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?

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What Makes Business “Christian”?

I’m going to do a few posts on creation next week—no, not creation as in the story of origins, but as in the part we play in creating things as bearers of the divine image.

But before beginning those posts I want to ask simply what makes a business a Christian business. It’s a straight-forward question, but just to get things started, here are a few possible answers, which readers may embrace and defend or reject; alternative proposals or combinations and nuances are also encouraged. So let’s begin.

A. A Christian business is one which is owned/operated by a Christian person or persons. This answer is more about the claim to Christian identity on the part of the owner(s) than about anything dealing with the business itself. It might be defended by pointing to ones’ identity in Christ, which makes anything one does Christian by extension.

B. A Christian business is one which displays Christian symbols in advertizing, on the premises of the business operations, on the product, or in any other publicly recognizable way. This makes the case very clearly that what we do is an offering to the Lord, who provides for all things.

C. A Christian business is one which operates on principles drawn from the Bible. These principles may or may not be prominently displayed, but are nonetheless diligently promoted in the company’s culture.

D. A Christian business is one in which specifically Christian products are made. Whether pencils or vans, they are designed specifically with a Christian consumer in mind.

E. A Christian business is one wich is used primarily as a vehicle for witnessing; it provides opportunity to share the gospel, and does so by opening doors which might otherwise be closed to the one(s) who operate the business.

That’s a short list, and it leaves many things unaddressed, but it’s only intended as a conversation starter. An additional question to consider is whether you make a concerted effort to make purchases of goods and services from Christian businesses, or whether that form of selectivity should be encouraged.

Waiting to hear from you.

What’s a Teacher?

Odd question from someone who has been earning a living by filling the role the title is all about. It was partially prompted by today’s post on the “Jesus Creed” blog page, and partially stirred by a class I led last evening. The blog post cites Harvard physics professor Eric Mazur’s discovery that lectures are largely ineffective in raising the level of understanding of students. That’s old news for anyone familiar with education research–or for anyone doing the lecturing and daring enough to truly assess its impact. Oh, a good lecturer may entertain or otherwise impress his or her students; but is it effective teaching? That might just be a different question.

Yet virtually all of us of a certain age (if you fit it, you’ll know it) have expectations that are well ingrained when it comes to the “delivery” of information, which we assume to be the equivalent of teaching. Mazur started with the same assumption, and it guided his work for years. If I am a teacher, maybe I had better refresh my thoughts on what I’m supposed to do. So I looked at the definition of teaching (on the Merriam-Webster app on my iPhone, of course–at least it wasn’t Wikipedia), where I encountered a few options, beginning with, “to cause to know something.” Goodness, I gave up the pretension of being the first cause of anything other than my occasional stupidity a long time ago. Let’s keep trying. “To cause to know how.” Not much better; same problem in thinking we can cause this sort of result, much as we’d like to. Similarly, “to cause to know the disagreeable consequences of some action.” Well, we do have grade books.

But then there are more agreeable options:”to accustom to some action or attitude;” or, “to guide the studies of,” “to instruct by precept, example, or experience.” By extension, a teacher would then be someone who does these things—accustoms, guides, and instructs. That seems far more to be the case with all of those most of us recall as teachers. We remember these verbs and think of instances of their display when we think of our teachers; we do not think of their lectures. We may recall that they were particularly engaging when they did lecture, but probably not what they said. They may even have been perfectly awful at the podium, but provided guidance nonetheless.

I mention this because of a class in which we were discussing the nature and purpose of mankind as implied in the second chapter of Genesis. What we noted (and I do mean the plural here) was that humans, as the image-bearing creature of God (icons) were set in the world to go about the task of creating, exploring, developing, growing, healing, naming, describing, etc. The eureka moment came in recognizing that each of these activities is a godly activity, and that to know how to do each and every creative task well, we need to know the one in whose image we are made, and who created us for this purpose. In other words, everybody needs good theology.

I can’t tell him many lectures I’ve given in attempts to impress upon students this very simple truth of our common need for theology; and I always had high hopes for the results (teachers are an optimistic lot). It occurred to me later, however, that God is the pattern of the teacher as well as of any other endeavor. And He gave few lectures, but was always there to accustom, guide, and instruct. After all these years, I think I’m getting the idea.