Is it a sin to be rich?

The annual meeting of the World Economic Forum is starting today in Davos, Switzerland, attended by the leaders of the the wealthiest economies and the biggest corporations. And, in what has become something of an annual ritual, Oxfam has expressed its objection to the gross inequalities between rich and poor in the world.

Eight billionaires have riches equivalent to the same wealth as half the world, campaigners have warned world leaders gathering for talks in Switzerland…

Mark Goldring, Oxfam GB chief executive, said: “This year’s snapshot of inequality is clearer, more accurate and more shocking than ever before. “It is beyond grotesque that a group of men who could easily fit in a single golf buggy own more than the poorest half of humanity. While one in nine people on the planet will go to bed hungry tonight a small handful of billionaires have so much wealth they would need several lifetimes to spend it. The fact that a super-rich elite are able to prosper at the expense of the rest of us at home and overseas shows how warped our economy has become.”

Goldring is here articulating the obvious and instinctive response that most of us feel in hearing these alarming statistics. But the response to the data has another interpretation, and whilst Oxfam’s statement appeals to the emotions, those on the other side seek to appeal to statistical reason.

The Adam Smith Institute free market think tank accused Oxfam of putting out misleading information. Head of research Ben Southwood said the welfare of world’s poor was improving with the proportion of the global population surviving on less than 2 dollars-a-day – falling from 69% in 1981 to 43% in 2008.

“Each year we are misled by Oxfam’s wealth statistics. The data is fine – it comes from Credit Suisse – but the interpretation is not. It is not the wealth of the world’s rich that matters, but the welfare of the world’s poor – and this is improving every year. The consumption of the world’s poor continues to rise, as does their education, healthcare, and height.”

This contrast between the emotional and rational offers a challenge to Christian thinking about wealth, poverty and global development. Whilst many (though not all) of us feel instinctively uncomfortable at such vast wealth being accumulated by so few, it is an awkward reality that, despite all the other efforts at relieving poverty, it is the international trade that has been ushered in by the acceptance of globalisation that has done more, and more quickly, to alleviate global poverty than any other single initiative.

There are two major theological themes which offer a framework for reflecting on issues of economics, and the broad debate between capitalism and socialism. The first is the principle of God’s sovereignty and ownership of all things.

The earth is the Lord’s, and everything in it, the world, and all who live in it (Ps 24.1).

This is a restatement of the creation principle of the sovereignty of God; the whole created order has its origins in him, and he is lord over all. This works itself out in the life of Israel in seeing them not as owners of the land, but as tenants in it, with God as their landlord. It underlies the Jubilee principle, set out in Leviticus 25, that there are limits to the exploitation of the land, which should enjoy ‘rest’ just as the people do, and that the apportioned land should be returned to its original designates, no matter how those apportionments have been amended in the intervening years. Here is a radically ‘socialist’ agenda of fundamental rights of access to assets, and an undercutting of the idea that ‘capital’ actually ‘belongs’ to anyone in any final sense. And it is one which is rediscovered by the people of God when directed by the Spirit of God in Acts 2.44 ‘The believers held all things in common…’

But this principle of the sovereignty of God over creation cuts in another direction too. There is little sense in scripture of people having an inalienable right to land; occupation comes with responsibility, and God’s command is to be ‘fruitful.’ We are stewards who are accountable to God with what he has given us, and in our contemporary context that means putting our capital assets to good use. Jesus’ economic parables about the kingdom (including the parable of the unjust steward in Luke 16.1–13 and the parable of the ‘talents’ or treasures in Matt 25 and Luke 19) don’t in fact teach us much about economics, since they are parables about the kingdom, but they do draw on an assumption that we are to be productive and accountable in that productivity.

Together, these principles mean that it is difficult for Christians to have a fundamental objection to all forms of capitalism, since that neglects the command to responsibility and productivity, expressed most sharply in Paul’s practical injunction in 2 Thess 3.10 (‘Ya don’t work—ya don’t eat’ in one colloquial version). But it also means it is hard not to have a fundamental objection to such vast inequality, which must depend on a ‘hard’ understanding of ownership that biblical theology cannot accept.

