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.