The following is from Shane Claiborne in answer to the question, “Is it Okay for Christians to be Rich?”
Give it a thoughtful and prayerful read, then tell me if you agree or disagree in the comments and why.
Update: You can hear my thoughts on Shane’s article here.
by Shane Claiborne
Asking if it is okay for Christians to be rich is a strange question. It is like asking if it is okay for Christians to overeat, or watch too much TV. It may be permissible, but that doesn’t mean it is a good idea. I believe Jesus came to set us free — and one of the things he wants to set us free from is our obsession with money and possessions. Which is why he says such harsh things like “Woe to you who are rich…” (Luke 6:24).
Why would we want to try and accumulate the stuff that Scripture says the love of which is the root of all sorts of evil? John Wesley said so well, “If I have money in my hands, I get rid of it quickly lest it make its way into my heart.”
A constant thread in Scripture is that we are not to take more than we need while others have less than they need, a radical critique of the world we live in. The early Christians went so far as to say that if a Christian has more than they need while their neighbor is in need, the Christian is a thief. “If we have two coats we have stolen one.”
But here’s the important catch — this is about love. To love our neighbor as our self, redefines how we hold our possessions, and how we define what is “enough.” One of the signs of Pentecost, the birthday of the church, was that they all started sharing… Acts 2/4: “No one claimed any of their possessions as their own, but the shared everything they had… and there were no needy persons among them.”
In the end Jesus did not come to give us guilt — but to give us life. And the lilies and the sparrows know that freedom, and that trust in God… even Solomon in all his splendor could not compare to them. There is no greater thing to do with the gifts of God than to share them, especially with those in need. The best thing to do with the best things in life — is give them away.
Let me follow up with one more reflection. This one is especially for folks who look to the Bible as a framework for how we are to live. Building on the work of some great thinkers like Ched Myers and Ron Sider – let’s consider a “THEOLOGY OF ENOUGH.”
Rather than reacting to the extremes of the “prosperity Gospel” (God blesses people with wealth) or the “poverty Gospel” (God demands that all of us live in poverty), I want to suggest we build a new framework for thinking about money and possessions — a theology of ENOUGH. The idea is that God wants every one of us to have the things we need. And there is enough for everyone’s need but not enough for everyone’s greed (as Gandhi said).
There is a vision weaved throughout Scripture of “this day our daily bread.” Or as Proverbs says – give me neither poverty nor riches, for in my poverty I might be forced to steal and in my riches I might forget my God (Proverbs 30:8).
One of the earliest stories we have in the Bible is Exodus 16. Before God’s people even have the 10 commandments they are commanded by God to take only enough food for each day, and they are ordered by God to take one day’s ration in the ark of the covenant to remind them of God’s provision – and to remind them not to stockpile for tomorrow while folks don’t have enough for today. God even threatens to send maggots to eat up any excess they start to hoard.
We see this idea of “enough” reiterated all through Scripture, Old and New Testaments. Paul articulates this “theology of enough” as he scolds the early Christians for not sharing:
Our desire is not that others might be relieved while you are hard pressed, but that there might be equality. At the present time your plenty will supply what they need, so that in turn their plenty will supply what you need. The goal is equality, as it is written: “The one who gathered much did not have too much, and the one who gathered little did not have too little.” (2 Corinthians 8:13-15).
Just consider this: The world’s three richest people own more than the combined economies of 48 countries. 85 people own the same amount of wealth as 3.5 billion (half the world).
The average CEO in the US is making 380 times the average worker. That means the average worker needs to work an entire month to make what the CEO makes in one hour.
We live in a time of unprecedented inequity between the rich and poor. It’s time to rediscover this theology of enough.
We hear the echo of “enough” in the Lord’s Prayer as we are taught to pray for “this day our daily bread.” Not just “my bread.” Not tomorrow’s bread. But for all of us to have enough TODAY.
In the early Church, not only did they radically share their possessions with open hands “claiming nothing as their own” — they went so far as to do a community-wide fast if they were running short.
Until everyone could eat, no one would eat. In fact, it was the ethic of the early Christians that no one has a right to more than they need while others have less. Vincent de Paul demonstrates this ethic well when he suggests that when we give food to the hungry, our posture should be to get on our knees and ask forgiveness, for we are only returning what is rightfully theirs.
God did not create one person rich and another poor. Generosity is not a noble virtue of the saints, it is simply what Christians do … to love our neighbor as ourselves redefines how we hold our possessions. Generosity flows naturally from a heart of love. How can we pass by our neighbor in need and not share with them (1 John 3:17)?
What we are talking about is a global movement committed to loving our neighbor as ourselves. And the love we are talking about comes with a daunting responsibility that goes along with being “born again.” It means that if someone else’s child goes without, it is as tragic as if that were our own child. We start to feel uncomfortable buying stuff we don’t need when we realize that we have brothers and sisters who are dying because they don’t have a mosquito net that will prevent malaria… a mosquito net that costs $3, the price we pay for coffee. That’s tough to swallow.
But nonconformity doesn’t mean uniformity. There’s not one anecdote for how we are all to live. But loving our neighbor as ourselves is the goal, and seeking “this day our daily bread” helps refine our vision. Some, like Matthew in the Gospel, will sell everything. Others like Zacchaeus will sell half of everything and pay people back four times what they owe them. But for all of us it is call to radically reorient the way we think about money and possessions – lest the things we own begin to own us.
Here’s the deal. Generosity cannot be forced. It cannot be legislated. It has to be provoked… by love. That’s why we’re not talking about a new form of socialism or communism or anything that ends in “-ism.”
Jesus did not come to give us guilt, but to give us life. The current economic patterns are not good for the poor or the rich. Studies show that some of the wealthiest corners of the world have the highest rates of loneliness, depression, and suicide. Someone once said to Mother Teresa: “I couldn’t live like you if someone paid me a million dollars.” And she responded by saying, “I wouldn’t do it if someone paid me a million dollars either… I do it because it is what I am made for.” What we are talking about is the life we are made for. And many of us settle for something short of that life.
I will never forget learning one of my best lessons in economics — from a homeless kid in India. Every week we would throw a party for the street kids, kids 8-10 years old who were homeless, begging all day to survive. Each Tuesday we would get about 100 of them together and throw a party, play games, eat a big meal. One week, one of the kids I had grown close to told me it was his birthday.
So I got him an ice cream. He was so excited he stared at it mesmerized. I have no idea how long it had been since he had eaten ice cream. But what he did next was brilliant. He yelled at all the other kids and told them to come over. He lined them up and gave them all a lick. His instinct was: this is so good I can’t keep it for myself. In the end, that’s what this whole idea of generosity is all about. Not guilt. It’s about the joy of sharing. It’s about realizing the good things in life – like ice cream – are too good to keep for ourselves.
Update: You can hear my thoughts on Shane’s article here.