Chapter 17: Possessions and the Use of Money
“No one can serve two masters; for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and mammon.” (Matthew 6:24)
In Chapter 16 we looked at the themes of a Christian life and at how such a life is oriented towards God and neighbor. There is, however, one god in particular that competes for our loyalty with a great deal of success. This god named Mammon — money or wealth — commands the devotion of so many in our society that we need to ask how we as Christians can deal with a pagan god whose worship seems institutionalized in our very economic system. If we are to live faithfully and in right relationship, what does this mean for our participation in the middle class of a capitalist society? In this chapter we will look at our approach as individuals to possessions and the use of money, and then in Chapter 18 we will consider the economic system itself.
But first this note: I am not saying that how we use our money is more important than how we use our time and our talents. Certainly how we use these is crucial. But our time and talents often follow our treasure. (I have often heard it said that it’s easier for people to give money to a project than time, but I have never seen the resulting flood of funds that this would lead one to expect.)
We do need to be as careful in how we use our time and talents as in how we use our money. This understanding is implicit in the discussion that follows.
But it is with regard to money and property that the apparent values of our society most obviously conflict with the values of Christianity. This difference in values must be seriously confronted by anyone who has decided to try to live as a Christian. An individual is considered a success by our society if they earn a lot of money, gain power and influence, and/or accumulate valuable possessions. On the other hand, an individual is successful at living as a Christian if they live for others; if they are oriented towards sharing (not gaining for themselves), towards people (not things), towards values (not status or public opinion); if they are concerned first and foremost about living in right relationship.
Since this faith orientation is incompatible with the direction and the singleness of purpose usually necessary to acquire significant wealth, it is uncommon for serious Christians to be rich (by American standards — are we not all rich in comparison to most of the world?). But this problem confronts all of us, not just the wealthy. The serious Christian cannot wholeheartedly buy into the “American Dream”.
And is there any such thing as an “unserious” Christian, a Christian who is not serious about his or her faith? How could there be? Only if we acknowledged as Christian all those people who say they “believe” but do not live accordingly. But to call these people Christians is to make a mockery of the word, a mockery of faith and commitment and Jesus Christ.
This is not necessarily to condemn those who do not live as Christians (except — if they claim to be Christians — as hypocrites). Going against the accepted values of society, especially when it means turning away from material rewards, is a difficult thing to do. We should not expect that a large percentage of people will do this, and those who do not, need not be thought of as immoral or inferior in any way. There are many fine human beings among them. But if they place pursuit of the American dream above living faithfully then they simply aren’t Christians.
This being the case, how then does a middle class American live as a Christian?
I do not ask this as a trivial question. I am myself a child of the great American middle class, and I love it dearly. It is, as a whole, the best-educated, most civic-minded, most tolerant and charitable majority of any society anywhere. Yet I have struggled long and hard with the question of whether it is possible to be a member of this class and at the same time to be a Christian.
It comes down to the age-old challenge of being in the world but not of it. We can live as Christians in this world and therefore as members of a particular socio-economic class as long as we do not automatically accept its values and standards. We must judge these by a higher standard, accepting what is good and loving and rejecting what is not.
This may sound difficult. At least at first, it is even harder than that.
The values of the middle class by which we must beware being seduced include the presumption that we have a right to aspire to a certain level of material prosperity, and that this prosperity will (and ought to be) our primary goal, and will (and ought to) show itself in a certain level of material possessions. For example, we must recognize and challenge the all-too-common presumption that the higher paying job is necessarily better. (This presumption is in fact being challenged by many people who are placing more emphasis on job satisfaction and lifestyle, but this is all too often merely a reorientation of our selfishness from one kind of satisfaction to another.) We must also challenge the presumption in ourselves that if we earn enough money we have the right — some probably feel it a middle class duty — to provide ourselves with a large house, new car, nice furniture, more new clothes, vacations trips, TV, appliances, the newest electronic gadgets, and so on ad clutterum.
