Wealth and Prosperity

Although in our time, with the extreme disparity between ultra-rich and ultra-poor that we are aware of, wealth and prosperity have become words with a negative association in many peoples’ minds, in the ancient Near Eastern biblical texts, wealth and prosperity are seen as blessings, “every man under his own vine,” a security for the survival and safety of your family, a hedge against famine and weather. It is only, as a West Virginia great-grandmother recently put it, “ill-gotten gain” that is critiqued as a sin against the poor and their Creator. That, and fairly acquired wealth, but without a concern for those in need. As I explored briefly in the last post, the ancient scriptures have quite a few examples of men and women of wealth and property who are held up as examples of uprightness in God’s eyes, as they use their means as a way to help those in dire straits; the orphan, widow, poor, and foreigner. A more recent example of this I came across years ago, is this memorial plaque from England describing a man of means who saw his wealth as a tool given by God for the betterment of the world. It reads as follows:

CHRIST IS ALL

In Memory of Robert Holden Esq.

Of Nuthall Temple, born July 24 1805.

A monument of grace.

A noble example to the rich,

And an unfailing friend to the poor.

He lived in holiness before God

And great usefulness to man

And fell asleep in Jesus November 11 1872.

 

 

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Wealth, power, and influence in the ancient Hebrew ideal

One of the themes widely recognized and strongly presented across the pages of the Old Testament is God’s anger at how the poor, widowed, and orphaned have been mis-treated, or not looked-after. Not only in the commands of the Mosaic Law Code (in terms of care for the above mentioned and foreigners living among the Israelite tribes; for example: Leviticus 19: 9-10, 13-15, 33-34 or Deuteronomy 15: 7-11), but also long rants in the books of the Prophets that Judah and Israel are under God’s judgment because they had failed to look out for the unempowered (for example: Isaiah 1: 16-17; 2: 14-15; Micah 2: 1-2, 8-9; Amos 5: 7, 11-12; Zechariah 7: 9-10; or Malachi 3: 5).

The flip side of this, but less often noted, are the descriptions of how a morally upright person uses their power, influence, and wealth. The book of Job contains some representative examples of this. I think, in our current cultural context, where the place of wealth and influence are subjects of heightened interest, these ancient words of Job could serve as loci of discussion and consideration.

‘For I assisted the poor in their need

And the orphans who required help.

I helped those without hope…

I caused the widows’ hearts to sing for joy.

Everything I did was honest… I wore justice like a turban.

I served as eyes for the blind and feet for the lame.

I was a father to the poor and assisted strangers who needed help.

I broke the jaws of godless oppressors and plucked their victims from their teeth.

They drank my words like a refreshing spring…. I comforted those who mourned.

Let God weigh me on the scales of justice, for He knows my integrity.

If I have been unfair to my male or female servants when they brought their complaints to me, how could I face God?

For He created both me and my servants. He created us both in the womb.

Have I refused to help the poor or crushed the hopes of widows?

No, from childhood I have cared for orphans like a father…

whenever I saw the homeless without clothes and the needy with nothing to wear,

did they not praise me for providing wool clothing to keep them warm?’ (Job 29, 31)

It seems to me that in today’s public conversation, power, wealth, or influence, in and of themselves, are often labeled as wrong or bad. But in the Hebrew Scriptures these things are not seen as bad or evil or unjust (neither is strength, nor ancient ideals of courage). Power, wealth, influence, strength, and courage, in the OT scriptures, are seen as good, effective, redemptive tools of fairness and justice that a godly person uses to increase the well-being of the common good, and especially of the weak, suffering, and unempowered. See too the picture of the empowered, well-to-do woman in Proverbs 31, and what she does with her wealth, strength, courage and influence. I have only brushed the surface of the images the Hebrews scriptures provide us on this subject, and I suspect that, in our current time and place in Western civilization, most of these images of personal and civic ideals are no longer commonly known. That leaves us with Hollywood personalities, professional athletes, and a handful of billionaires as societal role models regarding the use of wealth. Perhaps a rediscovery of some ancient biblical images could serve as fruitful templates in our conversation about society, stratification, influence, and lack.

Reinhold Niebuhr on Economic Disparity

I admit that I tend, like most people, I suspect, to think of terms like economic inequality, social justice and social disparity as phrases growing out of the 1960s social movements. I understand why some of my friends roll their eyes at these terms, seeing as there has always been economic inequality among humans on Earth – for our entire history! – and that such terms are often favorite code words today for confiscating resources that someone worked diligently to earn to help their family, and redistributing them to people who are not working. In a culture built on the Protestant Work Ethic and Germanic ideals of work-hard-be-rewarded-well-prosperity, it’s easy to see why many people consider these terms less than useful.

However, Christians have been concerned about economic injustice and disparity since the beginning. Christianity’s emphasis on God’s concern for the poor is drawn from its constant appearance in the Old and New Testaments of the Bible. Preachers as far back as Gregory the Great (540-604 AD) not only railed about concern for the poor, but also were already analyzing contributing factors as to why they were poor in the first place (Gregory himself observed that rural poverty due to a poor harvest had a different genesis  than urban poverty where the societal structures in place kept rich people rich and poor people desperately poor.)* John Wesley, Anglican founder of the Methodists, argued that a Christian should make as much money in his business as he could – as long as it didn’t harm his neighbor’s business! (Sermon: On the Use of Money). For myself, I am not against a factory owner making more money than the factory worker. Having known those owners, and their story, including un-assisted rags-to-riches stories that, yes indeed, were done without crushing anyone, not even systemically, I don’t have a problem that they are enjoying the fruit of their hard work. The ancient scroll of Proverbs in the Old Testament celebrated the cause-and-effect benefits of diligent work 3000 years ago. Every time someone succeeds, it does not mean it was via injustice, however hidden. A seven-person broom business in Bangladesh started with a Muhammad Yunus micro-loan shouldn’t have to listen to the charge of systemic injustice. I know American businesses started by very poor people that succeeded the same way. Constant assumptions of systemic injustice whenever someone does well, are over-reaching on the subject.

What does strike me as a new conundrum, is that in the current way our transnational corporate world is organized, the factory owner now makes over 350 times what the worker does, whereas 60 years ago they made about 12 times more than the worker. The fact that the owner was from that same town and felt a sense of responsibility for his workers, created a context in which all-or-nothing short term profits were NOT the order of the day. This is one of the chief reasons thinkers like Fritz Schumacher argued for smaller businesses rather than mega. But I got thinking of all of this when I was reading The Theology of Reinhold Niebuhr by E. Campbell today and came across this passage – using those terms like social injustice, in 1932! Here is Niebuhr’s quote, from Moral Man and Immoral Society: A Study in Ethics and Politics (1932):

                “The sharpening of class antagonism within each modern industrial nation is increasingly destroying national unity and imperiling international comity as well. It may be that the constant growth of economic inequality and social injustice in our industrial civilization will force the nations into a final conflict… the disintegration of national loyalties through class antagonisms has proceeded so far in the more advanced nations, that they can hardly dare to permit the logic inherent in the present situation to take its course. Conditions in these nations, particularly in Germany… reveal what desperate devices are necessary for the preservation of even a semblance of national unity…

                If the possibilities and perils of the contemporary situation are to be fully understood it will be necessary to study the class antagonism within the nations carefully and estimate their importance for the future of civilization.”

Heightened disparity undermining civilization. This from a landmark Christian theologian back in 1932. Interesting.

*Wealth and Poverty in Early Church and Society (Holy Cross Studies in Patristic Theology and History) Susan R. Holman, editor. 2008.