Jesus and the Plutocrats

plutocracy: a state or society governed by the wealthy

Like many people, I’ve been following the political donnybrook that masquerades as our national discourse on the disparity of wealth. (It’s as bad as it’s ever been.) There’s a lot of talk about “job creators” and “fiscal responsibility” by those on the right, along with healthy doses of whining when such lofty sounding phrases are questioned.

The argument by those who contend that the wealthy must be protected from the suggestion that they don’t already give enough, an especially nimble plutocratic dance move, goes something like this:

“The wealthy earned their wealth through hard work. Moreover, the wealthy create jobs with their wealth. Therefore, everyone who’s not wealthy has a vested interest in the wealthy accruing as much unfettered wealth as possible. So, let’s don’t make them feel bad for being so successful.”

Leaving aside the myth of the “job creators,” it’s important to articulate the assumptions that underly this sentiment. At its base, the “don’t tax the wealthy” approach to governance assumes that society will be better off in the long run if wealthy people not only get to keep all of their wealth, but are appreciated for the mere fact of being wealthy. On this account, not only is wealth a communal good in the abstract, those who possess wealth, unless proven otherwise, also find themselves on the noble end of the moral spectrum in virtue of their wealth.

Of course, this conflation of wealth and honor isn’t new. The whole idea of describing character and behavior as noble comes from its historic attachment to the nobility (L. nobilis)–that class of citizens who were “well-known or prominent”–which class, generally speaking, also implied an association with wealth.

However, the equating of virtue and wealth doesn’t just have implications for how we view wealth and wealthy people and their responsibilities to society; it also affects how we view poverty and poor people. If being wealthy is understood to be a communal good, then being poor cannot help but be understood as a communal vice–a status to be avoided. Poor people have not only themselves to blame as individuals, perhaps just as importantly, the implication is that they’re not pulling their communal weight. The idea that poor people, as Stephen Schwarzman says, don’t have “skin in the game” is worthy of comment.

Asking those who have very little if any skin left to put in the game strikes me as not only outrageous, but as something that people who claim to follow Jesus have a stake in denouncing–loudly. This cultural pressure applied to the poor, grousing that the poor need to do more, reminds me of the story that opens Luke 21.

Pretty famous story, actually. The widow’s mite. In the story Jesus has just finished a rather heated exchange with the scribes, a group of well-heeled professional theological pundits, whom Jesus has warned everyone to keep an eye on. Immediately preceding the story of the widow’s mite is an especially pointed exhortation to watch the scribes, because “they devour widows’ houses and for the sake of appearance say long prayers. They will receive the greater condemnation.”

And with that cautionary admonition about the way the scribes treat widows, Jesus looks up to see some rich people putting their gifts into the temple treasury. He notices a widow adding her two small copper coins, and remarks, “Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put in more than all of them; for all of them have contributed out of their abundance, but she out of her poverty has put in all she had to live on (21:3–4).”

Traditionally, this passage has been used as a way to spur giving in church. The message is something like, “You can give more–even if you think you can’t. Sacrificial giving is a privilege you don’t want to deny yourself.” Or, in a more popular–though, I would argue also more facile–rendering: “Give until it feels good.”

And while I consider “sacrificial giving” an honorable act, I think that is only a secondary point here. Given the way Luke sets up this story, I think he has his sites set a bit higher up the socio-economic ladder.

What do I mean?

I would like to suggest that this story in Luke’s hands is a way of challenging a system that pressures a poor widow (arguably the most vulnerable class of people in the ancient Near East) to forfeit her last two bits so that she too can have some “skin in the game.” That is to say, the wealthy (identified as “rich people”) and the powerful (identified as “the scribes, who ‘devour widows’ houses’”) contribute to a set of power arrangements whereby they sacrifice a small percentage, while getting to feel superior to the poor and the powerless, whose contributions in real wealth are tiny by comparison.

In other words, Jesus’ scorn is aimed not just at the fact that the wealthy contribute relatively little as a percentage of what they own compared to the poor (who contribute at an extraordinarily higher percentage relative to what they actually own), but that the wealthy and the powerful help to perpetuate a religio-political structure that leaves the poor and the powerless feeling like they must surrender every last cent in order to be full participants. Making those at the bottom feel less than human so they’ll cough up more to keep those at the top from having to “sacrifice” more is an abomination according to Jesus.

In fact, read this way, the next two verses about the destruction of the temple suggest not just some prophecy about the devastation of Jerusalem in 70 C.E., or a supercessionist end to traditional Judaism, or even an oblique reference to the resurrection, but a commentary on how the current system of power arrangements that revolves around a structure that pressures the poor to sacrifice even more to be considered participants will be overthrown in the coming reign of God.

The assertion that we in America live in a plutocracy, where the wealthy and the powerful get to call all the shots, seems to me not even worth arguing. Anyone with even a little sense knows who’s in charge.

All I’m arguing is that people who follow Jesus–a man killed by plutocrats for challenging a similar system--don’t have any real stake in propping up a plutocracy.