Now, a more important set of objections, variously expressed, was that I was acting like it’s bad to be rich. These I think are misunderstandings of my point. One person, for example, said, “And you are missing the backdrop assumption of Proverbs, which is that virtuous life, rightly lived, will generally result in wealth. That backdrop assumption -- that the righteous rich need to guard against unrighteousness (e.g. a bribe) -- is a very different assumption than saying they need to guard against wealth itself.”
I never said that they need to “guard against wealth itself” and never denied that “the virtuous life, rightly lived, will generally result in wealth” (though I would suggest that, in the New Testament, this Old Testament promise is tempered with the expectation that the faithful will suffer much persecution, which often means poverty). My contention was quite simply against the claim that Proverbs is primarily concerned with the sins of the poor—on the contrary, Proverbs spends a lot more time dealing with temptations and sins that are most characteristic of the rich. Indeed, this is what we would expect given the backdrop assumption you raise. If a righteous man will normally end up wealthy, it makes perfect sense that Proverbs would take a good deal of time warning such righteous men of the temptations they will face: “If you follow the Lord, he will grant you riches; therefore, make sure you are not like other rich men, who put their confidence in riches and begin to oppress the poor.”
Another objector (Luke) said:
”Your conclusion at the end seems a guilt-trip for Americans. I think you're over-generalizing Americans; most wealthy Americans are the individualist-success-story type who work their butts off for their money, and idolize their work. While that's a ditch in and of itself, those Christians who have worked hard for a good-sized, honest living (which is many of us) need feel no guilt just because we have something that others don't have.
Many, many Americans have gained their wealth through hard labor (consider the farmers!). Many of us are not relaxing on our plush armchairs denouncing the hard-working souls in the ghettos. Rather, many Americans are hard-working, industrious people, and God blessed our Christian fore-fathers with prosperity which we still experience. You're over-generalizing America. From the Lord come riches and honor (1 Chronicles 29:12).”
There are a number of interesting issues raised by this remark, some of which I am still sorting through. I think there’s great danger in the typical conservative reaction that as long as someone gained their work through decent, honest labor, everything is fine and dandy. For one thing, capitalist ideology has taught us to treat the “profit motive” as morally neutral, rather than as being, at best, on a fine line bordering on greed. In the Old Testament, all kinds of laws were laid down limiting how much property and wealth one could acquire—not how you were allowed to acquire it, but whether you were allowed to require it. The jubilee laws which returned fields to their original owners every fifty years meant that no family could acquire a disproportionate amount of wealth in the long-term, no matter how honestly they went about it. To seek to keep on acquiring land and riches, even if it was by good, honest work, would have been considered a form of greed in the Old Testament. Some of the prophets’ most vicious condemnations are aimed at the city of Tyre for their greed, and they were a peaceful trading people! They didn’t conquer and pillage; they were simply shrewd merchants, but because they were fixated on acquisition, they were condemned. The Bible frequently does not make this neat distinction between acquiring riches and acquiring them by evil means—it roundly condemns the rich either way. I’m not sure what we are to make of that in every case and how we are to apply it to modern America, but it’s there in the Bible. Part of the reason, no doubt, for such blanket condemnations are that the Bible recognizes how readily greed follows upon wealth. It doesn’t matter if Americans gained their work by hard, honest labor; they can still be condemned for being repulsively greedy now (not every single one, of course, but most of us, me included). So I guess I would happily accept that my conclusion is a guilt-trip for Americans. That does not mean that I am trying to say that Biblically, every single American and every single wealthy person stands condemned—of course not, and God blesses the righteous with riches—but Biblically, every single American and every single wealthy person stands in need of self-examination on this issue. Luke’s objection and another objection seem to suggest that guilt-tripping is a bad thing. Paul certainly didn’t think so: “Having food and raiment, let us therewith be content. But they that will be rich fall into temptation and a snare, and into many foolish and hurtful lusts, which drown men in destruction and perdition. For the love of money is the root of all evil, which while some coveted after, they have erred from the faith, and pierced themselves through with many sorrows. But thou, O man of God, flee these things, and follow after righteousness.” (1 Tim. 6:9-11). James is considerably less tactful: “Go to now, ye rich men, weep and howl for your miseries that shall come upon you. Your riches are corrupted, and your garments are motheaten. Your gold and silver is cankered; and the rust of them shall be a witness against you and shall eat your flesh as it were fire. Ye have heaped treasure together for the last days.” (Jas. 5:1-3)
Though this may have the appearance of a trivial dispute, I don’t think it is. Conservatives tend to be particularly suspicious of the poor and their sins, and rather comfortable that the many appearances of greed among wealthy American Christians are simply a healthy manifestation of the profit motive. We need to recover a Biblical emphasis, which is that God is much more concerned that the rich will oppress the poor or begin to idolize their riches than that the poor will become lazy or will begin to idolize their poverty. And if someone tries to say that, “Actually, that’s a misrepresentation of the Biblical emphasis; there’s plenty of parts of the Bible with the opposite emphasis”; I think it’s very important to see what those parts of the Bible actually say. And what they actually say, of course is not, “The poor are pure and innocent, and the rich are rotten sinners,”—of course they’re concerned about sins on both sides; but the warnings to the rich are clearly more frequent and emphatic than warnings the other way. And thus our warnings must be too.