The Scandal of Wealth vs the Scandal of Poverty

Jacques Attali is one of, perhaps the most fascinating French intellectual alive, one of our few polymaths left, with enormously wide-ranging interests. Attali is an economist and a futurist with a keen interest in the history of ideas.

While tooling around on YouTube, I found out that Attali gave a speech (in French) outlining his thesis on the origins of capitalism. As Attali tells it, as soon as you had organization, the state created the market to get its wealth (shades of Polanyi) but controlled it, and in particular controlled it through the religious.

And Attali lays out the following dichotomy, which I find fascinating. In the early societies, the big scandal in social life was wealth. The big scandal was that some people were wealthy. According to Attali, who is Jewish, the first peoples to flip that around were the Jews: according to the Hebrew Bible, the true social scandal is not wealth, it’s poverty. If the true scandal is poverty, and not wealth, then it is fine for people to get rich, as long as they make a virtuous use of their wealth.

According to Attali, historic Christianity shifted back to the scandal of wealth, and only the Protestant Reformation recovered the scandal of poverty, paving the way to a Judeo-Christian understanding that led to the birth of modern capitalism.

I’m not sure (genuinely) what the picture about historic Christianity is, but I do find the dichotomy between the scandal of wealth and the scandal of poverty fascinating. (There are also obvious implications in regard to René Girard’s mimetic theory.)

What does the Jesus of the Gospels say? It seems obvious to me that he is a lot more concerned with the scandal of poverty than the scandal of wealth. I can think of only two Gospel passages concerning wealth: the story of the rich young man, and the story of the poor Lazarus (and the can arguably seem to fall under “unvirtuous use of money” rather than “scandal of wealth” itself). Meanwhile, Jesus condemns poverty over and over and over again.

This post is not an argument for or against anything, just a pointer to what I think is a very interesting idea.

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  • Irenist

    I can think of only two Gospel passages concerning wealth: the
    story of the rich young man, and the story of the poor Lazarus…. Meanwhile, Jesus condemns poverty over and
    over and over again.

    Hmm. That reading surprises me. The “camel through the eye of the needle” admonition at the end of the story of the rich young man reads like a plain condemnation, even with the follow-up that all things are possible with God. “Blessed are the poor” in Luke’s Gospel and “the poor you shall always have with you” do not read as being scandalized by poverty. Nor do St. Francis’ paeans to “Lady Poverty.”

    I’m not saying you’re wrong to read the Gospels that way. I am saying that, without more elucidation of your reading, I can’t see what you’re seeing. (Maybe the Attali lecture would help, but my French is terrible.)

    • Mike Blackadder

      I think that these are good points. However, I don’t think that it is the case that the ‘camel through the eye of the needle’ passage be interpreted as an admonition of wealth.

      Consider the context of the passage. Jesus tells the rich man to sell (or abandon) all of his riches and follow Him. It becomes clear that this becomes a difficult dilemma for the rich man because he has so much to give away. It is the abandonment of this earthly comfort for the sake of his eternal salvation that is a particular trial which is the point that the passage illuminates.

      Notice that the disciples respond by say “Then WHO can be saved?”.
      The ordinary interpretation of the disciples at the time would be to see the rich man as blessed. The fact that the man was rich is perceived as God’s favor. If even this rich man cannot be saved then surely no one can be saved.

      And Jesus answers them by saying ‘for man it is impossible but for God everything is possible’. The answer is that all must seek and follow God, that they must travel with God for salvation. The answer is not that riches are abominable, but that the comfort of riches poses a trial of its own and that in fact everyone (even the rich man) is condemned without God’s intervention. Jesus then goes on to articulate that the man who leaves his father, mother, their children and their homes for his sake will be blessed in heaven. This is obviously exalting a complete giving of oneself to the will of God over worldly ideals, it is not saying that family and children and working a farm are bad.

      • Episteme

        Indeed. We need to remember that practically the entire Old Testament sees wealth (as well as children and the like) as a direct blessing of just behavior and poverty as a sign of punishment for sin (the “Prosperity Gospel” would be right at home in the First Temple Period). We’re focused so much on our own modern pursuit of wealth that we forgot the truly radical nature of Jesus’s enunciation of prophetic statements to the contrary, which is corollary to his acceptance of sinners, since those poor (or sick) were often assumed to have been sinners themselves to have been so cursed by God (c.f. Job). And as Mike states, the renunciation element — of wealth or family — is about blessings that are transient gifts of God rather of your doing and thus should not be standing in the way of your pursuing Paradise.

