Vol 42 No 4
Poverty, riches and Christian discipleship
TODAY'S DESPERATE situations of uncaring wealth and degrading poverty prompt an examination of Christian conscience, individually and ecclesially, in regard to issues of wealth creation and distribution. This paper surveys current socio-economic data regarding the stark inequities in wealth distribution across the world and in Australian society, and the Gospels' perspective on the demands of Christian discipleship and its reception within the great patristic tradition. It is in that tradition of social teaching that Pope John Paul II, while affirming the right to private property, spoke in terms of the 'social mortgage' inherent in the possession of goods.
Some years ago, I was in conversation with an anthropologist-missionary who had returned from several years of work with some island communities in the Pacific. He reflected at some length on the experience, and made several points of cultural comparison. He described various aspects of the rich communal life that he had witnessed there, contrasting it with the many manifestations in the first world societies of social fragmentation and alienation, such as suicide, depression, and mental illness.
I was struck in particular by one startling comment: 'We in the first world', he mused, 'have forsaken the riches of interpersonal relationships for the prosperity of material possessions.' I have often pondered those words. They strike with particular force, as I drive through the city at night, and there, emblazoned on the city skyline above me, impossible to miss, is a summary of the day's results on the Stock Exchange. Just two numbers and an arrow--the final stock market position for the day, the net change from the previous day, and the arrow (up or downward). A few digits and an arrow say it all: a concise summary of the change in my/our/someone's prosperity.
The importance of the financial market's data is reinforced on the national television news service which now includes--as data of national significance, alongside the major news stories of the day, international, national and local, and the weather forecast for the days ahead--a regular finance segment, giving a brief overview of changes in the currency markets, major movements in stocks and shares that day, and the overall movement in the stock markets in the last twenty-four hour period.
If there was any need for confirmation of the inherent fragility and arbitrariness of the forces at work in the stock market, the dot-com fall-out in the late 1990s surely provided it. In those heady months preceding the crash, the so-called value of numerous info tech stocks went through the roof, irrespective of what market analysts at the time described as the 'lack of fundamentals,' the lack of real value in the 'bottom line financials' of the companies concerned. It was (and still is) market confidence that rules the day, market confidence that drove the info tech share values to those dreamy heights and, when the time came, it was the loss of market confidence that saw those values plummet, wiping billions of dollars off share markets in a matter of days. But, actually, it was not the 'fundamentals' that changed, but rather market confidence, market opinion and expectation. We face a not-dissimilar situation at this moment, with the ongoing 'sub-prime' lending crisis and the associated financial downturn, occasioned by a similarly toxic mix of greed and dishonesty.
These cameos serve to demonstrate the social construction of our notions of wealth and poverty, prosperity and well-being, be it in the first world or the third world or any other world. To speak, then, of poverty and riches is not only to speak in terms of assets (or lack of them), whatever those assets be, but to speak in terms of values and attitudes, for it is values and attitudes that determine what are classed as assets of value (as my missionary friend saw so clearly, through his Pacific island experience). Those values and attitudes and their social capital are socially constructed. It is also attitudes and the hierarchy of values which come powerfully into play in the distribution of poverty and riches, and in the creation and use of wealth.
A Brief Socio-economic Survey, Globally and Locally
A survey of the global distribution of poverty and wealth makes for very sobering reading indeed, for numerous surveys and studies testify to the gross inequity in resource distribution globally. As reference points for the purpose of global comparison, the World Bank takes $USD1 and $USD2 (adjusted to account for differences in purchasing power across countries).1 On this scale, it has been estimated that, in 2004, 1 billion people (of the world's then 6.4 billion people) had consumption levels below $1 a day (classed as extreme poverty) and that 2.6 billion lived on less than $2 a day.
