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.



How Much is Too Much? (Good of Affluence #8)

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.



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.


Social Justice and the Jubilee (Good of Affluence #6)

As I mentioned in my fourth post, Schneider does, as a matter of fact, have some interesting and nuanced things to say about the Old Testament economic laws.  He, at any rate, is not content to use in the standard conservative dismissal that says these “laws” were not really laws but merely moral guidance–that would not, after all, help his case, since his interest is not in the duties of government toward the poor, but in the moral duties of Christian individuals.  Nor is he content to ascribe to laws like the Jubilee a purely spiritual and symbolic function, a mere prophecy of the spiritual jubilee of release from sin that Jesus brings (a strategy commonly employed by theonomists like Chilton and North who otherwise insist on taking the OT laws with strictest seriousness as New Covenant legal principles).  As I quoted before, he says at the outset of discussing this material that “concern for the poor and powerless (including the earth and animals)…is essential to the whole biblical vision of delight.”  Later he affirms that “Sider is no doubt correct (as well as in line with all mainline Christian moral teaching) in thinking that the jubilee provisions are a model of some kind for the institution of social mechanisms in law and policy that protect people from losing everything they have.”

So where’s the rub?  Well, Schneider pushes us to evaluate more closely what the Jubilee actually does.  They do not universally redistribute wealth from the wealthiest to the poorest.  For instance, he points out, “The poorest people in society were unaffected by it.  For aliens, sojourners, non-Israelite debtors and slaves possessed no land in the first place and thus had no share in its repossession on the day of jubilee.  Their economic need, however dire, played no role in the redistribution.”  From this he draws the conclusion, “Strange though it may seem . . . the people whom the jubilee helped were not the poor, but the families of original affluence.”  He returns to this theme repeatedly, hinting that the class that the jubilee helped was really what we might call the “gentry,” the “landed classes.”  Although true in one sense, this is deceptive, since the intention of the Old Testament law was that every single Israelite family had land, was a member of the “landed classes.”  Because this ownership was universal and, in intention, fairly equal, it is a serious distortion to imagine these ordinary Israelites as the “affluent gentry,” as Schneider seems to invite us to.  Nonetheless, he does have a point, at least against those who would carelessly invoke the jubilee as being alone a sufficient model for Christian social justice.  However, for anyone who does not take the jubilee on its own, but together with other provisions for the poor in the Torah, the force of his point is considerably blunted, as he himself admits: “Of course there are provisions elsewhere in the law that prove beyond question that the affluent Israelites had obligations of justice to the poor within Israel.”  Moreover, while it is quite true that the Jubilee and the law in general offers much more extensive protections for Israelites, over against foreigners, it seems that this objection holds little water once one transposes these principles into a New Covenant key. 

The Old Testament law is based throughout on a sharp distinction between insiders and outsiders, between Israelites and Gentiles.  But of course it is this very distinction that is challenged so systematically in the New Testament, so that we are called to extend the principles of love, justice, and solidarity that formerly applied only to insiders to outsiders as well.  The point of Jesus’ ministry, as interpreted by Paul in particular, is that exodus and jubilee and all the rest is now not only for Israel, but for the whole world.  Of course, there does seem to remain the continuing principle of “let us do good to all, and especially to the household of faith,” because it is simply impossible from a human perspective to make sure that everyone indiscriminately has all their needs cared for.  This will be discussed further when we get to Schneider’s treatment of the New Testament and “moral proximity.”

Schneider also points out that the jubilee law, as a matter of fact, prevented one from showing unrestrained charity.  Since all land had to return to the original owners every fifty years, even if they didn’t actually need it and there were others who needed it more, it was impossible for a wealthy Israelite to permanently divest himself and share his resources with landless sojourners.  The point was to prevent extreme inequality, but considerable inequality was allowed to remain.  Granted, then, that the jubilee does not (certainly taken alone) provide a clarion call for a complete redistribution from all with a surplus to all with a lack; but what then does Schneider think it does provide?  Does he think that the model of an inalenable sacred relationship to the ancestral land is to characterize our economies?  Presumably not.  So we are not, as a matter of fact, restrained from selling our land and giving to the landless sojourners, in the way ancient Israelites were.  Given that the trajectory of the Old Testament laws is to much greater concern for the poor and vulnerable, might we as Christians not be supposed to intensify this trajectory, and go further than jubilee?  Such questions are, alas, left unaddressed.  

