Each needs the other: capital cannot do without labor, nor labor without capital . . . there is no intermediary more powerful than religion (whereof the Church is the interpreter and guardian) in drawing the rich and the working class together, by reminding each of its duties to the other, and especially of the obligations of justice.
—Rerum Novarum, §19
When the disciples heard this, they were greatly astonished and said, “Who then can be saved?”
The ancient question above is temporarily resurfacing from its submersion in Christian history as direct payments are made this week through the coronavirus stimulus package. If it once seemed much more pressing for a fledgling Church to figure out where the wealthy would fit into the kingdom they proclaimed—to flag the rich man’s salvation as an issue at all, in other words—the problem has since been mostly papered over by the empires they have found and founded along the way. Sure, the earliest Christians were exercised over the socioeconomic purchase of their gospel, but it is not easy to maintain such convictions under the aegis of power. Nor to discern power’s obvious promises from its many threats.
At any rate, what was once a burning question for the first disciples soon became another apocalyptic impulse diverted by matters more mundane: less solved by theological debate, that is, than buried by the exigencies of institution building. Who can blame them, really? Why worry at the postmortem fate of the wealthy once they have paid your building’s rent? Is it not a bit uncouth to question the rich man’s eternal standing after he has lobbied for your family’s legal protection? If all such men ask in return for their magnanimous deeds is moral absolution, is that really so costly a compromise? Are the persecuted in a position to refuse such an offer in the first place?
Alas, the poor in spirit have long learned to entertain the less radical questions of their patrons when their own prove too polarizing. Whatever the exact reasons, we no longer think to puzzle at the possibility of salvation for the obscenely rich, let alone risk an answer. It is just one more line of inquiry lost to time, whether by accident or by design. Even so, such seditious questions have a way of resurfacing, in fresh and often unexpected forms, bringing out as yet undetermined possibilities in the new event of their asking. If it seems familiar for us to speak of perennial questions, perhaps we do not wonder nearly enough at those which come and go under new guises, as though they were always attempting to outwit the censors who might otherwise divert them.
So it is, with these echoes of ancient questions ringing in my head, that I wonder at a question of more recent vintage, posed by new voices: “Are you willing to fight for someone you don’t know as much as you’re willing to fight for yourself?” Not exactly an issue of eschatology on its face, to be sure, but it is a slogan in search of some future solidarity—something, at least, beyond the resentments that currently plague our politics. Now, I do not know any billionaires—not surprising, statistically speaking, since they make up only about 0.00000165% of the country’s population, despite owning almost double the net worth of the bottom 50% of American households—but I do want to register my commitment to fighting for them. Not, of course, for billionaires as a class, against which we Christians have a moral obligation to struggle, but as individuals. For their souls, let’s say. In fact, it is a matter of some religious conviction for me that dissolving the billionaire class might be the only way to save their souls.
Before I am accused of virtue signaling, let me say straight away that my eschatological sympathy for billionaires has little to do with personal piety on my part. I feel nothing but contempt for most of them. And those with whom I do feel some semblance of fellow feeling—mostly athletes and entertainers, each of whose personal fortunes, it is worth noting, amounts to less than 1% of those of the obscenely rich men (sic!) at the very top. There are, for instance, no athletes on the Forbes 500 list, but the founder of Nike, whose brand was built on their backs, comes in at number twenty-four. Celebrities are, I recognize, products of a culture industry engineered to obscure any contemptuous feelings I might otherwise harbor toward them. If it were up to me, I would leave billionaires in the same hole they have left the rest of us; let them save themselves if they are really so industrious.
But, alas, it is one of those routinely exasperating lessons of Christianity that things are not up to me. Despite my resentments, the gospel’s claim remains scandalously universal in scope—extending even unto my class enemies, even unto those of us who have labored the least. Indeed, maybe one way to read Jesus’s famous parable of the workers in the vineyard into our own late capitalist context would be to see the last to whom the reward is offered first as the rich among us who have labored least, and the first to whom the reward is offered last as the poor among us who have labored longest. Counterintuitive, perhaps, but the reading does have the advantage of showing up the supposedly hard-working rich as the real freeloaders, while also putting them in the position of receiving a worker’s wage they know they do not deserve.
Meanwhile, the rest of us are left with our usual indignation at the Lord’s profligacy. Surely, we assume, Christ is not so impractical as to propose a universal basic income or even direct payments from the government! Surely some of us are more righteous than others! Surely judgment day will usher in that meritocracy we have always deserved! Surely, in the end, we deserve more spiritual recompense than the rich; they have not worked a day in their life! “Verily, verily, I say unto you, there is no means testing in the Kingdom of God.”
