Come Get Sanctified

In one month’s time, New College will play host to Rutherford House’s bi-annual Edinburgh Dogmatics Conference, and what a conference it’s going to be–one that anyone working in Christian ethics won’t want to miss.  The topic is “Sanctification,” with lectures by a fantastic lineup of ethicists, systematic theologians, historical theologians, and even a New Testament scholar.  Regular speakers and Reformed stalwarts Bruce McCormack, Michael Horton, and Henri Blocher will be back, and they’ll be joined by none other than our very own Oliver O’Donovan, plus Ivor Davidson from St. Andrews, Richard Lints from Gordon-Conwell, Templeton Award winner Julie Canlis, Kelly Kapic, and Grant MacAskill.  It’s hard to imagine this won’t be a memorable event.

Check out the programme, and if you’re somewhere in the British Isles, then get yourself up to Edinburgh next month!

Wealth Inequality–A Moral Problem?

One of the more interesting chapters in Jay Richards’s Money, Greed, and God is chapter 4, “If I Become Rich, Won’t Someone Else Become Poor?”  This chapter brings us to the heart of the impasse between left and right, with the one side contending that “the rich are getting richer and the poor are getting poorer” while the other insists that, on the contrary, the rich are getting richer and the poor are getting richer too…just not as fast.  From a certain perspective, both claims are true.  Even the right, in its more honest moments, admits that income inequality is growing.  Which means that, in relative terms, the poor are growing poorer.  But is absolute poverty increasing?  The right denies it but of course, it depends where you are talking about–in sub-Saharan Africa, it is.  On the whole, my limited grasp of the statistics suggests that the right is correct, global absolute poverty is slowly declining.  

Now, from the right’s standpoint, this means we do not have a moral problem–the rich are not getting rich at the poor’s expense. (In fact, from the right’s perspective, this would be true even if absolute poverty were increasing; so confident are they in the wealth-creating power of the market, that they would have to chalk this up exclusively to the failures of the poor or their governments).  Richards thinks that he has demonstrated another example of “zero-sum thinking,” revealing the left’s logical and moral idiocy.  If the poor are getting richer too, then why does it matter how fast the rich get richer?  It’s not a moral issue.  

Here we find a clash of moral intuitions–Richards and his ilk honestly feel that there is no moral problem here, whereas others find a glaring injustice.  The source of it, I suggest, lies in different presuppositions about property.  


Before dealing with the presuppositional issue, there is a prior hole in Richards’s argument worth addressing.  First, as I mentioned in my review, just because the global market isn’t necessarily a zero-sum game doesn’t mean it never is.  Sometimes the rich really do get rich by ripping off the poor.  Richards says incredulously, “For decades, Latin American theologian Gustavo Gutierrez has looked around at the poverty in Latin America and concluded that Latin America is poor, in part, because North America is rich: ‘The poor, dominated nations keep falling behind; the gap continues to grow.’  It’s as if the United States sucks the wealth out of Nicaragua, El Salvador, and Peru and leaves Latin Americans without food or houses or land.”  

What a bizarre notion!  It’s as if he thinks that American corporations swept into Central America in the middle of the last century, made deals with local barons to monopolise as many of the resources as possible, worked with corrupt government officials to maintain the status quo, and then, when popular movements started to call for a more equitable economic and political order, they went to the US government and asked that the “communists” be brutally suppressed.  Then, it’s as if the US government went in with guns and money and troops and specially-trained torturers and death squads and helped thugs within Central America wage war against their own people for a couple decades, reducing the people to misery, while American corporations continued to profit.  Can you imagine such a cock-and-bull story?  Preposterous!  And yet, of course, thoroughly documented fact.  

So Richards should be more cautious about cavalierly dismissing the idea that there might be a direct causal connection between enormous First World wealth and appalling Third World poverty.  So eager is Richards to deny that poverty is often the result of exploitation that when it’s undeniable, he denies it in the main text and then admits it sheepishly in an endnote.  After insisting for nearly two pages that we should have no problems with the massive wealth of the world’s three richest people–Bill Gates, Warren Buffett, and Carlos Slim Helu–because they’ve “created” wealth, rather than taken it, he tacks on a little endnote saying that actually, Slim Helu might be something of a crook, but his point still stands. 


