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I’ve been out of commission for quite a while due to a blast of out-of-town visitors, finals, graduation, illness, an anniversary, and a friend’s wedding. But I finally have an opportunity to come back to something I posted more than a month ago, which generated some substantive interaction, both on the blog and privately—my post on Poverty and Riches in Scripture.

I wanted to interact with some of the objections I encountered (and this will include some bits from my response to Pastor Wilson’s interaction through email). I really appreciated his feedback, as well as from my friend Ben and from Luke here on the blog, but I think there were a few misunderstandings.


First, a couple caveats—I readily admit that my post was one-sided and oversimplistic…I recognize that most of what I write in these casual settings is…but I also think that it is substantially on-target. The details I point out are quite debatable—the main point is not, I think.

Now, some objections. On the blog, Luke said,
“If the Bible gives a command once versus repeating it 40 times to the hard-hearted, that doesn't mean it's any less important. For example, Proverbs 13:24:
He who spares his rod hates his son, But he who loves him disciplines him promptly. - This is the only place in Scripture (that I know of) which commands quick discipline, yet it is SO important in raising a child - crucial, even.

You may be right that the sins of the rich are hammered on more than sins of the poor, but that doesn't mean that the "Bible's not too worked up about it." It means the authors didn't run into that sin as frequently. It probably means that the dangers of being rich are greater than the dangers of being poor, but in no way that God is more approving of the laziness of the poor than of the rich.”

A couple things here. First, I think verse-counting is a rather crude tool to use, and I don’t want to rest more on it than ought to be rested on it. There are few verses that give explicit support for the Trinity, but that doesn’t mean it’s not important. However, if the claim is made “These Biblical authors were much more concerned about Issue X than about Issue Y,” then, while other things will obviously have to be taken into account, it is fair to respond by going to the text and seeing how often, and how explicitly, the author talks about Issue X relative to Issue Y. If Issue Y is dealt with considerably more often and in more detail than Issue X, then it is possible that the claim that Issue X is more important than Y can still be maintained, but certainly there is now a heavy burden of proof on the person making that claim.
Additionally, I never meant to suggest that just because the sins of the poor are dealt with less frequently, they are therefore not really sins, or not as bad, and the Bible is happy to turn a blind eye to them. Of course they are still sins, and must be confronted where they appear. But, for whatever reason, none of the Biblical authors appear to be as concerned about them as they are about the sins of the rich. Probably this is because they seemed to be less frequent, and to have less severe and far-reaching consequences (if a poor man is lazy, he hurts only himself, and perhaps his family; if a rich man is greedy, he hurts himself and anyone weaker than him). And the claim I was responding to was precisely the claim that certain Biblical authors were more concerned about the sins of the poor than the sins of the rich, and so the relative verse-count is relevant.

