"I have advocated, without any appeal to religion, that those of us who are sufficiently comfortably off to be able to spend much of our income on frivolities like restaurants, the theater, fashionable clothes, and vacations abroad should give a substantial proportion of our income to organizations working to assist the world's poorest people, who cannot get the most basic health care, safe drinking water, or even enough to eat, let alone educate their children." (Peter Singer)
I've just been reading an article by Peter Singer, called "Christians, Riches, and Camels", in which he notes how:
It is rare to hear Christians, especially American Christians, condemning those who fail to share their wealth with the poor in the terms that they use to condemn those who destroy embryos or assist others to end their lives. Yet on this, of course, Jesus is absolutely explicit. The synoptic Gospels all tell us, in very similar language, the story of the man who asked Jesus what good things he should do, to have eternal life. Jesus told him to keep the commandments, and the man replied that he had kept them all, and asked what else he lacked. Jesus then told him: "If thou wilt be perfect, go and sell that thou hast and give to the poor, and thou shalt have treasure in heaven." To his disciples, Jesus said that "a rich man shall hardly enter into the kingd om of heaven," and underlined his point by adding the famous line "It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of God" (Matthew 19:16-26; Mark 10:17-25; Luke 18:18-26). (1)
He notices how this has been taken seriously for centuries by theologians, such as Thomas Aquinas, who stated that "whatever a man has in super-abundance is owed, of natural right, to the poor for their sustenance" and that some Christians still take it seriously today - "they work for organizations like World Vision or Christian Aid, or, like Ronald Sider, author of Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger, they focus on global poverty as the most pressing moral problem facing Christians today." He might have added John Chrysostom who asserted in a sermon that ""not only the theft of others' goods but also the failure to share one's own goods with others is theft and swindle and defraudation."("De Lazaro")
But he also notices how many Christians managed to squirm out of taking the passage seriously, and how many excuses are manufactured to avoid taking the passage seriously.
Others, however, squirm to avoid the clear message in the Scriptures they revere. Many of those who preach to prosperous Christian congregations are happy to assist their consciences. They tell them that "the eye of the needle" was the name for a narrow gate in the walls of Jerusalem, though which a camel could pass, but only with some difficulty. There is zero archeological or historical evidence for this interpretation, which can only be traced as far back as the ninth century. Jesus was using a metaphor popular at the time, although one usually referring to elephants rather than camels. The disciples evidently understood Jesus to be saying that it was impossible for a rich man to enter heaven. To them he offers a crumb of reassurance: "With men this is impossible; but with God all things are possible." Possible, maybe, but the original injunction stands: Christians who want to follow Jesus and inherit eternal life will do well to give all they have to the poor.(1)
Peter Singer, is of course, not a Christian, and it seems from his point of view that Christians weasel out of taking the implications of this passage seriously. It seems strange to me that an atheist should take the text seriously on its merits while Christians seek to find excuses for not taking it seriously. It is perhaps no wonder that Christians are seen as hypocrites by outsiders, when they ignore the criticism of wealth that so obviously appears in the New Testament.
Part of this, I suspect, is because Christians have to take the New Testament (and the Old) seriously in a way that perhaps someone more detached need not; hence they have to try to both see what the texts say, and live with that implication. Mark Goodacre points out this can often cause problems with students beginning the study of the New Testament, because they bring an apparatus of belief to the text which can get in the way of a historical reading of the text.
This is not a problem for the atheist or agnostic, who can come to the text in a more disinterested fashion, because what it says does not cause conflicts between what they believe. They can say - "it says this, but I don't believe that" - where the Christian, if faced with the same conflict, has to "interpret away" the text, to somehow retain it as legitimate, but denude it of any significant challenge. This is nothing new - Strauss's "Life of Christ" is packed with examples of special pleading of all kinds which David Strauss pulls to pieces.
One writer who did, however, was Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and he was quite trenchant in his criticism of those who made excuses to say that the text said something else, or could be set aside or ignored.
If, as we read our Bibles, we heard Jesus speaking to us in this way to-day we should probably try to argue ourselves out of it like this: "It is true that the demand of Jesus is definite enough, but I have to remember that he never expects us to take his commands legalistically. What he really wants me to have is faith. But my faith is not necessarily tied up with riches or poverty or anything of the kind. We may be both poor and rich in the spirit. It is not important that I should have no possessions, but if I do I must keep them as though I had them not, in other words I must cultivate a spirit of inward detachment, so that my heart is not in my possessions." Jesus may have said: "Sell thy goods," but he meant: "Do not let it be a matter of consequence to you that you have outward prosperity; rather keep your goods quietly, having them as if you had them not. Let not your heart be in your goods."-We are excusing ourselves from single-minded obedience to the word of Jesus on the pretext of legalism and a supposed preference for an obedience "in faith."
The difference between ourselves and the rich young man is that he was not allowed to solace his regrets by saying: "Never mind what Jesus says, I can still hold on to my riches, but in a spirit of inner detachment. Despite my inadequacy I can take comfort in the thought that God has forgiven me my sins and can have fellowship with Christ in faith." But no, he went away sorrowful. Because he would not obey, he could not believe. In this the young man was quite honest. He went away from Jesus and indeed this honesty had more promise than any apparent communion with Jesus based on disobedience. (2)
Of course this can become distorted. Christian cults have often used such texts as means to get their followers to give up their wealth to the cult, and it is notable that the cult leaders, while espousing poverty for their followers, invariably do not take on poverty themselves.
It is also noteworthy that Jesus doesn't tell the average person to give away their riches; it is the rich who need to do this. This is perhaps why G.K. Chesterton argues that it is the imbalance in society which is caused by wealth which needs to be addressed, and would not agree with the idea that "property is theft". On the contrary, he is of the opinion that property becomes theft when capitalists grab more property than is needful for an individual:
I am well aware that the word "property" has been defied in our time by the corruption of the great capitalists. One would think, to hear people talk, that the Rothchilds and the Rockefellers were on the side of property. But obviously they are the enemies of property; because they are enemies of their own limitations. They do not want their own land; but other people's. When they remove their neighbor's landmark, they also remove their own. A man who loves a little triangular field ought to love it because it is triangular; anyone who destroys the shape, by giving him more land, is a thief who has stolen a triangle. A man with the true poetry of possession wishes to see the wall where his garden meets Smith's garden; the hedge where his farm touches Brown's. He cannot see the shape of his own land unless he sees the edges of his neighbor's. It is the negation of property that the Duke of Sutherland should have all the farms in one estate; just as it would be the negation of marriage if he had all our wives in one harem. (3)
This idea of balance, which Chesterton saw in a "middle way economics" called "distributism" is also very akin to the Buddhist ideas about wealth, which allows variation in wealth, but not extremes:
Buddhism is sometimes called a middle way between extremes. The Buddhist attitude to wealth is a good example of this. Every human being needs enough basic food, clothing and shelter to be free from anxiety. However, if people have too much wealth and too many possessions they can spend all their time preserving and guarding them, while being in a permanent state of anxiety in case they lose them. This attachment to wealth does not bring happiness. Equally, if people have no food, and inadequate clothing or homes, they will inevitably have different obsessions or may fall into despair. Either way, they cannot lead fully human lives (4)
(1) Christians, Riches and Camels. Contributors, Peter Singer, Free Inquiry. Volume: 22. Issue: 3. 2002
(2) The Cost of Discipleship, Dietrich Bonhoeffer
(3) What's Wrong with the World, G.K. Chesterton
(4) Ethical Issues in Six Religious Traditions. Peggy Morgan, Clive Lawton, 1996
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