In his fourth chapter, Schneider turns to consider the testimony concerning wealth and poverty in the Prophets and Wisdom literature. Again, his boldness in the way he handles this material must be applauded. He does not seek to hide behind the purple coattails of Proverbs, as many conservatives do, citing its platitudes on the God-given blessings of wealth or on poverty as a result of sloth to justify the wealthy lifestyle. Eventually he does turn to look at Proverbs, and when he does, he is remarkably balanced, recognizing the diversity of its teachings on wealth and poverty, but it is not his starting point–Amos is.
Of course, anyone who remembers what Amos is about is sure to recognize this as a courageous maneuver. Amos is the book that unrelentingly bashes the Israelites for their oppression of the poor and callous enjoyment of a lavish lifestyle while the needy suffer. Amos reads like a 8th-century BC liberation theologian. Oh sure, you can try to say that what Amos is really worried about is idolatry, and that he really wouldn’t have any complaint against the people of Israel if they were worshipping Yahweh and enjoying their wealth, but this hardly seems sustainable when you actually look at the text, and Schneider doesn’t even try to take this route, at least not initially. So, how does Schneider sustain the “good of affluence,” the good of enjoying as much wealth as you can and not feeling the need to give much to the poor, in the face of the book of Amos?
Let’s take a careful look. Schneider appears to employ two distinct evasive strategies: one focusing on responsibility, and another on attitude. Under the first heading, Schneider seeks to show that Amos’s critiques apply to those directly responsible for the suffering of the poor in a way that we are not. Under the second, Schneider seeks to argue that the real problem isn’t how much you have, but how you view it. (Unfortunately, though I was hoping to cover all this in one post, it looks like it’s going to be two or three, if they’re to be of readable length.)
In looking at the issue of responsibility, Schneider does not pretend that Amos critiques only those who “deliberately exploit or oppress anyone”–that is there, but there is also a second evil that is targeted: that of the wives of oppressors, who are guilty simply for enjoying the fruits of oppression that they did not themselves commit, revelling in ill-gotten gains. Schneider asks us to look closer, and see whether this is really a fair comparison to the affluence that the average American suburban Christian enjoys: “It is very important to notice and to understand that the prophets all aimed their diatribes first and foremost at the king and at the ruling classes that extended the arm of his rule. For they were the ones who were uniquely charged by God to protect and to promote the welfare of the nation. They were especially to take care to protect the poor and defenseless members of society, who were otherwise completely defenseless. When these rulers instead used their powerful positions to exploit, to impoverish, and to oppress the very people they were responsible to defend–and did so merely for their own self-gratification–they obviously committed sins that were very evil indeed.”
“Given the nature of the political and social economy, there was very close, direct moral proximity between the rulers of the nation and the people that God called them to rule. Being responsible for the people–especially their economic welfare–went with the job. In a word, it was their job. Their responsibility for the economic conditions of the poor in society thus could hardly have been greater or more direct than it was. And what about the wives of those rulers. True, they may have lacked the direct power their husbands wielded, but by marriage they wedded themselves to the entire moral situation.”
In short, Amos is not condemning people who simply happen to be rich while people around them are poor; he is condemning people who have a direct responsibility for the poor and who have abused that position for their own benefit. In short, it is not failure to be charitable toward a neighbor that is condemned, but failure to rule justly. The proper parallel is not the American suburbanite, Schneider says, but the petty dictator of a Third World country that lives in a mansion atop a pile of cash at the center of a web of corruption while his people starve.
Now, all this is quite interesting. And I think Schneider has a point. Moral theology has a responsibility to make careful distinctions, and not simply to slap the same damning label on all circumstances of economic inequality. The distinctions of proximity and responsibility are certainly relevant. The bystander who watches a woman get beat up in an alley without intervening is not guilty of the same sin as her husband who runs away when the thugs arrive, and he is not guilty of the same sin as the thugs themselves. Of course, you will note that by using this parallel, I have cast some ambiguity on Schneider’s approach even while affirming it–for surely the inactive bystander is still guilty in some way, at least, if he has real power to intervene and does not. Schneider may be right that Amos’s direct condemnations are not aimed at the person who just happens to be affluent while others are poor, and who does nothing to help them, but that does not mean that that person is free from any moral ambiguity. But let us leave aside that question for a moment and ask a two more questions to complicate Schneider’s account.
First, Schneider lays great stress on the fact that it was the “job” in a very literal sense of these wealthy landowners in Israel to care for the poor. They were the equivalent of governors and mayors, entrusted with the well-being of their citizens. But are they de facto rulers, or de jure rulers? Are they rulers who just happen to be rich, or rich men who just happen to be rulers? That is to say, are they not in fact simply men who have made themselves very rich, and thereby become men of power and influence, so that they can be called “rulers,” even if they are not really supposed to be? I do not know Amos or the social history of ancient Israel well enough to answer for sure. But if this is true, then it means that one cannot simply say, “Oh, I’m not the president of Haiti (or whatever), so this isn’t aimed at me.” An American executive may turn out to be functionally one of the “rulers” of some Third World nation, and hence quite directly responsible for how his policies affect its people.
Might it not be true that America, because of its immense global power and decades of control over large parts of the world economy (as well as regular interventions in the political organization of other countries), has a direct moral responsibility for much of what happens in Third World nations? Notice that I speak here only of indirect responsibility. I think that if Schneider cared to do much research at all, he would find that in fact the American government and American corporations have been directly responsible for brutal injustices and crushing poverty in many nations over the last century, and hence cannot in any way evade Amos’s condemnation. But even aside from these, our country, and many of our corporations, have a great deal of influence in what happens in South Africa or Nicaragua or the Phillippines or Haiti. In short, if Amos is critiquing the rulers who preside over injustice, then that’s not simply Pinochet or Duvalier or the Shah–that’s us.
Second, in the current capitalist and democratic system, how much distance does the wealthy suburbanite have from all this? Say I work for Monsanto and invested a lot of money in Halliburton and voted for George W. Bush. Is Amos speaking to me? I picked particularly pointed examples, but let’s be more general, and just saw that in a system where I formally have a direct voice in the government of the country, and in the government of corporations I invest in, how much responsibility do I have for injustices presided over by those entities? Am I really just a bystander? Does my wealth have any moral relation to Haiti’s poverty?
Now clearly, even if the answer is “Yes,” it is a qualified Yes. If a thug beats up a woman in an alley, and that thug is my brother-in-law, and I knew he had a drinking problem and was falling in with the wrong sorts, and didn’t do anything about it, am I implicated in any way? Well, maybe, but obviously indirectly, and it would be wrong for me or anyone else to beat my conscience up too much about it. The correct approach, in a highly interconnected world, hardly seems to be wringing our hands in guilt and asking just how much the injustice was our responsibility. Rather, it is more constructive to turn the question around, and ask how much it is in my power to help. The best way to figure out if you’re a culpable bystander or not is to stop being a bystander, and start doing something constructive. What might this look like? We’ll see what Schneider has to say on this in the following posts.