The Morality of Wealth

About twelve years ago, Glenn Tinder asked in a landmark Atlantic Monthly article the vitally important question, “Can We Be Good without God”? He said we could not. The crucial question that John Schneider addresses in his new book is “Can We Have God and Our Goods”? That is, can we have God and our bulging financial portfolios, our Mercedes Benzes, our mega-houses, our summer cottages, our luxury vacations, our electronic toys, our closets full of clothing, our storage garages full of tools, trinkets, and toys? He says we can.

In fact, he says that this kind of abundance is what God desires for all people–and abundance for Schneider does seem to mean especially the kinds of things I have just listed. He quotes approvingly Dinesh D’Souza: “Wouldn’t you like to have a Jacuzzi with a built-in music system in your bathroom? How about a St. John outfit that makes you the very definition of elegance? Or a TV screen that drops out of your ceiling? Or a computer system for your car that talks to you and gives you street directions?”(38).

I do not disagree with Schneider’s assertion that God desires abundance and delight for his people. But I disagree profoundly with what he defines as abundance. Jesus says “a man’s life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions,” and when he promises “abundant life,” he surely, therefore, does not mean abundance of possessions. Certainly the Old and New Testament concept of abundance has more to do with salvation, faith, family, friends, food, feasting, health, and delight in the natural beauties of creation than it does with music systems in the bathroom.

Still, the basic question Schneider addresses in this book is one of vital importance. Too often people like this reviewer decry, as Schneider says, materialism, consumerism, and individualism in ways “that shamelessly expose [our] own behavior, too, as ludicrously immoral”(17). “We desperately need,” says Schneider, “integrated Christian spiritual and moral theology on what being affluent means in our time”(2). Schneider looks at the utilitarian ideas of Wesley and Augustine. Both theologians asserted that for human beings to cling to anything more than just the “plain necessities of life” would be to live in “habitual denial of the Lord.” Schneider, however, finds that this stance denies the creation principle of abundance and delight. Thus far, I agree. But Schneider likewise opposes Ron Sider’s position on this question, noting that while Sider essentially agrees with Wesley, Sider also redefines “necessity” so that it can include the enjoyment of at least some of life’s luxuries. This stance would be all right, says Schneider, but Sider fails to define the standards by which we could determine whether something is a permissible luxury or an evil luxury. But he doesn’t, and so Schneider finds Sider unhelpful on these key questions.

On this point Schneider may be too rigid, asking for the kind of hard definition that is at best difficult to give while also asking of Sider what Schneider does not require of himself. On many issues Schneider is more ambiguous than Sider, sometimes appearing to contradict himself. On the one hand Schneider writes that “we have dulled ourselves to the constant warning of our scriptures . . . that the power mammon has over people is extraordinary” and that the “scope of its devastation . . . cannot easily be overstated”(42-43). But then he also agrees with Michael Novak that “we are going to see a spiritual revival in this country, and it’s going to be led by rich people . . . it’s going to be affluence that leads people to God”(4). In the wake of Enron, WorldCom, and other such recent scandals fueled by greed (all of which took place after this book was completed), it is difficult to resist the thought that Schneider is trying to have it both ways in a manner that does not typically work out in reality. It is obvious that wealth and materialism can, and often do, lead people away from God. Clearly, the author is not talking about individual cases in this volume but rather presents each of these ideas as a general truth. Still, the ambiguity persists.

This same kind of ambiguity is apparent when he discusses what is perhaps the most objectionable principle in his justification of affluence, something the author calls “moral proximity.” On the one hand, Schneider acknowledges that “affluent people in the West have obligations of some kind to the global poor”(212), yet most of this book seems to mute this on the basis of “proximate obligation.” Schneider argues that believers have obligations to care first for their immediate families, then for extended families, then for the larger community, and finally, for the nation. In addition, one may have some special call or connection that creates an obligation to those outside these boundaries. (For example, if God lays a burden on your heart for Haitians or Native Americans, you may have an obligation to extend your charity to also them.) But, Schneider insists, we do not necessarily have any obligation to bring aid to the downtrodden of the Third World.