Where is it written that it is our duty to provide ourselves and our families with the best homes and all the possessions we can afford — or maybe can’t afford? It is written in the advertisements that confront us constantly in newspapers and magazines, on radio and television. It is spoken in the actions of so many around us. It is shouted out in the lives of those who cannot find security or acceptance within themselves and so seek it in status and possessions.
Don’t we have the right to spend our own hard-earned money as we please? When the price of a new suit will immunize a thousand children, when the money we would spend on a new television or a fancier vacation would feed a starving village for a week, when the down payment on a new car would dig a new well and provide new life and hope — do we have this right?
What do we have the right to provide for ourselves? Certainly food, clothing, shelter and other basic necessities. Enough and nutritious food, good clothing and a decent place to live. And certainly we ought to be able to enjoy the world, to partake of the pleasures of recreation and hobbies, of sports and culture. But how much is necessity and how much is luxury? How much is helpful? To how much do we have a right?
In answering these questions there is a temptation to go to one of two extremes: asceticism on the one hand or self-indulgence on the other. While both of these are dangerous in their one-sided approach to the material world, the former will hardly strike the disinterested observer as much of a threat to the American middle class. As for the latter, however — what could be a more natural excess for a class of people which defines itself primarily by reference to monetary earnings and material possessions?
How do we find the responsible middle ground? For that matter, does the responsible answer lie in the middle?
Thoughtful Christians (as well as others) will agree that there is a limit to the luxuries which we can in good faith bestow upon ourselves while others less fortunate than ourselves are in serious want. But where, and how, do you draw the line?
There are three questions that will help us to address this: (1) What is necessary and what is luxury? (2) What do we owe our own families? (3) What, then, would constitute a faithful approach to the use of our hard-earned money?
1. What Is Necessary?
In order to appreciate the huge amount of money that we spend on luxuries for ourselves, either on “things” or on enjoyment, we need to take a hard look at just how much — or rather how little — is truly necessary.
We need enough food to keep us going, clothes to cover us, shelter from the elements. A strict constructionist might point out that we would have what is strictly necessary if we had a room (or a small apartment in the case of a family), a change of clothes (and a warm coat up north), and if we ate 1500 to 2000 calories per day (the American average is 3200). How miserable such an existence would seem to most of us! Yet how much better off than a large percentage of the world’s population we would be!
I am not suggesting that we limit our lifestyles to this level, although many of us would be better off spiritually and emotionally if we did, and many others of us may need to do something like this to free ourselves from captivity to the gods of consumerism. I am suggesting that we keep in mind how little is actually physically necessary as we establish in our own minds our own level of “necessities”. Surely we do not need to consider everything above this physical minimum to be a luxury. But just as surely we had better not buy into what our society tries to tell us is necessary, and keeping in mind the low level of strictly physical necessity should help us in this regard.
2. What Do We Owe Our Families?
What do we owe our families, our spouses and children? We owe them a decent and safe home, a healthy environment, a good education and an atmosphere of love and discipline. The most important thing that we can do as parents is to prepare our children to live meaningful, productive lives. But by “productive” I do not mean producing material goods or wealth, but rather productive in the sense of being effective, of pursuing and reaching goals in keeping with our deepest values. What our children need in order to be able to lead this kind of life is a feeling of self-worth, the ability to think for themselves and make decisions, and the underlying values to guide these decisions and give meaning to their lives.
Too often we think that what we should do for our children is to make them happy. And too often we think that the way to do this is to buy them things: things that are pretty, things that are fun, things that snap and pop and whir and race and entertain — until we have taught our children that the purpose of life is to be happy and that being happy means having pleasure or being entertained. Someone who is oriented this way will go through life always lacking the deeper inner contentment which “entertainment” cannot give, seeking value in things and in pleasure, and never finding true happiness.
