CC Issue 07 / Theology / Faith

Of Wealth and Wisdom

“I don’t have a problem with guilt about money. The way I see it is that my money represents an enormous number of claim checks on society. It is like I have these little pieces of paper that I can turn into consumption. If I wanted to, I could hire 10,000 people to do nothing but paint my picture every day for the rest of my life. And the GNP would go up. But the utility of the product would be zilch, and I would be keeping those 10,000 people from doing AIDS research, or teaching, or nursing. I don’t do that though. I don’t use very many of those claim checks. There’s nothing material I want very much. And I’m going to give virtually all of those claim checks to charity when my wife and I die.” –W. E. Buffett

“The reaction of my family and me to our extraordinary good fortune is not guilt, but rather gratitude. Were we to use more than 1% of my claim checks on ourselves, neither our happiness nor our well-being would be enhanced. In contrast, that remaining 99% can have a huge effect on the health and welfare of others. That reality sets an obvious course for me and my family: Keep all we can conceivably need and distribute the rest to society, for its needs. My pledge starts us down that course.” –W.E. Buffett

“…The young man said to Him, “All these things I have kept; what am I still lacking?” Jesus said to him, “If you wish to be complete, go and sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow Me.” But when the young man heard this statement, he went away grieving; for he was one who owned much property.”

Over the years, I’ve had to think harder about the interaction that happened between Jesus and the young ruler. One common view that I’ve seen adopted is that we’re not supposed to be “rich”. CS Lewis laid down a succinct and elegant standard: “If our charities do not at all pinch or hamper us,… they are too small.” He himself was quite the giver, covertly sponsoring children through their education through something he called the Agape fund. One tale told of how he was approached on the streets of Oxford for money, at which point he dug deep into his pockets and gave the man everything he had. His companion, aghast, asked why–the man was obviously just going to use it for booze and squander. Lewis’ reply, ever the wit: “So? All *I* was going to use it for was booze and squander!”

And yet on the other hand, you see the modern giving movement, where Bill Gates and Warren Buffett are actively pledging not to hoard wealth, but to find the best places for it to be planted. Warren Buffett’s original plan was fairly simple: since he felt he was great at allocating capital, and could probably compound it a lot more efficiently than others could, he’d pool together as much of it as he could, and then entrust his wife, Susie, the giver in the family, to figure out how to offer it up to society. All the time, he opted to live a comfortable but wholly modest life, to the point where his kids got all the way to college without thinking they were anything other than American middle class, growing up in a red brick house in Omaha, NE. Susie left this world ahead of him, so he decided to entrust all the wealth he’d built to Bill Gates’ wonderful foundation–again, commissioning someone he felt far more competent at finding fertile soil for planting riches and creating shalom for the world.

Two perspectives, neither of which is blatantly wrong, neither of which is conclusively superior. The conservative would note that Lewis’ standpoint was generous but not necessarily the most wise: taking it to its extreme would make one a pure ascetic, someone whose contribution to the world might be limited to present offerings. It would work fantastically in eras where harvests were perishable and holding additional grains essentially denied them from others. The progressive would note that there are many people in present day who would actually benefit if Buffett unlocked the coffers and distributed it now, that holding onto it for so long, holding onto “property” keeps it out of the hands of others that could cultivate it for greater personal utility.

There might be a problem with the progressive logic, though. The property owned by the Warrens and Bills of the world are not gold or silver, but companies that are actively employing people. And they do not merely hold them, but put their hearts and minds into making those companies into engines of change. Some argue that Steve Jobs’ greatest contribution to the world, despite having not a single record of charitable giving, was that he flat-out changed the way that people use computers, and in doing so, enabled far more human flourishing than he ever could have by giving away his $7 billion in personal worth. Likewise Warren and Bill, who collectively have managed to employ tens of thousands, enable innovations in many fields that have directly saved lives, and have still taken it upon themselves to speak of the responsibility that the wealthy have to the world, of good business ethics and how to practice them, and of ensuring that others properly recognize that when the game is over, the king and the pawn go back into the same box.

There’s something peculiar here, then. Jesus told the young man to give away what he had, and the man went away dejected. Jesus told parables of servants who were entrusted with money, and the one who was dealt with harshly was the one too slothful and spiteful to do anything with it. Jesus told of a destitute woman giving two coins out of her poverty being greater than the richest of folk putting in all their surpluses, magnanimous as those surpluses might be.

The real common thread amongst them is not the money itself, but the heart that those money decisions reflect. The rich young man prided himself on being a student of the law, and yet could not bring himself to part with what he had amassed, could not bring himself to drop it in pursuit of that kingdom he claimed was his utmost. The slothful servant was entrusted with gifts, and did nothing with it either out of fear or out of willful disobedience. The rich givers gave from their leftovers, gave the bones from which they had already feasted. In every single one of their cases, what they had was more important to them than who they served.

And so therein lies the rub: I don’t think wealth or poverty speaks to our christianity as much as our stewardship of what we have does. Are we creating wealth for ourselves, or are we creating it in service to the world? Corporate raider Ivan Boesky once told an audience of Berkeley graduates, “I think greed is healthy. You can be greedy and still feel good about yourself.” In retrospect, now that the haze of the 1980s has worn off, we know that he was wrong, and also that his words were so compelling because they were self-serving. But I’ll also argue that people bought into it because it was a bastardized version of something that actually is true: if building something great is the best way to bring about shalom, then so be it if that something will need to deal in realms where money, where capital will come into play.

There are caveats, of course. The fundamental danger of stewardship is that the steward should begin thinking of what he holds as his own. And therein, to me, is the issue behind wealth, overall–that we should ever forget that what we hold, we are constantly putting into use; that what we hold is still precious, still signifies the difference, for some, of making rent, of staying nourished, of keeping peace. And when situations arise where we are actually in position to solve for those issues productively and directly, that we may take an active hand in solving problems rather than just throwing money at them. Those are the times when we are to give abundantly, not “appropriately,” to build others up rather than merely provide them with subsistence, and to remember and actually let ourselves be affected by the wrongs in the world, so that we may invest the thought into figuring out what our true course of action should be, as we play our particular part in the grand miracle that is making everything sad come untrue.

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