Posts tagged with: wealth

Readings in Social Ethics: John Chrysostom, On Wealth and Poverty, part 1 of 3. There are six sermons in this text, based on the parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus. This post deals with the first pair. References are to page numbers.

Sermon 1:

  • There is danger in luxury: “In this way luxury often leads to forgetfulness. As for you, my beloved, if you sit at table, remember that from the table you must go to prayer. Fill your belly so moderately that you may not become too heavy to bend your knees and call upon your God (27).”

  • Our use of earthly and natural goods must be oriented toward higher and spiritual goods. Another way of saying this is that our desires and consumption must be rightly ordered: “…let us accustom ourselves to eat only enough to live, not enough to be distracted and weighed down. For we were not born, we do not live, in order to eat and drink; but we eat in order to leave. At the beginning life was not made for eating, but eating for life. But we, as if we had come into the world for this purpose, spend everything for eating” (27-28).
  • It is a natural and perhaps unavoidable feature of human nature to compare our situation with others: “the sight of another person in good fortune laid on him [Lazarus] an extra burden of anguish, not because he was envious or wicked, but because we all naturally perceive our own misfortunes more acutely by comparison with others’ prosperity” (30).
  • “You should think the same way about those who are rich and greedy. They are a kind of robbers lying in wait on the roads, stealing from passers-by, and burying others’ goods in their own houses as if caves and holes. Let us not therefore call them fortunate because of what they have, but miserable because of what will come, because of that dreadful courtroom, because of the inexorable judgment, because of the outer darkness which awaits them” (36-37).

Sermon 2:

  • A non-material definition of wealth and poverty: “We ought to consider this definition of poverty and wealth. So if you see someone greedy for many things, you should consider him the poorest of all, even if he has acquired everyone’s money. If, on the other hand, you see someone with few needs, you should count him the richest of all, even if he has acquired nothing. For we are accustomed to judge poverty and affluence by the disposition of the mind, not by the measure of one’s substance” (40).

  • Using one of his favorite metaphors, Chrysostom compares life to the drama acted on the stage. Wealth, luxury, and the trappings of affluence are temporary and transient: “…when death arrives and the theater is dissolved, everyone puts off the masks of wealth or poverty and departs to the other world. When all are judged by their deeds alone, some are revealed truly wealthy, others poor, some of high class, others of no account” (47).
  • There are sins of omission and sins of commission. We have negative duties as well as positive duties. We can act justly in one sense while acting unlovingly, and therefore sinning, in another sense: “Indeed Lazarus suffered no injustice from the rich man; for the rich man did not take Lazarus’ money, but failed to share his own. If he is accused by the man he failed to pity because he did not share his wealth, what pardon will the man receive who has stolen others’ goods, when he is surrounded by those he has wronged?” (49) This latter point is an argument from the lesser to the greater, showing that in some sense sins of commission are judged to be more weighty than those of omission.
  • Whence comes the responsibility to share our wealth? From a sense of stewardship and the absolute sovereignty of God: “By this we are taught that when we do not show mercy, we will be punished just like those who steal. For our money is the Lord’s, however we may have gathered it” (49).
  • How do we manifest responsible stewardship? “Therefore, let us use our goods sparingly, as belonging to others, so that they may become our own. How shall we use them sparingly, as belonging to others? When we do not spend them beyond our needs, and do not spend for our needs only, but give equal shares into the hands of the poor. If you are affluent, but spend less than what you need, you will give an account of the funds which were entrusted to you” (50).
  • What duties are incumbent upon us in our giving? Should we be liberal and promiscuous in our charity? Chrysostom argues the affirmative: “For if you wish to show kindness, you must not require an accounting of a person’s life, but merely correct his poverty and fill his need” (52).
  • But don’t we have a responsibility to give only to those who deserve it? On the one hand, no, for gracious giving is by its very nature unmerited: “Charity is so called because we give it even to the unworthy” (52).
  • But if we must talk of desert, Chrysostom urges us to see that “need alone is the poor man’s worthiness; if anyone at all ever comes to us with this recommendation, let us not meddle any further” (53). In this we image the grace of God, to give liberally as his gifts have been given to us, who do not deserve them.
  • Don’t the needs of the poor, even as construed by Chrysostom, go beyond the realm of the material?

Readings in Social Ethics: Gregory of Nyssa, Love of the Poor. The source is the translation of selections from the piece in an out-of-print anthology: Social Thought, ed. Peter C. Phan, Message of the Fathers of the Church, vol. 20 (Wilmington, DE: Michael Glazier). The parenthetical references below are to page numbers.

