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.



Defanging Amos (Good of Affluence #7)

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.