Challenging the power of The Eight, or slightly more broadly of the 1% who own as much as the other 99% does face some challenges—not least that many people reading this are in fact in that 1%. As the BBC reports, ‘It takes cash and assets worth $71,600 [£59,041] to get into the top 10%, and $744,396 [£613,985] to be in the top 1%,’ which means that homeowners in many parts of the south of England are in that 1%. We, who object to the wealth of the wealthy are wealthy ourselves. This might seem odd; why should simply owning a house put me in the 1% in the UK, when if I was in a similar situation in another part of Europe, where house prices were not so elevated, I would not be? This points to the interrelationship between wealth and access; house price inflation in the UK has created a division between the ‘haves’ and the ‘have nots’, and as result home ownership is plummeting amongst the young.

And if that is the case with home ownership, it is even more so with the super-rich, who form a self-perpetuating club of oligarchs. This summer, former Chancellor George Osborne went on a speaking tour in America and earned £340,000 in speaking fees. Objecting to this is not simply about a politics of envy; it is to question the lack of connection between earnings and merit, the disconnect between monetary value and actual value. Wage packets of FTSE 350 chief executives have risen 82% in 13 years, while return on money invested has been 1%, and earnings for most of the population have remained flat or decreased in real terms. There is a fundamental question of justice here, and this is the reason why most people agree with Jeremy Corbyn’s call for a cap on earnings, even if they find his overall approach lacks credibility.

But there is also the question of power: is it right that, since money equates to power, so much power should be concentrated in so few hands? In politics, we would find this unacceptable, yet we appear to find it much harder to object to concentration of financial power. Of course, this power can be used for good; Mark Zuckerberg and Priscilla Chan have pledged to give away 99% of their $45b fortune (though why they need to hold on to the remaining $500 million I am not sure), but this is not the universal practice.

The reality, of course, is that the aspects of capitalism which have led to the alleviation of global poverty are not the same as the aspects of capitalism which have led to the accumulations of the mega-rich. When it is argued that ‘these are two results of the same system,’ there is the underlying assumption that there is one system called ‘capitalism’, and you either take all of it or leave all of it. A brief tour around Europe (whilst that is still possible) puts the lie to this. In other countries, workers sit on company boards, pay differentials are markedly less, there is greater strategic investment, and there is the absence of the post-Thatcher antagonism that marks so much of UK industrial relations. Six years ago, Jon Kuhrt hosted on his blog a proposal for five reforms of capitalism as it is currently practiced in the UK, including the ‘Tobin tax’ on financial transactions, cutting income inequality, committing to Fairtrade, considering factors other than financial value in the Stock Market, and closing down offshore havens. This is not about abolishing capitalism, but about reforming it.

So as the Davos meeting commences, it is worth asking some questions. Is it a sin to be rich? No—but it might be a sin to be this rich, in this way, whilst resisting calls for serious reform of the system.

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11 thoughts on “Is it a sin to be rich?”

  1. Perhaps this post asks the wrong question: the issue at hand isn’t so much whether or not it is a sin to be rich, but how being rich affects one’s walk with Christ. Jesus states very clearly that you cannot serve God and Mammom. When we acknowledge how much wealth many Christians in the west have simply by virtue of living where we do and at the time and place that we do, the next question might be: does all this wealth distract us—perhaps without us even realizing it—from following in Christ’s way? The central question might not be one of sin but one of faithfulness.

    Just some thoughts in response.

    • Thanks Jesse. I agree at one level: this is the pressing personal issue.

      But I guess I am wanting to ask another question, a social one: is it right that we live in a society which has such inequality? Goldring (of Oxfam) himself says that this is not a critique of the individuals per se, but of a broken economic system.

  2. I get frustrated by the Oxfam statistics every year they come out. While there are real issues to be addressed here, such statistics are sadly the sort of statistics one expects from activists: hiding as much as they reveal. I read Sam Bowman’s article [warning: auto-playing audio and video] on the subject yesterday and thought he made a good case for capitalist neoliberalism against its critics (among whom I include myself). I was pleased to see him point out that inequality is falling in the UK, for instance, and is at its lowest level for 30 years. It is far too easy to presume that the extreme economic inequalities that receive extensive attention in the US context also pertain to the British situation: for the most part, they do not. None of this is to deny the existence of significant problems in the UK, not least those of regional wealthy inequality, which are extensive.