  • The poor have a responsibility to give as they are able. Working together to assist the poor is advisable: “Nevertheless, give what you can; God asks for nothing above your powers. You can give a loaf yourself, another will give a cup of wine, another clothing; thus one man’s hardship will be relieved by your combined aid” (131).

  • But even one family can make a huge difference: “The flow from one river-source brings richness to many a spreading plain; so the wealth of one household is enough to preserve multitudes of the poor, if only a grudging uncharitable heart does not fall like a stone to block the passage and thwart the stream” (132).
  • An argument for equal shares: “All things belong to God, the Father of us and them. We are all of the same stock, all brothers. And when men are brothers, the best and most equitable thing is that they should inherit equal portions. The second best is that even if one or two take the greater part, the others should have at least their own share” (133).

Next week: John Chrysostom, On Wealth and Poverty.

Readings in Social Ethics: Gregory of Nazianzus, On the Love for the Poor. The source is the translation of selections from the piece in an out-of-print anthology: Social Thought, ed. Peter C. Phan, Message of the Fathers of the Church, vol. 20 (Wilmington, DE: Michael Glazier).

  • The basis for our responsibility to help others is our shared human nature, the identity as created in the image of God: “We must, then, open the doors to all the poor and all those who are victims of disasters, whatever the causes may be, since we have been told to rejoice with those who rejoice and to weep with those who weep (Rom 12:12). And since we are human beings, we must pay our debt of goodness to our fellow human beings, whatever the cause of their plight: orphanhood, exile, cruelty of the master, rashness of those who govern, inhumanity of tax-collectors, brutality of blood-thirsty bandits, greediness of thieves, confiscation or shipwreck” (6).

  • A prayer of supplication: “May God preserve me from being rich while they are indigent, from enjoying robust health if I do not try to cure their diseases, from eating good food, clothing myself well and resting in my home if I do not share with them a piece of my bread and give them, in the measure of my abilities, part of my clothes and if I do not welcome them into my home” (19).
  • The true natural and primal state of human beings is freedom and plenty: “Freedom and wealth were the only law; true poverty and slavery are its transgressions” (25).
  • Our task is to look at this primal state as normative, rather than the state of human society as marred by sin: “You, however, look at the primitive equality, not at the later distinction, not at the law of the powerful, but at the law of the Creator. Help, as much as you can, nature; honor the primitive freedom; respect yourself; cover the dishonor of your family; assist those who are sick and aid those who are needy” (26).

Readings in Social Ethics: Clement of Alexandria, Who Is the Rich Man that Shall be Saved?

  • The soteriological status of the rich: “So also let not the man that has been invested with worldly wealth proclaim himself excluded at the outset from the Saviour’s lists, provided he is a believer and one who contemplates the greatness of God’s philanthropy; nor let him, on the other hand, expect to grasp the crowns of immortality without struggle and effort, continuing untrained, and without contest” (III).

  • The absence of the necessities of life drive people to consider only material needs: “For although such is the case, one, after ridding himself of the burden of wealth, may none the less have still the lust and desire for money innate and living; and may have abandoned the use of it, but being at once destitute of and desiring what he spent, may doubly grieve both on account of the absence of attendance, and the presence of regret. For it is impossible and inconceivable that those in want of the necessaries of life should not be harassed in mind, and hindered from better things in the endeavour to provide them somehow, and from some source” (XII).
  • Wealth is a precondition for charitable giving: “And how much more beneficial the opposite case, for a man, through possessing a competency, both not himself to be in straits about money, and also to give assistance to those to whom it is requisite so to do! For if no one had anything, what room would be left among men for giving?” (XIII)
  • The good of affluence: “Riches, then, which benefit also our neighbours, are not to be thrown away. For they are possessions, inasmuch as they are possessed, and goods, inasmuch as they are useful and provided by God for the use of men; and they lie to our hand, and are put under our power, as material and instruments which are for good use to those who know the instrument” (XIV).
  • The internal condition is of primary concern: “So also a poor and destitute man may be found intoxicated with lusts; and a man rich in worldly goods temperate, poor in indulgences, trustworthy, intelligent, pure, chastened” (XVIII).
  • Lofty claims about the results of giving: “One purchases immortality for money; and, by giving the perishing things of the world, receives in exchange for these an eternal mansion in the heavens!” (XXXII) Could such language be construed in a negative way? In what way is it right to say that one “purchases” eternal life? In what way is it not right?
  • Promiscuous giving: “How then does man give these things? For I will give not only to friends, but to the friends of friends. And who is it that is the friend of God? Do not you judge who is worthy or who is unworthy. For it is possible you may be mistaken in your opinion. As in the uncertainty of ignorance it is better to do good to the undeserving for the sake of the deserving, than by guarding against those that are less good to fail to meet in with the good. For though sparing, and aiming at testing, who will receive meritoriously or not, it is possible for you to neglect some that are loved by God; the penalty for which is the punishment of eternal fire” (XXXIII).
  • How does charity relate to baptism? “Forgiveness of past sins, then, God gives; but of future, each one gives to himself. And this is to repent, to condemn the past deeds, and beg oblivion of them from the Father, who only of all is able to undo what is done, by mercy proceeding from Him, and to blot out former sins by the dew of the Spirit” (XL). Recall Cyprian of Carthage.