Admittedly, living standards have risen dramatically over the last decades. The proportion of the developing world's population living in extreme economic poverty--defined as living on less than $1 per day--has fallen from 28 percent in 1990 to 21 percent in 2001. But, while there has been great progress in reducing poverty and further progress is promised with poverty identified as the Number 1 Millennium Development Goal of the United Nations, it has been far from even, and the global picture masks huge regional differences. A closer look shows that global trends in poverty reduction have been dominated by rapid growth in China and the East Asia and Pacific region. But in Sub-Saharan Africa, poverty actually rose from 41 percent in 1981 to 46 percent in 2001, with an additional 150 million people living in extreme poverty.
In other words, at the start of this new century, poverty remains a global problem of staggering proportions. Almost half the world--nearly three billion people--lives on less than $2 a day. One billion children--about one half of the world's children--live in poverty. There are so many other statistics to which we could refer. For example, over 10 million children died in 2003 before they reached the age of five. Hundreds of millions of people live without adequate shelter and no access to safe water or health services.
But the situation in our own backyards is also very sobering. A recent survey of economic and social realities in the current situation in Australia, where we continue to enjoy considerable prosperity, shows serious fractures emerging. The Australian data are perhaps all the more sobering because we Australians like to think of this as the land of the fair go, a land of equal opportunity, a basically middle class--indeed classless--society, which prizes an egalitarian ideal. This is a place, we like to think, where anyone, with a bit of hard work and a bit of luck along the way, can succeed.
In the recently published study, entitled Who Gets What, authors Stilwell and Jordan of the University of Sydney, demonstrate clearly that dramatic economic and social inequalities have in fact become a feature of modern Australia.2 While our society as a whole has become more wealthy, the wealth has been spread very unevenly. Although we have not inherited the class differentiation and social divisions of older societies and like to pride ourselves on the lack of class structure in Australian society, on the basis of evidence of income and wealth distribution, there is actually little difference in practice. Australian society is an increasingly unequal society with a growing gap between rich and poor.
Some Australians enjoy huge incomes and extraordinary affluence. Our corporate executives, for example, constitute a new managerial elite, attracting spectacular remuneration packages, and which are continuing to grow in relation to average annual earnings of full time Australian workers.3 At the other end of the spectrum, we have the spectre of poverty. Many Australians face considerable economic hardship and insecurity. Approx 20% of Australian households have an average annual income of less than $25,000. Meanwhile, we have seen the emergence of the phenomenon of the working class poor--with an estimated 1 million Australian workers with jobs, but with fewer hours and less pay than they need for the basic necessities of life. Having a job is no longer a guarantee against falling into poverty in Australia.4
This income divide correlates with the digital divide. The striking differences between rich and poor households in terms of digital access demonstrate just how profoundly economic inequality shapes access to resources and social opportunities, compounding the disadvantage. Financial disadvantage means access disadvantage which means information disadvantage.
But disparities in income pale drastically in comparison with disparities in the distribution of wealth in Australia: the wealthiest 10% of Australians own about 45% of the total wealth, with the lower 50% of the Australian population owning less than 10% of the nation's wealth.
A similar situation exists in USA where productivity gains of recent years have found their way into the pockets of the top 10% of income-earners. The greater proportion of wealth lies firmly in the hands of a minority, with the top 1% of American households receiving almost 17% of all income and holding about 38% of all net worth and 47% of net financial assets.5 The U.S. Census Bureau in its 2002 report estimated that 12.1%, in other words, one in eight Americans, lives in poverty.6 The U.S. Census Bureau in its 2006 report, the most recent such report available, estimates that 12.3% live in poverty.7
We could draw on many similar studies from many other countries of the world which similarly attest to the prevalence of poverty, inequality, and social exclusion.
Poverty, Riches and the Demands of Christian Discipleship
The stark reality of poverty in our world, the reality of increasing inequality globally and even in our own first world countries, inevitably leads to questions of the ethics--and for us, a distinctly Christian ethics--of wealth creation, distribution and use.