But on to the main issue.  Let’s assume that the rich are not taking money away from the poor.  Let’s assume that they really are creating wealth by upright means, and it is slowly, haltingly, trickling down to the poor.  Is there still a problem with this picture?  Could we still say that the wealth of the rich comes at the expense of the poor?  Well, yes, duh.  Richards is untroubled by the fact that Slim, Buffett, and Gates together have as much wealth as the world’s 600 million poorest people–unless they stole it from the poorest, then everything’s fine with this picture.  But St. Basil would beg to differ:

“Are you not greedy?  Are you not acting like robbers?  Are you not usurping that which you have received merely in trust?  He who steals some one else’s garment is called a thief.  But he who fails to clothe the naked even if he were able to do so, does he not by chance deserve to be called by a different name?  The bread which you hold back actually belongs to the hungry; the garment which you lock in your chest belongs to the naked; the shoes which rot in your store house belong to the bare-footed; and the money which you are hiding…belongs to the needy.  Thus you do a great injustice to all those whom you could succor…. ‘Whom do I injure’, says the greedy, ‘if I merely keep what is mine?’  But then, tell me, what is really thine?  Wherefrom did you take it?  And how did it get into thy life?  Is the greedy person not like the man who, after having taken his seat in the theater, restrains all latecomers from attending the show, thus acting like one who considers his own that which actually is meant for the common use of all?  Are not the rich of this type?  For after having taken care of themselves by crude usurpation, they declare that everything they have gained by this usurpation is theirs forever.  But if any man would claim only what he really requires in order to satisfy his true needs, and would leave to the needy what exceeds his own immediate needs, then no one would be rich, and no one poor.” 

Richards, Schneider, and Co. will tell us that Basil is a slave to zero-sum thinking.  He thinks that the rich can only be rich by directly ripping off the poor, and they will tell us that they may have been true in Basil’s day, but not in ours.  But listen to Basil.  This is only one small part of his concern.  His main point is that, however you got the wealth, however justly it may seem to be yours, you are stealing by failing to give it when you are able.  From Basil’s standpoint, Buffett, Gates, and Slim’s billions actually belong to the 600 million hungry poor.  We might argue about exactly what this should mean in practice–clearly, you can’t just transfer a couple hundred billion all at once to slum-dwellers in Mumbai, and ideally, we should find ways of sustainably creating wealth for them; and we could argue about whether this “theft” ought to be dealt with legally.  But that’s not where the disagreement lies right now.  Richards sees no relevant moral duty here, no sense in which the superfluity of the rich, not shared with the desperately poor to the fullest extent possible, represents an injustice, represents withholding something that belongs to another.  I dare say he would be flummoxed at the very idea. 

Basil’s rhetoric certainly is revolutionary rhetoric, but the basic notion underlying it is quite simple, and was shared by his successors in the Christian ethical tradition for more than a millennium; the same intuition, I expect, underlies the sense of injustice that many today instinctively feel about global inequality, an intuition that Richards simply cannot relate to.  It is the sense that the world is “meant for the common use of all.”  Private property may be well and good, argued Aquinas, but it must serve the end of common use.  Each person’s right to the use of their own possessions was logically, temporally, and morally secondary to the right of all men to a sufficient share of the earth’s goods.  Again, what this meant in practice had to be worked out carefully–Aquinas did not want an anarchistic free-for-all, in which everyone grabbed for his share.  But he wanted to establish this principle of justice as a starting-point.  And if you accept that, from the standpoint of justice, God created the world for the benefit of all, then there is a problem if the wealth of the world doubles, and 90% of that increase goes to 1000 people, and only 1% to 1,000,000,000 people.  Ideally, you should have a system in which wealth is not created so unequally, but of course such a perfect system is impossible to come by.  If the initial distribution comes out radically skewed, then justice requires redistribution, Aquinas would say.  

If you do not accept the priority of common use, and thus of distributive justice, then it might be a matter for concern and compassion if hundreds of millions die in poverty, but the wealth of the wealthiest is simply irrelevant to this issue.  Questions of justice are irrelevant to this issue.  Charity may be encouraged, but even that shouldn’t be emphasised too heavily; the best thing we can do, Richards and Schneider suspect, is working harder to make the global economy grow and create more wealth, which will hopefully eventually find its way into the hands of the poorest.  