So, the Good News cuts across our tax brackets. Fair enough. St. Augustine warned us of unexpected citizens in the Lord’s city. Even still, none of this says much about what salvation for the rich might actually consist of. Let us suppose Christ’s infamous comparison between a camel passing through the eye of a needle and a rich man entering the kingdom of heaven is a statement not about the impossibility of the latter but its relative difficulty. Let us imagine, in other words, that Christ’s comment is just as much about the divine prerogative to save the rich man as it is an admonition against him. This, anyway, seems to be the moral of Christ’s response to the disciples’ incredulity at the rich man’s prospects: “With men this is impossible, but with God all things are possible.” That possibility granted—thanks be to God—the question then becomes why the rich man’s salvation is so difficult to begin with.
Let us backwards from the prescription Jesus gives the young rich man who started the whole camel controversy. Liquidate your holdings, Jesus tells him, and give the proceeds to the poor. Affronted by the command—and this since “he had many possessions,” the text says—the young man goes way grieving. There is a long and sordid history of reading this story, among others, as a warning against improper attachment to one’s riches. It is still common, in fact, to hear Christians claim that the real problem with wealth is not wealth per se but simply the bad intentions with which one wields it. In which case, what the rich man requires is just a fresh perspective.
But the plain sense of the present passage suggests the impediment to salvation are the possessions themselves, not his feelings about them. Besides, there is no reason to doubt that he really had kept the commandments he says he had; that he knew full well the Law’s prohibitions and the prophets’ warnings against the affluent; that he was, for all intents and purposes, a virtuous person. And yet, for all that, it is the wealth itself which proves the obstacle to his perfection.
It is difficult to imagine that this young man does not walk away from the exchange bearing some resentment towards his financial assets. He knows now—perhaps he always suspected—that his wealth is the one thing required of his salvation, and the one thing he is incapable of surrendering. How does one cope with a realization like that? Maybe he plans to make a monthly contribution to the charity of his choosing. Maybe he resolves to start a philanthropic foundation? Almost certainly he buys more stuff.
Who is to say compulsive spending is not one more way a guilty conscience manifests itself in the relatively rich? As if adding more dead weight to one’s soul—further damning oneself, let us say—is barely-repressed penance for having the means to do so in the first place. That is how it tends to work for me, anyway.
I can only presume the perverse motivations for buying another pair of shoes and those for purchasing a private jet are formally similar, even if vastly different in scale; at exactly which point this quantitative disparity turns over into a qualitative distinction is another question. By the same token, though, it seems reasonable enough to suppose the difficulty of desisting from all these mental gymnastics and just redistributing your wealth is directly proportional to the amount of surplus income you reap. If the story of the rich young man suggests anything, in fact, it is that obscene wealth is somehow uniquely suited to drive a wedge between knowing the good and willing it.
Much the same, I think, can be said of the story Jesus tells about another unnamed rich man: the one who habitually passed by Lazarus begging for money at the entrance to his gated estate. When they die, Jesus reports, their paths dramatically part: angels deliver Lazarus to Abraham’s bosom; the rich man finds himself in Hades, enduring torment. Peering across the great chasm that yawns between them, the rich man entreaties Abraham to dispatch Lazarus with a bit of water to cool his burning tongue—obviously still under the impression that someone like Lazarus should be eager to fulfill the duties of an unpaid intern for a man of his stature and that Israel’s patriarch will be willing to perform the role of upper management. Abraham refuses, at any rate, and reminds the rich man that he enjoyed his allotted comforts during life, all while Lazarus languished in the street. Anyway, says Abraham, the great chasm prevents passage between his bosom and that of Hades.
Pivoting, and apparently still unwilling to accept Lazarus’s right to repose, the rich man asks the patriarch to send the beggar to his living brothers instead, so that they might be warned of their impending fate. When Abraham suggests the warnings of Moses and the prophets should be sufficient, the rich man flatly rejects the idea: “No, father Abraham; but if someone goes to them from the dead, they will repent.” At this point—it is not hard to imagine the exasperation mounting in his voice—the patriarch justly wonders why the wealthy brothers would be willing to believe a born-again beggar if they will not even heed their own scriptures.
The final moments of this back and forth tell us most about the rich man’s motivations, I think. It is as though the excuses he pawns on behalf of his brothers are a projection of his own failures to take moral responsibility during his own lifetime. They are no more liable to listen to Moses and the prophets than he was, the rich man confesses. Which is importantly different from claiming that either he or his brothers are ignorant of what the sacred texts actually say.
The abrupt reply—no, father Abraham—suggests pessimism about scripture’s appeal to his siblings, true, but it also betrays defensiveness about his own apathy before its admonitions. Perhaps the reason he is so immediately certain his brothers will not yield to Moses and the prophets is because he himself was never moved by their petitions. At any rate, the text leaves Lazarus’s oppressor and the rest of his presumably prosperous family in the same position it leaves the rich young man: with all the morally relevant facts, and none of the resolve to act on them.
