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Sep 21, 2012


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Dan Anderson-Little

I think you have are using the word "consume" too loosely, thus enabling you to accuse those who want to redistribute wealth to help the poor as falling victim to materialism and the dehumanization of the poor. You put the consumption of luxury items like jets and yachts on the same level as food and healthcare. Yes, people "consume" food and healthcare as both have to be paid for, but at least some minimal amount of food and healthcare needs to be provided if people are to live. Wanting to make sure that everyone has enough to eat (I'm not advocating that everyone be entitled to meals at the Four Seasons) and that people have basic healthcare doesn't seem all that consumerist of me or materialistic or dehumanizing--even though to pay for it we may deprive the number of jets or yachts some people can consume. When Jesus was confronted with 5000 hungry people I don't think he dehumanized them by giving them actual food--even though that food would have to be consumed to be of any use to them. I also believe in things like helping people be better stewards (though helping them get jobs, education, training, substance abuse treatment, mental health care, etc.), but I am not aware of all that many people who want to enable the poor to consume more and not assist them to be productive participants in society.


Michael W. Kruse

Dan, in my closing sentence I wrote:

"That doesn't mean that wealth redistribution isn't a piece of addressing poverty but an anthropology that sees poverty primarily as is an issue of consumption is materialistic and dehumanizing."

I'm explicitly acknowledging that wealth redistribution is an essential piece of addressing poverty. The idea of a safety net is important. People have to achieve some stability before they can plan and work for the future. I haven't denied that here.

What I'm pressing against is a mentality that sees people purely in economic terms. Looking at people primarily in terms of consuming yachts versus consuming food, and defining justice as as an equalization of these consumption patterns. That isn't sufficient. It is a form a materialism. The status of having enough to eat and having adequate health care is an insufficient definition of justice. We were created in the image of God. We were meant for dominion, creativity, and communion.

In economic development, they talk of aid in terms of relief, rehabilitation, and development. Relief is about stopping the bleeding. Rehabilitation is about helping people return to a precrisis status. Development is about continuous growth in human flourishing. While relief is the minority of circumstances, Christians routinely respond to nearly all poverty situations as with relief, crippling the local initiatives and the emergence of economic interdependence. (ex. Giving unwanted clothes in the West to the poor in emerging nations, thus destroying the local textile business. Short-term mission trips to go build a school when materials could have been secured in cooperation with locals and locals hired to build their own school, thus providing jobs.)

Theologians repeatedly say that God has created a world of abundance and economics is about scarcity. While there is an abundance of natural resources, apart from air and sunlight, nearly everything we consume (matter, energy, and data) has to be transformed by human beings from less useful forms to more useful forms. We call these more useful forms goods. There is an abundance resources and a near perfect scarcity of goods.

Too many theologians talk as if resources and goods are one in the same. Goods simply come to us as manna from heaven. Productivity and priority setting are nowhere in sight. The only ethical question is how to distribute goods for equitable consumption. While there is an abundance it is possible our wanton desires will cause us to crave more than the abundance God has given. Nowhere in sight is the idea that human innovation and creativity could radically expand the quantity of goods tomorrow over what we have today.

Economists correctly begin with the reality of scarcity. But unlike the usual demonizations, economics is not about everyone competing with each other over a fixed pile of goods. Rather it is about how human beings interact with each in order to transform an abundance of resources into an abundance of goods. In what ways can that abundance be made ever larger? What is often missing from that question is a solid Christian anthropology (we were made for more than consumption of goods) and understanding of community as God would desire it. But the idea that abundance can be radically grown is profoundly important.

Redistribution is a piece toward economic justice but it is not the focal point. And just like many people who are trapped in consumerism would not be self-aware enough to see how entrapped they are, I think many Christians are more deeply shaped by wealth/income equalization as the "epitome of justice" than they realize.

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