Now, perhaps you cannot accept the priority of common use; perhaps you really can’t get your head around distributive justice.  Fair enough.  Even with a number of radical influences, it took me a while.  But it’s important for conservatives to recognise that there is such a principle, widely held to, and in fact historically speaking, the norm among Christian ethicists.  The concern of so many over global inequality, over the fact that “The three richest people in the world control more wealth than all 600 million people living in the world’s poorest countries,” is not just sentimentalising rhetoric and fuzzy thinking, or a juvenile inability to understand that “wealth is created”–rather, it is a morally coherent and cogent posture that needs to be debated at the level of moral theology, not name-calling and statistics-flinging.  

Getting Rights Wrong

In his book The Victory of Reason (which I scathingly reviewed last year on my old blog), Rodney Stark provides a first-class exhibit of how hopelessly confused moderns are on the issue of property rights.  Moderns–perhaps especially modern Christians–tend to slide unstably back-and-forth from pragmatic defenses of private property (it’s essential for prosperity and good order in society), which treat private property as the product of a good legal system, and natural-rights defenses, which treat it as a sacred and fundamental God-given right that must be protected for its own sake.  Although this distinction was recognized as crucial by everyone from Cicero to John Locke, Stark seems paradigmatic of our modern Christian wannabe-economists in being simply unable to recognize the difference.

He begins his discussion of property rights with the familiar assertion, “The Bible takes property rights for granted.” (78)  He then narrates that the early Church regrettably considered private property to exist only as a result of sin, before crediting St. Augustine (incorrectly, as it turns out–Augustine shared the Patristic consensus) for regarding private property “as a natural condition.” 

“By late in the eleventh century,” he goes on, “the writer known only as Norman Anonymous wrote in one of his influential tracts that private property is a human right: ‘God made poor and rich from one and the same clay; poor and rich are supported on one and the same earth.  It is by human right that we say ‘My estate, my house, my servant.’” (78)  In this passage, Stark commits such an elementary misreading that it is hard not to laugh at the poor fellow’s expense, as he anachronistically imports the very modern notion of “human rights” into an altogether different argument.  The Norman Anonymous’s claim is precisely the opposite–that private property is a matter of the ius humana (“human right” or “human law”), in contrast to the ius naturale (“natural right” or “natural law”); it exists only by the agreement of human society.  This is in contrast to the natural state described in the first sentence of the quote (which makes no sense on Stark’s reading), in which the earth belongs equally to poor and rich alike.  

Stark goes on to cite scholastic authorities John of Paris, Albertus Magnus, and Thomas Aquinas, all arguing that private property was “instituted” for “the convenience and utility of man” (79)–all three authorities are making pragmatic human-law arguments, not natural-right arguments; he states correctly that Aquinas considered private property to be “in accord with natural law,” but ignores the other side of Aquinas’s nuanced position–that it was not by natural law, but could be instituted as a legitimate outworking of natural law.   

Finally, he moves straight to the Lockean-libertarian application, citing William of Ockham in favor of the conclusion “that since it is a right that precedes the laws imposed by any sovereign, rulers cannot usurp or arbitrarily seize the property of those over whom they rule.  A sovereign can infringe on private property only when ‘he shall see that the common welfare takes preference over private interest’.” (79)  Again, Stark’s quote works against his interpretation.  Ockham, in line with his predecessors, is merely asserting that a ruler cannot override private property at his personal whim; of course, says Ockham, since private property is instituted by society to serve society’s interests (a Franciscan like Ockham would never grant that it was a “right that precedes the laws”), any private right to property to property can be overridden when the “common welfare” demands.  


A reading this careless shouldn’t have passed a freshman philosophy class, and yet somehow it passes muster in an acclaimed book of economic history, enthusiastically blurbed by modern Catholic leaders like Richard John Neuhaus and George Weigel.  So far have we fallen out of touch with our tradition, that we don’t blink an eye when someone stands it on its head.

