As Rene Girard points out in the first chapter of his masterful ‘I See Satan Fall Like Lighting’, the 10th commandment is often given short shrift in comparison to the others – a blanket afterthought to the clearly more terrible sins listed earlier (murder, idolatry, etc.).
But don’t we know that often the last word of a written work is the most important? Commandments 6-9 are very to-the-point and require no commentary. They descend in severity of violence from murder, to adultery, to theft, and then lying. And foreshadowing Jesus and the sermon on the mount, (“Anyone who hates a brother or sister is a murderer.”), the final commandment prohibits not an act, but a desire.
Envy is shown to largely be the root of all that preceded it in the list. Desiring leads to lying and taking, and even killing to take. Blessed is the man who is content with what he has and does not want what the other guy has. Or, more to the point, blessed is the man who is content in who he IS and does not want to BE the other guy.
I believe Girard is completely right here. Unfortunately, I am troubled by how I see this insight sometimes applied in the modern west by Christians aiming to defend a certain theory of capitalism at all costs.
So the story goes, the poor have little and the rich have plenty and the poor are envious of the rich and wish to “stick it to those fat cats” and get some cheddar for themselves. From political revolutions to the robbing of Peter to pay Paul via socialist welfare programs, this is supposedly the underlying narrative for virtually all, nay, ALL efforts to “redistribute wealth”. What does God want apparently under the ideal model? For the poor to shut their mouths and be happy and for the rich to have a change of heart (exclusively by the Holy Spirit of course) and to overflow with tangible generosity. Justice in questions of worldly possessions is supposed to be, exclusively be, an outworking of the Gospel in the long run. Any effort by the king or the electorate step in and yank some of this wealth around by force is the fruit of sinful thinking and can only ever lead to more trouble. The invisible hand of the free market, redeemed along with the rest of creation on Easter morning, is apparently our new rest until Christ returns. The millennial rule of the Church is mostly indistinguishable from Reagan-era economic policies, only with less sinning and greed.
Yes of course I’m overstating things and painting with a broad brush, but perhaps you recognize some of this caricature as being close enough to the mark to be unsettling. This rhetoric of “That must be rooted in envy! Screw it!” seems to come up a lot whenever any forced (ie. government enacted) redistribution of wealth is proposed. The liberals of course want to rob from the rich until there is nothing left, resulting in a short term gain that is utterly unsustainable. This is the thing bubbles are made of. The communists had their own theory about how to jiggle all the property around. It turned out to be an unmitigated slaughterous disaster. The form that still lives on in China has had to reinvent itself as mostly capitalism with a heavy-handed ruling elite. The distributivists with their commentaries by Belloc and Chesterton are shouting to be at least considered. “Here is a way of shifting the wealth around that really could be helpful to everyone involved! No we’re not kidding and it’s very Christian too. More than you realize!” But of course nobody in western orthodox circles is listening to them. “Smells like envy! Who’s going to do this ‘distributing’, hmmmmm? Hands off my stuff!” as they back the closest Laissez-faire candidate they can find.
In 1 Samuel 8, Israel is warned that a king will take all our best stuff (including our sons and daughters) and do something else with them – so don’t say I didn’t warn you! We read scripture so the same warning has been given to us. But they wanted a king regardless and so do we, so we get one and all the baggage that goes with one. No point in complaining about the mechanics.
The king (or the conglomerate pseudo-representative king of the republic) gets to take money from the people and do stuff with it. And the good king does this in a wise and careful way, the bad king in a ruinous way. Throughout the proverbs, we are told that the people rejoice and are refreshed when the king is good and groan when he screws everything up. What if God were running the nation though? I wonder what kind of laws about money and property He would make. He would do it up right for sure. That might be really helpful and informative to know so that maybe we could rule a little more justly like God. Well, it’s not a thought experiment. It’s all right there in Leviticus.
The different tribes of Israel were allotted land they didn’t deserve up front and they weren’t allowed to sell it outside of the family. Someone from Judah couldn’t sell the family farm to someone from Benjamin. Inheritances were not liquid assets, but locked-in, temporary holdings.
The 50-year Jubilee is often brought up – as it should be. I’ve head people say we shouldn’t take it seriously as a model because it was probably not ever enforced. Who cares! It was SUPPOSED to be enforced. Slaves go free, people’s crushing debts cancelled. Who had the debts? Besides some who were just unlucky, there had to be many who just flat out made bad decisions. Who cancelled them? The rich people. What were they after the debts were cancelled? A lot less rich. What did the wealthy land owner have after he was compelled by law to let his indentured workers return to their homes? A heck a lot less wealth. And the poor had joy. By whose hand was this? The worthless politician only good at spending other people’s money? No, but by the dictate of our creator – who knows a thing or two about what it takes for us humans, his precious children, to get along with each other.
