Earlier this month, I dealt a little with Wallis’ book “Politics of God: Why the Right Gets it Wrong and the Left Doesn’t Get It.” My primary criticism was not that it was a book written by a Christian liberal about Christian liberalism, but instead that it begged all of the important questions. He didn’t have the courtesy to Christian economic conservatism to even describe it properly.
But the more I thought about it, I have never known a liberal who could. And that is a shame. I live in a country that is founded on some its basic premises, but they are never taught. The great names of failed communalist ideologies are well known, but I challenge any liberal to describe the basis of Christian conservative economic theory without simply dropping into leftist cant.
Well, there are a number of older and more recent theologians who have provided a coherent theology of Christian conservatism, and one of the best I have read is the recent book “The Good of Affluence:Seeking God in a Culture of Wealth” by John R Schneider.
This book points out the fundamental problem of the left’s theology of envy, and asks the question “Why in the world do the Christian liberals believe that it is better for everybody to be poor than for everybody to be rich?”
As Schneider points out:
There are twenty-five societies that have successfully deployed capitalism. These societies have prospered, and as they have done so, they have also developed distinctive cultures — cultures of capitalism. They are cultures of a sort that never existed before on the planet. The astonishing thing about them is not that they contain a lot of affluence, but they are cultures of affluence.
There have always been rich people in the world, and in the church there have always been rich Christian people. But human history has never before known circumstances in which entire societies were affluent and engaged in this sort of constant economic activity. For most ofhuman history, almost everyone was poor; only a few were rich. …We desperately need integrated Christian spiritual and moral theology on what being affluent means in our time.
.. With the help of others (particularly Michael Novak) I have come to believe it is mistaken — greviously so — to interpret the workings of capitalism in terms of exploitation, class warfare, and oppression (as Marx does), and its human vision and habits of economic life as incompatible with true Christianity (as Weber does). As will be clear (in the light of fresh theory) that capitalism (for all its problems) is not just the greatest liberating power in human history, but also that its cultural workings provide an unusually good opportunity for the expression of true Christian faith and virtue…
He quotes Michael Novak:
We are going to see a spiritual revival in this country, and it’s going to be led by rich people. I realize that sounds odd, but it really isn’t. The Bible tells us that man cannot live by bread alone. But you have to have bread to realize that. Rich people are finding that wealth by itself does not bring meaning and fulfillment, and they are starting to search for answers. In the past people came to God because they were suffering, because they were broken. But increasingly, in the West, it’s going to be affluence that leads people to God.
(from D’Souza, Virtue of Prosperity, pp 143-144)
Schneider points out that capitalism has, unlike leftist attempts, achieved what Christian leftists say they want — an almost complete obliteration of classical poverty. Again, quoting D’Souza:
Some people may be surprised to learn that 50% of Americans defined by the government as “poor” have air conditioning, 60% have microwave ovens and VCRs, 70% have one or more cars, 72% have washing machines, 77% have telephones, 93% have at least one color television, and 98% have a refrigerator. Not only are poor Americans today better housed, better clothed, and better fed than average Americans were half a century ago, in many respects they live better than the average western European does today.
Certainly there is still “real” poverty and “real” hunger in the United States, but studies involving actual consumption rather than economic models (which is where most inflated claims about poverty come from), the numbers are quite small. The food problem among the poor is obesity, not hunger. And, in order to keep the number of people in poverty up, the Census Bureau has proposed redefining poverty away from lack of necessities to a cultural definition of relative difference in standard of living. One might think that the left would admire this achievement and believe that it should be spread. Instead it is condemned. The Christianleft would much prefer that we all were poor and shared equal misery rather than all being affluent and unequally rich.
But, in fact, is that what God wants?
