Back on May 18 I wrote the following:
I began this series noting that poverty is the natural human state of affairs. When we ask “What causes poverty?” the answer is “Being born.” We all come into the world owning nothing. The fact is that most people in most cultures throughout most of history have lived lives owning very little. Their lives were faced with endless cycles of disease, famine and war. Only small minorities prospered beyond bare subsistence living. Even at the height of the great Roman Empire it is estimated that maybe ten percent of the people moved beyond subsistence living. Grinding poverty and premature death have been the norm.
The real question is “What causes prosperity?” Wide spread prosperity across entire societies is a startlingly new development within human history. It began a few centuries ago but has dramatically accelerated over the last 300 years. Infant mortality rates (the number of children who die before their first birthday out of every 1,000 children born) have been 200-300+ throughout human history. There are now only a few nations where this rate is in triple digits and most rates are much lower. During the twentieth century in the United States, the rate dropped from 165 to 7. Life expectancy from birth in the US has risen from about 47 years to nearly 76 years over the same time period. Entire diseases have been eliminated across the planet. Access to varieties of food, healthcare, climate controlled homes, rapid transit and host of other amenities are available to hundreds of millions of people that would be the envy of the very wealthiest people a century ago. This prosperity continues expanding (though unevenly) all across the planet. The real question is what brought about this prosperity?
I highlighted four developments that led to the astonishing improvement in humanity’s material well being. They were:
Technology and Infrastructure
But even more elemental, these developments came from ways of thinking that were unique to Christianity. In my post Prosperity and the Christian Ethos I wrote that the concepts like human beings created in the image of God, linear time, progress and rational discernment, were distinctively Christian contributions that gave rise to these four factors.
As we begin to look at addressing the issue of poverty it is time to make an important observation about prosperity. Prosperity is not about how much wealth individuals have at any given time. Prosperity is about the amount of wealth and resources that can be generated and sustained over a lengthy period of time. Prosperity comes from the dynamic interplay between a set of human resources, values and social institutions.
For this reason, redistribution of income will not generate prosperity. Income distributed to a population that does not possess the human resources, values and social institutions to create prosperity may temporarily be wealthier but they will not become more prosperous.
There is a common template through which too many Christians filter their thinking about economic issues. It assumes that there is a relatively fixed amount of wealth in the world. Wealthy people have what they have at the expense of someone else. Wealthy people have their wealth because they got lucky or because they exploited others. Therefore, the way to address the issue of poverty is a forced redistribution of wealth from the wealthy to the poor. Much of this goes back to how we (mis)understand the biblical narrative.
When we read the Scripture we have to keep in mind the cultural context we are dealing with. The ancient world was largely agrarian. The idea of capital was a foreign idea. Wealth was measured in terms of land and herds. The idea of capital did exist in the New Testament and we see it emerge a part of Jesus’ parables. But there were no capital markets in any modern sense of the word. Labor and land were the primary means of production. If one person was more productive than another they might be able to earn modestly more but there was no way to become wealthy from your labors alone. Land was the determining factor in wealth.
The Roman elite (senators, equestrians, and decurions ) believed that the only respectable means to wealth was through land and the patronage system. They owned large villas but tended to live in the city much of the year. Your status was measured to some degree by how much you did through the agency of others rather than by your own labor. Commerce was not an honorable livelihood even though many of the wealthy participated in it to a degree. The decurion class often prospered by arranging commercial and financial transactions for transport of goods but it was not a free market. It had more to do with patronage arrangements. In addition to these Roman elite, who made up maybe 5% of the population, were the respectable poor that included small landholders. They made of up only a small percentage of the population as well. Probably more than 80% of the population were landless and subsistence workers or slaves. *
Often the only option someone had for getting ahead financially was through nefarious means. Nicodemus and Matthew would have been two such characters. They collected taxes for the hated Roman authorities and collected a portion for themselves in the process. Not only were they aiding the Romans but they became relatively wealthier than the typical Judean poor.
Wealth was directly linked with virtue in the Greco-Roman world. To be poor meant to be subjected to circumstances that could lead to theft and dishonesty. Only the wealthy that had not been subject to such temptations could be trusted with wealth. The overwhelming attitude toward the poor was one of superiority and oppression. They were more like necessary animals than people of value and worth.