I doubt it is very difficult for those of us living through the age of corporate philanthropy and socially conscious capitalism to give a face to these nameless men who ostensibly know better than they act. Few are the filthy rich who would openly spurn the idea of “giving back” to those less fortunate than they. Some are so committed to the “public good” they choose to spend their fortunes running for office. Yet, for all that, these magnanimous men remain obscenely rich; most of them get richer. Supposing, then, that even a handful of our billionaires had half the already meager moral conviction of the well-to-do men who haunt the pages of scripture—an extremely risky supposition in its own right.
I am well aware—the fact remains that they are still damned from a biblical perspective. For, whatever their intentions with it, the money itself testifies against the rich so long as it stays in their bank accounts. No amount of charitable foundations, tax-deductible donations, campaign contributions can change that. What true moral transformation would require is nothing less than their wealth’s divestment. But, then, scripture has warned us against expecting too much of the rich man’s ability to save his own soul. How, though, to help those who refuse to help themselves?
It is an ancient ideal of political theory, not to mention political theology, that societies should be structured in such a way as to enable the flourishing of virtue in and for those who make their homes there. That may seem like a foreign concept to those of us trained to think maximization of profits our highest good, but it remains the most basic political question. If society is not ordered to the cultivation of peculiarly human excellences, for each and every one of its members, then what, exactly, is it for? Why think politics a worthy pursuit at all if it will not make us better people in the end?
Then again, perhaps every political economy already implies an account of the good life; maybe every social order already encodes some vision of an existence which would merit eschatological reward, whether its people really expect such an inheritance or not. In which case, it would become the responsibility of religious people to read the reigning ideology of their time against the wisdom of their tradition and recommend ways of reordering its political economy to reflect the hope of salvation they confess.
If Christ’s own counsel be believed, what would a just society for the wealthy look like? By which I mean, how might we reorganize our own Republic to make possible the flourishing of virtue in and for each and every one of our neighbors—including the rich—if the Lord’s unambiguous warnings against the affluent actually taken seriously? One more or less obvious answer, I think, would be to pursue public policies that demand the redistribution of concentrated wealth. Indeed, if Jesus is right, something like a wealth tax would not only benefit the rest of us by way of social programs like universal healthcare, student debt cancellation, and the expansion of affordable housing—to say nothing of emergency relief for a globe currently racked by a deadly pandemic. It could also help billionaires themselves begin to free their souls, little by little, from the bondage in which their infernal wealth has placed them.
The proposal is liable to seem insincere. But, frankly, it is an earnest question: how else to aid billionaires when such men have proven themselves totally incapable of taking the necessary steps toward their own moral flourishing? If wealth itself really is the impediment to its own divestment, as the scriptures suggest, cannot the rest of us do it for them, as we did during the so-called “golden age of capitalism”? We have the means, of course. All we need now is the power of the people to enforce the legislation—and why should Christians not be the ones to lead? In fact, do Christians not bear some theoligical and ethical responsibility to do so?
It is Christians, after all, who cosset the hope that all people be saved—even the rich. Admittedly, state-sponsored redistribution of their wealth by way of tax reform would be a modest start at the moral transformation of billionaires. Even taxing total assets, instead of just income, leaves the vast majority of their fortunes untouched; it is certainly a far cry from the total divestment they deserve. But, still, we owe it to the rich to start somewhere. Their salvation is at stake.
All of which is to say, there are clearly good Christian reasons to call for the abolition of the billionaire class other than the dominical command to side with the economically oppressed. One of them is the Lord’s equally binding injunction to love our enemies, the full observance of which, in the case of billionaires, might well require us to demand their surplus capital. But, then again, maybe this is a distinction without a difference. Perhaps it might be more accurate to say Christ’s preferential option for the poor just is his demonstration of love for the rich.
For, of course, what the latter really require for their salvation is not just the seizure of their fortunes, however much that might ultimately aid their deliverance, but the full recognition of what their economic dominion has wrought. It would require them to see, in other words, that their lives of affluence were only possible because of their enslavement of a vast underclass; that their fortunes were always inseparable from the labor on which they capitalized; that they are, in a very definite sense, nothing but the negative exposure of those their greed has so long exploited.
Each of which, it must be said, are aspects of a single truth the economically oppressed cannot help but know, for it is a wound of knowledge their wealthy oppressors have inflicted upon them: the painful recognition that their fortunes are inseparably tied, for good or ill. Which means, finally, there can be only one possible answer to that ancient question with which I began. Who is the rich man that shall be saved? The one who would cease worshiping Mammon, that through his poverty the many might become rich: “With men this is impossible, but with God all things are possible.”