Schneider presents a careful analysis of scripture, extending from Genesis through the New Testament that says no. He first points out that God created the world for the purpose of worshipful delight. That was the purpose of the Garden, and a common thread through the Old Testament was the return to that delight as a sign of God’s favor. The theme of the Exodus, the Promised Land, the Jubilee, etc. are all themes both of affluence and of private property. In fact, as Schneider points out, in contrast to the partial description of the Jubilee that Christian leftists use as their paradigm for international debt forgiveness, the Jubilee did not do away with private property, but instead ensured that it would not be lost:
… it is mistaken to picture the jubilee as first and foremost a policy for the execution of just stewardship of the sort that [leftist theologians] have in mind. Writers on the subject almost universally miss the point that its provisions applied only to members of the original Israelite tribes. The poorest people in society were unaffected by it. For aliens, sojourners, non-Israelite debtors and slaves possessed no land in the first place and thus had no share in its repossession on the day of jubilee. Their economic need, however dire, played no role in the redistribution. Strange as it may seem, given the function of these texts in modern theologians’ discourse, the people whom the jubilee helped were not the poor, but the families of original affluence. The jubilee (if practiced) guaranteed that they enduredin their landed affluence regardless of whether they wanted (or deserved) it.
He then moves on to discussions of the prophets, and the Psalms and Wisdom of Solomon to show that, at least in the Old Testament, Jehova did not mean for those he loved to live in poverty.
Is Schneider an apologist for gross materialism, then?
Of course not. What he points out is that God gives those with greater affluence greater responsibility. Throughout the Old Testament (and New) wealth is not criticized as much as the misuse and misapprehension of wealth. The dialectic is not between poverty and wealth, but between the proper use and the misuse of wealth.
Schneider develops this in his analysis of the New Testament, particularly his description of Jesus and the discples and the parables of Luke. He notes that most of the apostles were not poor, but, like Jesus were middle class. He shows that Jesus was a firm believer in his Fathers’s instructions to delight in the world — to the point that Jesus was condemned as a glutton and a drunk. The parable of the rich fool is not one against wealth, but against defining oneself in terms of wealth. He points out that the basic strategy of what the rich fool did was little more than what any person with a 401K or savings plan would do. Is contributing to a 401K a sin? Of course not.
…Unless we think that economic planning… is inherently and thus always covetous, then the sin of greed and the eternal foolishness of the man are not inherent in his actions, but rather in the deeper and larger spiritual context of those actions.
The man’s sin and his damnable foolishness are rather in his deeper vision of what life is all about, in what it most essentially consists. The evil and damnation follows from his entire vision of human purpose and the spiritual disposition that grows from it…
… He is not covetous because he desires a secure and pleasant retirement… He is is covetous and foolish becaue he believes the storage of grain (think IRAs, 401ks, and the rest) solves the problem of his human existence…
…Had the story ended with the man’s retirement, and no final judgement, we would still sense his foolishness, the tragedy of his existence. There would still be a strange pathos about his merriment. That is because Jesus pictures him alone, utterly alone — something quite unthinkable for a rich person in that culture. No children run about the house, no wife or friends eat and drink with him. He sits and makes merry all by himself. When he does speak, he speaks to himself. And when God speaks to him, the final question implies that the value of his treasure will perish with him. “Whose will they be?”
Schneider provides a new historical interpretation of the “Dishonest servant” that opened my eyes. I will leave it as an exercise for the reader, however. I will say, though, that it makes sense for the first time, to me. He also provides an excellent discussion of the (failed) communalism of the Jerusalem church in Acts, and a discussion of the Pauline letters and James.
If the dialectic is between good and bad afluence and not between poverty and affluence, then what distinguishes them? Schneider makes a number of points. The first is the proper place of affluence in the Christian life. There is nothing wrong with delight in life, even delight in material things. But it must be placed in proper perspective.
Second, there are moral obligations associated with wealth, though those moral obligations are distinctly different for Schneider than forthe committed leftist. Unlike the leftist who has a rather one-size-fits-all view of obligations — e.g. give it to some centralized office for transfer to friends of the state — Schneider develops a theory of “moral proximity” in which each individual Christian has specific obligations to those around him or her. My obligation is very real, but it does not generalize to everyone else. And I will be judged byGod on my obligation, not anybody else’s. As Schneider relates:
… within the norm, moral proximity will often mean different things to different Christians. The general principle is the same, but it will mean one thing to an unmarried teacher, another to a banker with a large family, and quite another to a professional politician, stay-at-home mother, truck driver, garbage collector, or lonely artist. Moreover, we may each of us have very special senses of proximity that make little or no sense to anyone else. For instance, I grew up in Nebraska on the Great Plains, and for as long as I can remember I have felt a sense of nearness and obligation to Native Americans who lived on that land before the pioneers came and settled there. My wife and I are modest supporters of tribal colleges on the reservations in South Dakota (just across the state line) and this support expresses a spiritual connection we feel with the history and circumstances of these extraordinary people. On the other hand, I think it would be greatly misguided on our part to go around insisting that everyone in our vicinity feel the same way…
If only Wallis displayed the same wisdom!