Schneider does not, however, leave unaddressed the implications of the jubilee for private property: “In his classic 1954 study of Leviticus 25, Robert North pointed out that the jubilee, properly understood, actually ‘stresses and safeguards the function of private property as an incentive to industrious energy.’ . . . In fact, Leviticus 25 not only affirms and safeguards the property rights of each tribe, it declares such rights to be unalienable, as unalterable and absolute as the God who gave the property to them.”  The jubilee, Schneider goes on, following North, shows us an ideal of liberty that is dependent upon the “independent small property owner,” an ideal supportive of “modern democratic capitalism.”  Social justice advocates of jubilee, he implies throughout this section, use the passage to try to undercut private property rights, whereas in fact it strengthens them.  Well, yes and no.  As I have pointed out in many previous discussions of this passage and others, the logic is in fact neither socialist (as Schneider apparently accuses his opponents of thinking) nor capitalist (as Schneider seems to think), but basically distributist, with some distinctive sacral elements thrown in.  Private property is extremely important, which is why it is important that everyone in Israel have some, and that no one amass too much property at the expense of others.  Property is not the product of one’s labor, over which one has as much power as over oneself, but a gift held in fief, the use and distribution of which is governed by the original owner, God.  Capital, in this paradigm, is highly illiquid, and subject to enormous restrictions on its ability to move and congregate.  It is, to be sure, a model in which property is the foundation of liberty, but property understood in stark contrast to how modern democratic capitalism understands it.  If you want to go to Leviticus 25 for a “high view” of private property, by all means do so, but recognize that it is a radically different view than the modern Lockean one, with radically different implications for economic life. 

 

What would it look like transposed into a modern key?  Does faithfulness to this Old Testament ideal require an agrarian society of some kind?  Perhaps, perhaps not.  But we ought to be able to agree that the economic ideal presented is that everyone ought to have enough for their sustenance, and that no one ought to amass more than they can use.  We may debate over whether this principle must be applied politically, or “merely morally,” but either way, it renders the “good of affluence” a qualified and relative good, a good that can become an evil in the face of indigence.  



An Environmental Excursus (Good of Affluence #5)

Schneider’s second chapter, on the book of Genesis, naturally contains some interesting discussion of environmental issues.  Of course, I say “naturally,” but I was in fact pleasantly surprised, so accustomed am I to conservative doctrines of creation that simply dismiss the notion that we need to be environmentally concerned (perhaps this perception is a bit unfair, but it does feel that way at times).  Schneider’s discussion will not satisfy anyone who is convinced that our current lifestyle is simply unsustainable and is destroying creation, but he does at least face up to the issue.  Although he defends a robust theology of “dominion,” instead of pretending that the word doesn’t mean that, he is clear that our dominion is to image God’s dominion, and he has these fine words about how God rules his creation: “the God of power in Genesis is also a servant of his creatures. He rules. But he also serves with great passion and compassion. His rule empowers and magnifies his subjects. It does not oppress or diminish them. The spirit that moved Jesus to wash his disciples’ feet did not originate there and then. It goes all the way back to the first moments of creation.”  So we must rule creation for its good: “Whatever human dominion is in Genesis, then, it ennobles us for the purpose of ennobling everything else.”

The modern West, he acknowledges, does have a nasty track record of exploiting and raping the land, in ways that traditional, non-Christian cultures clearly do not–but he doesn’t think this can be blamed on Christianity, which rightly understood is against such things.  It must be rooted, he says, “in the metaphysics of some other, utilitarian sort of worldview.”  One would wish for a more thorough explanation and genealogy of our environment dysfunctionality, but understandably, Schneider considers this beyond his present scope.  He does acknowledge that the affirmation of capitalism might seem inherently in conflict with environmental concern.  So how is this to be resolved? he asks.  


