King Solomon, the original 1%

King Solomon, the original “1%”

Last Thursday, NPR ran an interesting piece by Alan Greenblat that featured the perspective of several of the nation’s rich (read: annual household income over $250,000) in relation to President Obama’s determination that the Bush era tax increases end for the nation’s rich as part of any deal related to the looming “fiscal cliff.” The article features a variety of perspectives, but I would like to reflect upon one particular section of that article here. Greenblat writes,

[Mark] Anderson recognizes that the kind of tax increases Obama proposes aren’t going to impinge on his life materially, and he supports them philosophically. But he adds that he thinks Obama and other Democrats make being rich “sound like a bad thing,” which he says is a mistake.

The top 2 percent of earners already pay 35 percent of all federal taxes, according to the Tax Policy Center. In terms of personal income taxes, the top 1 percent alone pay 37.4 percent of total receipts, according to the Tax Foundation — double the share they paid back in 1979. [Edward] Kfoury, who is president of a land trust in Maine, points out that there are years when his personal tax bill has run into seven figures.

“What would make me feel a lot better is if I heard the president say, ‘I want to thank the rich people who, because of our progressive tax system, pay the most — but we don’t have enough money, so we’re asking the wealthy people to help the country out by paying more than their fair share,’ ” says Martin Krall, a 71-year-old “semi-retired” attorney and media executive who lives in Palm Beach Gardens, Fla.

“Instead, you’re made to feel like you’re a bad guy,” Krall says. “People resent the notion that somehow they’ve done something wrong by becoming successful.”

Joe Carter recently examined why soaking the rich won’t fix the deficit, so I will not explore that question here. Instead, I would like to focus on the issue of human dignity, political rhetoric, and an ancient Christian perspective on wealth.

It is perhaps tempting for Christians, in the light of so many biblical passages that show special concern for the plight of the poor and that condemned the rich of those times for their corruption, to uncritically and unfairly categorize all the rich of all times to be the same, and to view the possession of wealth with suspicion.

It is this sort of viewpoint, when some “make being rich ‘sound like a bad thing'” that was, in part, at work beneath the “We are the 99%!” rhetoric of Christians who supported the Occupy Wall Street movement last year. I wrote an Acton Commentary at that time that addressed the issue as follows:

One of the effects of OWS rhetoric against the “1%” is to cast the wealthy as morally suspect. At the same time, many are upset over the practices of crony capitalists who have used government connections to their advantage. Crony capitalism is indeed a transgression against the common good, but that does not justify tarring indiscriminately everyone who happens to fall in the same income bracket.

I understand how it can be difficult for someone who takes their faith and the Scriptures seriously to struggle with developing a proper Christian perspective on wealth. But, I would caution, we cannot characterize all the rich as morally suspect without antagonizing them. As Martin Krall said, “People resent the notion that somehow they’ve done something wrong by becoming successful.” Everyone in society, whether rich or poor, needs each other. The rhetoric needs to change if those who truly want to fix our deficits hope to gain the help of the rich without demonizing them or setting up cultural disincentives to success.

For some helpful and articulate guidance on this question, I would recommend the following from Abba Theodore, one of the desert fathers, recorded in the Conferences of St. John Cassian:

Altogether there are three kinds of things in the world; viz., good, bad, and indifferent. And so we ought to know what is properly good, and what is bad, and what is indifferent, that our faith may be supported by true knowledge and stand firm in all temptations. We must then believe that in things which are merely human there is no real good except virtue of soul alone, which leads us with unfeigned faith to things divine, and makes us constantly adhere to that unchanging good. And on the other hand we ought not to call anything bad, except sin alone, which separates us from the good God, and unites us to the evil devil. But those things are indifferent which can be appropriated to either side according to the fancy or wish of their owner, as for instance riches, power, honour, bodily strength, good health, beauty, life itself, and death, poverty, bodily infirmities, injuries, and other things of the same sort, which can contribute either to good or to evil as the character and fancy of their owner directs. For riches are often serviceable for our good, as the Apostle says, who charges “the rich of this world to be ready to give, to distribute to the needy, to lay up in store for themselves a good foundation against the time to come, that” by this means “they may lay hold on the true life” [1 Timothy 6:18-19].

Notice that Abba Theodore identifies three basic ethical categories: goods, evils, and indifferents. The only true (ethical) good is virtue. The only evil is vice. Everything else is indifferent and only conditionally good or evil depending on whether it is used for virtue or vice, respectively.

In this context, he examines riches, categorizing them as indifferents that “are often serviceable for our good,” while cautioning against their misuse. In particular, he notes the great good that can come from almsgiving or philanthropy. While it is certainly good to pay one’s taxes, how much one pays is an entirely different question than that of almsgiving, which is a spiritual discipline. Nor, for that matter, can it be concluded from this statement that Abba Theodore thinks accumulating riches or being successful is a bad thing. Rather, the critical hinge lies upon what a person does with their riches. While surely there are some who are driven by greed (a vice, and therefore an evil) and have no desire to help the needy, there are many rich who, out of compassion (a virtue, and therefore a good) use their riches to help those in need, helping them pay unexpected bills, find jobs, or even just welcoming them into their homes and being hospitable, to name only a few examples.

Abba Theodore goes on:

And that power also and honour and bodily strength and good health are indifferent and available for either (good or bad) can easily be shown from the fact that many of the Old Testament saints enjoyed all these things and were in positions of great wealth and the highest honour, and blessed with bodily strength, and yet are known to have been most acceptable to God. And on the contrary those who have wrongfully abused these things and perverted them for their own purposes are not without good reason punished or destroyed, as the Book of Kings shows us has often happened.

The question, ultimately, is one of stewardship. There are many rich and powerful figures in the Scriptures (the Book[s] of Kings is a great place to look), but not all of them receive the same assessment. At the end of the day, how someone uses their wealth, talents, and prestige makes all the difference. Great wealth can indeed bring great temptation, to the point where Jesus even says that “it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God”—seemingly impossible from our perspective—“but with God all things are possible” (Matthew 19:24, 26). However, it can also be a great opportunity, with a little Christian asceticism, to build a freer and more virtuous society. The Christian perspective of Abba Theodore, it seems to me, requires that we guard well our rhetoric, remembering that “the rich and the poor have this in common: the Lord is the maker of them all” (Proverbs 22:2).