The next week, I saw another attack, this one on well-known financial guru Dave Ramsey, when a religious feminist criticized a post explaining the apparent path to wealth that is the American dream; she attacked the very foundations of America by calling it a land of "slavery, ethnic cleansing, gender inequality, and Jim Crow". Lastly, at the recent death of a religiously motivated, convicted African terrorist who was on the American terror watch list until 2008 (and known for several high-profile criticisms of the USA), President Obama suggested that Americans lower their flags to half staff out of respect (and calling him a "courageous and profoundly good human being"). There he goes again, palling around with terrorists.
While it may seem a new direction, the progressive economic idealism of Pope Francis (formerly known as Jorge Mario Bergoglio) is not without precedent. The Didache 4:6 states: "share all things with your brother, and do not say that they are your own. For if you are sharers in what is imperishable, how much more in things which perish!" Individual wealth was attacked by many of the early doctors: St. Basil the Great echoed the sentiment in the fourth century: "That bread which you keep belongs to the hungry; that coat in your closet, to the naked." St. Augustine went so far as to say that "business is in itself an evil"; Jerome claimed that "a man who is a merchant can seldom if ever please God." St. John Chrysostom railed, "So destructive a passion is avarice that to grow rich without injustice is impossible."
Jesus does not use the word "impossible", but it's possible one could assume that from his statement that "it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the Kingdom of God!" (Matt. 19:24, ESV) James linked wealth with oppression: "Are not the rich the ones who oppress you, and the ones who drag you into court? Are they not the ones who blaspheme the honorable name by which you were called?" (James 2:6,7) There are numerous other verses that paint the wealthy in a negative light as well, but it will suffice to say that Pope Francis is not pulling his negative view of personal wealth from a source outside of Christianity. Both biblically and historically, there is a wealth of Christian criticism of wealth.
What's Wrong With Wealth?
Dave Ramsey has some experience with wealth. He has helped thousands of people (primarily churchgoers) manage and increase their wealth, and he has increased his own wealth in doing so. Like any rising star within evangelical circles (ie Rick Warren, Rob Bell), he has attracted a fair amount of criticism in the process. The most recent controversy concerned a post on Dave's website that was actually written by Tim Corley, entitled 20 Things The Rich Do Every Day. In a rebuttal posted on CNN, What Dave Ramsey gets wrong about poverty, blogger Rachel Held Evans questioned the implied causality of the list as well as the theological implications - and battle lines were drawn.
recent study came to this same biblical conclusion).
As many others have pointed out, the list is also not scientific, in that there is no control. There was no definition given as to what income level was considered "rich" or "poor", and it also failed to account for other factors. For example, if we are talking about millionaires, the majority of them are over 60 years of age. Especially if no inheritance was involved, it simply takes time to pay off a mortgage (and then for that property to appreciate in value), to compound enough interest in one's 401k, et cetera. People may be wealthy and retired: if a large number of millionaires work far less than 40 hours, does that mean that we all should do so, to emulate success? Statistics also indicate that the wealthy are more likely than the poor to be non-religious/atheistic, is that also advisable? If numbers indicate that 90% of rich people have only one or two children, and the poor average four, does this make one morally better? Or, to use a real example, if most of the mega-rich agree that taxes should be higher on the wealthy, should we not make their superior opinion our practice?
Perhaps the most disappointing aspect to this whole exchange was Mr. Ramsey's ungracious comeback to those who questioned the post. Calling his critics "ignorant", "spiritually immature", "doctrinally shallow", he instructs them to "grow up", while at the same time perpetuating the idea that, at least in America, wealth is the reward of those good enough to earn it. It should come as no surprise that those with little feel they deserve better, while those with much feel they have earned their wealth by being better than those without.
The link between moral goodness and wealth is drilled into Americans at the earliest of ages. Before any of us learn the truth behind the ruse, most of us are taught that Santa Claus rewards good behavior with material goods, and thus the child with one poor parent, who receives little if anything on Christmas, must have misbehaved. The child with two wealthy parents, who receives anything he requests, must be very, very good. Sadly, many of the comments I've read in the defense of wealth are not far removed from this false correlation: the poor (at least in America) are so out of choice, and if they were not so lazy, or foolish, or without faith, they wouldn't have to endure poverty, which is merely the consequence for their lack of vision.
