Before turning to consider the attitude that Amos is critiquing, and what this might mean for our attitude toward wealth, Schneider takes some time to critique what he considers to be irresponsible and unjustified uses of Amos-type rhetoric. He complains that people like Ron Sider suggest that people’s eternal salvation is on the line if they enjoy too much of their wealth, instead of giving it to the poor. Not only do they make such harsh accusations, but they do so on a hopelessly ambiguous basis. For how much is “too much”? Schneider suggests at first that Sider and others (he includes John Wesley here) appear to operate on a utilitarian basis, whereby we are to seek to maximize happiness for the greatest number, and so, presumably, to keep giving away any resources we don’t need as long as there are some people that are poorer than us. But then he points to what seems like an inconsistency or hypocrisy in Sider’s approach, by which he equivocates on the meaning of the word “need.” “‘Necessities,’ he writes, ‘is not to be understood a the minimum necessary to keep from starving.’ It rather means, he explains, what is ‘necessary’ for a standard of living that ‘would have been considered [in ancient Hebrew society] reasonable and acceptable, not embarrassingly minimal.”
Schneider goes on to subject this new, relative definition of “necessity” to a withering cross-examination, seeking to reveal it as hopelessly relativistic, ambiguous, and self-serving to the point of uselessness. Is having a car necessary? Is flying trans-Atlantic necessary? These are “reasonable and acceptable” within our society. Couldn’t Bill Gates contend that his level of affluence is “reasonable and acceptable” in his immediate culture? Any attempt to impose norms of “sufficient” and “too much” will thus become arbitrary and legalistic, says Schneider. He goes so far as to mock a former student who
“had finally decided it was ‘all right to have a care, but not a big or very expensive one.’ So he judged for all of us. But he did not like my next question, which was simply, ‘How big and how expensive a car will you let me have?’ Of course what seemed quite acceptable to me seemed morally reprehensible to him. But on what grounds did he make this severe judgment (even as he drove around in his Ford Escort, as I believe it was, to and from activities linked with his Christian liberal arts degree at a cost of about eighty thousand dollars in the end)?”
Now to this, at least three things must be said.
First, I think Schneider is absolutely right to attack harshly judgmental or legalistic rhetoric. The average American, while perhaps not wholly innocent in his wealth, is clearly not morally culpable in the same way that the rulers of Israel were. Those directly responsible may need to hear dire warnings, but it is not constructive, I don’t think, to suggest to the average suburban churchgoer that they might go to hell if they don’t rev up their giving (that said, I’m not sure if Schneider isn’t distorting Sider’s approach here; certainly others I have read on similar themes, such as Shane Claiborne, don’t speak this way). The doctrine of justification by faith should come to our aid here. In dealing with these issues, we are speaking to justified people who ought to be looking for how best to share the gift they have been given, not wringing their hands in fear as to whether they’ve done enough to meet God’s standard.
Second, Schneider uses the “utilitarian” slur against Sider and others repeatedly, but he’s always quite imprecise about it. Utilitarianism is one of those things that is dangerous not because it’s the dead opposite of the truth, but because it’s so darn close to the truth. Clearly, in very many circumstances, we should seek to maximize the greatest temporal happiness for the greatest number. But utilitarianism breaks down because in some circumstances, this principle is overruled by other considerations, considerations that guide us to eternal happiness. The fact that Sider thinks that those with more than enough ought to give their excess to those with less than enough does not make him a utilitarian, unless you want to call Thomas Aquinas a utilitarian too. The use of this language is simply rhetorical bullying.
The third point is that Schneider’s attempt at a reductio is an example of the so-called “Beard Fallacy.” The “Beard Fallacy” example imagines that you line up a bunch of guys in a row, the guy at the right clean-shaven, and the guy at the left with a full beard, with everyone in between in a spectrum, gradually becoming more stubbly and at last bearded. If you asked someone to pinpoint where the first guy was who had a beard, you could critique any point he chose by saying, “Yeah, but what about the guy just to the right of him? His facial hair is so close to that guy’s so as to be almost indistinguishable.” And then, able to dismiss any attempt to distinguish where a beard began as arbitrary, you could triumphantly declare that the concept of “beard” is hopelessly relativistic, useless, and meaningless. But clearly it’s not. Clearly, you can recognize in most cases what counts as a beard and what doesn’t. Same thing for “relative necessity.” Schneider overplays his hand when he suggests that Bill Gates could justify his affluence as reasonable within his immediate culture and social setting, or as “necessary” for what it is he wants to do. For Sider does not say that it’s one’s immediate culture that determines what is reasonable (e.g., the narrow country club high society within which you spend your time), but one’s broader society.
Now clearly, what Sider is proposing is a very flexible standard, but he is on fairly firm ground in taking this approach. Had Schneider cared to consult it, he might’ve found that this threefold distinction between “absolute necessity,” “relative necessity” and “superfluity” is deeply embedded in the Christian moral tradition. It is, for instance, carefully spelled out by Aquinas and his scholastic followers. The gist is this. Absolute necessity is what’s needed to keep oneself and one’s family alive. Relative necessity is roughly (I’ll paraphrase since I don’t have either Aquinas or Finnis in front of me) “that which is necessary to keep up one’s station in decency.” Now, this obviously needs some unpacking and qualifying, because this does not mean simply conforming to social expectations. You can be in a sub-culture with very questionable social expectations, that one should not try to conform to. Rather, the idea is one of vocation. If you are legitimately called by God to be, say, a lawyer in, say, Philadelphia, then you’re going to need a fair bit of money, even if you aren’t being extravagant. You will need to be well-dressed, to have a good computer, perhaps a smartphone, a means of transportation–car if that’s most efficient; he will need to have access to lots of legal journals and books, to pay fairly high urban housing prices, etc. Also, this second level of “necessity” allows for more substantial expenditures on food and housing so as to ensure not merely survival but robust health, hygiene, and reasonable comfort. Resources beyond this are superflua. Now, Aquinas would say that all superflua must be shared with anyone below “relative necessity,” but that resources necessary to maintain “relative necessity” only need to be shared when it’s a matter of life or death–that is to say, if one is in a position to help someone below the level of absolute necessity.
Now, to be sure, there is a great deal of room for debate about precisely where these lines are drawn. But this is only a problem if one is seeking to impose a legalistic condemnation on individuals. This is where not merely justification by faith but virtue ethics can come to our aid. To some extent, one can only figure out what is necessary and what is superfluous by seeking to live it out, by growing into a way of life characterized by shunning superfluity, by asking oneself, “Do I really need that? Will I really use that? Am I just coveting? Am I just wanting to show off? What else might I do with the money I save by not buying that?” And this must be done in a spirit of Christian liberty–from the joyful standpoint of justification, not the fearful standpoint of trying to earn righteousness. Done with this attitude, such a lifestyle need not result in asceticism–it will result in renunciation of some things, but as I have already suggested, this may make one more, not less, happy, since cluttering one’s life with ostentatious or wasteful things really does not bring “delight.” In short, Schneider’s former student may have had the right idea. Perhaps a car would have been very useful to him, but there would’ve been little point in buying a Lexus or Hummer. Since this standard will be different for different people, and guilt-tripping legalism is not constructive, it generally will not make sense for me to decide for any other Christian just what sort of car they should buy, unless I’m called upon to give them guidance, or see them really going overboard. But the existence of flexibility and ambiguity does not make this affluence morally irrelevant, anymore than the need for flexibility in other areas of moral debate implies the absence of relevant moral norms.