Posted: October 8, 2004
ou will not find The Good of Affluence in the self-help section of your local bookstore, next to such titles as Sex and Longevity or Drink to Your Health. You will find it in the religion section. John Schneider, professor of religion and theology at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, has given us a Biblical study of affluence, and he finds more or less what the man of pious reflection and sound politics might expect.
The book opens with Schneider's discussion of the papal encyclical of 1891, Rerum Novarum. This, of course, means "of new things," and the encyclical concludes that industrial society is a wholly new world and therefore Christian economic ethics need to be applied in a holy new way. There are severe problems with the way industrial laborers have been treated by the system, but, despite these problems, the capitalistic system is not an inherent evil but a good thing. As we move on from industrial society to informational society, we get a lot of "new new things," as a popular book called them, that need to be similarly evaluated.
Schneider gives the impression that no wealth was ever really created before 1700. He tells us that the main basis of wealth was land, that when land is the main basis of wealth, "zero-sum" is to a more or less true description of the economic game, and that therefore before 1700 some of the ideas of the religious Left that we hear now might have had a lot more validity: for example, that as long as there are poor around us we shouldn't do certain things like art or national defense; or that the rich, those who have capital or savings, should all divest themselves of it.
Land is in some sense "zero-sum"—they're not making any more of it, except in the Netherlands. But there has been urban economic activity in Europe for almost 900 years, and in some other parts of the world for a lot longer, and to say that it didn't really create wealth seems foolish. Anyone who ever took a tour of the great cities of classical Greece and Rome would see a culture whose affluence was based on trade and not land alone. And besides, they might not be making more land, but they were growing things on it. Plants bear fruit. Livestock reproduce. That's growth! We should be wary of the notion that we are in a new dispensation as far as human nature is concerned.
Leaving behind his novus ordo seclorum suggestions, Schneider devotes several chapters to applying the Bible to the human condition. In Genesis, he finds that, contrary to popular claims, monotheism is not responsible for our ecological problems. He finds the Exodus wilderness experience—where there was enough manna for one day at a time—to be a spiritually valuable lesson, but not an economic model. (They were, after all, on their way to Canaan, where there was to be milk and honey instead of manna.)
He reviews Old Testament laws, like gleaning, the poor tithe, etc., and offers an excellent discussion of the Jubilee, the provision by which agricultural land returned to its original owners at the end of 50 years and could not be sold long-term. This has often been thought to be an argument against laissez-faire property rights and for redistribution of wealth. It was actually about maintaining the Holy Land. If the poor person were an Israelite landowner who had fallen on hard times, he benefited from the Jubilee; if he were an alien and stranger in the land, or a permanent slave—categories of people for which Old Testament Law is mostly quite solicitous—he did not benefit from the Jubilee at all and had to surrender such land as he had.
Moving from the Pentateuch to the Prophets, Schneider points out the specific nature of Amos's complaints about his corrupt society.
The political order was a monarchy gone over into tyranny, and the social economy (mainly based on marketing of commodities) was completely under the control of a ruling elite. These rulers of Israel were in the nearly omnipotent position of being able to set rates of taxation, fix prices, and generally bully their way around the economic precincts of the nation…. In a society of this sort power is concentrated in the monarch and it extends only to those who are favorably connected to the throne.
Much of Latin American and other Third World "capitalism" is like this. So are certain heavily regulated businesses, like real estate on the local level, in the United States. An obvious point, and one that Schneider fails to make, is that it is folly to try to trust the government to be "able to set rates of taxation, fix prices, and generally bully their way around" on behalf of the poor and at the expense of the rich, as the Left tries to do. The inevitable result is not to eliminate the elite, but to create a new one.
"Alas," says Amos,
for those who lie on beds of ivory, and lounge on their couches, and eat lambs from the flock, and calves from the stall; who sing idle songs to the music of the harp, and like David improvise on instruments of music; who drink wine from bowls, and anoint themselves with the finest oils, but are not grieved over the ruin of Joseph!
But the problem is not affluence. The problem is that they are not grieving over the ruin of "Joseph," i.e., the two predominant tribes of the Samaria region, descended from Joseph. After all, David was not blamed for "improvising on instruments of music.
Proverbs strikes an interesting balance, both affirming that prosperity is often the reward for hard work, and at the same time pointing out that the rich have their problems too. Schneider discusses Proverbs 10:15, "The wealth of the rich is their fortress; the poverty of the poor is their ruin." But there is another verse: "The wealth of the rich is their fortress; they imagine it an unscalable wall." This text seems to be one of the keys to the Bible's understanding of the real spiritual problem of the rich. They see, consciously or unconsciously, their wealth as sheltering them against the problems of the world, rather than seeing God as their protector. Or maybe they do not even know that the problems exist.
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Schneider notes that Solomon asked for wisdom, not riches, and that Job did not "plead to God for material wealth, but only for restoration of his integrity. God restores his riches anyway." The Good of Affluence invokes Ecclesiastes, too. And I must say, if I were preaching to a roomful of Silicon Valley entrepreneurs, or even maybe a Hollywood crowd, I would take that book as my primary text. It was written for people like that.
