Tag Archives: the rich

Income Redistribution is not Christian Teaching

English: Jesus Christ - detail from Deesis mos...
English: Jesus Christ – detail from Deesis mosaic, Hagia Sophia, Istanbul (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Commentators, economic analysts, and even some pastors are using a term lately that has sent me scrambling for understanding. The term is “income disparity.” I recently undertook some research on that term and l learned that it refers to the gap between the individuals who are statistically identified as the highest income earners and those identified as the lowest income earners. Apparently, the amount earned at these different levels in the USA has been widening for several years, and the trend has roused panicked concern in some circles. What led me to do the research was a growing trend in public discourse to speak of “the rich” as if they were evil because of their ability to earn so much. The scorn usually morphs into allegations that rich people ought to pay more in taxes simply because they are rich. The rhetoric hinges on a concept labeled their “fair share” in taxes.

In all the discussions I have read and heard, few people seem to take note that history shows that income gaps have widened and narrowed over and over throughout history. In the material I was able to find, there was no credible evidence that the disparity was due to selfish or wicked behavior by people with high income. To say that is not to say that all rich people are good, but there is no evidence they are all bad, either. I concluded long ago that you could not assume anything about the moral character of an individual by knowing his income.

What baffles me is to hear pastors talk about income disparity as if God wanted the government to fix it. It baffles me to hear pastors suggest that the government ought to fix anything. It baffles me profoundly to hear pastors say that, just like the politicians, they think rich people ought to pay an even higher tax rate than they pay now. Pastors are entitled to their own political views, of course, but they are not entitled to appropriate the gospel of Jesus Christ to serve their political agendas. It baffles me still more to try to figure out how taxing rich people at a high rate will result in higher income for the poor. I don’t see any theological justification for the idea, and I don’t see any logical justification for the idea. History records that something similar was the basis for life in the former Soviet Union. If that experiment is any evidence, the idea of income redistribution by a government will do nothing but impoverish a whole nation.

Christ did not teach anything remotely like income redistribution by the government. If he had believed in that idea, he lived under the perfect government for it. The Roman government was a model of administrative genius. In an age without electricity, telephones, or the internet, Rome ruled a huge empire, and it did that job so well that Roman law is still a model for all of us to learn from. If Christ wanted a government with the will and the power to take the wealth of the richest people and divide it up among all the other people, he could hardly have found a better choice. But Christ did not suggest any such thing. Not then. Not now.

Christ taught that people should give thanks to God for what they had and live in grateful stewardship of their possessions. Christ did not teach that people should camp out on the estates of the wealthy and call the property owners vulgar names and express their vile envy of those who happen to have more of the world’s goods. Christ taught that his followers should put the kingdom of God ahead of self-aggrandizement, in fact, they should deny self altogether, and be like him. Being like him means to love God above all and to love people. Being like him means to spend your time and energy doing what God created you to do, not envying and maligning other people who happen to have more money.

Christ taught that everyone is valuable to God. He did tell his followers to be givers, not takers, which pretty much undercuts participation in a movement to besmirch the character of people who are wealthy and steal their wealth from them. Being Christ-like means that his followers will not support an autocratic and tyrannical attempt by the government to take half or more of the income of some citizens simply because they have large incomes. This is an outrage and an insult to the gospel.

Christ did teach loving charity. He taught his followers to be servants. But he also taught his followers to be wise as serpents and harmless as doves. Serpentine wisdom informs me that government is a devious manipulator of all the money it receives. The more money the government receives from the people, the more money simply disappears from any accounting. The government is not a good steward of the people’s money, which is why people who are wise as serpents will give the government the least amount of money it needs to do its legitimate jobs. The task of stealing from the rich to give to the poor, or the task of attempting to make us all believe that is what it is doing, is not a legitimate job of government. Christians who take Christ’s teachings seriously are already busy about helping the poor and the hungry and the sick. The more the government takes, the less is available for those charitable endeavors. As a matter of fact, the government has recently intruded into those institutions with the consequence of first taking from them money that should serve their charitable endeavors and second forcing them to use that money to do things inimical to their faith. This is only one example of the reason government must be kept within the boundaries of its legitimate roles.

Christians always want to do what Jesus would do. Jesus would not give to Caesar anything that did not belong to him. The income of the citizens does not belong to the government, and the government has never been awarded by God or by the Constitution with the authority to tell any citizen how much income is “enough” for him. Christians must beware of false prophets who try to look like cute little lambs when under that innocent mask they are ravening wolves who will take everything all citizens have, not just the rich, and then bite off the hand that gives it.

What is so Wrong About Being Rich?

The latest brouhaha in the world of taxation is a big push called the “Buffet Rule.” It is only one of many assaults on people who have been successful in building wealth. It is part of a mindset that I find extremely offensive. I am not a wealthy person myself, and I have never been wealthy, but I have never been able to dredge up the pseudo-moral outrage that is expressed publicly against people who have become wealthy.

This kind of attitude is in direct opposition to the teachings of Jesus. Jesus never said that it was okay to hate rich people or steal their wealth. If you think I am wrong about this, please point me to the teaching you have in mind. I can think of two times Jesus spoke about the difficulty rich people have with spiritual growth, but I am not aware of even one place where Jesus said that anybody should steal from the rich and give to the poor.

