By Rudy Barnes, Jr.
There has been much political commentary on how the increasing wealth of the richest Americans and the stagnation of wealth in the middle class are creating disparities that raise issues of economic justice, but little has been said about the role of religion on those issues. The stories of Jesus and the rich man and the poor widow relate to faith and economic justice, but they predate concepts of capitalism and democracy that have since complicated those issues.
The rich man was a devout Jew who came to Jesus seeking eternal life. By his account he had obeyed Mosaic Law since he was a boy and he undoubtedly considered his wealth and power God’s reward for his obedience; but Jesus told him that if he wanted to find eternal life he should give up his wealth and follow him. The rich man could not part with his wealth and sadly turned away from Jesus, who then told his disciples: “How hard it is for the rich to enter the kingdom of God!” (Mark 10:17-27)
Later Jesus was watching people putting their money in the temple treasury. While the rich contributed large sums a poor widow put only a few coins in the temple treasury. Jesus said, “I tell you the truth, this poor widow has put more in the treasury than all the others. They all gave out of their wealth; but she, out of her poverty, put in everything—all she had to live on.” (Mark 12:41-44)
Moses, Jesus and Muhammad all taught that economic justice required the wealthy to care for the poor. The Qur’an requires Muslims to give a zakat (2.5% of one’s wealth each year) to the poor. The Hebrew Bible mandates support for widows, orphans and the poor, but the Jewish tithe (10% of wealth produced each year) was to support Jewish priests, not the poor.
The teachings of Jesus did not provide a specific standard of giving to the poor but instead emphasized that his followers make a total commitment of their resources to doing God’s will, as in the story of the rich man and the poor widow. Jesus called his disciples to leave everything—family, jobs and wealth—to follow him, and the early church experimented with voluntary communism (Acts 4:32-37), but that did not last long. Committing all of one’s wealth to the common good is a standard that few can accept.
Neither Jesus nor Muhammad considered it a sin to have wealth and power. The sin is to love wealth and power, and that is a form of idolatry that separates a person from the love of God. Capitalism is driven by the desire for wealth and power, and objectivism is the religion of capitalism that makes greed a virtue, even as Jesus condemned it as a vice (Mark 7:20-23). Even so, capitalism has proven compatible with democracy and essential to economic prosperity, while political Communism has failed as an alternative system of governance.
Authoritarian regimes governed during the ancient times of Moses, Jesus and Muhammad. Until the 19th century there was no libertarian democracy to protect individual freedoms and give people a voice in shaping their own governments. Since then democracies have provided for the common good, including social welfare programs for the poor, but often wealth and power have become secular idols in libertarian materialistic and hedonistic cultures.
Judaism and Christianity have embraced the libertarian values of the Enlightenment and capitalism, but most Muslim cultures have not, and Muslims view the materialism and hedonism of Western democracies as decadent. Decadence is an undesirable by-product of freedom, but it does not justify denying individual freedom. It requires laws to restrain the excesses of freedom and to provide for the common good with social welfare programs for the poor and needy.
Since the economic crisis of 2008 the middle class has diminished and the disparity between it and the wealthy has increased dramatically. A strong middle class is necessary for political stability in any democracy, and any further erosion of the middle class by the wealthiest 10% of Americans could threaten political and economic stability.
The challenge for America is to balance individual political and economic freedom with providing for the common good, and that requires government regulation of big business to prevent the unfair exploitation of the middle class as well as providing adequate assistance for the poor. But true economic justice requires more than coercive laws and welfare programs. It also requires charity: the volunteer sharing of resources with the poor and needy.
Today the self-centered objectivism of Ayn Rand seems more prevalent than the altruistic values of traditional Judaism, Christianity and Islam. But unless growing economic disparities are reversed, the stability of libertarian democracy will be threatened by a majority of have-nots that could elect populist demagogues who would sabotage democracy and human rights.
The accumulation of wealth is a fundamental right of political and economic freedom, but greed and great disparities in wealth are a threat to political stability and economic justice. In authoritarian Islamic nations like Egypt vast disparities in wealth have not been corrected with the zakat or by government welfare programs; the only Islamic nations that have mitigated poverty are oil-rich nations like Saudi Arabia. While there are worrying economic disparities in democracies like America, their hybrid religious, libertarian and capitalist ideals continue to produce more prosperity, freedom and economic justice than do authoritarian Islamic regimes.
Notes and References to Resources:
This topic is related to Lesson #8, Riches and salvation (Mark 10:17-27), and Lesson #9, the Widow’s mite (Mark 12:41-44), at pages 45-50 in the J&M Book.
On the relationship between faith and wealth, see Treasures and the heart (Luke 12:33-34) at pages 235-238 of the J&M Book, and the commentary of Waleed El-Ansary at page 237 distinguishing the zakat (2.5% of one’s wealth) from voluntary alms (sadaqah).
On Faith and freedom, see blog posted on December 15, 2014.
On Ayn Rand’s self-centered objectivism compared to the selfless love for others advocated by Jesus, see https://www.aynrand.org/ideas/overview.