Now, a couple words about that verse-count. A couple people responded that I seemed to be applying a double-standard—refusing to see verses referring to laziness as aimed at the poor, but insisting on seeing verses referring to greed as aimed at the rich. If the lazy can be found among the rich, then certainly the greedy can be found among the poor. This objection doesn’t work, I don’t think, for quite a number of reasons. First is general experience: a general survey of all times and places in the world yields, I think, the clear conclusion that the sin of greed is most often associated with the rich (though when you create a welfare mentality among the poor, they pick up this sin readily), but not the clear conclusion that laziness is primarily associated with the poor (though again, in welfare states, this connection becomes extremely common). Part of the potential confusion here is that we have what we could call preconditional and postconditional sins that we are talking about, and Scriptural injunctions regarding both. What am I talking about? Well, there’s two ways in which the sin of laziness could be linked to poverty—either as a cause (pre-condition), or as a result (post-condition). Laziness can certainly be adduced as a cause of poverty (though we should be very slow to jump to this conclusion, rather than very fast, as we tend to be in middle-class white Anglo-Saxon Protestant America), and so, in this sense, laziness is a sin associated with poverty, but it is not really that accurate to refer to it as a “sin of the poor” in the sense that those who are poor are likely to be tempted to laziness. If this latter were true, we could speak of laziness as a “post-conditional” sin of the poor. In certain cases, it can be; a hard-working man may fall on hard times and then despair, leading him to be listless and lazy; but just as often, someone who has been rather lazy finds themself in poverty and learns to work hard to stay afloat. I don’t see evidence that, in the normal course of affairs (absent paternalism and a welfare state), laziness is particularly a temptation for the poor, although it may be true that a disproportionate number of poor people are lazy, because, being lazy, they became poor. If this is the case, however, what you should do is to warn the lazy against becoming poor, rather than warn the poor against being lazy.
So then how does laziness relate to the wealthy? Not as a pre-conditional sin, certainly—it is quite possible to be lazy and become rich, but not normal. But quite often as a post-conditional sin; that is, if you are rich, it is quite likely that you will be tempted to become lazy. Indeed, innumerable are the stories of wealthy young heirs who through laziness and selfishness found themselves in poverty. Thus, if you are warning against laziness, you might want to particular warn the rich, especially rich young men, since they are particularly likely to fall into this temptation. And indeed, it seems to me that this is what you tend to see in Proverbs’ warnings regarding laziness.
What about greed? How does it relate to poverty? As a pre-conditional sin? Well, sometimes certainly—many have been the greedy who bet too much on a wild scheme and ended up ruined—but not usually. As a post-conditional sin? In our welfare society, I think we would definitely say yes. By treating the poor as if they deserve handouts, no matter what, we teach them to expect handouts, no matter what, and to become greedy for whatever they can get their hands on. And we’ve started doing the same thing to African countries! But poverty, in itself, does not tend to spawn greed (defined as coveting and seeking material goods and pleasures simply for their own sake, in excess of one’s needs). It tends to spawn a desire for enough to survive, enough to better one’s condition somewhat. If the poor person succeeds in bettering their condition somewhat, they may then start to become greedy; or they may not—they may be thankful and become generous. Certainly, there are plenty of poor people who are greedy, but the sin does not seem to be linked with poverty as such; it does not seem to be a common result of being poor.
But how does greed relate to riches? As both a pre-conditional and a post-conditional sin. Those who are rich have often become so through greed. Not all, of course, but many, and in our society, most. Many would jump up here and try to say, “No, that’s just through the profit motive, which isn’t greed—it’s legitimate self-interest! Don’t you understand capitalism?” I’m not sure, however, that the distinction capitalism makes here is one that the Bible makes; a difference of degree, perhaps, but not of kind. But that’s another discussion. So greed is definitely a pre-conditional sin of the wealthy (again, in the sense that it is often, not always, a cause of becoming wealthy). It is also a post-conditional sin. Plenty of natural revelation and Biblical testimony testify to the fact that the simple fact of having wealth creates a temptation to desire more and to become overly fixated with material goods. I think we in America are good evidence of this—we as Americans are on the whole very rich, and nearly all of us would be considered greedy by an observer from any other era, though we try to persuade ourselves that we are not. Given that greed tends to be a result of wealth, we could call it a post-conditional sin of wealth, and thus it is linked with wealth in a way that an exhortation to beware of greed could be taken as applying particularly to the rich.

Thus, based on this analysis of human nature, I think I am justified in treating Biblical exhortations to avoid greed as being primarily (though not exclusively) aimed at the wealthy, and in refusing to treat exhortations to avoid laziness as being primarily aimed at the poor (indeed, if I had been pushy, I would’ve insisted on treating exhortations to avoid laziness as primarily aimed at the rich as well, but I didn’t do that).

Second, I think I can justify this based on the Bible, where, quite frequently, warnings against greed are quite explicitly aimed at the rich (demonstrating that the Bible sees a close link here), and never against the poor—same goes for stories about greedy rich people vs. greedy poor people. I do not see in the Bible explicit links between laziness and poverty; certainly poor people can be lazy, but the Bible doesn’t make a point of linking the two in the way we often try to.

Third, even if I was wrong on this point, it would not change my central point about the relative focus on the sins of the rich vs. the sins of the poor in Proverbs and Paul—I could remove the general warnings against greed from my list and there would still be a preponderance of emphasis on the sins of the rich.

4 comments:

[My comment broke the space limit so I broke it into parts...]

(though when you create a welfare mentality among the poor, they pick up this sin readily), but not the clear conclusion that laziness is primarily associated with the poor (though again, in welfare states, this connection becomes extremely common)I don’t see evidence that, in the normal course of affairs (absent paternalism and a welfare state), laziness is particularly a temptation for the poor, although it may be true that a disproportionate number of poor people are lazy, because, being lazy, they became poor.I think it's wrong--a category error, you might say--to mix and mingle claims about individual character attributes such as greed and laziness with claims about large classes of people having these attributes or claims about social policies causing them. It's one thing to say that a wealthy individual would do well to take a closer look at the parts of the Bible that warn about greed; it's quite another to start talking about the welfare state creating a "welfare mentality" amongst the poor that causes them to be greedy.

The first kind of claim--which deals with greed and laziness and whatnot at the individual level--seems to me to be appropriate for a conversation that hews pretty close to Bible verse, because the Bible has a lot to say to the individual about what the good life is and how to live it. And I think it makes sense to carry on a conversation that centers around that individual's happiness and his impact on his loved ones and his community, and how his pursuit of wealth might affect all that.