He acknowledges that as he places boundaries around our moral obligation, he might be accused of engaging in the same kind of casuistry as the scribe who asked Jesus, “Who is my neighbor?” But, he says, that is precisely the kind of questioning one must do if the principle of enjoyment (abundance, delight) is given its rightful value. Schneider’s use of the Old Testament Israelite model to defend his notion of proximate obligation has merit so long as one stays in Old Testament Israel. But surely the New Testament message of salvation to all nations carries with it a parallel message of compassion for the physical needs of those same nations. The Christian vision is now wider in scope.

The bulk of this book is devoted to examining in a new light what the Bible says about wealth and poverty. Schneider takes us through Genesis, Exodus, Amos, and–most thoroughly–Luke, with brief stops in Proverbs, Isaiah, James, and numerous other Bible passages. In his readings of all of these various passages he attempts to show that the traditional idea that the Bible calls us to lives of sacrifice or moderation is really a misreading of scripture: Paul’s collection for the impoverished Christians in Jerusalem, Amos’s invectives against the rich, James’s severe judgments against the wealthy, Luke’s “wealth-negative” themes–all can be interpreted differently than they have been for most of the church’s history.

I will not attempt to respond to all of these new readings, except to say that while some seem plausible, others seem strained, requiring more work (or “renovation,” as Schneider puts it) than one should have to do to support a thesis. Taken together, they don’t convince this reviewer that the traditional interpretation of the Bible’s message on wealth is wrong. There is, I believe, a place for North American Christians between the severe utilitarianism of Wesley and the proximate obligation of Schneider, and that middle point may be the principle of moderation. This may be the position, albeit perhaps not precisely defined as such, that Sider takes, allowing for small luxuries of necessity while avoiding indulgent luxuries.

But this book may raise other critical questions as well. Barbara Tuchman writes in Practicing History, “If the historian will submit himself to his material instead of trying to impose himself on his material, then the material will ultimately speak to him and supply the answers.” Yet it appears at times that Schneider, having observed that North America has a culture of affluence, set about to make the scriptures say that this affluence is a good thing, even perhaps something God desires for all people. Indeed, Schneider’s stated goal is to provide “help . . . [for] corporate professionals, entrepreneurs, and high-level employees, who spend the better part of their days producing goods and services in the context of making money.” In other words, he seeks to provide useful guidance for especially wealthy people who are “seeking God in the culture that has grown from modern capitalism” (1).

But Schneider’s book has at its foundation an uncritical acceptance of capitalism, which, he says, “is, if nothing else, one of acquisition and enjoyment of material affluence” (23). Unfortunately, this “acquisition” usually leads to devastating environmental degradation. What should be done about this environmental injustice? Schneider rightly notes that humans have been given a “servant dominion” that requires them to “to till and keep” the creation. In fact, Schneider writes that “pollution of the land and the wanton destruction of animal and plant life ought . . . to be just as great a sacrilege to Christians as it is to Native American People”(53). This is a stunning statement, followed as it is by repeated assertions that successful capitalism “must consume at high rates in order for economies to sustain growth and create wealth”(54). Recognizing the conflict, Schneider asks, “Is there a way to affirm capitalism and at the same time affirm the ecological principles of true human dominion?”(53-54). Schneider’s answer is that technology will provide the solutions to environmental problems (although this seems to be an odd solution in a book that also dismisses the ideas of Paul Hawkins and others who advocate a new kind of capitalism that would provide technological solutions to the damage consumer capitalism does to creation).

In general, I feel puzzled as I read Schneider’s almost poetic description of God’s delight in his creation (51) only to then note the author’s failure to treat seriously the terrible damage done to creation by modern capitalism (53-55). It is difficult to deny that modern capitalism as currently practiced in this country is a major water polluter, species destroyer, planet warmer, and soil degrader. Hence, it is also difficult to avoid recognizing that this earth cannot supply a world population of 6+ billion with sufficient material goods to live at the level of the North American rich–that is, to enjoy the kind of abundance Schneider insists that God wants all people to have. For everyone to live with as high a rate of consumption as North Americans may well require several planets the size of earth to sustain such a lifestyle. If abundance can be achieved only by ever-increasing economic growth, then humans will demand and take from the Earth more than the Earth can supply.

David Schelhaas teaches English English at Dordt College in Sioux Center, Iowa. He is a member of the editoral board of Perspectives.