We in fact face new moral questions regarding wealth, with the emergence of the relatively new phenomenon of wealth creation. No longer does agriculture contribute the greater proportion of wealth production. Wealth is now created, by capitalist business enterprise, the multi-nationals, the markets, the entrepreneurs. Look at the advertisements on TV or in the paper, and you will find promises of wealth creation services that will secure your own financial future! But wealth creation is not a natural phenomenon; it does not conform to physical laws (e.g., gravity): it lies squarely within the realm of human judgment and decision, values and attitudes.
This intensifies the urgency of our questions: Why are so many people so very poor? Alternatively, and perhaps far more to the point, why are so many people so very rich? What should we do about it? What does Christian discipleship--even basic humaneness and global civic responsibility--demand of us?
Certainly, the Gospels offer no easy salve for the consciences of the rich, including our very affluent selves.8 It is indisputably the poor, not the rich, who are God's chosen ones. In response to the question as to what one must do to inherit eternal life, Jesus comments: 'how hard it is for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God!' (Mk 10:23). In another place, he exhorts his followers, 'do not worry about your life, what you will eat, or about your body, what you will wear. For life is more than food, and the body more than clothing. …Sell your possessions, and give alms.' (Lk 12:22-33) Jesus unambiguously condemns those who ignore the plight of the needy--'for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, …naked and you did not give me clothing' (Mt 25:42-43) He warns the rich of their obligations: 'From everyone to whom much has been given, much will be required; and from one to whom much has been entrusted, even more will be demanded' (Lk 12:48). He urges all to nobler motivations than wealth accumulation: 'Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal; but store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also' (Mt 6:19-21). The writer of the First Letter to Timothy warns the community that 'the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil' (1 Tim 6:10). The Letter to the Colossians exhorts them: 'Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth,' (Col 3:2) The Acts of the Apostles tells us that 'the whole group of those who believed were of one heart and soul, and no one claimed private ownership of any possessions, but everything they owned was held in common' (Acts 4:32)
Jesus' parables, in particular, challenge us to another worldview in regard to poverty and wealth.9 Not a few of his parables concern the proverbial rich man! The evangelist Luke would seem to be particularly interested in this issue of poverty and riches, and offers a sustained counter-cultural challenge (in the Gospel and in Acts) to break with the economics of the empire and adopt the economics of the kingdom of God.
The parable of the Rich Fool (Lk 12:13-21), for example, follows an appeal to Jesus to settle an inheritance dispute and Jesus' rebuke that one's life does not consist in the abundance of possessions (Lk 12:15). In this parable, the rich man stores up the surpluses from his crops for the sake of future security and prosperity. Very sensible according to the ways of the world! But, so the parable goes, 'God said to him, 'You fool! This very night your soul is being demanded of you. And the things you have prepared, whose will they be?'' (Lk 12:20). Jesus thus starkly exposes the illusion of ownership and the futility of covetousness. The rich man is not wicked, but foolish.
In the parable of the Shrewd Manager (Lk 16:1-13), a rich man commends a blatantly dishonest steward for his prudence in remitting debts to his master and thereby securing the friendship and favour of those who were indebted to the master. Jesus thus points to the possibility of the creative use of wealth in the alleviation of debt and oppression. But, Jesus warns, 'You cannot serve God and wealth' (Lk 16:13).
In the very well-known parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus (Lk 16:19-31), Jesus throws into sharp relief the consequences and the ultimate cost of preoccupation with wealth. The rich man's self-imposed separation from the plight of Lazarus is confirmed, not overturned, in the after-life, though their stations are reversed. Lazarus is carried to the bosom of Abraham, while the rich man is left to languish in the torments of Hades. God's judgement is clear. Also very clear, and counter to any notion of a prosperity gospel, is that riches are by no means a token of divine blessing.