        We also, in the passage of time and translation, forget that the ‘camel’ verse is a double play on words involving both sewing AND one of the merchants of Jerusalem. Beyond even the parables, it’s a shame how much of Jesus’s wit is lost to us — the man knew how to break tension in his discourses with quintessential Jewish wordplay.

    • I’d forgotten the camel thing! Thank you.

      • Another point is His instructions to the Disciples- take nothing with you, eat what is put in front of you at the houses that you stay at. He instructed his preachers directly to be poor.

      • Kasoy

        There is also the rich man who had a bountiful harvest & said ‘Eat, drink, & be merry!’

        Also, ‘poor’ does not refer only to those who poor in the worldly sense. It refers more so to those who are ‘poor in sprit’ who are not attached to their wealth or possessions. A poor man may not be ‘poor in spirit’ when he has a great desire to acquire wealth to satisfy his worldly longings of pleasures, power, & honor.

  • Mike Blackadder

    Can you explain a couple of things in a little more detail?

    The first is to describe briefly what you are referring to as the ‘scandal of wealth’. I think that it’s partly just not on my radar, but does he mean to say that there existed a disposition that ‘wealth’ was essentially conspicuous but poverty was so ordinary that it was perceived as non-offensive?

    Second, how is it that following the reformation that this ‘scandal of poverty’ translates into the creation of capitalism?

    BTW, I know that I should attempt actually reading the speech to answer these questions. 😉

  • Kathleen Worthington

    Aren’t we at a place now in America where wealth *and* poverty are scandalous? You can’t win for losing.

    I would love to see you develop further the idea behind this post. “Scandal”, at least, needs to be better defined. What personal culpability is implied with “scandal”? Who is scandalized? Society? The moral order? If we are now in a time of “the scandal of poverty”, and this accords with Jesus’ priorities, are we on the right path? Even if I spoke more than pidgin French I think I would not get all that information from Attali’s speech.

  • I fail to understand Attali’s point. The state created the market? Markets were always in existence. Trade and commerce always existed and the state had until the last two hundred years very little control of it. Wealth for most of western history wasn’t even linked to capitalism. It was linked to aristocracy and power. And even so, how does that lead to the reversal of scandel from poverty to wealth? The causal links are missing in your post.

    • Yeah, that seemed backwards to me too. To me, the market creates the State- aristocracy and power come from the already wealthy trying to protect the sources of that wealth.

      • Paul Adams

        Are you saying, T.S., that powerful aristocrats became rich and powerful in the first place as a result of their market activities, as opposed, say, to war, conquest, plunder, enslavement of defeated enemies, serfdom, and such? But I agree, states didn’t create markets. At best, they created (in some times and places) the conditions in which they could flourish – secure property rights, rule of law, enforceable contracts, and social peace. More often and in most of the world states thwart markets through political control of the economy, cronyism, bureaucracy, and corruption.

        • The state’s may grow through war, but the smallest states are the tribes- and there wealth of the chief is how he becomes chief. Chiefs then band together to protect that wealth, and so the State is born. Eventually they realize that the same strength of arms that allows them to protect wealth also gives them the business opportunity to take wealth from their neighbors, and thus war is born, for it is profitable.

          • Paul Adams

            I see how you can say, on this account, how wealth created the state, in some sense. But the market?

          • The market is merely trade. A barter market suffices for gaining wealth to begin with, trade comes before war.

          • Paul Adams

            Sorry if I misunderstood you. I thought you were saying something about more than which comes first, but rather what kind of causal relation existed between market and state. I find something closer to hierarchies or pecking orders in other species more plausible. That is, the chief emerges because he is best equipped to lead – by strength, strategic sense and knowledge (how to win a battle, find water, where to pitch camp, etc.) and other leadership qualities on which the survival of the group depends – not because he is a more successful trader.

          • I was talking evolution. Knowledge can be traded just as goods are.