The Friday morning plenary address at last week’s Assembly of World-Wide Partners was given by Ruth Padilla deBorst, a 15-year veteran of work with Christian Reformed World Missions. Padilla deBorst’s talk focused on relations between the global north and global south, “Together in Missions in the 21st Century.” In the following I’ll summarize her talk and intersperse the summary with some of my own reflections. One general comment, with Acton University beginning today: the valuable uniqueness of a conference like Acton U comes into sharp relief given the economic, political, and ideological attitudes on display at an event like the Assembly of World-Wide Partners. (more…)

Economic globalization has lifted millions out of dire poverty and is an unparalelled engine of wealth creation. But, like other economic systems, it needs the moral framework that the Church provides to guide it as a humane force for good. Brian Griffiths, vice chairman of Goldman Sachs International, examines the role of faith in a rapidly globalizing world in this excerpt from his new Acton monograph.

Read the full commentary here.

Clement of Alexandria, Who is the Rich Man That Shall Be Saved?, trans. William Wilson, ch. XIV:

Riches, then, which benefit also our neighbours, are not to be thrown away. For they are possessions, inasmuch as they are possessed, and goods, inasmuch as they are useful and provided by God for the use of men; and they lie to our hand, and are put under our power, as material and instruments which are for good use to those who know the instrument. If you use it skilfully, it is skilful; if you are deficient in skill, it is affected by your want of skill, being itself destitute of blame. Such an instrument is wealth. Are you able to make a right use of it? It is subservient to righteousness. Does one make a wrong use of it? It is, on the other hand, a minister of wrong. For its nature is to be subservient, not to rule. That then which of itself has neither good nor evil, being blameless, ought not to be blamed; but that which has the power of using it well and ill, by reason of its possessing voluntary choice. And this is the mind and judgment of man, which has freedom in itself and self-determination in the treatment of what is assigned to it. So let no man destroy wealth, rather than the passions of the soul, which are incompatible with the better use of wealth. So that, becoming virtuous and good, he may be able to make a good use of these riches. The renunciation, then, and selling of all possessions, is to be understood as spoken of the passions of the soul.

Wealth, like liberty, is not an ultimate end in itself. Wealth is the good product of a rightly ordered economic system. Liberty is the result of a properly functioning political structure. These are both penultimate realities.

But to what end are wealth and liberty (economics and politics) to be subsumed? I know no better answer than to say, “To glorify God, and to enjoy Him for ever.”

A number of theories are buzzing around the Internet, related to the Virginia Tech killer’s choice of identification on the package he sent to NBC, “Ismail Ax.”

According to published reports, “One popular theory comes from a story in the Quran, the holy book of Islam, about Ibrahim and his son, Ismail. This theory picked up speed because many bloggers wondered if the shootings could be related to terrorism.”

The report continues, “In Islam, Ibrahim is known as the father of the prophets and, upset that people in his hometown still worshiped idols and not Allah, he smashed all but one statue in a local temple with an ax. Ibrahim’s son is Ismail, who also became a prophet. Ibrahim is Arabic for Abraham, who plays a significant role in Christianity, Judaism and Islam.”

From what I’ve seen, however, there is no other evidence so far linking Cho Seung-Hui to Islam.

One of his rants does include this portion, presumably to his classmates: “You had everything you wanted. Your Mercedes wasn’t enough, you brats. Your golden necklaces weren’t enough, you snobs. Your trust fund wasn’t enough. Your vodka and Cognac weren’t enough. All your debaucheries weren’t enough. Those weren’t enough to fulfill your hedonistic needs. You had everything.”

These complaints echo Dinesh D’Souza’s take on the major motivations behind Osama bin Laden’s animosity toward the United States: “the immoral ingredients of American values and culture,” and “a decadent American culture that angers and repulses traditional societies.” But its not at all clear whether D’Souza is ultimately right, and therefore even more questionable whether such perceived similarities reflect any real link.