We find in Jesus' teaching no explicit manifesto for a redistribution of wealth and no grand plan for revolution of the socio-political system. Admittedly, in Luke's gospel, Jesus announces his mission in terms of the Jewish Jubilee (Lk 4:18-19), that ancient tradition whereby, in the 50th year, all debts were to be cancelled and all slaves released and all lands restored (Lev 25:10, 38-42), and the theme of Jubilee deeply informs Luke's understanding of the kingdom of God.10 But Jesus' teaching is even more radical and more subversive of the status quo than that: he urges all, rich and poor, to the heart of the matter--itself a matter of the heart--for where your treasure is, there your heart will also be. He exposes the illusion of ownership and of security; the folly of putting one's confidence in wealth; and the futility of greed and of envy of wealth. He warns the poor against the allure of wealth, and the rich against the illusion of possession. He cautions the poor against emulating the rich; and he urges the rich to the right use of riches. He warns rich and poor alike that riches can undermine the relationships--with one another, with creation, with our God--that are our greatest treasure. The exploited natural environment and a plundering of natural resources are the dramatic instances of our day.
We see then, in the New Testament, the working through of a number of issues concerning poverty and wealth in the early Christian communities. Those issues are taken up by the Church Fathers who, even at a quick survey, have much to say on poverty and on riches and their right use. John Chrysostom, for example, comments memorably, albeit somewhat acerbically, that God does not want golden vessels but golden hearts!11 The Church Fathers highlight with remarkable consistency the snares and seductions of wealth, the illusions and the obligations of riches, and they warn against the almost irresistible tendency of riches to spawn self-centredness and to detract from our concern for the common wealth and the common good.
It was that concern for the common good that Pope John Paul II captured so strikingly when, while unequivocally affirming the right to private property, he spoke in terms of the 'social mortgage' on all goods, a kind of moral lien on all of our possessions, that is, a responsibility to use our assets in ways that accord with the promotion of the common good. As John Paul II explains:
It is necessary to state once more the characteristic principle of Christian social doctrine: the goods of this world are originally meant for all. The right to private property is valid and necessary, but it does not nullify the value of this principle. Private property, in fact, is under a 'social mortgage,' which means that it has an intrinsically social function, based upon and justified precisely by the principle of the universal destination of goods.12
In speaking in this way, John Paul II stood firmly in the Church's long tradition of social teaching, wherein wealth is understood not in terms of ownership or control, but of stewardship and advancement of the common wealth. It is an understanding deeply grounded in the Gospel and its reception within the great patristic tradition. It prompts an examination of Christian conscience, individually and ecclesially, in regard to today's desperate situations of uncaring wealth and degrading poverty, when questions of wealth and of wealth creation and distribution have perhaps never been so urgent and so critical.
Associate Professor Anne Hunt is a lecturer in systematic theology at Australian Catholic University and at Yarra Theological Union (Melbourne) and Rector of the Ballarat Campus of Australian Catholic University. Anne Hunt's most recent book is The Trinity: Nexus of the Mysteries of Christian Faith (Orbis, 2005).
1 For data on world poverty, see World Bank at http://web.worldbank.org/poverty (accessed 5 August 2008). See the World Bank's Report, World Development Indicators 2007: http://pgpblog.worldbank.org/world_development_indicators_2007; see tabulated data at http://siteresources.worldbank.org/INTMNAREGTOPPOVRED/Resources/POVERTY-ENG2007AM_tables.pdf. Full World Bank Institute report: http://web.worldbank.org/WBSITE/EXTERNAL/DATASTATISTICS/ 0,,contentMDK:21725423~page PK:64133150~piPK:64133175 ~theSitePK:239419,00.html (accessed 5 August 2008); see also United Nations at http://www.un.org/english and especially the Millennium Development Goals and related documents at http://www.un.org/millenniumgoals/ (accessed 5 August 2008); for World Wealth Reports, see http://www.us.capgemini.com (accessed 5 August 2008); for applied research and policy analysis on global development and poverty issues, see World Institute for Development Economics Research of the United Nations University (UNU-WIDER) at http://www.wider.unu.edu (accessed 5 August 2008). See also the WIDER study on The World Distribution of Household Wealth (5 December 2006). (For a summary, go to http://www.wider.unu.edu/events/past-events/2006-events/en_GB/05-12-2006 (accessed 5 August 2008).) For one of the most recent reports on world poverty, see United nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD), Least Developed Countries Report 2008, at http://www.unctad.org/en/docs/ldc2008overview_en.pdf (accessed 5 August 2008).
