Camel and Needle

Mr. Wehner, 

       Taken seriously, the headline the Washington Post’s editors pinned on your Jan. 12, 1997, op-ed–“Woe to You Who Are Rich”–should have unnerved many in the Beltway. Throughout most of history, rich people have mostly become that way by being connected with the government. They became that way through plunder, war, and taxes.
       Before the advent of the Industrial Revolution and modern capitalism, the rich were almost exclusively state officials, tax collectors, court intellectuals, complicit clerics, merchants, and landowners benefiting from the king’s favors, along with hangers-on who made a killing by trading access to such favors. In all, it’s a good description of today’s Beltway Elite, members of which managed to escape criticism in this article.
       You had a different target in mind. You wonder whether “active Christians” (read: Christian conservatives beyond the Beltway) are “bending Scripture to conform to their political predispositions” toward conservative policies. In fact, you say, the “New Testament says much more about the dangers riches pose to one’s soul than it does about many well-publicized issues about which many Christians feel so strongly.”
       Your point? The Christian right should stop twisting Scripture to justify materialism and acquisitiveness. It should let up on its criticisms of government and turn its attention to Wall Street’s evils. Perhaps it should even join the political left in calling for more wealth distribution for its own sake, since the American people, especially active Christians, are too “reluctant to part with” our “money and riches.”
       Perhaps your piece was a nonpolitical piece of pastoral homiletics, written out of concern for our immortal souls, and your use of first-person plural allows you to say your sermon applies to yourself as well.
       Even so, that’s surely not why the Washington Post ran your piece. No, the journalistic hook here is as plain as day: The policy director of Jack Kemp’s think tank sides with left-liberals on economic issues. The name of your employer appears on the byline, albeit with the caveat, “The views here are his own.”
       So what about it? Are the rich uniquely condemned by Holy Scripture? If so, the matter of who qualifies becomes deeply important. By the standards of biblical times, all but a tiny number of Americans would qualify as “the rich.” The same goes for Western Europeans and increasing numbers of Latins and Asians as well.
       The truth is the whole world is vastly richer today than it was 2,000 years ago, in part because biblical strictures against theft and in favor of work and productivity (see the “Parable of the Talents”) took hold, created the thing we call the free market, and made a difference between poverty and rising living standards for nearly everyone.
       Are you suggesting that prosperity itself should be dampened by public policy in order that we might all get to heaven? This opinion belongs more to heretical sects than orthodox Christianity. Think of the early Gnostics who rejected the Incarnation, the wealth-hating medieval maniacs who followed the violent doctrines of Joachim of Fiora, or the communist Anabaptists the Reformation set loose in Germany.
       Holy Scripture warns of the spiritual dangers of wealth, much as it warns of the temptations of sexuality. Both can be inherently good, but must be directed to their proper ends. The biblical condemnation of wealth is not rooted in ownership but in the various vices which may or may not be connected with it–loving it, acquiring it through unjust means, depending on it instead of God, putting money above faith–using money as an end in itself rather than as a means to a higher end. Christianity has neither taught the evils of wealth as such, nor the glories of the redistributive state in helping us “part with” our money.
       Moreover, for whatever other just criticisms may be made against the Christian right, the notion that it is wealth obsessed doesn’t ring true; on the contrary, conservative American houses of worship are the most generous to the poor of any in the country and the world–and they do it without the aid of the taxing power. Woe to you who are unjustly rich, but also woe to you who use state coercion to steal what does not belong to you.