What follows is not a radical proposal. I am confident that Mr. Wesley, let alone Jesus, considers that it does not go far enough, but it is a start. The proposal is not original with me. It comes from A. Q. Smith in the March 30, 2017, edition of Current Affairs, entitled, “It’s Basically Just Immoral to Be Rich.” Anyone who has read Holy Scripture knows that Smith and Jesus are on the same page. Smith wrote, “Here is a simple statement of principle that doesn’t get repeated enough: if you possess billions of dollars, in a world where many people struggle because they do not have much money, you are an immoral person.” He goes on to note that white families in the US have sixteen times the wealth as black families. How is that justifiable? Of course, there are economists, think tanks, politicians, and even theologians who will justify it, but in the end reasonable people, and especially reasonable people of faith, should know it is not justifiable. We can do better.
Smith’s essay avoids some vexing questions. He does not advocate a socialist revolution where the workers of the world unite and take over the means of production. He does not side with capitalists against socialists or socialists against capitalists. He does not address the structural issues that social justice advocates frequently address. He appeals to charity, to giving away our excess to make the lives of others bearable. He knows that for some reason many people today on the left and right reject appeals to charity. We have all heard the tired phrase, “If you give someone a fish they eat for a day, but if you teach them how to fish, they eat for a life time.” Having lived in a fishing village in Honduras, I’m not convinced that teaching people to fish gets them out of poverty. Smith makes a moral argument, avoiding the important question of how we earn our income and addressing something that should be recognizable, especially to Methodists, as a key aspect of faith – how much of it you keep. Even if we somehow deserved earning 100 or 1,000 or 10,000 times more than our neighbor, are we justified in keeping it? He says no, and advocates moral shaming for those who do – something we know none of our current political parties would dare attempt. He suggests a simple, non-radical proposal. We develop a moral culture where we establish a “maximum moral income.” Anyone who keeps over $250,000 annual income for a family of four (with all the necessary adjustments for real income factored in) should be considered immoral. If we cannot learn to live on $250,000, then we are an immoral people. Keeping more than $250,000 should be treated like having sex in public, watching pornography in front of children, or preparing and eating endangered species at the church potluck. It should be met with the “yuck factor” in moral deliberation.
When I read Smith’s interesting piece, I immediately had two thoughts. First, this proposal cannot be recognized as anything but fantasy in the US where billionaires are treated like royalty, as if they are super intelligent persons who deserve our respect for being billionaires despite how they earned their money or how much or little they give away. Second, this proposal should be recognized by Methodists as eminently sound, because one of our normative doctrinal standards is Wesley’s sermon “On Riches.” Wesley is much more rigorous than Smith. He states, “What a hindrance are riches to the very first fruit of faith, namely, the love of God.” He defines the rich person as “anyone who possesses more than the necessaries and conveniences of life.” Smith’s proposal is much more lenient on us than Wesley. In another sermon, “On the Use of Money,” he gives practical counsel to gain all we can, save all we can, and then give all we can. It is the latter that we have abandoned. Paul tells us that the reason we are sick and dying is due to income inequality where the rich humiliate those who have nothing by showing off what they have. To continue in this way is to have “contempt for the church” (1 Cor 11:22). Similarly, the first use of the term “church” in Acts is when “great fear” came upon it because Ananias and Sapphira refused to be accountable with their possessions. If we took up Smith’s number of $250,000, a very high number that the vast majority of people of the world would consider exceedingly wealthy, as to what it is faithful to keep annually of one’s income and create a church expectation that the remainder must be given away, then we could do something concrete about income inequality in our churches and in society.
Although I think Smith’s proposal has no chance in US society, I think there might be a church someday, one steeped in Scripture and attentive to the Holy Spirit, who could hear it – a church where at each annual charge conference every member is required to report what they earned that year and what they gave away. That money could go into a treasury to be dispensed by the whole church after discerning true needs in the local community. It could create structures of charity and/or microloans so people could do something enjoyable with their lives. It could break the power of wage labor that deadens the soul, turns people to addiction, and destroys families. We do not have that church now, largely because the church has been absorbed by the US society and its market discipline. Yet this should not prevent us from asking how to begin to lay foundations for that other church, one where this very modest proposal could be taken seriously; where church membership would be a function of a willingness to live on a “moral maximum income” and everything else would be given to the poor, to mental and physical health, to the arts, to education, and in the process, hopefully, we could overcome the curse of work. For we should remember that hard and difficult labor, the kind of work most people do in the world today, is not rewarding; it is not a vocation. It is a curse (Gen 3:17-19). Taking those curses on himself, Jesus has redeemed us, even now, from those curses. We must find ways to show that redemption in our everyday lives by refusing to bow to cursed work. Recovering charity not as sentimental giving, but as a social practice that redeems people from the curse of work through creating a culture of a “moral maximum income” is not radical, but it is a start.
(For a good discussion on the problem associating work and dignity, see Joathan Malesic, “America Must Divorce Dignity from Work.”)