To clarify, I don't believe Mrs. Evans was criticizing wealth, but rather the importance assigned to it in our culture. I certainly don't oppose wealth, and could easily accept having more of it myself, but I also acknowledge that in theological and moral terms, wealth is no better than poverty. The irony is that some of the same media sources that complain about envy of the rich also feed the public a steady stream of coverage of (and praise for) them; if "class warfare" exists, surely they are the aggressors.
Why Praise Communist Rebels?
If there's one communist out there more widely praised than Pope Francis, it has to be Nelson Mandela. But where the Pope has preached non-violence, Mandela was convicted for plotting against the government of South Africa, including acts of terrorism. A lifelong Methodist and a member of the communist-aligned ANC, Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela did more than just speak out against the dangers of capitalism, he took up arms against his oppressor.
Of course, in this respect he was no different than the Episcopalian George Washington (not that the Stamp Act was in any way equal to Apartheid), leading fellow colonial subjects in a fight for representation. In fact, it would be hard to criticize Mandela's actions and statements at all if they were not so regularly aligned with our Cold War enemies. Mandela most closely related with Fidel Castro, with whom he had a strong friendship. On a visit to Cuba in 1991, he proclaimed:
“...the Cuban Revolution has also been a source of inspiration to all freedom-loving people. We admire the sacrifices of the Cuban people in maintaining their independence and sovereignty in the face of the vicious imperialist-orchestrated campaign.... Long live comrade Fidel Castro.”In the same speech, he also praised Che Guevara, calling him "an inspiration to all human beings who cherish freedom." A decade later, expressing his disapproval of the Iraq invasion, Mandela went so far as to say, "If there is a country that has committed unspeakable atrocities in the world, it is the United States of America."
He also worked tirelessly to promote an anti-capitalist agenda, considering nationalization of some industries and maintaining ties with the Communist Party. Stopping short of calling wealth an evil, Mandela said in a CNN interview on his 90th birthday that the rich do have an obligation to share their wealth with those in poverty. He helped author a government initiative in 1996 known as the GEAR (Growth, Employment, And Redistribution) policy, and yet was celebrated (and now mourned) by a number of American conservatives.
While there are certainly differences between a humble Catholic who happens to be the Pope, a liberal-leaning American blogger, and a communist South African freedom fighter, the common thread is that the new "enemies" of the American way of life are not faceless Soviet atheists, nor are they stereotypical fundamentalist jihadists - they are principled Christians seen in a positive light by most Americans.
Flooding the Engine
Even the late Nelson Mandela was not opposed to capitalism per se. South Africa, to this day, still operates primarily as a free market economy, as does the United States. While many classify them as "socialist", most European nations also operate by free market principles, even with a greater measure of taxation or government regulation. With this in mind, one must be careful to suggest that a critic of concentrated wealth is opposed to capitalism - more often than not, the issue is with the distribution of wealth and the priorities of the society, which are different matters than the mechanics of an economic theory.
In its purest form, free market capitalism is equivalent to economic Darwinism; that is to say, that the craftiest among us deserve to have all they can get, and the less successful only to starve. No one truly desires such a system, regardless of political leanings. The truth is that we all believe, to some degree, in a redistribution of wealth from those who are able to those who are in need. We merely disagree on the definitions of "able" and "need", as well as the amounts to be involved and the degree to which the transfers are voluntary.
My personal issue with the current state of American capitalism is that I believe we have abandoned the principle of merit. Where once we rewarded hard work with wealth, we now praise wealth itself, and celebrate those who have it and yet do as little as possible. I acknowledge that (as my friend Tom has said more than once) self-interest is not the same as greed, and that it is the necessary fuel for capitalism to prosper. However, even the most conservative auto mechanic will not argue that more fuel will always make the car run more smoothly, or that it is unfair for the brakes to hinder the ability of the fuel pump. Elaborate systems of regulation are required to maximize the performance of the car and to ensure the safety of those who rely on it.
Certainly, it is not an oxymoron to be a religious capitalist, nor to be a religious socialist. There will continue to be debate on the ethics and responsibilities of wealth. The new wrinkle is that through an expanded marketplace of ideas made possible by the internet and other technological advances, Christianity is being slowly pulled away from American (conservative) idealism. Perhaps history will repeat itself. Unfortunately, those that have expressed an interest in returning to the faith of our fathers likely did not have St. John Chrysostom in mind.