He spends a couple pages on the Christian green solution that envisions “the existence of a kind of capitalism that is entirely different from what we have now.”  Unfortunately, throughout the brief discussion, he barely disguises his contempt for what he considers their “utopian fantasy.”  They contest, he says, “the modern economic dogma that societies must consume at high rates in order for economies to sustain growth and create wealth. One might have thought that this was among the safest assumptions anyone could make about the economic essentials of successful capitalism–for (as noted in the first chapter) it is the emergence of the consumer economy that has unleashed the wealth-creating powers of capitalism since the 1950s. There has never been a non-consumer form of capitalism that has managed to work.”  This is a rather hasty pronouncement, given that I’m not sure that a non-consumer form of capitalism has been tried before, so one can hardly accuse it of failure, and that Schneider has never really defined what he means by capitalism or consumer capitalism.  Of course, there is a question of fundamental presuppositions here.  If one supposes on theological and ethical grounds that a consumerist lifestyle is dangerous and ungodly (as I am tempted to think), then it will follow that there must be a workable way to live and prosper without consumerism, since God would not require of us a lifestyle doomed to failure.  

Schneider goes on to summarize what two representative Christian green thinkers, Walden and Cougar, call for: “a world in which energy sources are renewable, farming is all organic, recycling is the norm, manufacturers produce mainly durable products, the economy is decentralized to scale, and society adopts non-material definitions of success” (to which Schneider snarkily adds “this may be a good thing, because I think in this set-up there won’t be much of any”).  “In addition they pile on high tax rates for ‘resource depletion’ and tax reforms ‘to aid the restructuring process.’  We will also have to have ‘shorter work hours’ for ‘community purposes,’ a scientific understanding that society ‘cannot continue on its present course,’ and a social ethic that finds fulfillment in ‘living together’ rather than in separate units.”

Now, all of this, when you break it down, is not that ridiculous.  As a platform to try to vote into office tomorrow, it may be ridiculous, but as a long-term vision for where society needs to get, almost every one of these sounds prudent and desirable, and therefore, since I’m a postmillenialist, ultimately realistic.  Schneider simply dismisses it out of hand, however.  “Redesigning entire societies is fairly difficult under the best of circumstances. The likelihood of completely redesigning our own (as well as implementing the “new order” elsewhere in the world) is practically zero. Why would anyone seriously believe that anything like this could happen in the real world? I do not know. I only know I find this sort of thinking unrealistic, and, in its Christian form, messianic.”  

 

And I find this sort of thinking ironic, given that Schneider has presented to us in the first chapter just such a messianic vision of society being redesigned entirely–the birth of capitalism.  Remember that Schneider considers capitalism to be a very recent development, and one that took a conscious effort to implement, not as something that was simply inherent in the structure of human society that grew very slowly to fruition.  This being so, why should we consider an equally revolutionary shift away from current forms of capitalism inconceivable.  In this, as in so much else in his book, Schneider shows himself to be almost entirely void of imagination, unable to conceive of any way of enjoying and successfully using the world except by virtue of the latest technological toys and tools.  

And so his solution to environmental problems, given in a single sentence, “lies in the advance of both wealth creation and high technology.”  Now, it’s not clear exactly what he envisions, but the gist of it is that we can continue our current lifestyle of mass consumption, but control the harmful effects by means of smart technology–you know, cleaner energy, safer chemicals, etc.  This is essentially the American approach to health–it doesn’t matter how many harmful things you put in your body, since we’re getting better and better at the technology to keep you alive anyway.  While of course better technology may help us ameliorate environmental harm, it’s hard for me to see that we will succeed in the long-run if we refuse to address the underlying trajectory.  If part of our problem up till now has been the effects of technological addiction, then is recommending more technology as the solution really likely to fix our problem in the long-run, or will it simply perpetuate our arrogant posture to the natural world, too confident in the cleverness of our inventions to pay genuine respect to creation?