Theres a new film called Born Rich made by Jamie Johnson, the 23-year-old heir to the Johnson & Johnson pharmaceutical fortune. He is quoted in the New York Times as saying about the ultra-rich, Theres a code of silence about wealth that youre not supposed to break. It is what holds these families together. But I think the secrecy also makes them dysfunctional. Ironically, he refuses to say how much he himself inherited.
How do you feel about the born rich?
As leftish journalist Eric Alterman says on his blog this week, if theres one thing my 5-year-old seems to know better than most grown-ups, its that lifes not fair - and thats a lucky thing for most Americans, given that approximately half the world lives on two dollars a day or less.
By this standard, we almost everyone who reads this column are the rich. And how do we feel about it? Sometimes, for myself, I feel rich and sometimes I dont.
When my wife drove me down state to an excellent hospital to have cancer surgery I thought of all the people in the world who couldnt get medical care like that and I felt rich. When I contemplate the six-sided asphalt roofing shingles that cover the walls of our house, making it look like a mangy dinosaur, its scales wearing thin and dropping off, I dont feel rich. But of course I am, compared to all those who dont own a house. I dont have a pension, my wife has one so small I had forgotten she had it, and we cant conceive how we are ever going to retire. But we do have savings, and we will have Social Security, if George Bush and his rich pals dont tax-cut it into oblivion, as they are now doing.
Earlier, when I was writing novels that were supposed to help change the world, and my wife was working in organisations for victims of domestic violence, I had few feelings of guilt about being in the rich world, because it was hard enough to afford the basics for ourselves: home, food, health insurance. Since then, we have worked hard, were earning more and were comfortable, barring disasters. We give away more than we ever used to: but its debatable whether its really much at all.
These days I am experiencing guilt and uneasiness. Because we are putting what we have aside for our sons education and our old age. And were probably going to replace the fish scales on our house, or at least the rotting windows. What is a reasonable amount to spend on ourselves?
I dont want to lead a life driven by guilt and ought. I thought I had got rid of that by giving up a theology of a God who demanded obedience, a religion that controlled its members through their sense of sin. I want joy, love, compassion, solidarity, delight in the world to be the fountain of action. Do I have to give up my riches to do that?
If I am to allow myself to keep enough money for the basics of life, what are the basics for an inhabitant of New York State in 2003?
Rich is bad, but how bad?
I thought I would get some pointers by checking into what Americans are saying these days about Christianity and wealth. After all, we have the most overtly Christian president in decades, who has made prayer groups practically de rigueur in the White House, and he is giving huge tax breaks to the rich. Am I in a minority in thinking this is, how shall I put it, inconsistent?
I typed Rich Christians into Google. Google gives you the most accessed sites first. 32 of the top 40 hits were all referring to a book called Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger by Ron Sider. I had the book already, so found it and blew the dust off it. Representative quote: Society offers demonically convincing justifications for enjoying our affluence and forgetting about over a billion desperately poor neighbors. Hmm, nothing to help out George Bush there. And, I think we must confess that Christians in North America are largely on the side of the rich oppressors rather than the oppressed poor.
The number one site was even more uncompromising. Tim Spiess, who appears to be a lay Christian leader, encourages people to leave the churches and throw themselves into voluntary poverty. And this is the top site for Rich Christians on Google! Is its popularity evidence of some sort of yearning for authenticity by the great American public? Spiess is at pains to point out that getting a camel through the eye of a needle does indeed refer to a sewing needle, and not to some supposed narrow gate in old Jerusalem that a camel, lightly loaded or on its knees, could still squeeze through. The rich are not getting into heaven!
It was hard to discover exactly how poor Tim Spiess wanted people to become. He talked about not having a roof over ones head, and yet his site revealed a wife and children. Whether they have a roof or not was not explained.
Another site in the top 40, with the tasty name of Howl! You Rich (Christians), by Friends of the Nazarene, tried to come down to some kind of detail. Suppose a Christian couple takes a luxury cruise with first class amenities? Have they given an equal amount in charity to the poor and needy Christians in their fellowship? If they buy one of those large televisions with a screen four by five feet have they given the same?