The words “Ismail Ax” were also written in red ink on the killer’s arm. The Times of London relates the identity of Ismail in Islam as the ‘son of sacrifice’. NBC News says that the killer’s manifesto includes the following statement: “Thanks to you, I die like Jesus Christ, to inspire generations of the weak and the defenseless people.”

Of course, despite the killer’s intentions, that’s where the similarities to Jesus Christ end. Jesus is the one who resists the temptation to strike back at his oppressors and willingly endures suffering for the sake of others: “For all who draw the sword will die by the sword.” More on this by PowerBlog contributor John H. Armstrong at his home blog, “A Tragic Day in Blacksburg: Making Sense of People’s Actions and the Words of Jesus.”

But, then again, maybe the explanation for “Ismail Ax” is just as simple as this: “Ismail Ax” is an anagram for “Alias Mix.”

Update: A columnist in a Kuwaiti newspaper writes that America leads the world “towards the abyss and towards a bitter fate – and the crimes that we hear of occasionally are just a drop in the sea of their false culture.” If Cho Seung-Hui wanted to indict American culture, then anti-American sentiment around the world is certainly lending its assistance to his purpose.

See also PowerBlog contributor Jennifer Roback Morse’s piece in NRO, “Waiting Until It’s Too Late: Mental illness and the Virginia Tech massacre.”

Update #2: Jerry Bowyer at NRO on the contents of the killer’s media package: “Envy, deep and powerful, comes through it all. Resentment against our society. Christianity, capitalism, and sports all take their hits. This was a man who hated the American regime — our very way of life.”

As many of you may know, Acton has been working on a documentary. The Call of the Entrepreneur will premier in Grand Rapids, Mich., on May 17 at Celebration Cinema North. Come one, come all, and see this wonderful documentary. The Call of the Entrepreneur tells the stories of three entrepreneurs: one a farmer in rural Evart, Michigan, another a mercantile banker in New York, and finally an entrepreneur in Hong Kong, China. The film examines the drive behind what these people do: Why are they driven to create wealth? Why do they produce? Who does it benefit?

This video clip is also available via YouTube and in a larger format here (Requires RealPlayer or Quicktime).

Blog author: jballor
Tuesday, February 27, 2007
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This piece from the Scientific American examines the difficulty that human beings have achieving happiness even in a world characterized by material prosperity.

“Once average annual income is above $20,000 a head, higher pay brings no greater happiness,” writes Michael Shermer, in the context of Richard Lay૚rd’s observation that “we are no happier even though average incomes have more than doubled since 1950.”

Shermer examines various reasons that increases in objective well-being don’t necessarily correspond to increases in subjective well-being, or happiness. Perhaps it’s because of our genes. Or perhaps, as Emory University psychiatrist Gregory Berns argues, it’s because we seek happiness in pleasure rather than satisfaction: “Satisfaction is an emotion that captures the uniquely human need to impart meaning to one’s activities.”

But none of these or the other possibilities Shermer surveys offer a complete answer. He concludes, “To understand happiness, we need both history and science.” I think that’s true, but I would add we also need theology.

Consider the truth of Augustine’s observations about the nature of sin and the search for happiness in a fallen world. First, “absolutely all of us want to be happy” (Confessions 10.21.31). But given the reality of sinful human nature, we constantly seek happiness and fulfillment in inappropriate places, arrogating our own misguided quest for happiness to the place of controlling priority.

Augustine’s understanding of uti and frui, or benevolence and complacence as Jonathan Edwards calls them, is illuminating here. The former regards the right use of things as means to achieve happiness, while the latter is the resting and right appreciation of something.

Thus, says Augustine,

there are some things which are meant to be enjoyed, others which are meant to be used, yet others which do both the enjoying and the using. Things that are to be enjoyed make us happy; things which are to be used help us on our way to happiness, providing us, so to say, with crutches and props for reaching the things that will make us happy, and enabling us to keep them (On Christian Teaching, 1.3.3).

Ultimately it is only God in whom we are to seek our happiness, resting in him complacently. Speaking to God Augustine confesses,

A joy there is that is not granted to the godless, but to those only who worship you without looking for reward, because you yourself are their joy. This is the happy life and this alone: to rejoice in you, about you and because of you. This is the life of happiness, and it is not to be found anywhere else. Whoever thinks there can be some other is chasing a joy that is not the true one; yet such a person’s will has not turned away from all notion of joy (Confessions 10.22.32).

Happiness can only truly be enjoyed when there is a right ordering of our affections for transient objects as means to enjoying and resting in God alone. That’s the insight provided by theology, and it helps explain the happiness conundrum plaguing various disciplines of social science.