It’s not about the money

It’s not about the money

Rick Warren is a humbling example of a faithful follower of Christ and so much of what he writes is a great inspiration and a help to millions.  But I fear this particular commentary from Pastor Rick …

You Were Created to Be Productive

…is likely to engender pride in those who work in profit-driven businesses and shame in everyone else. I take issue specifically with:
1. The assertion that “Every economy … has wealth makers and wealth takers.”
2. The insinuation that wealth makers are good (godly) and wealth takers are bad (ungodly) .
3. The description of capitalism and communism and the contrast with Christianity.
Here’s why …

The Bible continually presents God as the provider of all that we have (our wealth), not just materially (money) but also in terms of abilities, personality, community, experience and so on. In other words, none of us is a wealth maker; we are all wealth takers, for “Everything comes from you [Lord], and we have given you only what comes from your hand.” (1 Chr 29:14)

We are, of course, called to be faithful stewards of all that God entrusts to us, to work with it and take care of it (Genesis 2), and to be fruitful with it (Genesis 1) – with the assurance that if we are faithful with a little we will be entrusted with more.  But that is about something infinitely larger and less temporal than messy human constructs like money and economies. How the former relates to the latter is not as simple as “are you making money and being generous with it?” which over-simplification strikes me as simply an attempt to make the American obsession with money-making seem less like the worship of Mammon than it actually is.

The epitome of this simple approach – people like Warren Buffet and Andrew Carnegie who are both uber productive wealth creators AND supremely generous altruists – are hailed not just as the world’s most successful businessmen but also the world’s most exemplary philanthropists. I venture that in fact they are the world’s most pernicious businessmen and the sooner we stop idolising them the better for all of us. We’ll come back to that.

In China I have more than once been asked by confused young people if I am a Capitalist or a Communist, as if these two were as mutually exclusive as the Cold War propaganda of my youth insisted. Now that the world’s largest Communist state has become the underwriter of the world’s largest Capitalist empire, I tell inquisitive young Chinese that it seems to me that they are two different things: Capitalism is about amassing wealth and Communism is about distributing it. Without the former, there is nothing to distribute; without the latter there is no guaranteed distribution. In my native Britain, it was three centuries of the ultimate free marketeering (that is, piracy) that allowed the nation to amass enough wealth to be able to offer health care and education and housing and a minimum income to everyone in society. Wealth “creation” and distribution are not alternatives to one another, nor are they independent of one another. Neither does one atone for the sins of the other.

Which brings us back to Buffett and Carnegie.  Does their charitable giving justify whatever means they used to accumulate wealth?  I don’t think so.
I once listened to an expert doing a blind tasting of a range of different chocolates.  When he got to Cadbury’s Dairy Milk, his poetry failed him.  “It just tastes like Dairy Milk,” was the only description he could give.  When the Buffet-backed Kraft company were looking to acquire Cadbury’s, they promised the millions of loyal customers who made Cadbury’s wealthy in the first place that they would not interfere with the recipe of the much-beloved flagship product.  With some trepidation but in good faith, the sale was approved.  It didn’t take long for that promise to be broken and the unique and the iconic confection to be lost forever so that Cadbury’s could increase profit margins to make shareholders like Buffet yet more wealthy.  Is that really good business?

Carnegie is celebrated for his generous endowments to improve the welfare of ordinary citizens, including 3000 public libraries as part of his desire to improve education.  The funds for those endowments came from his steel empire, where those ordinary citizens (20% of the male population in some cities) worked 12 hours a day, 7 days a week, 364 days a year in hellish conditions that regularly resulted in injury or death for a wage that kept them and their families just 4% above the poverty line – at least until they were incapacitated.  Would the steel-workers who made Carnegie rich say his company was a good business?

We are surely called to “be productive people” but is that really to be measured in financial terms?  Oscar Wilde’s knowing “the price of everything and the value of nothing” comes to mind.
Embodying the Spirit of God in pouring ourselves out to provide for the needs of others means, for example, that “He who has been stealing must steal no longer, but must work, doing something useful with his own hands, that he may have something to share with those in need.” Ephesians 4:28.  This is not about a wealth taker becoming a wealth maker: it’s about a thief moving from taking what they want from others to giving to others what they need.  The heart of the matter is not money but love: the thief going from not caring about others at all to taking practical care of them.  Whether “busy-ness” – what I do with all I have received – demonstrates love to others or not is every bit as important as the way in which I spend any money I may acquire through that “busy-ness.”
“Good jobs” like doctors, nurses and teachers do not make money – they burn through it, to make us all wealthier (healthy and educated).  Chefs, mechanics and child-carers do not make money – they consume it, but so that the doctors, nurses and teachers are able to use their wealth in the most productive way.  Even business administrators, accountants and financial advisors do not make money – they move it around, they record its comings and goings and they recommend things to do with it.  But they do not make it – they have to be entrusted with it by someone else.
“When the last tree is cut, the last fish is caught, and the last river is polluted; when to breathe the air is sickening, you will realize, too late, that wealth is not in bank accounts and that you can’t eat money.” (Alanis Obomsawin)  Money in itself is of no use – it always has to be translated into something else: food, medicine, energy, shelter, advice, transport …  And all of those are the product of the time, energy, skill and creativity of someone else working with the resources they have access to.
If Capitalism, Communism and Christianity are to be contrasted I would suggest the key difference between them is over who should decide how the collective wealth of a community is used.  Capitalism says each individual’s wealth belongs to them and how it is used is entirely a matter for them; Communism says each individual’s wealth belongs to the community and how it is used is entirely a matter for the community; Christianity says each individual’s wealth belongs to God but He has entrusted it to them.  How it is used is therefore a matter for them but He invites individuals to submit themselves to Him and to each other so that it might be used in line with His purposes which are love, joy, peace, wholeness, hope and justice for all.  Those purposes are what matters whether our wealth is translated into money or not, and they apply as much to how we get money as to how we spend it.