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You cannot serve both God and wealth

You cannot serve both God and wealth

“The devil has suggested to us that we appropriate the things that were provided for our common use and hoard them for ourselves, so that through this covetousness he might make us liable to a double indictment and thus subject to eternal punishment and condemnation—the one, of being unmerciful, the other of putting our hope in hoarded up wealth instead of in God. For he who has wealth hoarded up cannot hope in God, as is clear from what Christ our God has said, ‘Where your treasure is, there will your heart be also’ (Lk. 12:34). He, then, who distributes to all from the wealth he has stored up has no reward owing to him for doing this; rather, he is to blame for hitherto unjustly depriving others of it. Further, he is responsible for those who from time to time have lost their lives through hunger and thirst, for those whom he did not feed at that time though he was able, for the poor whose share he buried and whom he allowed to die a cruel death from cold and hunger (cf. Jas. 2:15ff.). He is exposed as one who has murdered as many victims as he was then able to feed.”

–St. Symeon the New Theologian, The Discourses (Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 1980), pp. 155-156.

St. Symeon’s teaching is remarkable only in eloquence, not in content. It is, more or less, the common social teaching of the Church fathers, rooted in the Holy Scriptures. For the fathers, all material goods are held in trust for God’s purposes. To enclose more than one needs to sustain the life of the body, when others starve, is a sin against them and against God, “the giver of every good and perfect gift.”

What then shall we do? We who have many good things, perhaps too many, as even those of us who live relatively simple lives by the standards of our culture do? We are to use these good gifts to show mercy. Not because that makes us especially good or deserving of praise, but because it sets our hearts free from any master less than God and rectifies an injustice that is in fact killing our neighbors. Almsgiving may look like charity to us, but it is in fact but one small step toward justice.

That this kind of teaching would almost certainly be decried as “socialism” today shows us how far we have departed from biblical values. We need Christian economists to talk about how wealth is distributed in our societies and how to organize economies to produce the goods we need efficiently and fairly. We need Christian business people who can generate wealth, not to hoard it but to use it for good and to share good things with those in need. But we also need to struggle against the ways that boundless greed traps us and harms our souls by dividing us from God and neighbor.

Bill Carroll

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John B. Chilton

So what Simeon advocates is that I give up “my” wealth and put it in a trust with others who like minded whether they bring much to the trust or not. That is socialism in the purest sense. It was the system the Mayflower Pilgrims began with until they nearly starved. Then they switched to a private property system where you kept what you grew. Starvation was eliminated as threat because whatever their loftly ideals when entering into the common property compact, they individually responded selfishly to the incentives that said they’d only get a fraction of an extra bushel they produced.

This is the virtue of the market system.

The USSR faced the Mayflower problem and the problem of corruption that often accompanies large scale centrally planned economies where you can’t opt out — it’s not a voluntary compact.

It’s known that power can become concentrated in a market economy as well. There’s a legitimate role for government to address that which economists recognize.

It’s known that inequality of endowments is the cause of inequality of outcomes in a market economy. Welfare states attempt to remedy this by policies aimed at greater equality of individual endowments and on top of that redistribution of income. The difficulty is that guaranteeing equal incomes undercuts incentives to work.

China and India are two excellent examples of countries which have turned around their economies by moving from socialism to capitalism. They’ve been so successful that they demand for oil and corn has driven the prices of those products up. China now has lots of millionaires, yes, but just about everyone in China has benefited. More inequality and everyone is better off. Where’s the problem relative to where they were.

I will agree that the U.S. is not enough of a welfare state. We’ve over reacted to the Mayflower problem. But the problem isn’t private property.

Adam Wood

There is a big difference between the common ownership of the goods in the early church and a state-run, centrally organized “wealth distribution.”

In the early church, this common ownership was voluntary. The members of the body shared the things they had out of love (or, if your cynical, out of a desire to fit in to the group- a group whose very membership was voluntary).

And it still exists, in communes, monasteries, and cooperative communities all over the world.

But an “economy” cannot be “organized” by anything other than force and coercion.

DnWillets

At last, Jim, the voice of the church enters the discourse! We should have a Sunday when the theme of all our pulpits is the Circle of Protection!

[Just for clarification, note that the post’s author is Bill Carroll. – ed.]

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