Thursday, December 01, 2016

The Ethics of Wealth: Reflections from the Book of Amos

                           (Painting: "Saint Lawrence Giving Riches to the Poor," by Palma Giovane, c.1582)

We Americans are members of the wealthiest society in the history of our race. Even our lower classes possess luxuries, thanks to our ever-advancing technology, which previous generations could have only dreamed about. And while a pastoral exhortation on the use of wealth will undoubtedly make some people uneasy, it should be said at the outset that there is nothing inherently sinful in wealth. Indeed, a proper scriptural perspective would, at least in some cases, view it as the blessing of God. However, we are often too content to stop our assessment after asserting that “it’s not a sin to be rich.” Our nervous tremors of guilt are assuaged, and we can merrily go on our way. True, it’s not a sin to be rich, as individuals or as a society. But how we gain our wealth and what we do with it may well reflect sinful priorities and structures. The biblical witness unanimously tells us that sin is serious business, and so we must deal with it seriously, even (perhaps especially) in the area of wealth.
The book of Amos touches on this theme directly, as the prophet proclaims imminent judgment on the northern kingdom of Israel. Amos himself appears to be a figure of significant means, having been both a shepherd and a keeper of sycamore-fig trees in the southern kingdom (7:14). So it is not wealth itself which he opposes, but rather the means through which that wealth was procured and the complacency that it produced among the ruling class. As Hemchand Gossai notes, “It must be understood that the prophets are not members of a particular economic class at odds against another.”
What then is the aim of Amos’ social critique on the matter of wealth? Our first clue comes from 2:6-7, the beginning of the oracle against Israel. Here Amos declares that ‘they’ (Israel in general, but possibly with a more specific view toward the ruling class) “sell…the needy,” perhaps a reference to debt-slavery, and that they trample the poor and deny them justice. This then is the common refrain of Amos’ denouncement of the wealthy Israelites: that their wealth comes, at least in part, at the expense of the poor. This would be in direct violation of the Mosaic codes, which clearly spelled out practices that would protect the poor and honor justice (as well as forbidding the hoarding of wealth by rulers). Human relationships were among the foundations of Israel’s covenant with God. It was not merely an individualistic religion, but one in which the whole society was to follow the ways of God, to honor God by honoring one another.
Another verbal assault on Israel in relation to its wealth comes at the beginning of chapter 4 (and following directly on similar themes from chapter 3), where Amos refers to the rich women of Samaria as “cows of Bashan” (v.1). While some scholars suggest this may be a cultic name the women chose for themselves, the relevant point is that the image of cattle is one of luxury, sensuality, and ultimately, destruction. Cows of Bashan were “a valued breed of cattle at that time,” and the image may allude to the activity of cows, which will destroy the very pasture they feed from, much as the wealthy classes of Israel were destroying the poor, on whom their wealth depended. Indeed, the very next line of v.1 supports this interpretation: “you women who oppress the poor and crush the needy and say to your husbands, ‘Bring us some drinks!’”
This passage brings us to a second concern: not only does the wealth of Israel come at the expense of the poor, but it may foster a complacent and self-centered attitude. These women, as Amos pictures them, reveal a total lack of conscientious social reflection—their only concern is for the appeasement of their own desires rather than for the pursuit of God’s justice or the wellbeing of their fellow Israelites. The immediately preceding passage, 3:9-15, also highlights these two themes of ‘social malpractice’ and ‘personal self-indulgence.’ Verse 10 explicitly links moral failure with the indulgent hoarding of wealth, with the Lord declaring, “They do not know how to do right.”
A third concern arises from yet another passage in Amos, 6:1-7, where the prophet directly addresses the complacency of the wealthy, warning that they have blinded themselves to the implications of their sin—namely, judgment. Here the ruling class is specifically in view, as evidenced by v.1b: “you notable men of the foremost nation, to whom the people of Israel come!” These are the leaders of the people, to whom every significant question of justice must be referred, but their only concern seems to be their own comfort and pleasure (vv.4-6). Verse 6 says to them, “You drink wine by the bowlful and use the finest lotions, but you do not grieve over the ruin of Joseph.” They have become so saturated with the self-centered benefits of their wealth that they have missed the point. Their priorities are out of line. Rather than grieving over the imminent destruction of their own people (and the continuing, systematic oppression of the poor under their rule), they have become a society of navel-gazers. They are blind to the consequences of their own sin.