Depart in Peace, Be Warmed and Filled (Good of Affluence #9)

So we have seen that Schneider explains Amos’s attacks upon the unjust rich as first of all an attack on those who have direct responsibility for the poor and for unjust policies that are harming them, not as an attack on third parties who just happen to be rich.  His second line of argument is that what Amos is attacking is not the enjoyment of wealth per se, but a bad attitude toward wealth.  This is a very common sort of claim among divine right capitalists like Schneider–wealth isn’t evil; it’s a bad attitude toward wealth that is evil.  The implication is that their opponents disagree; they think that wealth itself is evil.  Generally, however, that’s not the case; their opponents rather insist that attitudes issue in actions, and so a good attitude toward wealth requires certain concrete just and charitable uses of that wealth, whereas a bad attitude toward wealth can be identified through certain greedy or unjust uses of that wealth.  So I can agree with Schneider’s general statement; however, I will then ask him to flesh out what this bad attitude looks like for us today, and what a corresponding good attitude would entail.  Unfortunately, he gives us little to go on–here, and in the rest of the book.

 So let’s dig in to this section a bit and see what he does have to say. 

He begins by reminding us that the ancient Hebrews had a very high view of creation, the goodness of the material world, and the godliness of rejoicing in it.  Therefore (quoting Gerhard von Rad), “it can only have been extreme indulgence which necessitated the raising of such complaints about the enjoyment of material things.”  “Extreme indulgence,” Schneider goes on, “is a very different spiritual and moral behaviour than merely having and enjoying prosperity in the extreme.  I propose that the important contrast is not between extreme wealth and some properly moderate level of enjoyment, but is between extreme indulgence on the one hand and true delight on the other.  But the question arises: when is the enjoyment of material affluence indulgence, and when is it delight?”

In other words, the problem is not quantitative, it’s qualitative.  Any amount of wealth, however exorbitant, can be delighted in in a godly manner, while even a very small amount can be indulged in an ungodly manner.  There is something to this, of course.  A godly posture towards wealth is not in unerring direct proportion to the amount one possesses.  One can clearly be a miserly pauper.  But I do think it is ethically risky to disclaim any quantitative judgments.  Attitudes exhibit themselves in actions, and I think it would be safe to say that a godly attitude toward wealth must entail some kind of quantitative moderation–even just for the sake of one’s own character, and even more so in the fact of indigence that one is in a position to help.  But let’s hear more about what Schneider thinks the qualitative difference is.

“The root of their [those who Amos condemns] evil is exposed by the second allusion in the last words: ‘but are not grieved over the ruin of Joseph.’…Their whole spirituality expresses a lack of proper, sacred grief for the suffering around and about them….They identify themselves with the majestic power and glory of King David.  But they know nothing of the passion and sacred grief for the nation and its poor, to which his songs and music attest.  They have lost touch with brokenness and so they have lost their own souls.  Their celebrations have become frivolous, disgusting, and pathetic displays of self-indulgence.”

What is the solution to this hard-hearted self-indulgence?

“Amos wisely does not fall into the trap of legalism, seeking to pinpoint some politically correct substance to use for bed making, or perhaps whether, in this world of need, beds might not be necessary at all.  For the prophet, it is a matter of finding one’s true humanity.  It is a matter of becoming a mature person with a vision from the Lord and a heart for people, especially the poor and powerless.  The rich must be liberated not from riches but from the selfish mind and heart of the serpent….As Jesus knew, there must always be a certain sacred grief in the joy of God’s people: ‘Blessed are those who mourn.’  This, I think, is the starting point for affluent people in modern societies today: we cannot be righteous unless we have a proper sense of grief.  What exactly this entails is a matter we shall pursue in due course.”

Now, all of this might be pointing in a good direction.  Perhaps what Schneider is saying here is not unlike what I said in my previous post on him, where I called for mercy and generosity to be pursued not in a spirit of legalism, but in the freedom of the justification by faith, and by seeking to grow into a virtuous mind and heart that would guide us into the right uses of our wealth, instead of trying to lay down a priori rules for what we should do with it.  Of course, there I was assuming that this heart of compassion would entail some quantitative limits to our enjoyment of affluence, whereas Schneider does not seem to think so.  It might appear then that Schneider is actually saying that the difference between indulgence and delight is only internal.  The ungodly man thinks only of himself while eating his caviar, while godly man grieves in his heart for the poor while he eats it, but they both eat it just the same.  It would not be hard to give a cynical reading of Schneider’s “sacred grief” which sings hymns of compassion for the poor in church, prays for them, and “has a heart for them,” but never actually does anything for them, lest such sacrifice impede its delight in the affluence God has given.  We can easily imagine this affluent man characterised by “sacred grief” saying to a beggar on his doorstep, “Depart in peace, be warmed and filled.”  

