When Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century was published in English earlier this spring, the issue of inequality was brought again to the forefront of a very heated discussion.
Responses from all over the world, including a tweet from Pope Francis, have poured in. Income inequality, often a natural phenomenon in a market economy, has become a divisive term. This is because it is almost impossible to separate the discussion of inequality from the topic of poverty.
Piketty’s book has brought the discussion of inequality into more tangible terms, and venues that may never have otherwise considered the effects of economic policy on poverty have begun publishing pieces about it. Even during my family vacation to the beach this summer, my in-laws returned from a church they visited with a magazine addressing these issues that had been published by the denomination.
Unfortunately, many of these pieces, instead of focusing on the gift and potential of wealth, vilify those who have acquired it.
In one piece called “The Rich Get Richer,” the author quips, “To those whom much has been given…much more will accrue.” This language is sensational, and it’s not unique.
Wealth and Exploitation
Before diving into a biblical and economic examination of wealth, it’s important to point out that some people do gain wealth by exploitative means.
James warns those who gain wealth through exploitation that their wealth cries out against them. Instead of laying up treasure in heaven, these greedy individuals lay up treasure in the last days through their destructive actions.
In an unfettered economic system, harmful, exploitative actions cannot be condoned. Profit is designed to reward value creation. If an entrepreneur did not know that by taking on risk he would be rewarded, why would he act on his innovative idea? How could he fund a new project? Ultimately, these projects benefit the community as a whole because the end result is a product that prices reveal to be valuable.
Sadly, not everyone seeks profit in this way. Some do become rich through exploitation. This is not to be confused with the market process. Such exploitation occurs through theft and often political exploitation.
But, this should not be the norm, and we, as Christians, should not protect those who have unjustly gained.
Towards a Biblical View of Wealth Creation
Yet some wealth is gained through honest means. If the Bible condemned all wealth, what would we be doing to those who are rich?
In these discussions about inequality, a theme surfaces repeatedly. Often, a sense of shame is imposed on the rich, simply on account of their wealth. It’s easy to lash out at those in better circumstances when hard times loom, but whether this finger pointing is due to jealousy or a sense of guilt, it is neither biblical nor economically sound.
The Bible emphasizes repeatedly that where there is not idolatry, wealth creation is not a bad thing. In fact, God desires to bless his children.
- Wealth is to be in all areas – physical, mental, material, and spiritual.
- Wealth is from God – he is the source of all prosperity and blessing (Matthew 7:11; Deuteronomy 8:8).
- Wealth is to be managed – we are the stewards of the material possessions entrusted to us (1 Corinthians 10:26; Matthew 25:14-30).
- Wealth is to be enjoyed (1 Timothy 6:17).
- Wealth is not our source of trust – God is (Luke 12:34).
As this list suggests, the attitude of the heart is of greatest importance to God.
His family is made up of those who have submitted wholeheartedly to him. His choosing to bless one child with monetary wealth has no bearing on the merit of one over another. In God’s economy, grace is lavished, not measured, and all of his children will receive the ultimate, forever gift of fellowship with him in heaven.
As the discussion around inequality continues, let us check our own hearts before we critique those who have been blessed in ways different from us. We need to be advocates of that wealth that is biblically sanctioned and economically viable. Above all, let us not impose shame on others.
How can we constructively add to the inequality debate? Leave your comments here.