Finally, Schneider discusses the question of globalism and those nations that have not achieved the affluence inherent in capitalist cultures. Schneider relies heavily on the works of Hernando de Soto, a Peruvian economist and President of the Institute for Liberty and Democracy. One of the major points is that classical leftist views of capital as property misses the boat entirely:
The [major premise of De Soto's argument] is that almost everyone has misunderstood what capital is. Most people think of it as a synonym for property, or money, or the means of production. De Soto explains that none of these concepts defines the “mystery of capital.” In the context of vast real-world stucy of economies, these are mere “assets.” And the mysterious truth is that the poor nations have more than enough assets to be successful.
Indeed, the statistics he give the net worth of the world’s poor will be eye opening to most readers. Contrary to almost everything we read in economic theology, de Soto makes this stunning claim: “most of the poor already possess the assets they need to make a success of capitalism.” The value of savings slone among the poor of the world “is, in fact, immense — forty times all the foreign aid received throughout the world since 1945.”
… In Egypt, for instance, the wealth that the poor have accumulated is worth fifty times the sum of all direct foreign investment ever recorded there, including the Suez Canal and the Aswan Dam. In Haiti, the poorest nation in Latin America, the total assets of the poor are more than one hundred fifty times greater than all the foreign invstment received since Haiti’s independence from France in 1804. If th United States were to hike it’s foreign aid budget to the level recommended by the United Nations — 0.7 percent of national income — it would take the richest country in the world more than 150 years to transfer to the world’s poor resources equal to those they already posess.
What’s the trick? The trick is that the assets are held in what de Soto calls “defective forms.” “Their assets are dead and they must be brought to life. For assets do not become capital until this happens, and therein lies the ‘mystery’ of which de Soto speaks.” The key is formal propety law and integrated systems that validate private property by binding rules. Capital is the power of assets to change into ” movable shapes” like business and home loans, investment, wages, securities, etc. Schneider contrasts the profound machinery behind a teenager in the US thoughtlessly placing a credit card into a gas pump in the US with the arduous and uncertain process of aquiring title to land in Haiti.
The recognition that the origin of poverty is internal, not external has profound implications for a Christian moral theology.People in developed nations need to change how they think about poverty in the third world. Second, if the problem is an internal one of property rights and the machinery thereof, then the solution must be internal. This is a severe criticism of the standard solution of the Christian left:
… the picture these [leftist] writings give of global poverty is as patronizing as it is economically mistaken in the first place. [The points] also suggest thatthe guilt and sense of responsibility they lay upon people living in the prosperous countries is essentially misplaced. And, likewise, these points suggest that many of the “solutions” they propose — reforming international policies of trade, expanding foreign aid, and especially reducing consumption at home … are at the bottom as misguided as they are well-meaning. If de Soto’s anallysis is correct… then it invalidates a great deal of what has become the almost unquestioned appraoch to world poverty among theologians in the First World.
What then should we do? The machinery of wealth is not something that we can redistribute. There are a few points that can be made. First, we should note that it is a matter of grace and not works that allowed those of us who have been born in countries that create affluence to benefit from it, and the poverty of others worldwide is a matter of “bondage and bad fortune.” It also provides direction for how we should carefully choose how we direct our efforts to help those who are not as lucky as we — we should work to help them change, not to enable those who keep them in bondage.
The bottom line, though is that this idea that the generation of wealth is necessarily explotative is simply wrong. Moreover, a Christianwho really cares about the poor will focus his or her attention on how to create the environment where that person can generate his or herown wealth, not attempt to destroy the machinery that will bring everyone to a position of affluence.
Check it out: The Good of Affluence: Seeking God in a Culture of Wealth by John R. Schneider Hardcover: 243 pages Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company (July 1, 2002) ISBN: 0802847994