Perhaps this would be overly cynical.  No doubt, Schneider would protest that this is not what he means.  Of course this compassion must issue in actions, he would say, only these should not be actions of asceticism or legalism.  Very well–then what should they be?  This, he tells us, “is a matter we shall pursue in due course.”  If he did pursue it in due course, I wouldn’t be writing this post.  It’s fully legitimate for him to give the negative side of the argument (“not legalism”) at one point in the book, and the positive side (“true compassion”) later on.  However, on my reading of the book, he never actually does so.  He gestures vaguely at considerations of “moral proximity” and “vocation” and then ends the book without providing any real moral guidance.  This is perhaps inevitable in a book that is protesting what he sees as unhealthy and intrusive burdening of consciences by Christian leaders; he instinctively shies away from offering any real moral direction on the proper use of wealth, lest he should burden consciences.  The problem is that Scripture does not shy away from this.  The Bible clearly thinks that wealth, for all its goodness, is terribly dangerous, and we have to be warned against it over and over.  It is morally irresponsible to address a society that is more confronted with the idol of Mammon than any other in history and to persuade it not to take these warnings too seriously, but to just enjoy every bit of affluence with a dash of “sacred grief.”  


Schneider will have much more to say, much of it helpful, much of it unhelpful, in his chapters on the New Testament, and I will try to cover these as time allows over the coming weeks–but the gist is much the same.  We are told over and over that the problem is an ungodly attitude toward wealth, and the solution is a godly attitude, but then we are given precious little indication of what form this godly attitude should take.

Phone-Hacking and Other Misdemeanors

I’ve been procrastinating from offering any public comment on the massive phone-hacking scandal that has engulfed News International and the UK government in recent weeks, as there has been in general more than enough comment to go around, and I figured I could count on my friend Byron Smith to offer some intelligent and provocative reflections on the.  He has not failed me, offering two contributions on the subject last week, one considering the scandal in light of the Wikileaks controversy a few months ago, and another on the systemic flaws it exposes in our corporate culture.

I thought I would also add a few thoughts of my own, seeking to answer the question, “Why has this caused such a furor?”  Don’t get me wrong.  News International’s actions are appallingly irresponsible and depraved.  But the public furor-to-depravity ratio in this recent scandal has far exceeded most other corporate crimes of recent years.  It’s worth cynically asking why.  I have four suggestions.

1) The Scapegoat Factor.  News of the World went to such lengths to invade people’s personal lives because their customers demanded it.  They didn’t wake up one day and say, “Oh, wouldn’t it be fun to ruin other people’s lives for kicks?”  No, they had millions of customers who wanted to feast off of juicy gossip and the public humiliation of others.  They were simply trying to increase their supply to keep up with demand.  This doesn’t get them off the hook in any way, but it suggests that perhaps some of the public fury is the result of a guilty conscience.  Society at large is guilty of this wickedness, and we need a scapegoat to unload our guilt.  Who better than a multi-billionaire like Rupert Murdoch and his minions?

2) The Competition Factor.  This scandal has befallen one large media conglomerate, one that has had rival media outlets fuming in impotent envy for years as it continued to grow its monopoly.  Now they have a chance to hit back.  The media might have occasionally have fun bringing down an Enron or a Lehman, but that’s nothing compared to the satisfaction of bringing down a rival.  So you can expect all non-NewsCorp media are making as much of the scandal as possible.

3) The Misdirection Factor.  It can be quite useful to parade your sins in public and make them out to be terrible indeed–if you’ve got much worse sins lurking in the closet.  You can pretend that you’re coming clean and acknowledging all your faults, so people will forgive you and trust you henceforth, never knowing that you’re just trying to distract their attention from the much worse sins you haven’t given up.  Phone hacking and police bribing is probably pretty minor when compared to the media’s massive collusion in deception and war-mongering, as documented in John Pilger’s The War You Don’t See.  By exposing the minor fault and making a great deal of it, the media can hope to persuade the public that this is the worst of its crimes.

4) The Hypocrisy Factor.  Similarly, the government stands to benefit from angry rants against the wickedness of News International, even if some of this rebounds upon government officials that had close ties to NI executives.  The government can pretend that phone hacking is an unthinkable intrusion on people’s privacy, conveniently obscuring the fact that, especially since 9/11, UK and US governments have been engaged in massive unconstitutional breaches of privacy that make anything News of the World did look like child’s play.