As American Christians, our context is not the same as that of 8th-century Israel. However, there are enough parallels to give us pause. We too live in a wealthy society, and so natural inclinations of wealth can push us toward sin just as easily as Israel was led down that path. And with wealth comes confidence and security, so we must remind ourselves that if sin is indeed involved, it will end, one way or another, with judgment. The prophets remind us that sins are not merely minor misdemeanors which God, in his grace, can simply brush off. Sin is so serious that it cost the very life of God’s own Son. Therefore, every aspect of our lives must be reflected upon, and if sin is found there we must deal with it.
So we must take the three warnings of Amos that we noted and examine our own lives in light of them. First, is our wealth at all connected with the oppression or disenfranchisement of the poor? For most of us, probably not directly. But just as the sin of Israelite wealth-hoarding seemed to be a systemic problem stemming from the policies of the ruling class, so our wealth may also come from systemic sinfulness. What I mean to say is that the processes by which we gain our wealth as a society may be the same process that are actively impoverishing (or at least halting the development) of other nations. Why is it that countries like Nigeria, which has incredible wealth in oil, still languishes in poverty, while we, who benefit from their oil, merely grow richer? Part of the answer lies with the corruption of Nigerian state officials, but part of the answer also lies with our own economic system. We, as a society, must take steps to ensure that we are not consuming the profits of other nations’ resources while leaving the citizens of those nations without any benefit. We must also seriously consider whether the nature of our economic system keeps certain groups here in America impoverished, and if it does, then we must take steps to rectify the disparity.
The second and third warnings point us in the same direction: does our wealth foster a self-centered, complacent attitude? It is this very complacency that could blind us to our sin, just as it did to the Israelite rulers. And for too many of us, it is a simple enough matter to see that our luxuries have indeed led us to complacency and self-centeredness. We have technologies and comforts that have spawned a culture of entertainment and immediate satisfaction. Like the Israelite rulers, we have the fulfillment of every desire right at our fingertips, and these distractions often keep us from seeing and doing the will of God in the world around us.
What then shall we do? I would submit that the best question to ask is not “Is it a sin to be rich?” but rather “How can we best use our wealth to glorify God?” Is God glorified by his American children being happy and comfortable in lavish wealth, when at the same time many of his African and Asian children are wallowing in abject poverty? Or to glance at a situation closer to home, is he pleased to have some of his children comfortable and secure when others, just a few miles away, are living on the cold and lonely streets of inner-city America? As a general rule, we cannot say that it is a sin to be rich. However, given the current circumstances of global inequity, I would say that the practice of making ourselves the objects of our own wealth is closer to being an inherent sin than it ever has been before in history.
The spirit of Amos calls us to live generously. We must concern ourselves with the concerns of God, and justice is certainly one of his foremost concerns. Against the systemic sins of our economic organization, we must act with both fairness and compassion in seeking to relieve the plight of the poor. Finley writes about Israel’s situation in words that could equally apply to us: “The judgment is precisely because the oppressors have been ungenerous with the oppressed. Israel did not remember the generosity of God toward them, which should have occasioned a corresponding generosity toward the poor.” In like manner, we should focus our attention toward the positive use of our wealth—God has been generous with us, and so we should be generous with others.
These positive considerations are where we should fix our eyes: How can we most glorify God through the use of our money? How can we reflect the character and values of God with our wealth? Are we reflecting his heartbroken affection and care for the poor? The use of our wealth should be a delightful dance of joy as we enter with all our hearts into the work of God in the world. It’s not a question of feeling guilty about not giving enough; it’s a question of feeling ecstatic about being used by God in radical giving. We have the incredible opportunity to change the world forever through the immense riches God has given us, and that is a wonderful thing indeed. In short, we must understand and affirm that every use of our wealth is an active expression of implicit values. Let’s make sure that those values line up with the heart of God.