Despite forty years of evangelizing for trickle-down economics, despite a decade of big tax cuts for the rich and wrangling over estate taxes, despite bailouts of financial institutions that seem to exist largely to make the rich richer, the problems persist and worsen: unemployment has only just gone under 9 percent, job creation still lags, and every indication is that, as The Economist says, "Rates of social mobility are unlikely to grow. Inequality, however, may widen even further."
Does everyone get richer when rich people get richer? No. Rich people get richer.
And professional economists recognize the problem of inequity without having to call it class warfare.
Some of the rich people also see the problems with too much wealth centered in too few hands; in fact, the two wealthiest people on the Forbes list, Bill Gates and Warren Buffett, have pledged to give away most of their wealth. Buffett, who says he will give away 99 percent of his wealth during his lifetime or at his death, joined Gates in calling on the wealthy to pledge at least half of their wealth in charitable giving.
Thankfully, there's a rich history of charitable giving from the rich. We owe our National Parks system in its present form to the wealth of the Rockefellers. Andrew Carnegie, although he loved capitalism and competition, said that radical philanthropy was necessary to forge brotherhood between the richest and poorest in society, and he gave away many of his millions to build libraries and help colleges and universities. His essay, "The Gospel of Wealth," published in 1889 concluded with the thought that someday
the man who dies leaving behind him millions of available wealth, which was free to him to administer during life, will pass away "unwept, unhonored, and unsung," no matter to what uses he leaves the dross which he cannot take with him. Of such as these the public verdict will then be: "The man who dies thus rich dies disgraced."
The New York Times reported at his death that Carnegie's estate amounted to $23 million dollars. But in his last eighteen years of life, Carnegie gave away $350 million.
In the large Episcopal parish where I serve, there is at least one wealthy individual who follows in these footsteps. I have heard that this person gives a substantial amount of money to the church, and believe this parishioner to be a generous and genuinely good human being, although we are on different sides of a number of divides.But I also have overheard this individual telling priests or preachers that it is wonderful when they choose not to preach about wealth from the pulpit.
"I am sick and tired," I heard this person saying on one such occasion, "of being told that God doesn't love me."
It is not my place to correct my friend; God, of course, loves this person, love beyond reckoning, whatever the priests or I might preach that the tradition tells us about wealth. But, if the Bible and the gospels are any indication, God loves the poor at least as much (in some theological traditions, God is said to prefer the poor, in fact), and God knows that sometimes all they have in their corner is divine grace . . . and, perhaps, the commandments from the tradition that those who are blessed by God with resources share those resources with those who need them most.
Whatever we have is a blessing. But it is a blessing that comes with the responsibilities we have been discussing in recent weeks. Now I am not so prejudiced to say that Bono and other wealthy Christians can't actually be Christians. While the Bible contains a number of similar messages, I am not one of those who reads the words of Jesus to the rich young ruler (Mt. 19; Mk. 10; Lk. 18) as proscriptive of damnation for the rich:
Jesus, looking at him, loved him and said, "You lack one thing; go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me."
When he heard this, he was shocked and went away grieving, for he had many possessions (Mk. 10:21-22, NRSV).
I think this was a particular spiritual prescription: one cannot serve God and Mammon, after all, and the young man is deeply grieved by the loss Jesus requests: his money, status, power—all the things, in fact, that our society tells us are important.
Jesus sees that he can't get on board with the kingdom of heaven without lightening his load, so to speak.
But I also think that Warren Buffet had the right idea. He said that he could give away 99 percent of his massive fortune and not see any difference in his standard of living. If one foregoes a couple of luxury cars—or maybe a house or two—would that really change a person's life for the worse?