Happiness itself is not the goal. Happiness is a by-product of having meaning in our lives. For children, this requires a loving and secure home. For adults — which our children will become — this requires values that transcend pleasure and possessions, values that give meaning to our actions and our relationships and our whole way of life.
If, then, our most important task as parents is to impart these values — Christian values if we are Christians — we must ask ourselves whether it’s more important to buy that new car or sofa or refrigerator or suit or toy or thing-a-ma-jig (for us or for our children), or whether it is not more important to make do without this and share out of our resources with the poor and the hungry, the persecuted and the refugees and the homeless. Which course of action is more likely to teach the values we want to pass on?
The same reasoning applies to spouses. We need to encourage each other not to seek shallow pleasures, but to grow and to mature and to live up to our highest values and greatest potentials. Too often in marriages there is the real temptation of settling on the lowest common denominator or of going along with our mate instead of our conscience in order to keep the peace. We should not sacrifice our integrity this way. Neither should we try to buy each other’s favor or please each other with an excess of “things”, which is another great temptation. Instead, it is much more important that we help our spouse to be the person he or she should be — by helping each other become mature, loving Christians, realizing our fullest human potential, becoming what we can and ought to be.
3. What Constitutes the Faithful Use of Money?
In light of all this, what is the faithful Christian approach to the use of money? There are two general approaches open to us, each with its advantages and disadvantages, but each representing a legitimate Christian option. We can call these two responses: (A) the radical response, and (B) the uncomfortable middle.
(A) The Radical Response
By calling this the “radical response” I don’t mean that it is better or worse, nor do I mean that those who follow it are more radically Christian. I simply mean that this approach seems more radical, more extreme, in its departure from the normal pattern of life in our society.
This approach to money and possessions (and life in general) has the advantage that it seriously confronts some important facts about our world: (1) that there is a great inequity in the distribution of wealth in the world, with a relative few enjoying great wealth while a great many remain trapped in abject poverty; (2) that many people in our own affluent society are psychologically trapped by material things to the point that these things come between them and God; (3) that many of those who are suffering from severe want could be helped with the money that we would otherwise use on non-essential things for ourselves; and (4) that we are called by God to be in community with each other, across divisions of race and nation and class.
The radical response to these facts is to restrict our own consumption of goods and services, our own material standard of living, either in order to share more of our wealth with those in need, or in order to serve God better by using our time to work for justice and peace or by sharing the lot of the poor. (The more we share their lot of poverty, of course, the less we are able to help in material ways.) This decision to restrict or reduce our standard of living means a conscious decision to forego many of the common aspirations of our middle class, whether in terms of possessions, travel, social status, or security.
This may sound either scary or appealing, or both. It certainly takes God’s call seriously. But we need to be aware of several drawbacks or dangers to the radical response.
The first danger is that, with its strong appeal to the sense of the dramatic and the romantic, the radical response may attract individuals who see the world in black and white, who may then see themselves as “holier than thou” because they make do without new furniture or red meat or homogenized peanut butter. It may be that these people are in fact hiding from complexity. On the other hand, maybe they recognize that they need to do this in their own lives in order to be faithful. But there remains a danger of self-righteousness. Certainly it must be tempting to look at all you’re doing without, especially in comparison to much of our affluent society, and to feel that you are better, that you have demonstrated your faith and devotion — maybe even to feel you have done your part. Besides leading to a sinful pride, this can also lead you to miss the point entirely. The point is right relationship. So the question is not, “What are you doing without?” The question is, “What are you doing for the rest of the world?”1
A second danger is inherent in one of the strategies commonly used in the radical response: living in community in the sense of shared or communal living. This involves the sharing of living space and resources in order to reduce one’s personal living expenses and/or to free up more individual time and energy for mission of one kind or another and/or to provide mutual support in living a more person-centered and God-centered life. Often the avowed purpose includes all three of these, and there is much about living in community in this way that is very attractive. But there is an inherent danger in this approach which derives from the fact that human nature makes it difficult for a group of people to share money and meals and chores and living space equitably and harmoniously, particularly if they try to do this in a democratic way. (Perhaps this is one reason why monasteries are so strong on structure and obedience.) So it is not unusual for an immense amount of time and effort to be needed just to keep the cooperative venture going. Quite often a great investment of energy must be made just to decide who is responsible for what — who does the dishes and takes out the trash — and to deal with all the human interrelationship problems that can sometimes just be endured from 9 to 5 but which must be resolved if we are to be in community together. And a natural result of this is that no one in the community has any energy to deal with anything else, so instead of having a ministry to anybody else the venture becomes so inward-looking that it has no impact on the rest of the world.
