Christianity and the Problem of Human ViolenceChristianity and the Problem of Human Violence: Part 144. Wealth versus Poverty
from Guide to Kingdom Living

True Christian living requires us to live according to Kingdom standards which bring Heaven to earth.

Christianity and the Problem of Human Violence: Part 144. Wealth versus Poverty

By Stephen R. Kaufman, M.D.

This is the first of a series of essays that looks at how the approach to faith that I have been developing in this essay series of the past three years relates to contemporary issues. I have been arguing that Christianity encourages us to develop relationships grounded in love and respect rather than in the scapegoating process.

Regarding distribution of wealth, it is remarkable that Jesus showed particular concern for poor people. Unlike the general view of his day, Jesus did not regard poverty as a sign of divine judgment. Rather, he considered poverty a consequence of human activity. Therefore, Jesus said, "as you did it to one of the least of these my brethren, you did it to me. . . . as you did it not to one of the least of these, you did it not to me" (Matthew 25:40, 45).

In our society, many people place a high priority on gaining wealth as a hedge against the vicissitudes of fortune. In addition to practical considerations, pursuit of wealth is mimetic in that seeing our neighbors seek wealth probably contributes to our own desire for material accumulation. However, focusing on gaining wealth distracts us from aligning our desires with those of God desires, and Jesus said, "You cannot serve God and mammon [wealth]" (Luke 16:13). This accords with 1 John 3:17, which reads, "But if any one has the world's goods and sees his brother in need, yet closes his heart against him, how does God's love abide in him?"

Christian faith encourages us to view the world as bountiful, certainly in terms of God's love and concern, and possibly in terms of resources. It is impossible for everyone to enjoy "wealth," since wealth is a relative term. In order for some people to be "wealthy," other people must be "poor." However, everyone can be wealthy in a spiritual sense, with faith in a God of unlimited love. Indeed, I am convinced that spiritual well-being addresses fundamental human needs more than material well-being, once one's basic biological needs have been met.

The ecological sciences presume that a struggle for survival is inevitable, because exponential population growth invariably outstrips food supplies that, at best, increase arithmetically. However, Jesus said that we should dedicate ourselves to God, not to obtaining food: "Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God" (Matthew 4:4; see also Luke 4:4). If we align our desires with God's, we aim to help God reconcile God's Creation to the harmonious world God intended (Genesis 1; Isaiah 11:6-9). This desire encourages us to limit our consumption and share with others, confounding the "law" of nature that food supplies invariably become scarce.

Jesus said, "So therefore, whoever of you does not renounce all that he has cannot be my disciple" (Luke 14:33). I think Jesus was referring to more than material possessions - he also taught that we should renounce everything, including our ideologies and our resentments. Many translations have "possessions" rather than "all that he has," and Paul Nuechterlein has noted that the Greek word here can also be translated as "possessing." Nuechterlein's translation would then read "whoever of you does not renounce all possessing cannot be my disciple."1 We want to possess material goods, and we want to possess (i.e., identify with) our ideologies, but these attitudes generate acquisitive mimetic desires and rivalries that undermine the kingdom of God.

This perspective helps us understand Mark 10:21-22, which relates a young man who said he had followed the commandments and wanted to "inherit eternal life." It reads, "And Jesus looking upon him loved him, and said to him, 'You lack one thing; go, sell what you have, and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me.' At that saying his countenance fell, and he went away sorrowful; for he had great possessions." I think Jesus understood that the young man's problem was that the man desired his possessions more than discipleship. There are some people who share their good fortune over time. Having material possessions, for them, is a form of stewardship rather than a means of power and control. If they were to divest of everything, their long-term ability to help those in need would diminish. Whereas one may reasonably regard possessions as a means of stewardship for those in need, having possessions remains a stumbling block to the kingdom of God. As long as we have wealth, we do not fear hunger and the other hazards of poverty. When we are able to afford various kinds of security, we can (more or less) protect ourselves from violent individuals. Therefore, even if our aim were not to maximize our stock portfolio, wealth would make it more difficult to empathize and identify with poor people and everyone else who is weak and vulnerable. In addition, it is tempting to change one's mind and dedicate one's wealth to satisfying one's own desires rather than addressing the needs of the originally intended recipients. Therefore, Jesus said, "How hard it will be for those who have riches to enter the kingdom of God!" (Mark 10:23).2

Some Christians hold that wealth is a sign of divine favor and that rich people have no obligation to assist those whose poverty reflects a moral failing. They often cite John 12:8, which reads, "The poor you always have with you, but you do not always have me." As Nuechterlein has pointed out, Jesus never asserted that poor people do not matter. Instead, Jesus was noting that his end was near, and people would only be inspired to attend to the needs of poor people if they appreciated Jesus' teachings that poor people matter.3 Those with power typically disregard those they wish to exploit or abuse, and consequently rich people often have contempt for poor people, just as meat-eaters have contempt for farmed animals.

None of us can rid the world of suffering or injustice. However, we can only draw ourselves and our communities nearer to the kingdom of God when we make choices that show compassion, mercy, and love.

1. Nuechterlein, Paul J. "Loving to Death . . . Hating to Life??" [Proper 18C Sermon].

2. I thank Rev. Linda McDaniel for helpful insights in this paragraph.

3. Bailie, Gil. The Gospel of John [audiotape series]. Glen Ellen, CA: The Cornerstone Forum, tape 9, undated.

Go on to: Part 145. Freedom versus Security
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