Thursday, April 26, 2012

Jesus and Wealth

I regularly participate in a weekly forum in which a group of us at a local parish discuss various political, economic, and social issues from a theological perspective.  Last Sunday, the topic of our discussion was the issue of Mitt Romney’s wealth and whether his wealth prevents people from being able to relate to him and vice versa.

It was interesting to me that no one in the room really seemed to think that his wealth was a problem.  Reference was made to ‘benevolent wealth’ and to the idea that the problem is not whether someone has money, but about whether they’ve been taught to use it benevolently.  But no one talked about money and wealth from a theological perspective.

There are a few paragraphs in G.K. Chesterton’s Orthodoxy, a masterful work of theology, in which Chesterton discusses the challenge Christianity poses to prevailing attitudes toward wealth.  Responding to the idea that societies have generally placed their trust in the rich and so have bestowed political and moral authority upon them, he writes:

" be rich is to be in peculiar danger of moral wreck"
"Only the Christian Church can offer any rational objection to a complete confidence in the rich. For she has maintained from the beginning that the danger was not in man's environment, but in man. Further, she has maintained that if we come to talk of a dangerous environment, the most dangerous environment of all is the commodious environment. I know that the most modern manufacture has been really occupied in trying to produce an abnormally large needle. I know that the most recent biologists have been chiefly anxious to discover a very small camel. But if we diminish the camel to his smallest, or open the eye of the needle to its largest—if, in short, we assume the words of Christ to have meant the very least that they could mean, His words must at the very least mean this— that rich men are not very likely to be morally trustworthy. Christianity even when watered down is hot enough to boil all modern society to rags. The mere minimum of the Church would be a deadly ultimatum to the world…The whole case for Christianity is that a man who is dependent upon the luxuries of this life is a corrupt man, spiritually corrupt, politically corrupt, financially corrupt. There is one thing that Christ and all the Christian saints have said with a sort of savage monotony. They have said simply that to be rich is to be in peculiar danger of moral wreck (emphases mine)."

The question is not whether a man as wealthy as Romney can relate to the middle class, but whether we as Christians can support a system in which the wealthy are consistently given the reins of political power.  The voice of Christ rings through the examples of women and men – Orthodox, Catholic, and Protestant – who have taken Jesus’ words seriously: “If you would be perfect, go, sell what you possess and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me” (Matthew 19:21).  And yet, in so many of our communities of the faithful, Jesus’ teaching and example is ignored entirely or explained away as being ‘unrealistic’ or as being relevant only to a select few of those who follow him.  I have even heard one person try to explain Jesus’ teachings away by appealing to biblical criticism and so suggesting (it would seem to me) that we can pick and choose the Jesus we liked by deciding what can actually go back to the ‘original Jesus.’

Jesus cannot be so easily dismissed.  Christianity preaches, at its core, selfless love.  We believe in a God of selfless love who exists in Trinity as a community of selfless love eternally and who selflessly became a human being like us.  The community to which Jesus calls us is a community that lives in imitation of divine Love.  Wealth – or the pursuit of it – cannot but turn us inward, towards ourselves and away from the other.  Displays of generosity might assuage one’s conscience, but anyone who actually paid attention to the message of the Gospel cannot but feel that there is a tension between the attainment of wealth and living the Christian life to the fullest.

I should note that I write all of this as a complete and total hypocrite.  And I feel the tension between the life to which Christ and the Church calls me and my family, and the life we actually live.

Jesus’ teachings and example continue to offend because they are, for those of us who buy into the materialism that is so central to human life, offensive.  What is most interesting is that those who actually follow Jesus are often the ones most offended by him.

Here's a sketch by the Daily Show with Jon Stewart that nicely encapsulates how we as Christians tend to ignore those aspects of Jesus that don't fit nicely into our understanding of the world.  You need to watch to the end of the sketch for the pay-off:

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  1. So---rich guy bad, poor guy good?

  2. @Anonymous: I think you need to read the post, and particularly the quotation from Chesterton, much more closely. The takeaway is not: "rich guy bad, poor guy good." Rather, from a Christian perspective, wealth cannot be viewed as an unqualified good; indeed, wealth, and the pursuit of it, is to be viewed with great suspicion.

  3. Thanks for your thoughts on an issue I consistently struggle with.

    -Jessica R