A third problem with the radical approach is that it is essentially an option only for the relatively affluent. You can’t give up something you never had, or make a virtue of doing without something that was never a possibility for you. There are many people in our society who are struggling hard just to remain at a very moderate standard of living. The danger is that some advocates might promote voluntary poverty or near-poverty as the Christian option while in reality we need to be working as a society to help people work themselves out of poverty. In fact voluntary poverty remains a luxury available only to the well-to-do, who always seem to have the personal resources and abilities to get back out of it if they should change their minds.
Finally, since one of the purposes of the radical response is to share more of our material resources with others, we run into a fourth drawback. Christianity has always recognized that self-interest is a strong motivator for us human beings, that selfishness is hard to overcome. The fact is that there are very few human beings who will work as hard to earn money for someone else as they will to earn it for themselves, or who will work as hard to earn $10,000 for themselves and $10,000 for others as they will to earn $20,000 for themselves. Therefore, if we simplify our lifestyle and reduce our needs as part of the radical response, it seems likely that this reduction in needs will be followed by a reduction in income. The result, and the fourth drawback, is that those opting for a simpler lifestyle or a “Christian community” may very well end up with less disposable income to share with those in need.
Of course, our gifts to the cause of God cannot be measured only in Terms of money. If we change our job and earn less and so have less to give others, we may more than make up for this by devoting our time and energy to the poor and the hungry, by campaigning for peace and justice. That is, if we don’t succumb to the second danger above and get so absorbed in the internal workings and personal relationships that we have no time or energy left for the rest of the world.
These four drawbacks represent a real danger involved in the radical response. Those who choose this approach must beware lest they end up as self-centered and self-righteous communities of upper middle class people playing at being poor, preoccupied with their own problems and contributing little or nothing to helping others or to resolving the world’s problems.
In spite of this danger, however, this radical response must be recognized as a viable and important Christian alternative. It is viable because these temptations and drawbacks can be overcome with wisdom and persistence and hard work. And it is important because the people who choose this option are at least confronting the important issues, are at least asking the right questions.
It is also important, even if it appeals to only a few, because it serves as a valuable and maybe necessary reminder to the rest of us. Those of us who are struggling not to be owned by our possessions at the same time we are struggling to be able to buy more or newer or better things for ourselves need the example of people who simply do without these things — by choice! — as a reminder of how unimportant they really are. We need to see people around us who are free of the slavery to worldly goods, who find meaning and satisfaction without them, who challenge our middle class stereotypes and assumptions and values.
The drawbacks and dangers of the radical response can be overcome, if with difficulty, and those who respond to the gospel in this way have the great advantage that they are taking their faith seriously. Is this true of the rest of us? This is the great challenge to those of us who remain members of the affluent society, those of us who are unable or unwilling to make the sacrifices or the great change in lifestyle of the radical response: are we able to be serious about our faith? Is there a way in which we can be faithful? This is an important question, because if the answer is “no” then the radical response is in fact the only viable option for Christians.