 (1-A rich man came to him to ask how to have eternal life. Jesus told him to be perfect ((keep the Law)) but the man said he was already perfect. Jesus told him to sell everything and give it to the poor. Notice that he said nothing about the man’s riches until the man alleged to be perfect. It was the man’s failure to put God first, not his possession of wealth, that was the problem. 2-Jesus said it was as hard for a rich man to get into heaven as for a camel to go through a needle’s eye. This doesn’t mean that Jesus thought wealthy people were wickeder than others. He simply observed that it was hard for them to put God first. Notice that he doesn’t say poor people get in easily. He just says that riches can make it hard for people to put God first.)

When I was a child I really liked the Robin Hood story, because I thought of Robin Hood in the same way I thought of Superman and Mighty Mouse. These were magical and mythical characters who fixed what was broken at the snap of a finger. They thumbed their noses at those who doubted them. I still like a good story that smacks of David’s victory over Goliath. We all do. However, in the real world, the idea of anything or anyone forcibly appropriating things that do not belong to them is repugnant.

The envy, anger and outright hatred directed against “the rich” in current political rhetoric, however, is not David versus Goliath. It is not the sheep against the goats in the final judgment. It is simple jealousy fueling gang warfare. It is mob violence. It is beneath contempt for anyone who claims the name of Christ to join in.

The rhetoric goes something like this. Look at that evil rich person. He doesn’t need all that money. He should be glad to give it away to help poor people. If he doesn’t voluntarily give it all away, we should take it away from him by force. We won’t personally steal it from him. We’ll go get our big brother, the federal government to do it for us.

As I listen to speakers, starting with our president and moving through his entire administration, all spokespersons for Democrats, some spokespersons for Republicans, numerous religious leaders, most of the media, and assorted private individuals I have encountered, I am appalled at the number who actually believe that this attitude is something Jesus would be proud of. I am also appalled at the number who believe they can define ‘the rich’ according to their annual taxable income. I am appalled at the number who seem to believe they have the right and the obligation to say what is “enough” for someone else. Even jurnalists, who of all people ought to be even-handed in their quest for truth, join in the assault. They freely label and classify everyone according to income, and they all feel qualified and authorized to cast aspersions on anyone who does not fit their approved model for income and lifestyle. They have appointed themselves to run other people’s lives. One wonders, who tells these critics what they can keep out of their personal income.

None of this is consistent with Jesus’ teaching that we are not to judge others. Jesus said, “Do not judge, so that you may not be judged. For with the judgment you make you will be judged,”[1] Imagine that the CBS News anchor says of a hypothetical Mr. Brown that he “doesn’t need three cars and he has no right to jet off to Las Vegas every year. Why does he need two houses? One is enough for anybody.” According to Jesus, that kind of attitude calls down a similar judgment on the speaker. Such statements imply that God has authorized some people to judge what other people deserve to possess. This is not Jesus’ way.

Jesus teaches us to love everyone – even the rich. Jesus teaches us to speak well of everyone. Jesus teaches us not to envy what others have, but rather, to be content with what we have.

In case you think this rule is relaxed as long as you don’t try to take the wealth of others for yourself, think again. God does not authorize people to define fiscal classes of people and steal from one class in order to pretend to benefit another. Keep in mind that God never gives out possessions evenly. You and I might think every person ought to have exactly the same as all the others, but that is not God’s way. Even if we pass a lot of laws to grab up wealth from some people and hand it over to others, you can be sure that all people in the world will not wind up with the same amount of money. Some of the inequity will be due to human venality, and some of the inequity will be a result of failure to show stewardship of God’s gifts.

The human campaign to make sure everyone has the same amount of possessions, including money, is exactly that: human. It has nothing to do with Jesus or his teaching. Jesus did not teach that any of us has the right or the scriptural obligation to tell others what they can or cannot possess. Jesus did confront people individually about the way they used their possessions, but he never said that some of us have the right to judge or steal from the rest of us.

In simple words: Do not envy people who happen to have more possessions or wealth or whatever other advantages you care to envy. Jesus taught us to love everyone and be grateful for what God has given us. Jesus is as disturbed by envy of the rich as he is disturbed by disdain for the poor.

There is a political agenda that is fueled by hatred and aggression toward “the rich.” In that political world, everyone who achieves great power in the administration of wealth redistribution becomes personally wealthy. Everybody else winds up with nothing. The national motto of that way of life was: “We pretend to work and they pretend to pay us.” The nation was the former USSR. The USSR was an atheistic socialistic heaven on earth that collapsed politically under the weight of its multitude of failures to serve its population. This nation is exactly what you get when you turn away from Christ and choose to follow the economic and political philosophy of socialism.

When you follow Christ, you are individually responsible for what you do with every gift God gives you. You help poor people personally and through private charities. You don’t empower government to steal from everyone. Jesus never said that we should worship and serve the state. Jesus said we should put God ahead of everything. Our two most important laws in obedience to Christ are first, love God above all else, and second, love your neighbor (even your wealthy neighbor) as yourself. That is what Jesus taught.

I repeat here my original comment. If you think Jesus taught us to judge and steal from the rich in the name of charity to the poor, please point me to that teaching in the Bible. I welcome your comments, and I love the conversation.

[1]The Holy Bible : New Revised Standard Version. 1989 (Mt 7:1–2). Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers.