In the preceding eight posts on this topic, we’ve focused on defining key terms so as to reveal how the Bible defines poverty and justice with respect to the poor. A lot of the discussion has been “negative” in the sense of focusing on what the Bible prohibits (i.e., abuse of the poor and how that is depicted). I’d like to shift gears a bit and look at what the Bible affirms.
One thing the Bible affirms with clarity is private property. The idea derives from the dominion mandate (better: the steward-kingship mandate) given to humankind in Genesis 1:26-28. While this original mandate doesn’t demand private ownership, private ownership is consistent with it, and private property is assumed in other passages of Scripture. Toward stimulating your thinking a bit in this direction, I recommend reading Jay Richard’s short essay, “The Biblical Roots of Private Property.” Richard’s essay contains a link to a more detailed essay by Walt Kaiser that is also recommend: “Ownership and Property in the Old Testament Economy.”
Another affirmation that is clear with respect to biblical theology is that having wealth is not a sin. We’ve talked about this in previous posts — specifically, rejecting the notion that having wealth somehow automatically will result in oppression of someone with less, or that wealth creates the predisposition to oppress those with less. These are demonstrable falsehoods, both in terms of Scripture and real life experience. (Exhibit A: the existence of philanthropy and charity; Exhibit B: using wealth to create jobs in business). And let’s not forget a simple, axiomatic truth in all this: you cannot use wealth to love your neighbor if you don’t have wealth in the first place. I’ve never made my own living by working for a poor man or woman. I don’t know anyone else that has either.
Though the above is certainly true, Scripture also contains plenty of warning about the exploitation of the poor (or “less rich”) by the rich. We saw, for example, Jesus’ warnings about such things often included this theme. The reasoning is transparent. Wealth often brings opportunity to participate in or influence political rule. Such power, when used selfishly or egotistically – even “for the good” of people – can often end up restricting legitimate liberties or manipulate the governed in ways that result in the personal benefit of the ruler, or to exact revenge on someone (or some group) in the ruler’s cross-hairs. Such things cannot be Scripturally justified. However, Jesus also had a good deal to say about handling money that was positive – even handling money in such a way that wealth could grow. Toward stimulating some thought in regard to these issues, I’d recommend reading the following:
There’s a lot to ponder in these essays. The broader point I’m trying to drive home is that Scripture does not endorse the kind of negative stereotypes we see so often today with respect to Western profit-driven economies. It also doesn’t endorse what many business owners (and employees) do with the wealth that’s generated (e.g., hoarding, political leverage, courting political favoritism). With respect to both those areas (gaining wealth and using wealth) the real issue, like so many issues, goes back to the way God wants humans to image him and relate to fellow imagers: Does your pursuit and use of wealth show that you love God and love your neighbor?
Next: Back to the “all things in common” / “Christian communism” myth in the early church. (I just wanted to do something positive this time around!)