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Is Wealth a Sin?

Whenever statistics about inequality and the so-called “control of wealth” get published, the Progressive blogosphere goes wild and their social media statuses light up with indignant calls for concern for the poor in the face of “obvious injustice.” Since few people read beyond the headlines and summary paragraphs, and even fewer seek out alternative analyses of the data, the popular meme of “rich get richer, poor get poorer” pervades our world. It is a sad reality that few people think beyond their emotional responses.

Whether the data conclude a real and disturbing inequality, or whether they are manipulated for the benefit of an ideology, anyone who engages such data and goes beyond the first stage of economic analysis should be applauded. That explains my delight to find an article by Christian Piatt, a regular contributor to Sojourners, who considers that maybe demonizing the rich isn’t such a wise idea.

It’s … easy to vilify money, or those who have more than us, rather than coming to stark terms with our own relationship with wealth, and to our call by God to reconcile the brokenness in the world around us.

Piatt points out the hypocrisy in the endeavor to demonize the rich (“those who have more than me“) while also making an oft-ignored observation that not all rich folks did Jesus expect to give up their wealth:

But the fact is that most of us don’t really believe [that we should give all our wealth away], or else we would have already done it. Or perhaps we just don’t want to believe it. Maybe we want to believe it applies to “wealthy” people (translated: everyone who has more than I do), but not to ourselves. It could also be that, for [the rich young ruler], his wealth was where Jesus saw his self-worth, his identity, all wrapped up and intertwined with the world’s treasures. In that case, Jesus was trying to free one man from his own self-manufacture prison. But there are plenty of other rich people in the Bible to whom Jesus doesn’t offer such a command.

So is it okay to be wealthy? Apparently Piatt exhibits a bit of self-awareness in the fact that he is also wealthy by any historical or whole-world standards. Wealth can indeed be a tool for the kingdom, and he is saying that this applies to the super-wealthy as well. Piatt does well to steer the conversation off the path about the evils of wealth accumulation. That pathway needs to be less traveled, and a new path must be blazed. But Piatt offers no other paths to a greater conversation about the role of wealth in advancing the kingdom. While he mentions that Bill Gates’s wealth helped change the world and uses that as a point of reflection, he should have taken a cue from Bono when he said that free enterprise is the cure to poverty.

His pivotal question was this; “What if we need the insanely wealthy to realize a kingdom-inspired vision for our world?” That this was even asked is amazing to me. I would unequivocally respond, “Yes!” We cannot demonize the consumption of goods that make our lives better while simultaneously seeking out those very goods as though they are the solution to the plight of the poor.

The reason we need the wealthy is not because their profits can go to charity. Charity is important, but it is not the source of abundance. Abundance comes from peaceful commerce between individuals in society. The $28 billion that Gates has given since 2007 is quite impressive. More impressive — and more useful in the long run — is the immense value that Gates gave the world through products Microsoft created. The 5.8 million children helped by Gates’s charity is not really “giving back to society” so much as it is a giving more on top of the obvious gains to the world.

Yes, the world needs wealthy people, but not because we need their excess. Society can neither “Robin Hood” its way to social justice nor make it there on charity alone (which is why I reject a “private charity only” approach to poverty — more on that in a future post). Free enterprise is the tried and true pathway to economic growth to all, both rich and poor.

(For those of you who know me as a diehard Mac user, yes, I see the irony in my adulation of Gates and Microsoft.)