(B) The Uncomfortable Middle
For this to be a Christian alternative we must make several assumptions: (1) that the world is good and is to be enjoyed, and that there is nothing intrinsically wrong with enjoying travel or fine food or nice furnishings or an attractive home; (2) that the important question is not what we are doing without but what we are doing to help others; that is, the goal is not in itself to lower our own standard of living but to live for others (which we may or may not be able to do without a reduction in our own material standard of living); (3) that many people can be challenged and inspired to follow this alternative who would never adopt the radical response; and (4) that individuals following this response can accomplish a lot of concrete good in the world.
But all this is nothing more than a fatuous rationalization for a selfish way of life if we do not have a commitment above all to live faithfully, to deal with the challenge of right relationship with God and neighbor. All this is empty if we do not take seriously the call of Christ and the needs of our fellow human beings.
How do we do this? How do we live comfortably — by which I mean no more than enjoying a lifestyle typical of the American middle class, which compared to most of the world is very comfortable indeed — and also take seriously the needs of our neighbors?
Probably the most important element here is seriousness of intent. There are various strategies that can be adopted regarding the use of money, but first you must be willing to accept the fact that all that you have is ultimately God’s, that there are alternative uses for your money, that your decision on how to spend $100 can literally be a life or death decision for a starving child half a world away. Without this seriousness of intent, without this willingness to struggle with the question of what discipleship means, we cannot hope to discover what our faith means to our way of life — which means we cannot hope to be faithful.
Once you have this seriousness you may not absolutely need a system for the use of your money. On the other hand, to avoid a constant succession of agonizing decisions, for the sake of consistency, and to keep ourselves honest and faithful in the face of constant temptation, a standard or system seems called for. No one standard is right for everyone, for our circumstances vary a great deal. But there are several ways of developing an appropriate standard which would apply to any one of us.
One way of doing this is simply to set a dollar figure, a certain amount per week or per month, that you give to church and charities. This amount should be more than you think you can easily do. There are too many people who put their dollar in the collection plate every week (or whenever they go to church every month or so) and think that takes care of that. I cannot recommend this particular method of setting a standard for anyone above the poverty level because it is too easy for us to be satisfied with doing too little.
A second method, long advocated and practiced by many Christians, is to give a certain percentage of your gross income. The traditional norm for this is “tithing”, or giving 10% of your income to the church, but nowadays this needs to be treated more flexibly in two regards: first, the percentage that you give can be shared with more than just the local church, and perhaps should be. There are many individuals in need of help and many organizations doing God’s work and it is not inappropriate for some of our giving to go directly to these other ministries.2 Second, ten percent is often not a realistic figure. For individuals earning the minimum wage, who have to feed and clothe and house themselves just like the rest of us, ten percent is often unrealistically high. For many Americans, whose earnings are several times the minimum wage, ten percent may be unrealistically low. The responsible and faithful level for our own situation is something that we must each prayerfully decide.
A third method for determining how much you ought to be sharing with the rest of the world is based not on a percentage of income nor on how many (or few) dollars you feel you can spare each week, but instead on your own needs and your own use of money. The idea here is to keep track of what you need to provide yourself with necessities, the assumption being that what you have left over to spend on luxuries for yourself ought to be shared in some meaningful way with those who lack even basic necessities. (This can be combined with either of the first two methods to give a balanced approach.)
This method requires a good measure of real honesty with yourself as to what constitutes a necessity. In fact, judging from all the luxuries that people seem to feel they need, it must require an uncommon amount of honesty. A house in good repair and large enough for your family, with furniture in good condition, would qualify as a necessity (or as a necessary decency) for almost all of us. A house with extra rooms for everybody’s hobbies or with furnishings that look like a Good Housekeeping centerfold is a luxury. A motor vehicle in good working order and a stove and refrigerator are necessities for most of us. A new car, new appliances and many household gadgets are luxuries. Time off from work and time to be with your family is a necessity; vacation trips and nice meals in restaurants are luxuries. We must keep in mind that wanting something very badly or feeling a great need for it does not make it a necessity.