Contrast this Old and New Testament era thinking to ideas like the Jubilee Code introduced in Leviticus 25. Many have read into this passage a redistribution of wealth but that was not the case. The Jubilee prohibited the permanent sale of land and limited the degree to which someone could incur debt. It ensured that each Israelite family would not be permanently alienated from their own land and labor. Everyone was to participate in ownership and stewardship. The aim was not to make sure no one became wealthy. The aim was to make sure that everyone had the opportunity to become wealthy through sound stewardship of resources in conjunction with God’s covenant.
The consequence of faithfulness to the covenant God made with the people of Israel was that they would peacefully inhabit the land and prosper. The prosperity was not just the essentials for daily living. It was characterized as an opulent abundance. Israel was to be an example to the world of God’s intention for humanity. God wants to bestow an opulent abundance on all of humanity.
One of the most frequently referenced prophetic passages in the Bible comes from Amos 5:24, “But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.” Frequently this is used as a passage to support wealth redistribution. It is said that Amos is condemning wealth and income inequality. Yet, what does Amos say he is prophesying against?
Amos 5:10-13 (NRSV)
10 They [Israel] hate the one who reproves in the gate,
and they abhor the one who speaks the truth.
11 Therefore because you trample on the poor
and take from them levies of grain,
you have built houses of hewn stone,
but you shall not live in them;
you have planted pleasant vineyards,
but you shall not drink their wine.
12 For I know how many are your transgressions,
and how great are your sins--
you who afflict the righteous, who take a bribe,
and push aside the needy in the gate.
13 Therefore the prudent will keep silent in such a time;
for it is an evil time.
The city gate was the place where justice was administered. People came before the elders seated to have their disputes settled. The issues here are about lying (v. 10) and unjustly taking what is not ours (v. 11). Dishonesty in taking bribes (v.12) and disregarding the just claims of the poor (v.13) follow. In other words the, wealthy Israelites were disregarding property rights and the rule of law. They had become a law unto themselves and in so doing effectively barred the poor from prosperity that God intended for all his people. The central focus here is not the wealth of the oppressors but their perversion of justice. They ensured their wealth and excluded others from partaking in the prosperity God intended for everyone. If you look closely at the prophetic condemnations you will see that wealth in and of itself is not the issue.
People also like to point out Jesus’ story about the rich man and Lazarus in Luke 16 as Jesus’ denunciation of wealth yet who is it that the rich man calls out to for water as he is suffering in torment? It is Abraham, the patriarch who blessed by God was considered enormously wealthy by the standards of his era. Other’s point to the story of the rich young ruler as evidence but the man’s problem was not his wealth. It was the covetous spirit with which he held on to it. Wealth obtained through just means is not the issue with which God contends in scripture. Ill gotten wealth and wealth that is valued over the one who empowered us to earn the wealth is the central issue.
Therefore, the presence of wealthy individuals or wealthy societies does not in and of itself mean injustice has occurred. Yet, living in a fallen world, there clearly is no such thing as an entirely just society. Still, we can speak of a relative sense of justice; the degree to which societies try to compensate for injustices that may occur.
The danger with the redistributionist approach to addressing poverty is that it often perpetuates the very problem it is trying to solve. First, generally speaking, those that have wealth have usually been more effective investors and employers of wealth than those without it. That is how they came to have wealth in the first place. By redistributing it to those that have the least skill in using wealth it decreases the overall productive capacity of the economy. They will go through the wealth without saving or investing it productively and end up back where they started. Second, the redistribution falsely rewards people for lifestyles and decisions that are counterproductive to a prosperous society and removes any motivation to alter their behavior to contribute to their own prosperity and that of their community. Thus, schemes involving significant wealth redistribution do not create prosperity even though they may temporarily reduce material need.
As I wrap up this post I want be crystal clear about what I have not said in this post that I suspect some may be inclined to read in to it. I have not said that we are without unjust systems in our society and that there is no ill gotten wealth. I have not said that God desires prosperity for everyone and we just need to “name it and claim it.” I have not said that the wealthy do not have an obligation to the poor. I have not said that there should be no redistribution of wealth from rich to poor (only that this as a sole or primary strategy is counterproductive.) My aim is to emphasize we are to elevate everyone into a prosperous existence. Also, 1.) being wealthy is not a shameful thing (though the pride and idolatry it can lead to clearly is), and 2.) obtaining the human resources, values and social institutions requisite to prosperity is the primary focus.
* James Jeffers, "The Greco-Roman World of the New Testament Era." Downers Grove, IL: Intervarsity Press, 1999. Chapter 8.