2 Frank Stilwell and Kirrily Jordan, Who Gets What? Analysing Economic Inequality in Australia (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007). See also Hugh Mackay, Advance Australia ... Where?: How We've Changed, Why We've Changed, and What Will Happen Next (Sydney, NSW: Hachette Australia, 2007), esp. the chapter on poverty, 328-34.
3 For a survey of Australian executive salaries, see Bosswatch, “Salaries High, Performance Low,” at http://bosswatch.labor.net.au/campaigns/general/1031717447_28193.php (accessed 5 August 2008). In the U.S., the chief executive officers of large U.S. companies averaged $10.8 million in total compensation in 2006, more than 364 times the pay of the average U.S. worker, according to the latest survey by the United for a Fair Economy. See “Executive Excess 2007: The Staggering Social Cost of U.S. Business Leadership,” 14th Annual CEO Compensation Survey (Washington DC: Institute for Policy Studies and United for a Fair Economy, 2007), see http://www.ips-dc.org/reports/070829-executiveexcess.pdf (accessed 5 August 2008).
4 The 20th AMP.NATSEM Income and Wealth Report, Advance Australia Fair?, July 2008, draws on 2001- 2006 Census data, and shows that, while the nation overall prospered in 2001-2006, many households--and particularly middle income households--were struggling to realise the gains of this prosperity. The impressive increases in household incomes across the board were largely offset by increased spending on housing and increases in the cost of living more generally. See http://media.corporate-ir.net/media_files/irol/21/219073/infocus/natsem.pdf (accessed 5 August 2008).
5 See Helen Alford OP et al, Rediscovering Abundance: Interdisciplinary Essays on Wealth, Income, and Their Distribution in the Catholic Social Tradition (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame, 2006), 7.
6 U.S. Census Bureau, Poverty in the United States: 2002 (Washington DC: U.S. Government Printing Office, 2003), see http://www.census.gov/prod/2003pubs/p60-222.pdf. (accessed 5 August 2008)
7 U.S. Census Bureau, Income, Poverty and Health Insurance Coverage in the United States: 2006, see http://www.census.gov/prod/2007pubs/p60-233.pdf (accessed 5 August 2008).
8 The Helsinki-based World Institute for Development Economics Research of the United Nations University (UNU-WIDER) finds that assets of just $61,000 per adult placed a household in the top 10% of the world wealth distribution in the year 2000, while assets of more than $500,000 placed one in the richest 1%, a group with 37 million members worldwide. See http://www.wider.unu.edu/events/past-events/2006-events/en_GB/05-12-2006 (accessed 5 August 2008).
9 See Stephen I. Wright, “Parables on Poverty and Riches (Luke 12:13-21; 16:1-13; 16:19-31),” in Challenge of Jesus' Parables, ed. Richard N. Longenecker (Grand Rapids, MI: W.B. Eerdmans Pub. Co., 2000), 217-239.
10 See Albert Vanhoye, “The Jubilee Year in the Gospel of Luke,” Theological-Historical Commission, http://www.vatican.va/jubilee_2000/magazine/documents/ju_mag_01031997_p-22_en.html (accessed 5 August 2008).
11 John Chrysostom, Homily 50 on the Gospel of Matthew, §4.
12 John Paul II, Sollicitudo Rei Socialis (1987), §42.