Once we have exercised the necessary discipline to thoughtfully challenge ourselves and establish a fair and faithful standard of what is truly necessary for us, the next steps are to follow this to its logical conclusion and then to take this conclusion to heart: once we have what is necessary, anything else is unnecessary, is a luxury. Yet while we spend money on luxuries for ourselves so many others lack even basic physical necessities. Can we do this? How do we deal faithfully with this situation?
Some of those who follow the radical response would say that we cannot indulge in any luxuries for ourselves while our neighbors (wherever they may be) are suffering. While such intense commitment and self-sacrifice as this may be admirable and in many ways appealing, it also smacks of asceticism and supererogation. It is also unlikely to attract adherents. And furthermore, we do have a right to enjoy life, to taste and see the uplifting pleasures of God’s world. A standard of morality that recognizes this while it calls us to be faithful just might succeed.
So, once we have provided ourselves with the basic necessities, we need to balance our spending on luxuries for ourselves with spending on necessities for others. Once we have what we truly need we should use our money to buy what we don’t need only if this is accompanied or preceded by using some of our money on behalf of others who need so much. This is a clear implication of our Christian faith.
But how do we set the proportion? This is a difficult and important decision. How do we set the proportion between what we spend on luxuries for ourselves and what we spend on necessities for the rest of the world? Is it unreasonable to expect that we spend as much on food and medical care and justice for the whole rest of the world as we do on luxuries for ourselves? I think not. For some, because of unusual circumstances, this may be too high a proportion. For those who can afford whatever they want this may be too low. For many it would make sense to give a certain percentage each week and then match what we spend on luxuries with additional giving.
What about money that is put into savings and investments instead of into luxuries? Money put aside for purchases in the not-too-far-distant future can appropriately be shared either when it is saved or when it is spent. But what about people who prefer to add to their own wealth instead of spending? Surely this, too, must be shared to the extent it surpasses our own needs. But what about all those of us who are trying to save up enough to be secure in our old age? Are there not also limits to how much we can in good conscience lay up for ourselves?
There are two separate but related questions here, one about security and one about wealth: (1) To what extent does living faithfully allow for storing up treasures on earth for our own future security? And (2) is it possible to accumulate or keep great wealth and also to live a faithful life?
The answer to both is, only in so far as this security or wealth is a means and not an end, only in so far as it is a means to living faithfully. We will look at what this means in each case.
(1) Security: “Therefore do not be anxious about tomorrow?’ But we are anxious about tomorrow! Is this sinful? Perhaps this anxiety is the wages of sin, the result of an unhealthy attachment to things and to our own comfort and to our own selfish desires for the future.
But there is also something else at work here. Our society is not the same as that of first century Palestine, where families were close-knit and stable and elders were respected and those few who lived to a ripe old age could count on living out their years as an honored member of an extended family. A good majority of us now live past the Biblical goal of three-score and ten. Our children live in their own homes, often far away, and we don’t want to have to live with them or they with us (“What? Give up my home?”) even if we could get along for more than a short visit. Nor do they have the resources to support us.
In this different kind of society it is irresponsible for us not to plan ahead, not to figure out how we are going to make ends meet, not to plan for retirement. The cyclical ravages of inflation, the doubts about the future of Social Security and the continuing escalation of health care costs must cause at least occasional anxiety for any prudent person. To dismiss this by saying that God will take care of you is really to say that someone else will provide for your needs, that you are planning on luck or on being a burden to society (or to some group or individual), and that you are planning not only on not being able to help the poor but on taking resources yourself that otherwise could have gone to help others.
Nevertheless, if it is responsible and faithful to arrange it so we can take care of ourselves, there are definite limits to the extent we can faithfully go in this effort. Again, the question is: Who are we serving? Ourselves? Mammon? Or God? Even as we plan for our future security this must not be an end in itself but a means to allow us to continue living a life that is active, helpful and caring for others. And again, a certain balance is required. We cannot just pile up assets for ourselves while others are in need.