The second kind of claim, where you start talking about the greed and laziness of entire groups, I think gets you into some pretty hairy empirical territory and into an area where, I think, the Bible has little to offer. To say that wealthy people are more or less greedy than poor people or that poor people in welfare states are more greedy than poor people in non-welfare-states is a descriptive statement about the world that you just can't know unless you do some research and gather and analyze statistics (including ways of "measuring" greed/laziness, even if it's just a qualitative assessment). Of course, there is no denying that we have an intuition that when you give a poor person a welfare check it will encourage laziness in that person; or that we have an intuition that a disproportionate number of poor people are lazy because their laziness caused them to be poor. But it's folly to believe that we can apply our intuitions and interpersonal character assessments to the whole of society and expect to be operating in the real world. In fact, the whole point of empirical enquiry--of science, really--is to serve as a check on our intuitions which so very, very often lead us astray. I mean, who would have thought that a ball bearing falls at the same speed as a cannonball? Or that reducing an extremely high marginal tax rate would cause an increase in tax revenue? Or that when everyone decides to save money, they lose more money than if they had chosen not to save?

Look: people are complicated. Policies are complicated. Most of the time, "welfare state" refers to a government with relatively high taxes, but also with relatively robust services, chief among them being health care, childcare, education, and pensions. If a poor person receives--if a poor person demands, even--health care, childcare, an education for his child, or a pension for his aging father that he otherwise wouldn't be able to afford--is that person exhibiting greed? Laziness? Maybe. Maybe some people think of it that way. But many people don't--many, for example, think of access to health care as a basic human right (akin to how many Americans may think of access to an ER as a right if they are suffering a grievous injury). And maybe they're wrong to think of it that way. But even if they are wrong--would you call them greedy?

May 21, 2009 at 8:28 AM  

Moreover, even the very concepts of greed and laziness can get kind of complicated. Imagine two scenarios: in the first, a guy has a menial part time job and spends his spare time drinking beer and watching Cops, and he gets by by soaking up government services. In the second, the government services don't exist, and so the guy has to get a second job, and basically just spends all day working his two jobs. Now, in one sense, we would like to call the guy in the first scenario "lazy" and the guy in the second scenario "industrious", just based on how they behave. But what if it's the case that the guy in scenario 2 would sit on the couch and drink beer, if he could? Doesn't that mean that he is equally lazy, but just pressed into working because of more dire circumstances? Is he really more virtuous? If we take away the government services with the intention of making guys like this "less lazy", have we really accomplished our task? The point is, it's a dangerous game assessing a person's character, his virtue, by outside indicators such as his socioeconomic status, what government services he partakes in--even, in some cases, his actual behavior. To really understand the person, you have to get to know him, you have to empathize with him--you have to, in short, have the sort of personal relationship with him that, oh, I don't know, a priest would have.

So anyway. I find it irksome when a conversation like this is littered with facile statements as to the relative virtue and vice-ness of big groups of people, because really it seems to me an exercise in reinforcing whatever biases you already have based on no evidence. I mean, of course you hedge everything in the right way: you say, "although it may be true that..."; or you increase the ambiguous of the statement until it doesn't mean anything ("this connection becomes extremely common"--huh? what connection? who is making this connection?). So it's not like you're actually saying anything false. But any philosophy student can do that.

To be sure, I'm not necessarily saying that the welfare state is awesome or that it can't possibly affect a person's character. I'm just saying that it's a consideration that really doesn't fit into, I think, a conversation about what the Bible has to say about greed and laziness.

May 21, 2009 at 8:31 AM  

Thanks David. I really mostly agree with you, and perhaps you misunderstood the purpose of my postings. The conversation I am having is with people who make (or at least seem to make--I don't want to make any hasty accusations) just those kind of societal generalizations--poor people are generally lazy, and often they're pretty greedy too. In adding qualifiers about the welfare state, and the situations in which poor people might find themselves tempted to be greedy or lazy, my purpose was simply to deflect criticism that I was romanticizing the poor and ignoring their sins--I certainly was not trying to make broad-brush condemnations of them. Indeed, my whole point is simply to show that in no part of the Bible can you fail to see that the Biblical authors more concerned about the sins of the rich than the sins of the poor, unless of course you've already made non-Biblical generalizations about the sins of the poor, which you then try to force on the text.

So do we mostly agree?

May 21, 2009 at 9:34 PM  

Ah okay I see what you're saying--and now reading through the post again I see "though we should be very slow to jump to this conclusion, rather than very fast, as we tend to be in middle-class white Anglo-Saxon Protestant America", which should have tipped me off. I think I misunderstood how you were positioning yourself.

So, yes I think I mostly agree with what you're saying, my prohibitive lack of Biblical knowledge notwithstanding. :)

May 21, 2009 at 11:24 PM  

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