My good friend Jimmy from Colorado posted a very thoughtful response to my last post, which leads to this revision/continuance of what I had talked about. To view his post, just scroll down and click on the comments to my last one. In summary, Jimmy made some great points about 1) how the parable of the talents in Matthew 25 suggests that what we do with our money matters more than what we have, 2) how Richard Foster wrote in “Celebration of Discipline” that God doesn’t want us to be either rich or poor (because the extremely poor can be just as preoccupied with money as the wealthy), 3) and the education of Paul is evidence that he came from a wealthy background. I’m sure that all of these ideas are true, but I still think we need to add a couple qualifications to them. While I think Jimmy is exactly right that God gives us economic blessings so that we may be blessings to others, I think there are subtle ways in which we often fail to use that money appropriately.
First think about it this way: in order to have wealth, you have to acquire it. Regardless of what one does with his/her money, doesn’t God also care about how that person got the money? Check out Deuteronomy 23:18: “You must not bring the earnings of a female prostitute or of a male prostitute into the house of the LORD your God to pay any vow, because the LORD your God detests them both.” (NIV). Obviously prostitution was then and is now considered to be immoral and offensive to God’s design of sexuality, hence profits made from that were not acceptable to God even if someone tried to present them as an offering to God. Now let’s apply this to today’s business world. Of course there are many perfectly honest companies and executives out there, but we know there are just as many who are not perfectly honest or faultless in their business ethics. If it is acceptable in God’s sight to possess wealth, does that hold true for people who made their money in the tobacco industry? Or the pornography industry? Or drugs? I have a feeling God detests those products like God detests prostitution. So what about companies that are economically immoral? Most people agree that sweatshops amount to cruel treatment of the workers. Would God approve of the wealth possessed by a person who made his/her money by marketing merchandise made in sweatshops? Furthermore, does God approve of us buying clothes that are made in sweatshops because we want to save the extra money to include in our tithe at church? The lines there are getting pretty blurry.
This leads to the second point: even if we received our wealth justly and honestly as a blessing from God, are there moral implications for how we go about preserving that wealth? Let’s use coffee as the example now. “Fair Trade” coffee hit the market after people read horror stories about the way workers on coffee plantations in Africa and South America were abused and not even paid enough to live on. (For more info, see http://www.globalexchange.org/campaigns/fairtrade/coffee/). If my need for caffeine forces me to buy cheap coffee and thus perpetuate the degradation of a worker in a third-world country, does God approve of that? I don’t think so. What if I need the coffee to stay awake to study for my seminary classes? I still don’t think God would approve. One of the core themes in the Old Testament Prophets is that economic exploitation is dishonoring to God. Therefore, while it may have been acceptable in God’s eyes then for people to possess some degree of wealth (the kings of Israel?), it wasn’t acceptable if that meant the oppression of others. Here is one final example that carries this idea one step further: God created the earth and said that it was good, and even though God gave us dominion over the earth, he probably didn’t intend for that dominion to lead destruction of his good Creation. When we buy food that was grown using pesticides that pollute the ground, we are polluting God’s Creation. When we buy other products that are made in a manner that demeans Creation, such as non-recycled/recyclable materials or gas-hogging vehicles, we are also polluting God’s good Creation. And why do we do these things? Because we love our money too much to pay the premium for a hybrid car or organic food. And of course this doesn’t even scratch the surface on the even larger issue of moral investment/divestment. If we put our savings in mutual funds or stocks that include companies that are unethical in their business practices, are we too not responsible for their sin? When Sharon Watkins, the Enron “whistle-blower”, gave a guest lecture here at Pittsburgh Seminary last Fall, she mentioned the fact that responsible investment is one of the only ways to hold unethical companies like Enron responsible. If we divest the savings we have in immoral companies and instead invest them in socially-responsible companies, we send the powerful message to business executives that we value people and morals more than just money and interest.
I write all these things realizing that I am far from perfect in living up to these standards. Most of the ideas I listed above are ones that I am only now beginning to explore in terms of actually making a difference in the way I live. But that is what it means to repent – when we realize we are in sin, we repent, turning the other direction and making a difference in our lives. In sharing these thoughts, I guess I am initiating the repentance process for myself, which for now may just be a heightened awareness of the impact my decisions make. The more people there are who have the awareness, though, the more people who will make a change in their lives, and that has the power to change our society.
Holy Lord God, please help us, though we fail to live up to Your perfection, to at least live in a way that pushes us ever closer to You. Forgive us our oppression of others, and grant us the ability to see the economic decisions we make through Your eyes. If You bless us with wealth, guide us by the power of the Holy Spirit to show us how to manage and use that wealth as You alone see fit. Amen.