Camel and Needle

Camel and Needle

E-mail debates of newsworthy topics.
March 7 1997 3:30 AM

Camel and Needle

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       Once again, you have passed up a great opportunity. You could have used your final post to clarify precisely what you think the Bible teaches about the rich. You could have spelled out what government ought to do about it. You could have provided precise examples from our own times. You could have offered support from history, theological tradition, and reason.
       You could have deepened your analysis, increased its persuasive power, heightened its significance, broadened its application--for heaven's sake, something besides restate the same mix of truism and suggestive assertions, while counting on sharp rhetoric to substitute for substantive thinking. I have to conclude there's no more to your original article than what I originally supposed. Bashing rich Christians is a sure-fire way for a young writer to crash the pages of the Washington Post.
       But a pundit must also take responsibility for the consequences of his ideas. If he whips up war fever against a foreign regime, he bears some responsibility when the bombing starts. So too when a person incites envy against successful people in the name of God. When taxes go up, economic opportunities are killed, people lose jobs, private wealth is nationalized, and society becomes poorer, the person who provided the rationale is also culpable. That's why we must do more than shoot from the hip; we must take Christian tradition seriously and think before we pontificate.
       Make no mistake: If government bears the responsibility for purging the sin of wealth by helping people "part with" (your words) their money--certain social and political results follow. This is precisely why Democrats pushed the "Decade of Greed" phrase so hard for so long. The phrase built public support for a redistributionist agenda. That is also what your original article does, whether you intended it or not, a point that was surely not lost on the editors who agreed to run it.
       You seem inadequately acquainted with the disasters wrought for half a millennia in the name of Christian socialism. It is a menace that still plagues us, which is why I devote the better part of my public life to countering it. When you say that Jesus was preaching political doctrine when he warned of riches, you echo this tradition. When I prod you to explain how you differ from the Christian socialist tradition, you explode in fury, and say again that you regard the failure of the Christian right to denounce the rich in broad strokes as a political failure.
       What can I do but ask again? Is your argument intended to condemn avarice, greed, and selfishness--and to favor charity? In that case, you are merely stating traditional Christian moral teaching, hardly a mainstay of the Post. Or is your argument with productivity as such and its consequence in a free market--that is, wealth and riches? In this case, you are defending an unorthodox theory of Holy Scripture and suggesting a malevolent social application.
       Yes, I defend the property rights of the rich who gain their wealth from work, productivity, investment, gifts, or other just means. I also tell them that their riches will never save them, and that they must check their attachment to their wealth, as I have in this exchange and in numerous homilies, articles, and retreats. I know this puts me in conflict with intellectual trends for the better part of a century. This was the century when governments the world over have waged war on the rich. In the West, their property has been variously confiscated, their businesses broken up, and their livelihoods destroyed, and every day, they are hounded as public enemies by the media, the tax police, and egalitarian intellectuals. In Latin America, they have been forced to flee every country taken over by leftist causes. In the Soviet Union, Nazi Germany, and China, they have been demonized as enemies of society and even massacred.
       In contrast, Jesus takes a different approach. In his Parable of the Talents (Matthew 25: 14-30), he tells of a rich man who was going away and left his wealth evenly divided among his servants for safekeeping. The servants who invested the money and gained riches were later rewarded and told they were "good and faithful." One, however, buried the money out of fear. He was condemned for at least not "depositing the money with the bankers," and thereby cast out of the master's home forever.
       Of course the primary point of the story is spiritual. We are to devote all our resources God has given us to godly ends, and pray we too will one day be seen as good and faithful servants. But to understand this deeper meaning, we must first accept that the story makes a good point on face value.
       G.K. Chesterton once expressed the frustration that, when he defended property and wealth (he cannot be enlisted in your cause), people would sometimes take him to be defending something as banal as "money." Hear Mr. Chesterton out:

They do not understand that we mean by Property something that includes that pleasure incidentally, but begins and ends with something far more grand and worthy and creative. The man who makes an orchard where there has been a field, who owns the orchard and decides to whom it shall descend, does also enjoy the taste of apples. ... But he is doing something very much grander, and ultimately more gratifying, than merely eating an apple.

He is imposing his will upon the world in the manner of the charter given him by the will of God; he is asserting that his soul is his own, and does not belong to the Orchard Survey Department, or the Chief Trust in the Apple Trade. But he is also doing something which was implicit in all the most ancient religions of the earth, in those great panoramas of pageantry and rituals that followed the order of the seasons in China or Babylonia; he is worshiping the fruitfulness of the world.

Now the notion of narrowing property merely to enjoying money is exactly like the notion of narrowing love merely to enjoying sex. In both cases an incidental, isolated, servile, and even secretive pleasure is substituted for participation in a great creative process, even in the everlasting Creation of the world.

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       And yes, even today, many of the rich among us--brilliant and productive, entrepreneurs, capitalists, investors--have participated in the creation of the world. For this they deserve our respect and praise, not a snide dismissal. If they add to their earthly accomplishments by also doing charitable work, spreading the Gospel, and encouraging spiritual reflection, we have here true heroes for our times.
       It's true that material success carries with it temptations to overindulgence. Just so, poverty and want tempt many toward envy, bitterness, and acts of theft. But please, let's grant that we can distinguish the size of our bank accounts from the status of our souls. The sin of greed can be subsumed under the first commandment; the temptation to steal the riches of others, however, gets a separate commandment all its own.
       You accuse me of not being consistent, yet when I ask you to give the same application to the words that follow those that emblazoned your original headline, "Woe to You Who Are Rich," you are silent. I say that to be rich can be a danger. To be sexual can be a danger, but when rightly ordered to God's design, sexuality becomes the very matter of the sacrament of matrimony. Wealth and sexuality are indeed temptations, but they are also opportunities. By all means, warn against these temptations, but not in a way that undermines the opportunities, encourages envy, or institutionalizes others' sins. Wealth is not intrinsically evil; in the hands of a believer it can even be transformed into a means of grace.
       You may say that I am letting the rich off the hook. I claim that you are letting almost everybody off the hook. The vast majority of people do not define themselves as "rich." What is Jesus' message to them? I say it is the same: Reorder the priority of your lives; detach yourself from anything that would obstruct your entrance into the kingdom, whether wealth, or family, or sexuality, or self.
       Sometimes it is easier to live the extreme, like Origin, who, when he heard the passage "If your eye offend you, pluck it out, for it is better to enter into the Kingdom of Heaven blind, than with two eyes, to go to hell," promptly went out and castrated himself. Prudence is a virtue, for, as Chesterton said, "Heresy is truth gone mad."
       I do indeed think that our Lord's admonitions about riches ought to have ramifications, but only when mediated through the conscience of the believer, not the agency of the state. Take a more balanced approach to this matter; it would prevent you from adding any legitimacy to the moral standing of the left or the grasping ambitions of the central state.
       My argument does not "ignore the widespread, two-millennia-old understanding (articulated by many of the Catholic saints) of why riches are a danger." Permit me to cite one of them: Look at how Gregory the Great interpreted the story of the Rich Man and Lazarus, and tell me who ignores what: "For it was not poverty that led Lazarus to heaven, but humility; nor was it wealth that prevented the rich man from attaining eternal rest but rather his egoism and his infidelity."
       Peter, my brother in Christ, let us neither demonize the rich, nor canonize the poor, but let us call all people into the right relationship with God. And let us not allow ourselves to be used as accomplices to further the ambitions of those in power who would take ever more of what does not belong to them.

This dialogue grows out of an article by Peter Wehner, which appeared recently on the Washington Post's op-ed page. To read the article, click here.