Wealth-Not Poverty-Is the Problem (excerpt)

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Weav.29.1.CoverMy first impulse on looking at the magnitude of the gap in wealth and income is to throw up my hands in despair. If there is any way to narrow the chasm, it must come from a radical change of this nation’s heart and some huge steps taken by the federal government to assure a more equitable distribution. That would require an overhaul of the tax code to see that the rich would not get richer at the expense of everybody else and that the needs of the poor would not be left out of the equation. Political developments since the 1950s show how little likelihood there is that this will happen. Tax rates on the super wealthy plunged from 91 percent in the 1950s to 35 percent today, corporate tax rates from 35 percent in 1945 to 10 percent today. And these figures do not include the many clever schemes by which individuals and corporations weasel their way out of taxes. Some rich Americans and some major corporations paid no income tax last year.

Before we give up, however, we can learn a few things from early Christians during the first several centuries. They, too, lived in a vast, sprawling, and complex colossus in which the few possessed most of the wealth while the middle class had virtually vanished and masses lacked what they needed to survive. The Christian faithful did not talk about the problem of inequitable distribution of wealth, but they manifested an awareness of the problem and, inspired by the teaching of Jesus, responded in three ways: 1) They voiced strong reservations about wealth and the wealthy. 2) They displayed a partiality toward the poor and rendered unstinting services to them. 3) They fostered a powerful counter-cultural movement in the late third century as persecution drew to a close and the barbarian invasions loomed on the horizon.

 

Wealth and the Wealthy

Reservations about wealth and the wealthy may have stemmed in part from the fact that for about two centuries the churches attracted few people of wealth, none of enormous wealth. More consequential, however, would have been Jesus’ teaching. The first generations of Christians wrestled seriously with Jesus’ graphic word: “I tell you again, it is easier for a camel to go through a needle’s eye than for a rich person to enter into the Kingdom of God” (Matt. 19:24). A hyperbole like that said, “Riches are a problem.” Likewise, they saw no way to get around Jesus’ commands to the rich youth, “Go, sell everything you own and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven” (Luke 18:22). The youth went away “deeply grieved,” Luke added, “for he was exceedingly rich” (18:23). Those forceful assertions prompted many to follow the example of Barnabas, who placed the proceeds of property he sold at the feet of the apostles (Acts 4:37). Some, according to Luke, “held everything in common, sold their possessions and properties, and distributed them to all according to each person’s need” (Acts 2:44-45).

Antipathy to wealth and the wealthy posed a dilemma as wealthier converts started flowing into churches around 175 to 200. At Alexandria in Egypt, Clement, the head of the evangelistic catechetical school, felt that he had to put a spin on Jesus’ words. He wrote a treatise explaining how a rich person could be saved after all. Wealth is a burden, he admitted, and it endangers salvation. What Jesus aimed at in his warning about riches and in his harsh demand to the rich youth, however, was excessive craving for and attachment to riches. Wealthy Christians can use their substance for righteous ends and need only repudiate unrighteous ones. The truly rich are those rich in virtues.

As more and more people of wealth joined the churches, the focus shifted to wealth sharing. Converts felt some pressure to part with this “burden.”  On joining the church in Rome, Marcion, a wealthy shipbuilder from Pontus, donated 200,000 sesterces (a fortune), although the church returned it when it excommunicated him for heresy. Cyprian gave 100,000 sesterces to the Church of Carthage. This helps to explain how the Church of Rome could care for 1500 indigents and clergy during the middle of the third century. The conversion of Constantine opened the doors upon a vast new treasure house for the favored religion. The church found its stores overflowing, and incredibly wealthy Christians were confronted with a colossal conundrum: If we truly follow Jesus, what will we do with our wealth?

2 Responses to “Wealth-Not Poverty-Is the Problem (excerpt)”

  1. Charlie says:

    You advocated the following – “If there is any way to narrow the chasm, it must come from a radical change of this nation’s heart and some huge steps taken by the federal government to assure a more equitable distribution.”
    Do you also advocate that the federal government assure a more equitable distribution of faith??

  2. Jerry Brewster says:

    How did the author arrive at today’s corporate tax rate of 10%? I copied this from Tradingeconomics.com: The Corporate Tax Rate in the United States stands at 39 percent. Corporate Tax Rate in the United States averaged 39.23 percent from 2000 until 2015, reaching an all time high of 39.30 percent in 2001 and a record low of 39 percent in 2015. Corporate Tax Rate in the United States is reported by the Internal Revenue Service.”

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