The more secure our own future is, the greater the proportion of our wealth in excess of our necessities we need to share. If we own our own home (and will have it paid for), if we have vested rights in a good pension plan or have significant investments, then we need to give much more to others than if this were not the case. But even if our future is uncertain we cannot invest all of our resources in our own security, for that would be to build our own well-being on sins of omission, on the suffering of others that we could have alleviated and didn’t.
(2) Wealth: “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.” (Mark. 10:25) While Jesus does then allow that “all things are possible with God”, it is evident that he considered a rich man or woman’s entry into the kingdom to be rather unlikely and very difficult. This is not so much a judgment upon the rich as it is a recognition of human nature. We humans are always tempted to serve ourselves instead of others, to put our trust in ourselves and our possessions instead of in God. Those who are wealthy simply have that much more temptation: privileges to protect, comfort to be seduced by, power to put faith in, wealth to serve and worship. How strong must be the soul who would be faithful in the face of this!
Can you be wealthy and also faithful? Yes, if you serve God first. But this may mean that you can’t stay wealthy. And certainly faithfulness is more difficult when you have so many glittering gods clamoring for your devotion.
You can be wealthy and faithful the same way you can be talented and faithful or intelligent and faithful or famous or beautiful or popular and faithful. To be faithful you must serve God with your talent or your intelligence or your fame or beauty or popularity. To be faithful, the wealthy must serve God with their wealth.
How do you do this? How do you serve God with your wealth? This should be obvious: by using it to help others in need. You can do this by giving to the poor and the hungry (or other worthwhile causes) all that you have in excess of what you need for a moderate middle class lifestyle. In principle, you can also do this by holding on to your wealth and using it to help the poor and powerless or to accomplish other good. We must ask under what circumstances this could be justified.
Hanging on to great wealth is justified only when it is done in order to help others. That is not the same thing as doing some good in order to justify to yourself your holding on to your wealth. It does not mean giving a few thousand to charity when you are worth a million. Nor does it mean retaining ownership of a business and justifying it by the fact that you provide jobs for people if your successor would do the same.
Hanging on to substantial wealth can be justified only if you can accomplish at least as much good by hanging on to it as by giving the whole lot to a relief agency that would use it to fight hunger or to a scholarship fund for the underprivileged or to similar good causes. But it seems quite unlikely that an individual could in fact do as much good as this for the world by keeping his or her wealth to themselves. So the argument usually comes down to this: we just don’t want to let go. “It’s mine, dammit! It’s my money, my property, and I earned it or inherited it fair and square. It belongs to me, and I’m going to keep it, because it’s mine and I want it!”
Whatever our stated rationale, this is almost always the real reason we hang on to our wealth: we’re selfish. And surely it is our legal right to keep it all to ourselves. But just as surely it is not faithful. When we just won’t let go or can’t let go, we are being sinful, grasping and hoarding. We are worshipping Mammon.
We need to say that it is possible for an individual to have faithful reasons for hanging on to substantial wealth: if, for instance, that person uses ownership in a business to pursue policies with important benefits to society, or is able to provide jobs for people that no one else would hire, or is able because of keeping their wealth to accomplish some unique and valuable good that at least equals the good that could be realized if this wealth were wisely given away. Another possibility is that an individual could give away the income produced by their wealth on an annual basis as wisely as anyone else. However, while there is something to be said for avoiding the bureaucracy of agencies and foundations, there is also something to be said for making use of their expertise. Furthermore, income taxes may mean that a significantly smaller amount is available for giving if the income is an individual’s than if it is a tax-exempt organization’s.