By this measure, I may still pass, never having had a big TV or a cruise.
Ron Sider, towards the end of his book, comes up with his own suggestions for how to live a simple life: start with the official US poverty level, add enough money to buy Christian education for your children, plus money for taxes and emergencies. Sider also argues strongly for Christians to become involved in efforts to change the way world trade and multinational companies operate: to change the causes of poverty, not just tend to its casualties.
No, wealth is good, very good
All of these sites are united against what has been dubbed the prosperity gospel, which says that rich Christians deserve their wealth. As the Friends of the Nazarene express it, that message affirms that God wants each Christian to become wealthy and that such wealth will be an outward sign, almost like a miracle, that such a person is blessed by God. A main feature of the prosperity gospel is that if one gives generously to an evangelist who already owns a prestige residence, a luxury automobile, and a corporate jet, then God will in turn bless such (sic) with similar abundance.
Coming down to more personal charges, Zenpickle, another site in the top 40, fingers Pat Robertson, politically influential US televangelist, for defending two African dictators. Robertson championed Mobutu Sese Soko in Zaire, and Charles Taylor in Liberia. Taylor, he declared, was a man who had led his nation out of the darkness into Christian light.
But then along comes a lone defence, within the top forty, of rich Christians. John Schneider agrees with the Christians-must-be-poor crowd that rich Christians wealth is a result of luck. Yes, they may have worked hard for it, he says, but they were lucky to be born somewhere where hard work gets rewarded. Plenty of people work hard and get nowhere. Agreed! So I bought his book, The Good of Affluence.
John Schneider argues that the modern economy has changed everything. Now, entire populations can become rich. The best hope for the worlds poor is to replicate the methods by which that happened. And the way it happened is through people desiring things and buying them in a capitalist economy. BMWs are good. God doesnt want people to be poor. He wants everyone to enjoy the bounty of the earth, which, by the way, He made and is good. So dont mess it up. This is a Christian environmentalism which celebrates the creation. Yes, people were given dominion over the earth, but that means they have to be responsible, not treat the world as their cash cow. His attitude to being rich is similar: celebrate it and bring everyone else into the fold. Its not about guilt and obligation, its about joy and inclusion. At least, thats the kindest reading of it I can achieve.
But Schneider seems remarkably out of touch with the poverty in his own country, and with the ways his own countrys policies keep others poor.
His approach is one-sided. He reeks of the blindness of the fortunate. Still, he raises an issue that is real. We are entering the possibility of abundance for all. To me, though not to him, this connects with the utopian socialism of the 19th century: a dream of abundance and justice for all.
John Schneider castigates Ron Sider for being against capitalism. But Sider appears to me to favour a capitalism that is for the people, that is reformed, that is creative in helping the poor join the capitalist fold. These men appear to me to offer two halves of the same solution, and yet they are apparent enemies.
A song of wealth, a cry of injustice
I dont want to feel miserably guilty all the time because my wife and I have a house, and abundant food, books, computers, cancer care, a healthy son. I want to celebrate this amazing achievement of our civilisation. Our ancestors didnt have this. I want to celebrate the economy that made it possible. I do not believe that exploitation is the central fact of that economy. The central fact is the creation of systems of exchange which, if regulated aright, can benefit all, even though not equally. This economy generates extraordinary wealth.
I also want to celebrate the angry battlers against those injustices which have always been part of human life and which are very evident in this economy. I want to celebrate those who helped spread this wealth among the people so that millions like me whose ancestors were dirt poor are now all right.
I have to hedge my celebration of our society around with caveats. I accept that there will be no end to the struggle against human greed and cruelty. But still I want joy, not guilt, to be the dominant emotion.
Who sings convincingly of this combination? On the right they sing of the invisible hand of the market and denigrate the visible left hand, which regulates the market to help the poor. On the left no one can really bring themselves to celebrate capitalism. In the centre, they dont seem to celebrate either the peoples champions or the capitalists, they are so cautious. Tell me whose web site, whose article, whose book sings the praises of both. I need them!
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