Resolved: it is immoral to hold onto great wealth, and a Christian is obligated to give away wealth in excess of a prudential amount required for comfort and safety.
From time to time here at Vox Nova, we have quoted various Fathers of the Church on the sinfulness of holding wealth. But recently I found an article by a secular progressive who makes much the same argument in what I think is a very compelling fashion. He does so from a modern perspective and in a way that addresses critiques from both the political left and right. A.Q. Smith forcefully titled his article, It’s Basically Just Immoral to be Rich; I recommend you read the whole article, but here is an extensive quote:
Here is a simple statement of principle that doesn’t get repeated enough: if you possess billions of dollars, in a world where many people struggle because they do not have much money, you are an immoral person. The same is true if you possess hundreds of millions of dollars, or even millions of dollars. Being extremely wealthy is impossible to justify in a world containing deprivation…
Many times, defenses of the accumulation of great wealth depend on justifications for the initial acquisition of that wealth….Clearly, [a rich man’s] wealth is the product of his own labor, and nobody should deprive him of it. People on the right often defend wealth along these lines. I earned it, therefore it’s not unfair for me to have it…But there is a separate question that this defense ignores: regardless of whether you have earned it, to what degree are you morally permitted to retain it? The question of getting and the question of keeping are distinct. As a parallel: if I come into possession of an EpiPen, and I encounter a child experiencing a severe allergic reaction, the question of whether I am obligated to inject the child is distinguishable from the question of whether I obtained the pen legitimately…
Of course, when you start talking about whether it is moral to be rich, you end up heading down some difficult logical paths. If I am obligated to use my wealth to help people, am I not obligated to keep doing so until I am myself a pauper? Surely this obligation attaches to anyone who consumes luxuries they do not need, or who has some savings that they are not spending on malaria treatment for children. But the central point I want to make here is that the moral duty becomes greater the more wealth you have.
This is a thoroughly secular argument, but one grounded more in personalism (that is, what are the duties of one person to another) than it is in traditional left/liberal economic and political categories. As the author points out, the concern of the left is either on the acquisition of wealth or on government redistribution of wealth, and this question of the morality of possessing wealth is often ignored.
As I noted at the beginning, the sinfulness of holding on to wealth is a point that many of the Church Fathers made even more strongly than this article does. St. John Chrysostom said,
The rich usually imagine that, if they do not physically rob the poor, they are committing no sin. But the sin of the rich consists in not sharing their wealth with the poor. In fact, the rich person who keeps all his wealth for himself is committing a form of robbery. The reason is that in truth all wealth comes from God, and so belongs to everyone equally. The proof of this is all around us. Look at the succulent fruits which the trees and bushes produce. Look at the fertile soil which yields each year such an abundant harvest. Look at the sweet grapes on the vines, which give us wine to drink. The rich may claim that they own many fields in which fruits and grain grow; but it is God who causes seeds to sprout and mature. The duty of the rich is to share the harvest of their fields with all who work in them and with all in need.
And St. Basil said,
Why are you wealthy while that other man is poor? Is it, perhaps, in order that you may receive wages for kindheartedness and faithful stewardship, and in order that he may be honored with great prizes for his endurance? But, as for you, when you hoard all these things in the insatiable bosom of greed, do you suppose you do no wrong in cheating so many people? Who is a man of greed? Someone who does not rest content with what is sufficient. Who is a cheater? Someone who takes away what belongs to others. And are you not a man of greed? are you not a cheater? taking those things which you received for the sake of stewardship, and making them your very own? Now, someone who takes a man who is clothed and renders him naked would be termed a robber; but when someone fails to clothe the naked, while he is able to do this, is such a man deserving of any other appellation? The bread which you hold back belongs to the hungry; the coat, which you guard in your locked storage-chests, belongs to the naked; the footwear mouldering in your closet belongs to those without shoes. The silver that you keep hidden in a safe place belongs to the one in need. Thus, however many are those whom you could have provided for, so many are those whom you wrong.
I could continue, but I think these two quotes are sufficient. This is not simply a call for greater charity: elsewhere the Fathers make it clear that giving to the poor is not charity, but justice. And as the author of the article above notes, giving away from your surplus still leaves you with more than enough. Recall Jesus and the widow’s mite:
As Jesus looked up, he saw the rich putting their gifts into the temple treasury. 2 He also saw a poor widow put in two very small copper coins. 3 “Truly I tell you,” he said, “this poor widow has put in more than all the others. 4 All these people gave their gifts out of their wealth; but she out of her poverty put in all she had to live on.” (Luke 21:1-4)
Once can argue about what is the appropriate threshold: how much can I accumulate before my wealth becomes sinful? But I think this is the wrong approach as it often devolves into an exercise in “almost sinning”: how far can I go before I have sinned? What can I get away with? Rather, I think we need to accept that in a world where people homeless, hungry and lack access to even basic medical care, wealth, or even savings beyond what is needed, are sinful, and then act accordingly.
I argue this not from a position of self-righteousness, but of guilt: my income places me among the top 5% in my state, and comfortably in the top 10% of the nation. (Or, the 9.9%, the hidden class in America, as this article described it.) I give, but still find myself living beyond comfortably, with a disposable income that lets me act on my whims without worry. Now in comparison with other members of my socio-economic class my whims are pretty modest, but still, as a Franciscan, they prick at my conscience. We are all called by Jesus to have very different values:
Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moths and vermin destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. 20 But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moths and vermin do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal. 21 For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also. (Matthew 6:19-21)