The biggest problem, though, is that it is just so extremely difficult for a human being to hold on to wealth with one hand and give away most of the proceeds with the other. With rare exceptions the temptation to indulge ourselves and the drive to amass more for ourselves is just too great. In fact it is almost never the case that we can accomplish as much good by hanging on to wealth in excess of our needs as we can by giving it away. We would like to think that we can because we don’t want to give up the power and prestige and prerogatives of being wealthy. It’s simply too nice being rich to want to give it up. So we buy fancy cars and travel first class and build mansions for ourselves and furnish them with luxuries to satisfy our whims while our neighbors on this planet live in shacks and struggle against oppression and watch their children die young from lack of food and medical care. It is not enough to say, “Ah well, the world is an imperfect place.” We who would be faithful must do what we can in the name of the Christ. If we have the resources to help others but do not, if instead we keep our fists tightly closed on what is “ours” then we have turned our backs not only on the least of these our brethren but also on God.
We have now considered several methodologies for arriving at a standard of what we must share of our own with the rest of the world if we are to remain a part of the middle class of an affluent society and still be faithful. Which particular approach we follow is not nearly as important as the need for us to faithfully confront the fact of our own good fortune and others’ misfortune, and to share of what we have in a significant way.
In some ways this is more difficult than following the radical response which we considered earlier. It is more difficult because the temptation is stronger to follow the gods of gold and silver, to keep up with the Joneses, and to buy into society’s definition of success. It is more difficult because those who follow the radical response are at least asking the right questions, and sometimes the rest of us don’t even question. It is more difficult because living faithfully in the middle class requires constant attention and will power. This is to be expected, though, when you dwell in enemy territory, or at best in no man’s land. This is why I call this option the uncomfortable middle.
Of course, living in gray is always more difficult than living in black and white. But most of the regions inhabited by human beings are gray, and if we are to reach them we must have a gospel and an ethic that can withstand the lack of easy answers. So even though trying to live faithfully as part of an affluent society, with all the temptations this entails, is in some ways more difficult and more uncomfortable than living the radical response, it does have several important advantages:
(1) First, it is possible. It is possible not only in a theoretical sense and not only for a few, but it presents itself as a real chooseable possibility to many people who could never see the radical response as a live option. It confronts people with the challenge of living faithfully right where they are.
(2) Second, it can accomplish a lot of good in the world. Those who are well off have more resources to share with those who are suffering from poverty or disease, hunger or injustice. God expects more from the affluent middle class: “To whom much has been given, of him will much be required?’ (Luke 22:48) It is all well and good to identify with the poor by joining them, but the poor need more than to have their ranks swollen by children of the middle class who, being poor by choice, will never know the real ravages of poverty. This is not to say that people following the radical response cannot play an important and valuable role. Indeed they can. But the hungry need food and the sick need medical care and the homeless need shelter, and all of these cost money — money that a faithful and sharing middle class could provide a good measure of, certainly enough to do a lot of concrete good.
(3) Third, if our society is to change for the better, this will come from a change in the people who influence our political policies and make our economic decisions. This change will not happen if every Christian who decides to take their faith seriously thereupon drops out of “the system.” It will only happen if the men and women inhabiting the great gray area of every day life, in our homes and shops and factories, in boardrooms and legislative halls, work at living faithfully in all aspects of their lives right where they are. The uncomfortable middle course is the way in which they can do this.
This chapter has dealt specifically with the use of money. But, we need to remember the truth of Jesus’ saying in Matthew 6:21: “Where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.” If we are giving significantly of our own money to combat hunger or poverty or injustice we are very likely to become interested enough in these efforts to invest some time and energy in them, to work with individuals and to become involved in policy debates and to confront the economic system.
And — since policy and structure do matter — it is time for us to proceed from our own personal use of money to an examination of economic systems.
1. There are those who strongly disagree with this position, who maintain that God sides with the poor and therefore if we are to side with God we must be among the poor, or who maintain that what matters for our own soul is how much we sacrifice. Along these lines, for example, see Jim Wallis, The Call to Conversion (Harper and Row, 1981).
2. I should like to point out that denominational and inter-church agencies have by far the best track record on keeping overhead costs down and can often deliver one hundred percent of your donations to the cause for which they are given.