Rich, Poor, Fairness, and the Bible

Back to work. And what better way to restart the blogging than to fill a request from a former student? Who can resist an opening like “I wonder what my former theology professor would say about this”?

The issue is one of growing concern for Christians and non-Christians alike. It has to do with the growing disparity of income between the very wealthy and the rest. But this particular round in the on-going battle began with an interview of Rick Warren, whose considerable presence on the evangelical stage was further enhanced a few years ago by his book The Purpose-Driven Life. The following line in the interview struck a nerve with at least one reader:

There’s over 2,000 verses in the Bible about the poor. And God says that those who care about the poor, God will care about them and God will bless them. But there’s a fundamental question on the meaning of “fairness.” Does fairness mean everybody makes the same amount of money? Or does fairness mean everybody gets the opportunity to make the same amount of money? I do not believe in wealth redistribution, I believe in wealth creation.

The Rev. Susan Russell, pastor of All Saints Church in Pasadena, responded through an open letter in the Huffington Post, the gist of which cited Matthew 20 as demonstrating that everyone should indeed be paid the same wage. That response prompted the former student’s curiosity as to what I thought, to which the reply was that I thought both parties were seriously wrong, and that more would follow. This is the “more,” though I know full well that it will not satisfy the desire for a full-blown position on wealth and poverty to which Christians ought to subscribe.

I don’t think many biblical exegetes would suggest what Rev. Russell does regarding the parable of Jesus, in which workers hired at various points throughout the day all received the identical compensation for their labors. For one obvious feature, the issue is not the difference in the type of work done but in the length of time the different parties engaged in the labor. More fundamentally, Jesus was in no way making a statement about how things ought to be handled on the farm, much less the factory or broader marketplace; he was making statements about spiritual pride of place and privilege, turning prevailing assumptions about deserving God’s favor on their head. In order to make this into a text about compensating everyone equally regardless of their contribution, one must bring a lot of preconceived ideas to the reading.

But what about Rick Warren’s statement? Certainly, he is correct about the numerous mentions of poverty and just treatment of those in that position. But it seems to me that the real issue is obscured by asking the question of what fairness entails (a “fair” enough question) in the way he does it. Moving from the very legitimate question of fairness to the incendiary discussion of wealth redistribution changes everything; it’s an emotionally charged term, and I think he knows it. It has the effect of saying “we know you don’t want that—nobody would want that,” and using it to predispose anyone listening to accept the rest of what he will say as necessary to avoid the evils of wealth redistribution.

Let’s think about this for a moment. I suspect that what he really has in mind is government enforced redistribution; that, indeed, could cause significant problems on a number of levels. But that’s not what was said. The fact is that every transaction we engage in is a redistribution of wealth. And over time, the tendency is for more of the wealth to end up in fewer hands, which raises the question of whether the transactions were fairly structured to begin with. If you have experienced a real estate settlement, and actually analyzed all of what you were paying for, you would have serious questions about how fair the redistribution really was; but the only recourse would be to end the transaction without gaining the property. Are prices for many of the things we purchase on a routine basis fairly set? Whether they are or are not, it is a redistribution.

Here are some not-so-new statistics. Every indication is that the current ones would be even more stark than these from a few years ago:

• 83 percent of all U.S. stocks are in the hands of 1 percent of the people.
• 66 percent of the income growth between 2001 and 2007 went to the top 1% of all Americans
• Only the top 5 percent of U.S. households have earned enough additional income to match the rise in housing costs since 1975.
• For the first time in U.S. history, banks own a greater share of residential housing net worth in the United States than all individual Americans put together.
• In 1950, the ratio of the average executive’s paycheck to the average worker’s paycheck was about 30 to 1. Since the year 2000, that ratio has exploded to between 300 to 500 to one
• As of 2007, the bottom 80 percent of American households held about 7% of the liquid financial assets
• The bottom 50 percent of income earners in the United States now collectively own less than 1 percent of the nation’s wealth.
• Average Wall Street bonuses for 2009 were up 17 percent when compared with 2008
• The top 1 percent of U.S. households own nearly twice as much of America’s corporate wealth as they did just 15 years ago
• The top 10 percent of Americans now earn around 50 percent of our national income.

Data such as these are not to be unexpected in a world of sinful, self-absorbed people. That’s why some form of redistribution was envisioned for us by God. Though never fully practiced, the Jubilee principle nonetheless acknowledges the need for fresh starts, including the release of bonded workers, and the forgiveness of debts. It is God’s plan of (dare we say) redistribution. And while the government is a poor candidate for enacting/enforcing/interpreting its version of the provisions, it would be in the best interest of Christian thinkers and leaders to provide leadership in helping us to think better about how we might care for one another in fair and just ways which neither encourage sloth nor punish industry. Christians cannot in good conscience simply give endorsement to political and economic models which do either of these.

What do you think? What does this suggest about our political priorities?