, is to an extent mine and mine to use. However, it is not “absolutely” mine – all wealth is socially created and money, for example, only means something within that social system.
If you think about it like private property – private property is instituted for the common good, and claims of private property only hold within that context (they are not absolute, unconditional claims). In a similar way, having weatlh to provide for ones family I would understand in this context (along with that of subsidiarty). Providing for your family, through your wages, is particapation in the common good (and not simply about selfishness).
As a middle class woman, I think that Jesus and Amos should challenge and make me feel uncomfortable, uneasy with complacency. I think it also should force me to question “how did I accumulate the wealth I have?” “how was it created?” and to ask, “who is being left out?” — this gets more complicated when, for instance, one sees ones own income rising while those within the same institution, but lower on the ladder, are treated differently. (ie. massive bonuses for the “management” and little or no raises and layoffs for the lower levels in the company or those on the housekeeping staff).
I’m really not sure what the point of feeling uncomfortable is (though I agree that is a good first step) if it doesn’t contribute to building up the Kingdom of God with a preferential option for the poor. Shouldn’t we feel MOVED when we feel bad about the injustice involved in how we spend our money? Hungry people don’t get fed and sick people don’t get well (this is really the bottom line, isn’t it?) when I spend my money on things like nice dinners and expensive plane rides, they get fed and get well when I live simply and donate the rest to Oxfam or Catholic Relief Services.
Julie’s question is a very, very tough one. I’m not a parent, but at what point do we say that buying a child ‘x’ fails to the contribute to the common good–especially with a preferential option for the poor? What if ‘x’ is a private (college?) education? Something other than basic, cheap food? A nice car? A car at all? A tux for prom? (Doctoral robes for commencement???) I suppose David can give us some answers to these questions out his work on luxury, but it is by no means obvious to me that buying those things for one’s self, or another (even if one’s child), is something other than theft from those who have a radically more basic needs to be met.
I think the virtue of being uncomfortable with complacency is that it is what moves us regularly – as our lives are often very busy and for middle class America, often removed from the reality of poverty both in the US and Globally. The need for constant attentiveness, perpetual conversion is one I think is challenging to keep front and center in the midst of jobs, families, illnesses, etc.
What I think is so complex about Julie’s question is that it involves the common good as well as the primary responsibility of a parent to their child (both a special relationsihp and a common good relationship). Here’s where Virtue comes in – what type of people is one raising one’s child to be?
I think Jim Keenan’s distinctions of the virtues of self-care, fidelity, and justice are helpful here….so Julie’s quesiton would be a matter of balancing the requirements of all 3 but in particular: fidelity (special relationships – her responsibility/relationsihp to her children is distinct and different from her responsibilities to other children) and justice (responsibility for the common good and one’s responsibliity towards all children, as human beings with dignity and vulnerable).
And Julie, while I don’t have clear – black/white answers…I can say that as I get older, I am particularly appreciative of the intentional decisions/planning my parents did on shaping not only values but our Catholicism (sometimes involving money and often not) and how hard that often was.
I agree with Charlie, that I look forward to David’s work on luxury….I think there’s a lot of distinctions/work needed there…
Have any of you read David Matzko McCarthy’s book The Good Life: Genuine Christianity for the Middle Class? I’d be curious to know if that book addresses any of your concerns.
On complacency and being moved: I would argue that in late modernity, and especially because of our internet interfaces, we have a far harder time being “moved” from complacency. And we middle class people are especially connected. I think people feel “connected” to their world because of the internet; indeed, it is a primary way of being connected for many. But, for instance, last week I had my students go to Google Earth and look at a Darfur genocide exhibit hosted by the US Holocaust Museum. It’s an exhibit that shows where missing towns are, and gives stories of people who are there. When I asked the students whether it was important that they see this, they all said yes. When I asked why, they said, because it gives us awareness of what other people are going through.
But when I asked whether any of them had been moved to do anything (because the website, not coincidentally, gives all kinds of options for people to help) – only one person raised her hand, and that person had been involved beforehand.
So then I observed that maybe it was just that the Darfur exhibit was new to them; had any of them been moved by any connection of any sort to make a difference, however small? One person said she’d contributed to the Haiti disaster relief fund a couple years ago.
Then the more serious conversation ensued – and it turns out, several people in the class participate in local volunteer activity – in trying to revamp Dayton’s rivers, for example, or working in one of the new public school district’s neighborhood schools. But ALL of those contacts were made on an in-person basis. I thought that was rather significant.
Thanks for the book rec. -I’ve never seen it.
And, like you, I am most pleased when class discussions take a turn like the one you described.
I think there are real challenges (as well as opportunities) posed by the global reality we live in. Groups like CFCA (Christian Foundation for Children and Aging) is one that manages to connect solidarity across the globe. The bottom line is whether here in your local community or in trying to respond to Darfur – we have to start from a position of humility and solidarity not pride or self-righteousness. Both middle-class and rich Christians HAVE to give up any delusion that there material wealth is a sign of their holiness and right relationship with God. This delusion often leads people to separate in odd ways the distant poor from the near poor (although not always) – it is easier to see the people of Darfur or Somalia-drought as “deserving” while those at the local soup kitchen are treated with suspicion for their ‘purity.’ Which is 1 reason I think getting at your students local engagement is so important, as that’s where they are hopefully breaking out of these hermeneutics of suspicion of the poor.