What does he know? That envy is toxic. That’s why he put it right there at the end of the summary of the law, in the place you won’t forget. What exacerbates envy? Yes, I know the root of it is lying right there in our own hearts without any outside help, but what makes it a lot worse? Inequality.
When your boss makes twice as much as you – that’s one thing. When he makes quite literally a hundred times more than you – that is quite plainly harder to ignore. Something feels wrong. You and your six kids live in a dumpy trailer park and your boss lives in a modest house in the suburbs. You can probably handle that. You can be friends. You can hang out together – chat at church, have your kids on the same baseball team, etc. But what if you still live in the trailer but he lives in a 15,000 square foot mansion up on the hill and spends the weekends on his yacht? Your kids don’t play on the same baseball team of course because his attend an expensive private school and you’ve never talked to the guy at church because he sits in the front surrounded by important people and elders and doesn’t mix with the riff-raff in the back.
But you don’t really know that guy do you? The CEO of your company may make 100x more than you, but your immediate supervisor doesn’t. What is protecting you? Proximity. Distance. Girard tells us that rivalry is caused by proximity and similarity. This is why, when you were on the high school basketball team, you could have a bitter rivalry with your classmate or perhaps with the team on the other side of town, but you didn’t have one with Michael Jordan. He was too distant. Your relationship with him was safe. You didn’t “envy” his skills in the same way you envy the success of the guy you knew first hand. You could look up to him without hating him. In contrast, this is also why feuds are often the most bitter between brothers – they are the most alike and live together. Along the same lines, throughout history it’s been OK for the king to be rich. He wasn’t just some guy you knew on the street or sat next to at Starbucks. He was far away and you maybe only had a vague idea of what he even looked like.
So what in our modern age has broken down this effective and protective layer of distance from the rich and the poor? Mass digital media of course. We now see Larry Elison tweeting selfies on his yacht right next to that picture from your coworker’s BBQ. (Hint: Unfollow Oracle.) The 24-hour news cycle is filled with in-your-face talk from these billionaire Wall Street moguls who you never would have ever met or thought about otherwise. Your plain-looking local high-school crush seems dreamy until you turn on the TV and are assaulted by a barely-clothed Beyonce or Scarlett Johansen or whoever. Ah, but they are probably still distant enough to be of little consequence.
Much more potent is that coworker (who actually makes the same amount of money that you do) but whose Facebook profile is carefully curated with professional photos and only staged snapshots of fun activities – no blemishes or bad news. On the flip side, it’s one thing to know there are “starving children in Africa” – it’s another to travel there and meet them (modern airfare), or see them close-up (modern video journalism) or even develop a relationships with one through exchanging letters through a sponsorship program. On both sides of the equation, we are more potently aware of economic inequality. We are hedged in on both sides by the extreme poor and the ridiculously wealthy in a more far-reaching way than for any people in history.
What has this done? Exacerbated envy. It’s also made us angry. Is this completely OK? It sure the heck doesn’t feel OK. So if I’m a follower of Christ, what am I supposed to do? Just take my complaints to God and keep my mouth shut? You don’t have to be a genius to come to the conclusion that some of this mess is fueled by our corrupt rulers – in bed with lobbyists and lawyers from corporations (no-people) run by shadowy and abstract “shareholders” who do not fear God in the least. Perhaps if better laws were put in place, some of this wouldn’t be so ridiculously bad. So let’s talk about policies or taxes. “No no!”, the shepherd tells us. Just vote libertarian and tithe more. What would Jesus do?
What would Jesus have us do? Like friends given crowns, I think he would have us wisen up, learn from the past, and rule as best we can. And maybe, just maybe, that might look like shuffling some money around so just like back in theocratic Israel, every once in a while, the wealthy had their slaves torn from them by fiat and sent back home. No it wasn’t fair, it wasn’t ‘smart’, but it was good.
This is only a suggestion of course. I have no serious theories or ideas worked out toward this end like the world’s hairdressers, cab drivers, and pastors do. But I think they are worth thinking through carefully. I am disheartened when I see good people trying to honestly work them out (with the Kingdom of God in their sights) only to have them quickly dismissed.
“When the king is concerned with justice, the nation will be strong, but when he is only concerned with money, he will ruin his country.”
– Proverbs 29:4 (Good News Translation)