I closed the last post by writing:
Therefore, the challenge is how to incentivize those who are most capable of creating wealth while steadily incorporating those in the bottom strata of the economy into becoming productive participants in growing prosperity. Directly tied to both of these is the need to inculcate a vision of stewardship in all strata of society.
So what do we need to do to achieve a more just and healthy economy?
I have made the case in previous posts that Genesis creation accounts call humanity to stewardship. As co-creators with God, humanity is to bring the earth to its full potential while honoring the beauty and majesty of the created order. The Hebrew law in Leviticus and Deuteronomy is filled with protection of private property rights. Most notably, the Jubilee Code in Leviticus 25 makes clear God’s intent that no one be permanently alienated from land and labor, the two primary means of economic production in that day. All were to participate in the co-creative stewardship of the land God had entrusted to the Israelites. I have also noted the story of the talents from Matthew 25 several times. While we often tend to overly spiritualize this parable, the parable teaches that we are to have the heart and mind of God in all we do in the period between Christ’s accession and Christ’s return. God gave us the creation stewardship mandate in Genesis and it has not been revoked. Thus, part of “having the heart and mind of God” in the present era is to be about bringing creation to its fullest potential. The one who is a steward multiplies the resources entrusted to him or here while the one who does not have the heart and mind of the master timidly preserves what has been entrusted. Again, stewardship is not simple preservation. It is about bringing the earth to its full potential while honoring the beauty and majesty of the created order. The created order includes the various institutions that support human existence.
If we look at the world in this way, then simple redistribution of wealth (voluntary or otherwise) from the wealthy to the poor in our society, or distributions of wealth from wealthier nations to poorer nations, is an insufficient model of economic justice. It reduces human beings to mere economic consumers and operates on the assumption that if people have enough wealth to consume what they need and want, we have successfully addressed poverty. It is demeaning to those intended to be God’s eikons. Redistribution of wealth is often necessary as component for ending poverty but it is not the solution.
The message we have from scripture is that God has given gifts to each eikon and made them stewards (see above) of that gift. Because of a sinful and broken world, some are simply without the mental or physical capabilities to be economically productive and society has an obligation to care for such children of God. Yet the normative standard is that each individual should be productive stewards of resources. Some will have more resources and some will have less but all are to be stewards. Two obstacles usually stand in the way of this happening.
First, there are societal and systemic issues that block the full maturing of all people into stewardship. There are totalitarian nations that see individuals purely as tools of the state with no innate value as divine image bearers of God. There are also nations that are dominated by corrupt leaders with no respect for individuals or the rule of law. Unfortunately, either through government aid from developed nations or through business alliances, totalitarian and unscrupulous leaders have been propped up by the wealthy as they suppress the rise of stewardship within their nations.
Certain subgroups, even within develop nations, find obstacles placed in their way. In the United States, for every 28 White males in college age 18-24, there is one White male in prison. For African-American males in the same age range, the ratio is 2.6 in college for every one in prison! There is something deeply, deeply wrong when so many young Black men fail to mature into productive stewards in our culture. In many cultures around the world, women and girls are viewed as inferior beings not worthy of education and legal protections. Consequently, essential to the emergence of more stewards is recognition of human rights, property rights and the rule of law in nations throughout the world.
Second, there are people who simply make unwise and self-destructive decisions. It can be debated forever how much one’s environment contributes to destructive behavior, but the reality is that “all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.” This goes for poor people as well. Sometimes it is precisely because of their sinful behavior that poor people are poor. Still, I always get a kick out of the idea that some people say we should only help the “deserving” poor. The funny thing is I don’t think I have ever met a “deserving” poor person. Just like all the wealthy people I have met, they are all sinners. In fact, the poor are often among some of the most distasteful and manipulative people I have met. But they are all people whom Jesus Christ came to redeem! Loving the poor is often exasperating and thankless work. Kind of like the work Jesus did to redeem us. We must not make excuses for sinful behavior on the part of others but we also must not excuse ourselves as a society (all the institutions of society, not just government) from engaging the poor. We are to equip the poor with the financial and social resources they need to make good decisions. We need to strengthen the intermediary institutions in their communities like family, school and church. The Jubilee Code allowed for people to make foolish decisions and suffer the consequences but it also clearly taught that perpetual generational poverty was not acceptable.
There is too much indifference toward those at the bottom of the economic spectrum in our country. Those with wealth have increasingly isolated themselves from the poor and been content to keep them out of site. When the poor get noticed with events like hurricane Katrina, they are blamed for their own “stupid” behavior. “They made their bed. Let them sleep in it.” Exactly the words Jesus would have used I’m sure.
Yet I have little more regard for some who bill themselves as champions of the poor. Take the minimum wage debate for example. About 20% of those who earn the minimum wage live in households that have annual incomes of $80,000 or more. The average household income for someone who earns minimum wage is about $40,000 a year. Only 15% of people who earn up to $1.50 over the minimum wage live in poverty households. The only hope unskilled poor workers have of climbing the economic ladder is entry level jobs that allow the unskilled to develop skills and work habits that will command a higher wage. When minimum wages go up, the employer that was hiring five unskilled workers often decides to settle for two or three skilled workers, or may even find ways to automate tasks that unskilled workers were doing. The unskilled worker isn’t worth what the employer is required to pay so the number of unskilled jobs shrinks (at least slightly according to past studies.) * The people that the measure is most supposed to help are at best unaffected and at worst made to jump higher for the first rung on the economic ladder. While I fully recognize that good intentions are often at work here, good intentions need to be matched with sound public policy. Too many of these initiatives are more about appearance than substance.
We as Christians tend to inoculate ourselves from truly serving the poor by the “deserving poor” strategy or the “I supported the compassionate legislative agenda” strategy. We then excuse ourselves from truly engaging the problems. This may work for politics but Christians are about creating stewards and that means nurturing the development of the social resources the poor need through society’s institutions. It is about strengthening intermediary institutions like family, school and church. This cannot be achieved through government alone.
Similarly, we cannot excuse ourselves from the suffering of the poor around the world because of their decisions and the decisions of their governments. Simply supporting aid or debt forgiveness is inconsequential if commitments to creating environments where the poor can become stewards are absent. When it comes to poverty, increasing the amount of spending money the poor have is a penultimate issue. The bottom line is the creation of stewards.
* Paul Kersey, Minimum-Wage Hikes Don’t Add Up, National Review Online.