  • Joseph Rhea

    What an interesting thought! This is a first-level reflection, but I wonder how this might inform modern discussions of wealth redistribution. On a government level, capitalists seem to ignore the issue (the better ones see it is a personal matter rather than a state one, which takes the conversation out of some public spheres). I wonder, though, if the socialistic language of “inequality” is the wisest. Combating poverty as such addresses a “scandal of poverty;” but decrying wealth inequality sounds like it assumes a scandal-of-wealth mentality.

    It might do for us as a society (and as Christians within that society) to decide – would we say the problem was solved if all people were lifted out of poverty, or if all people had more or less the same amount of wealth?

    That said, capitalistic Christians and people who would put the onus of scandal on poverty (full disclosure: I’m in this camp for now) would need to wrestle with Jesus’ teaching on storing up treasure, the “rich fool” in Luke 12, and the beginning of James 5 (“Come now, you rich, weep and howl…”)

  • I’ll join those curious about the “scandal of wealth.” I’m particularly curious what historical evidence is given.

    In my understanding of pre-/non-Jewish societies (China, India, Mesopotamia, Egypt, etc.), wealth was presented as a good thing, and poverty as a burden and difficulty – though not necessarily as a scandal. The poor are just poor, and it’s rough if you’re one of them, but there’s not necessarily blame or “scandal” attached. The rich and powerful are the ones who have adventures and luxuries, so stories get told about them and people admire and emulate them.

    In other words, my understanding of ancient history is exactly the opposite of Attali’s take, so I’m curious what he’s seeing that I’m missing.

    • Anna

      I’m sure that, then as now, people in general thought it would be nice to be one of the wealthy (though OTOH maybe there was enough “leveling” of tall poppies that fewer people were eager to be in the tall poppy group), but Plutarch, and his sources, praise a number of rulers for redistributing property and forbidding anyone to accumulate wealth. Granted, that’s just Greek and Roman societies, not the world at large, so maybe they were unique in the ancient world.

  • If Christ condemns poverty, then why are the Poor Blessed?

  • mochalite

    Agree with all the requests for more on what “scandal” is. But in talking NT, don’t give short shrift to the OT! Yes, wealth was often equated to blessing, but very early on, God established how the wealthy should treat the poor … Gleaning laws, sabbatical year debt forgiveness, jubilee year slave release, kinsman redeemer laws for poor relations (Ruth).

    And then the prophets raged against the wealthy’s treatment of the poor, treating it as evidence of Israel’s apostasy … Really all of them, but especially Jeremiah and Amos.

    Jeremiah 5:27-29 “As a cage is full of birds, So their houses are full of deceit.
    Therefore they have become great and grown rich. They have grown fat, they are sleek; Yes, they surpass the deeds of the wicked; They do not plead the cause, The cause of the fatherless; Yet they prosper, And the right of the needy they do not defend. Shall I not punish them for these things?’ says the Lord.‘Shall I not avenge Myself on such a nation as this?’

    Amos 2:6-7 “They sell the righteous for silver, and the needy for a pair of sandals. They trample on the heads of the poor as upon the dust of the ground and deny justice to the oppressed.”

    And God sets Himself as the savior of the poor, long before Jesus “changed things” in the NT: Ps. 12:5 “For the oppression of the poor, for the sighing of the needy, Now I will arise,” says the Lord; “I will set him in the safety for which he yearns.”

    I look forward to reading your further thoughts!

  • Chris Nunez

    Thanks for that assessment mochalite, the OT gets a bad rap because it’s not generally read by Christians favoring the Jesus ‘soundbites’ in the NT. And because of the lack of familiarity with the OT, many folks don’t realize that Jesus is reiterating the very heart of the OT. And that heart is about the ‘people of God’ being an indivisible family — literally His/Her children. What parent would allow their children to deny their siblings what is their inheritance? Long histories of what happens as a consequence of that kind of neglect.

  • Kasoy

    Both riches & poverty are blessings from God. Its how one makes use of his blessings that makes him either sin or become holy. If he is rich & keeps it for his own benefit, he is cursed. If he shares it, he is blessed. If he is poor & doesnt humbly accept it & steals, he is cursed. If he humbly accept it & tries hard to improve his situation, he is blessed.

    CCC 2446: summarizes how one should treat possessions

    The basic social doctrines to guide on the use of wealth & dealing with poverty are: universal destination of goods, solidarity, & subsidiarity.