Sunday, June 11, 2006

Expanding the Gospel - Wealth and Poverty

It was announced in April that Lee Raymond, chair of ExxonMobil, was retiring with a 400 million dollar retirement package. That's right - 400 million - more than the average American worker would make in 175 lifetimes!

I was particularly intrigued by columnist William Buckley's comments - he called it a "lack of decorum". Since capitalism does not limit the size of bonus or wage, Buckley argues that there is not much we can do.

And what should the church call a "400 million dollar retirement package"? I know this is stretch, I don't even know if Mr Raymond belongs to any faith group. But if he is a member of a church, I hope the church would consider the correct word - "sin".

Is it possible in our culture, more attuned to the market than ever before, for the church to have an honest opinion about wealth? Are we too compromised on the issue to speak the word of the prophets that condemned wealth and power that marginalized common folks?

Jesus had a fairly consistent attitude toward wealth - while he called the wealthy to repentance and acceptance - he maintained a consistent level of disdain for wealth. Luke records in chapter 18 a story of the rich young ruler who wanted to know what else he had to do to inherit eternal life. He had done everything he thought was necessary and stood in front of Jesus fairly proud of himself - he hadn't stolen someone else's wife, he hadn't killed anyone, he hadn't stolen from anyone - or so he thought...

Jesus told him that he must sell what he had and give it to the poor. Wait, this isn't part of the Law! Why would Jesus say such a thing? In today's church we would have made the rich young ruler the chairman of the board in charge of finance and called him blessed of God...

The culture in Jesus day believed in economics as a zero sum game - meaning that there is a delicate balance in availability of resources. If someone became wealthy that meant that they did so by keeping others poor. In a advanced agrarian society about the only way one could become extremely wealthy would be taking advantage of others, such as foreclosing on their land, taking taxes, treating them as slaves and taking part of their crops as payment. Studies have shown that in Jesus day there was very small percentage of wealthy and a large poverty class from which the rich extracted their living. In other words, what Jesus seems to be suggesting in his conversation with the rich young ruler - is that he understood that you don't become extremely wealthy without stealing from others!!! Hence the rich young ruler was not keeping the Law as well as he thought.

I can hear some responding - but capitalism is a different system. Now we can create wealth without harming others. Capitalism raises all economic boats and has created an unprecedented middle class. That is true - capitalism has worked better than most systems at pulling some people out of poverty. But not all people! I fear that because capitalism is the last economic system standing, and because it does create wealth and distribute it better than other systems that the church is in danger of excepting the modern mantra - "salvation is in the market". We don't believe Jesus anymore when he says that wealth is dangerous to our spiritual life.

Can we, the church, pull ourselves awake long enough to creatively resist thinking that the market is the (invisible, Adam Smith) hand of God? Can we raise any protest? Can we shape a people that honestly believes that our hope is in the Lord and not Wall Street? Again, imagination and discernment is desperately needed...


juli said...

i'm imagining what a church might do if given 400 million dollars...

at what point do we need to respond to this point made? what is the definition you have on "wealth"?
are we exempt from response to this ideal as long as we are not talking sinful amounts of money?

wondering. -for some time, i'm wondering.

DBrothers said...

Juli, good questions in response. I am not sure how I would define wealth. I would need to think about that one.

And I think that we are not exempt even if we are not taking sinful amounts of money. May need to dialogue more about how we respond to capitalism and the desire for more that it creates.

kate said...

i am all for this wealth reduction, as long as it doesn't affect the 401K retirement wealth accumulation plan [which is - i assure you - 100% different from gambling] that my denomination has set up for me. wait a minute...

[this is a bit thick in cynnicism, so i apologize, but apparently not too much, as i am still typing]

what would yoder do?

Mark said...

Fascinating thoughts!
I have never seen a church take such anit-wealth stance and going as far as you have suggested as to call it sin. I think there is too much realization that it would be easier to befriend this person and get them in a single check to write off a major building expanse. It is far easier to find one man who would write a big check in the access of his wealth, than it is to raise money by the widows who give the coins of all they have.

It may be possible to be wealthy and follow Christ… But, it seems far more dangerous. I would like to hear more churches speak on the dangers of wealth to your life.

You do well to point out that we live in different economic systems today than in Jesus’ day (I think). Is it really true today (in capitalism) that everyone can experience a raising of the standard of living at the same time? Or is it still true that for someone to get rich, others must be living in poverty? These questions of economics need major thought.
It seems issues of economics are what will elevate poverty.

Economics really is life or death in this world.

What is the churches role in relation to economics? I would love to see that explored more.

The theories of Economics seem so delicate and complex, an environment that when polluted is uncertain as to exactly how it will respond. I wish I had far greater understanding in these areas. Does one choosing to shop at Wal-mart really help the minimum wage worker? Are the companies I trust to shop at really doing any better in the world?

To some degree we are stuck having to participate in the system somewhere… But…

Am I part of the cure or part of the disease?

Jess said...

Dwayne, I'm with Mark on this one...[this is my big "ditto"]...economics is a key issue that the church doesn't really speak up about much...think Heritage would let you teach a class on the dangers of wealth...and how do you account for a church [or churches] whose budgets are in the millions? Is that okay? And if not, where are the cuts made?