Last week I had the pleasure of participating in the First Kuyper Seminar, “Economics, Christianity & The Crisis: Towards a New Architectonic Critique,” held at the VU University Amsterdam. I gave a paper on “The Moral Challenges of Economic Equality and Diversity,” which focused on envy as a moral challenge particularly endemic to market economies: “Since envy arises out of inequality, envy and inequality go together. And since markets inevitably generate inequalities, therefore envy and markets go together.” This paper is part of a larger collaborative project on envy I’m working on with Victor V. Claar, which includes our co-authored paper, “Envy in the Market Economy: Sin, Fairness, and Spontaneous (Dis)Order.”
Another presentation at the conference by Henry Vyner-Brooks of the UK focused on the thought of “John Ruskin and the Economics of Inequality.” I was not previously very familiar with Ruskin’s thought, and Vyner-Brooks’ presentation brought forth a wealth of intriguing material from Ruskin. The Ruskin presentation was given on the first day of the conference, and it stimulated my thinking as I prepared to give my paper on the final session of the second and last day of the workshop.
One of Ruskin’s contentions regarding inequality had to do with the moral obligation of the wealthy to put their wealth to productive use. He made the analogy between plants that merely grow and expand their root system with plants that actually bear fruit, the difference between root and bulb, so to speak. This, I think, helped me clarify to some extent the difficulty in understanding precisely what “unrighteous” inequality, a reality affirmed by the vast majority of thinkers in the Christian tradition, consists in. I didn’t come up with any hard and fast rules or measures (e.g. the 99% vs. the 1%), but I did think of a dynamic from the Lord of the Rings that might be helpful.
The idle, unproductive, or “unrighteous” wealth could be seen as analogous to the initial lethargy of the Ents in The Two Towers. A recurring temptation for materially prosperous human beings is to think that they no longer need God and are not bound by moral obligations to others, particularly the poor. This reality is in part why John Calvin, when commenting on Isaiah 2:16, observed that “it most frequently happens that abundance leads to pride and cruelty,” and that “it is too frequent and common that riches are followed by luxury, effeminacy, and a superfluity of pleasures, which we commonly see in wealthy countries and commercial cities.”
The Ents may not have been wealthy in simply material terms, but as Gandalf observed concerning the transition from the Ents’ moral lethargy to productive action, “The Ents are going to wake up and find that they are strong.” But in order for that to happen, the Ents needed to realize that their fate is not apart from the rest of Middle Earth. The film version makes this dynamic clear. As Treebeard reports to the hobbits the decision of Entmoot, “We Ents cannot hold back this storm. We must weather such things as we have always done…. This is not our war.”
Merry, incredulous, asks, “But you’re part of this world, aren’t you?” Indeed, the Ents are part of Middle Earth, and have obligations to others, whether they realize it or not, whether there are great hopes for success or not. This dynamic of mutual responsibility is an important theme throughout the books, as the old alliances between elves, men, and dwarves are in some ways renewed. As Haldir puts it in the film before the battle at Helm’s Deep, “An Alliance once existed between Elves and Men. Long ago we fought and died together. We come to honor that allegiance.”
In like manner there is an alliance between the various classes of society and human beings in their various callings. We all have different gifts and different spheres of responsibility. But we are each called to exercise those gifts in the service of others. Great wealth places a greater, not a lesser, responsibility on the part of the wealthy to exercise those gifts in productive service to others. As the Heidelberg Catechism puts it, one of the key reasons we labor to create wealth, that we “work faithfully” is in order that we “may share with those in need.”
Perhaps one day the church will wake up and realize the various ways in which it is strong. This is, I think, a hope shared by Ruskin and Kuyper.