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.