The Radical Christian Approach to Poverty and Riches

As income disparities rise in the modern economy, it is becoming harder to maintain love and harmony between rich and poor. Paternalistic arrogance seems to be growing among the wealthy, and resentful envy seems to be growing among the poor. This estrangement is a major cause of our ongoing political and economic dysfunctions. In the last few years we’ve watched this estrangement play out in everything from Wall Street scandals to the Occupy Wall Street protests. Last month Bill de Blasio got elected mayor of New York City after running on “a tale of two cities” as his campaign theme.

occupy-protest-99percentWe are not the first culture to struggle with this problem. Ancient civilizations typically believed that people who worked for a living were morally inferior. Only the “leisured” classes, free from the toil of work, had the opportunity to improve themselves through religious and cultural activities. This work/spirit dualism was the basic justification for slavery and many other evils. Even after slavery in the ancient world had largely ended, society maintained a broadly paternalistic structure throughout the Middle Ages. Systems of social control and patron/client dependency, such as feudalism, cultivated arrogance among the rich and resentment among the poor.

Beginning in the 13th century, however, those systems began to break down as it became increasingly clear that they were inconsistent with the culture’s claim to be Christian. Christianity teaches the radical idea that rich and the poor have equal human dignity and should live in love, harmony, and equal citizenship. Many factors contributed to the downfall of paternalistic institutions, but the Reformation was the most important turning point. As the 95 theses show, Luther’s movement did not begin as an argument about justification or the authority of Scripture, but as a fight to overthrow paternalism.

Our modern economy largely resulted from the breakdown of paternalism. Its central distinguishing feature is that it treats work as an activity of moral and spiritual significance. Thus it presupposes equal dignity and shared identity among rich and poor. This is what Tim Keller and Katherine Leary Alsdorf mean when they write in Every Good Endeavor that Christianity cultivated “the democratic ethos that makes modern capitalism thrive.”

Unprecedented Inequality

Every social system, however, is fallen and creates opportunities for sin. One of the biggest challenges in the modern economy is that it creates unprecedented material inequality. While ancient economies were more unequal in terms of power and dignity, modern economies are more unequal in terms of money and luxuries. Since fallen people are tempted to think money and material things are what matter, this inequality creates new temptations to arrogance and resentment.

Healing the relational estrangement between rich and poor is one of the most central elements of Christian living. James points to “partiality” among economic classes as a quality that demonstrates unbelief and leads to perdition (James 2). Paul identifies “contentment” with your economic position as a way of life that distinguishes true believers from false teachers (1 Timothy 6:3-10).

Our calling to cultivate love and harmony across class divides is rooted in the image of God. All human beings are made to be in relationship with God and to represent God as stewards of the creation order. However, selfish desires lead us to seek dignity in something other than God’s image. One method is to set up your own economic class—the rich, the poor, or some other classification—as superior. Wealthy people tell themselves they must be better people because they have more money; poor people tell themselves they must be better people because they have less money.

Yet the Bible warns the wealthy to be humble and the poor to be content; arrogance and envy are both condemned. Every section of Scripture sounds this theme over and over again—the Torah, the historical books, the prophets, the wisdom literature, the Gospels, and the epistles alike. Consider, for example, how differently the parable of the prodigal son would have ended if Jesus thought wealth correlated with moral worthiness. The prodigal might have been denied restoration to wealth on the grounds that he didn’t deserve it, or he could have been given a job and told to re-establish his wealth through virtuous work. The diligent elder son would have been the hero of the story—a model to be emulated. If wealth were evil, on the other hand, the ending would make no sense; the father is destroying his son by restoring him to wealth.

Good Stewards

On the other hand, while money is not a barometer of moral worth or spiritual standing, it is not a matter of indifference, either. All human beings were made to be God’s representatives in the creation order, so everything we do matters. And few things are more central to how we live than how we use our money (Matthew 6:21).

All people, rich and poor alike, are called to be good stewards of what we have, using our possessions to glorify God and serve human needs. This is why, for example, we respect property rights (Micah 2:1-2). The rich must not think that even a penny of their wealth escapes this claim of stewardship (Deuteronomy 8:17-18), and the poor must not think God has given them too little to expect them to be productive stewards (Matthew 25:14-30). The ultimate standard of right conduct is the same for all: the image of God.

One of the few things that is more important than our relationship with our money is our relationship with one another. The Bible calls upon rich and poor to love one another, identify with one another, and work together as equals for the flourishing of all. In the church, this means spiritual brotherhood; in the public square, it means we love each other as neighbors and fellow citizens.

These relationships are implicated in the call to stewardship. The rich should be generous and serve others’ needs (1 John 3:17). The poor should strive diligently for economic self-sufficiency so they don’t need perpetual generosity (1 Timothy 5:8). The Old Testament gleaning laws beautifully capture this balance; the landowner generously sacrifices wealth, but the poor person lives by his own work rather than a handout (Leviticus 19:9-10).

While these practices may tend to moderate extremes of wealth and poverty, they do not justify massive redistribution and class leveling. Such approaches assume that money matters more than relationships. The pooling of resources in Acts 2-5, for example, appears to have been a temporary and voluntary measure to meet an emergency situation. Thousands of new believers, many of them travelers from distant lands, had just been abruptly added to the church at Pentecost. After such an experience, they could hardly turn around and immediately go home; they would have wanted to know more about Jesus, so the faith community had to somehow accommodate them in Jerusalem. Under normal circumstances, communal control of property leaves no space to practice stewardship and the godly virtues it involves. That’s why we don’t see this practice introduced or recommended anywhere else in Scripture.

For the sake of love and righteousness, Christians have the privilege of helping heal the breach between rich and poor. Against arrogant paternalism and resentful envy, we can shine the light of the gospel to illuminate the truth about what it means to be human. If all of us are made to be in relationship with God and to represent God, then, as believers, we belong to each other as spiritual brothers and, as human beings, we belong to each other as neighbors and citizens with a shared nature and a shared community. This is a message of love and hope that our culture desperately needs.

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