My Most Grievous Fault: The Moral Problem of Wealth

My Most Grievous Fault: The Moral Problem of Wealth April 24, 2017

“How can I make you realize the misery of the poor? How can I make you understand that your wealth comes from their weeping?” – St. Basil the Great.

“Not to share our own wealth with the poor is theft from the poor and deprivation of their means of life; we do not possess our own wealth, but theirs.” – St. John Chrysostom

The Rich Man and Dives- today even our governments have been reduced to begging favors from the wealthy. Gustave Doré [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
The Rich Man and Dives- we need to think about wealth inequality not only within societies, but between them on a global scale. Gustave Doré [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
It is always easier to accuse than to confess. But in reality we’re all sinners of one sort or another sitting together in the dock. I have long been, and will continue to be, an opponent of inequality and economic and environmental injustice, and a critic of the Money Power that rules our nation.

However, by the standards of the world, I am rich myself, and I benefit from the comfort and largess of living in America, a globally dominant and fabulously wealthy nation. To borrow from the terminology of the Hunger Games series, I live in the Capitol- the rest of the world’s nations are akin to subordinate districts, embedded in our system and serving it in one way or another. And I’m no mere simple denizen of the Imperial City- I’m somewhere in the top 5 or 6% of income earners nationally and, like almost every other American, I’m also part of the global 1%. That isn’t serf or petit-bourgeoisie territory, even when other factors that typically skew such comparisons like cost of living, dependents, and purchasing power are taken into account.

Therefore, when I condemn “the rich,” I indict myself. Though I am loath to admit it, I’m more Dives than Lazarus- a comfortable man with many possessions who consumes far more than I actually need. So when Pope Francis says that our economy kills, in truth it kills for me. And it’s no defense to point at others and say- “they have even more blood on their hands than I.”

In his book I See Satan Fall Like Lightning, the late René Girard presciently dissects our unquestioning assumption of moral superiority over others. We hold a simple conceit: that, if faced with similar circumstances, we would do things differently. And as a result, we, to use Jesus’s analogy, build monuments to the victims of our neighbors. We are always aware of the Other’s sins, the Other’s faults, and the Other’s victims, but blind to our own. Given the pervasiveness of this phenomenon, then-Cardinal Ratzinger was correct to identify Psalm 19:12-13 (“But who can discern their own errors? Forgive my hidden faults.”) as the “profoundest human wisdom.”

Only an honest recognition and confession of our own complicity in sin prevents the cancer of self-righteousness from taking hold within us.

I think this kind of self-awareness and honesty about our own guilt is the point of departure for a real revolution of the heart. Without it, we are only scapegoating those wealthier than ourselves and weaponizing victims- the poor, immigrants, etc.- and perhaps even Christianity itself, to use as cudgels to beat our neighbors. Without it, we don’t encounter the Other on the common ground of our mutual brokenness and speak to them as equals, but rather from a false position of superiority- and then we lecture.

Awareness of our own complicity in evil is also a necessary prerequisite for humility before God and mercy towards others.  And mercy, Matthew 9:13 and Hosea 6:6, is our Ariadne’s thread running through all the scriptural and doctrinal mazes and the challenges of discernment that we face in modernity.

Neither the Church in America nor we, the faithful in her pews, have truly even begun to come to grips with the moral problems posed by wealth and empire. It would disturb our comfort and unsettle our sense of ourselves. And while we do at times think and talk about economic injustice within our own society, we rarely acknowledge the truth- that we stand at the apex of a global system of inequality and exploitation, and are its primary beneficiaries. Nor do we recogognize that we live within, and are the products of, a culture that is entirely driven by the love of money and material acquisitiveness, which leads to consumerism and a utilitarian commodification of everything- labor, marriage, education, the natural world, even religion itself. As a result, as St. John Chrysostom recognized, we are all thieves, robbing “those who are poorer than [our]selves.” Finally, with few exceptions, we do not use our hoarded wealth for socially useful purposes. We ignore the fact that all our prized possessions are subject to a social mortgage, and that we have defaulted on the loan.

We participate in, and benefit from, structures of sin. But we are blind to our own role in them. We condemn the hypocrisy of, say, a Thomas Jefferson, who had the luxury to write noble words about human freedom and liberty because of the wealth generated by slaves- slaves who worked outside his very window while he sat quill-in-hand. But we are worse hypocrites. Jefferson at least had to look his bondsmen in the eye and knew them each by name- ours are anonymous nonpersons toiling in wretched conditions in, for example, the garment factories of Bangladesh, Myanmar, or the Maldives. They live and labor for us out of sight, and out of mind. But the Lord hears their cries, even if we do not.

If our faith is true, then we- the world’s rich and comfortable- live under the shadow of a terrible judgment. I live luxury and splendor compared to the overwhelming majority of my brothers and sisters.  I benefit from the expropriation of things held in common and the withholding of just wages. And I know what my reward for this will be. When the rich weep and wail (Jas 5:4)- I will likely be among their number. I hope at least to be a penitent thief in the end.

Lord, have mercy on me, a sinner, when you come into your Kingdom.

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