    Bowman didn’t, however, address the issue of the connection of money and power, which is one issue that needs to be addressed. Of course, this issue is complicated in many ways. Does the extreme power of a Bill Gates, Jeff Bezos, or Mark Zuckerberg make me poorer off? As certain dimensions of political and social power are closer to a zero sum game, in some respects it does. On the other hand, Gates, Bezos, and Zuckerberg are so rich precisely because they have given immense power to billions of people. While I no longer use Facebook, this comment is brought to you in no small measure thanks to the technological and consumer power that Gates and Bezos have given to me as an average member of the population.

    The problems with capitalism are deep and systemic. Capitalism has a sort of cancerous power of growth, which enables it to overrun and destroy its hosts. It is the most radical and revolutionary force known to man, as it inexorably follows its own logic, remaking the world in its image. It is the greatest threat to traditional values and ways of life, to strong cultures and communities, as it steadily breaks open all closed systems and niches and subsumes all into an ever-growing atomized economic order, where the maximization of power and the reach of human will slowly displaces all, even our own natures and inalienable properties. Capitalism isn’t some evil plot or expression of some shadowy human power. Its threat is far more profound than that: the threat of an inhuman logic, which fragments all societies and traps us by the power of our own choices into an infantilizing cage of pleasures that make attaining the full stature of our humanity—or even perceiving such a horizon for our existence—ever more difficult.

    • Alastair,

      Lest we tar capitalism’s genuine sins with those of others, can you point to a historical time and culture lasting more than a generation or two where life was neither “nasty, brutish and short” or marked with inequality and the accumulation of power?

      It strikes me that the history of post-flood humanity has been a contrast between small groups struggling to survive or ever-larger pyramids that create civilisation and technology but ever threaten to squash those on the bottom. Societies that promote growth and industry grow, and even the poor usually benefit, though not as much as the wealthy and powerful. Every society that has attempted to be a “great leveller” has failed, corrupt.

      It strikes me that, far from lamenting the presence of poverty, we need a society that embraces inequality but in a way that genuinely benefits all. I recognise that capitalism fails at this at many points, but can you provide an example of a society (and not merely a subculture) that has succeeded at doing so, that we can learn from them?

      (And to Ian: I actually think that our society is *more* accepting of power inequality than wealth inequality. We pay lip-service to it being bad, but in practice are mostly happy to delegate power to a few for the convenience of the many.)

  3. The Hebrew people understood sin differently than Christians today. We ask, “Is it a sin to be rich.” Jesus would more likely have asked, “Is it a sin that such wealth exists, and yet people go hungry?” Jesus understood that such wealth represented more than just greed, but was a sign of a broken (sinful) system.

    Luke wrote: “From everyone who has been given much, much will be demanded.” Rather than focus on the arbritrariness of wealth that falls within “the 1%”, it is more appropriate to ask everyone “what have you done with it?”

  4. Having excess wealth, more than we need, when others are in want is an uncomfortable challenge, expressed vividly by Amos and James but this challenge infuses the gospels – eg God OR Mammon, “Woe to the rich”, the “Nazareth Manifesto”, and (though Ian would not agree), Matthew 25 31-46. Ron SIder famously summarised the challenge in the title of his book “Rich Christians in an age of hunger”.

    Revelation provides an extended and vivid illustration of a society enslaved to Mammon, marked by the beast (and by the way are we not all engaged in buying and selling so also marked by the beast? Uncomfortable!), and Revelation ends with the weeping of all caught up in the global capitalist system which Rome developed and which we see even more developed and ensnaring in todays’ world. And when it crashes it brings down the rich and the poor.

    Urban dwelling means by necessity we have to operate with money to survive. Revelation understands that, and we need to read it with two ears, one hearing the promise but the other needs to be attuned to the context within which we are caught (up). The biblical image of sufficient prosperity, own fig tree and vines and a place to sit, does not translate immediately to the city, though the principle of sufficient and security does. Deut 8 reminds us just how seductive wealth and Mammon are to our commitment to the giving God.

    Both the parable of the talents (more so the “pounds” where the story is intertwined with a power grab) and the “unjust” steward can be read as challenges to the acquiring of wealth which does seem to fit better with the wider tenor of Jesus’ teaching.

    There is a criticism to be made of the powerful (and of us) that we do not do enough – I do not do enough – to challenge the broken economic system, and part of the answer is that I benefit from it. Hence the widow’s mite, the giving what she could not afford, is giving quite different from those who give from their excess. And as Ched Myers points out, the widow is impoverished because of the system that enriches the richer people.