When he turns to the New Testament, Schneider offers an excellent discussion of Jesus, whose poverty figures so largely in most discussions of Christian economics. Joseph sacrificed two doves, the poor man's option, at Jesus' dedication, partly because under the circumstances Mary carried no dowry. They soon got one, however, of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. Perhaps it should be emphasized that Jesus got to have a two-parent family. His legal and covenantal father, Joseph, was a tekton, which is usually translated "carpenter" but actually means something like "construction contractor." It is quite possible that he and his son got a lot of work at the nearby Roman planned community of Sepphoris. At any rate, Jesus was not of the poorest of the poor. He associated with tax collectors, who were outcasts but were certainly not poor financially.
The people of Israel faced, of course, plenty of "unjust structures."
At the top was the royal family of the despised Herod. His ruthlessness and political cunning was as legendary as it was profitable. One of Herod's favorite ploys was to take land from the people whom he distrusted and give it to proven loyalists. To these belonged the holy priesthood and all the riches that went with it.... We will comprehend the New Testament more fully if we understand that financial advantage in Israel often implied direct involvement with political evil and injustice.
At least today the government has to pay people something before it gives their land to someone else (though the government doesn't have to pay people if it just tells them they can't use their land). Jesus and His disciples benefited from Roman roads and the Roman peace, and Jesus validated the use of Roman coinage. Was He therefore a sinner by implication? Schneider opposes this notion of covenantal or social guilt, though one often hears such accusations today, directed especially against American Christians.
Schneider does a good job refuting another popular argument—the argument of "moral proximity." If Jesus were doing His work today, the image of every leper in the whole world could be broadcast to Him directly. Some would argue that this puts every poor person in the world today in the same moral position, in regard to the affluent, as Lazarus on Dives' doorstep. Schneider shows why this is not the case.
Early Christianity, though it respected the poor, was not merely a movement of the poor. "The assumption that Christianity began as a movement among the rabble and social refuse of society gained credibility in the works of Nietzsche, Marx, and Edward Gibbon," and for Nietzsche and Gibbon this was a major argument against the faith. But many affluent people are named approvingly in the New Testament, from Lydia of Philippi to Joseph of Arimathea. Peter "left all," which implied that he had something to leave. His mother-in-law's house in Capernaum was frequently used by Jesus as a home base.
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The behavior of the early church in Jerusalem, as recorded by Luke, has given rise to heated ethical discussion, based especially on Acts 4:32-35:
All the believers were one in heart and mind. No one claimed that any of his possessions was his own, but they shared everything they had.... There were no needy persons among them. For from time to time those who owned lands or houses sold them, brought the money form the sales and put it at the apostle's feet, and it was distributed to anyone as he had need.
Peter's response to Ananias, however, makes clear that this common ownership was not the result of some cultic control.
Didn't [the piece of land] belong to you before it was sold? And after it was sold, wasn't the money at your disposal?...
Ananias had sold a piece of land and had donated part of the proceeds to the community; but he had claimed that he had donated the entire proceeds to the community. Peter makes it very clear that the church members had by no means automatically surrendered their property rights and responsibilities to the church. And, later on, John Mark's mother still had a house—she clearly did not liquidate it (Acts 12:12).
Schneider concludes the book by claiming that "the culture of modern capitalism…is unusually suited to the expression of Christian virtues." Unusually? I'm still inclined to argue about that. He leans heavily on the recent work of Hernando de Soto, The Mystery of Capital, which argues that the poor of the Third World suffer from the lack of formal property law. Denied the legal ownership of property, the poor are deprived of the right to convert it into usable capital assets. In Schneider's tangled phrase, "they lack integrated systems of property law to validate real property by binding representation (something people in advanced nations take so much for granted that they hardly are aware of its powerful effects)."
While this is probably not the panacea Schneider and De Soto seem to think, the absence of legal property rights is surely an important unjust structure that we who would concern ourselves for the poor should pay attention to. And I might add that we in the West need to resist the temptation, especially at the local level, to surrender the control of private property to governments central and local—to abandon the rule of law in favor of the discretion of rulers—even though these temptations present themselves in the guise of personal peace and affluence, property values, and the environment.
John Schneider has written a good book, but his mistakes of omission (he overlooks important texts in First Timothy 6 and Proverbs) and commission render it less than excellent. He doesn't seem to understand that there are reasons to avoid conspicuous consumption that have nothing to do with the poor people starving in the Sahel. There is avoidance of worldly arrogance, there is good stewardship of money, there is the avoidance of debt slavery. The moral burden of our consumer society is not so much upon the really affluent as on those who aspire to the trappings of affluence and cannot quite afford them. Of this, we hear nothing from Schneider.
Still, the book is worthy so far as it goes. Interested readers may wish to know that a better, more thorough, though less Biblical volume on the same general subject is Dinesh D'Souza's The Virtue of Prosperity.