    Inequality is not simply about wealth, though wealth is part of the core issue. It is also, as Ian says, about power, access to power, and about inclusion and choice. Relative wealth is also a factor, though a low cost of living in some countries may restrict their population from having the global choices we have. We know it is the wealthiest and those who seek to be wealthier who consume far more than is reasonable of the earth’s resources and they set the rules. Health workers, who have trained in their own countries find larger salaries in the West, but that means there are fewer doctors in their own countries.
    I believe it is the case or was the case, that American cotton – grown with subsidy and heavy chemical investment – is exported to W Africa because the subsidies make it cheaper than for the locals to grow it. Others will know of similar or worse examples of a rigged system not just a broken system. The Aftican cotton had tariffs if sold into the USA.

    How do we be prophets and how do we support prophetic organisations? Which are the ones we would support, and how do we respect and value others also?

    Mammon, the only other “god” that Jesus speaks about (i think) is so seductive, that it will take communities of defiance not just individuals to effect changes, and we need to find the sharpest words. There is a difference between a broken system, and a rigged system. Sharp words need to be carefully chosen.

    Thanks Ian for opening the debate / discussion.

  5. “Mark Zuckerberg and Priscilla Chan have pledged to give away 99% of their $45b fortune (though why they need to hold on to the remaining $500 million I am not sure), but this is not the universal practice.”

    As I understand it, they still want to retain control of where their money goes, how it is used … so money, even money given away, still equates to power.

    • Which is why Christ said:

      So when you give to the needy, do not announce it with trumpets, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and on the streets, to be honored by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full. But when you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing,so that your giving may be in secret. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you. (Matt.6:2 – 4)

  6. I did one year in NZ bible college and then moved to Bangladesh and completed my BA theology by distance learning. When at NZ Bible college I had an essay to write on wealth and poverty. When based in Bangladesh I had the essay “What is Luke’s attitude to wealth and poverty”. The assumption in Bangladesh is that people inside our group with wealth are corrupt. And the more I looked at Luke’s writing the more this message came out. Luke presents teaching showing that the poor are honoured and shoudl be looked after as such. Only the corrupt could stay wealthy in the face of this call and the face of a society that was so shockingly hierarchically orientated with the vast majority being poor.

  7. I and my family have watched in the past the programme man verses food. That part of our nature loves the fact that someone can eat as much as they can as a game and usually in restaurants where huge portions are served and there is huge waste. However the heart of me is sad as there are so many who do not have that food and the messages come over our screens for clean water and that so many don’t have food and are starving. Our own food banks in this country are to deal with poverty in the affluent west. The same with money. Time and time again those that live in luxury get airtime, magazine space, we know how big their houses are , how expensive their cars are and how many and more and more people left disillusioned because they can’t even provide food. ( Many of these people also work hard) for myself if I had lots of money would I display it for all the world to see , to actually buy my sixth house knowing some can’t even get on the housing ladder or would I use it to alleviate some of that inequality. In the end we can not tell mega rich people what to do with their money but hope that their hearts are changed and that following Jesus even though you have nothing will be all the riches you need !

  8. When people talk about the “economic system being broken”, or needing to “change the rules of economics”, it makes me wonder what they mean by those words.

    You can’t change what we observe about, for instance, supply and demand. Capitalism only really comprises of two tenets – private property and the rule of law, both of which are upheld in scripture. The latter is particularly important, because what most people particularly object to is how laws can seemingly be broken by the wealthy. This is not a feature of capitalism any more than socialism.

    In terms of the political influence “big business” can exert, my view is fairly blunt: it will always happen as long as governments are comprised of people, and the way to stop big businesses from attaining power in this way is to reduce the power that the government has full stop. But cronyism is as much a part of socialist governments (if not more so) than capitalist ones.

    You can’t “change the rules” in order to stop people charging more for a commodity that’s suddenly in demand! And nor should you want to, because it serves a purpose. What we refer casually to as “economics” is incredibly profound; it’s the way the constantly changing priorities of every human interact, coalesce and inform each other. We observe patterns within this, and can exert some crude influence with certain policies, but as to “re-writing the rules”, you may as well re-write the rules of chemistry.


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