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Monday, September 9, 2013

Capital Wealth and Consumer Wealth

Dave Ramsey's Tennessee home, appraised at $4,909,200
I've sometimes been accused of being too hard on the rich, even though I usually include myself and most other middle class Americans in this overly well-to-do category.

As a case in point, in my December, 2012, article in the MENNONITE on "Christmas Economics", I devoted a paragraph or two questioning whether Christian financial guru Dave Ramsey practiced a justice-based stewardship in investing in his latest home in a gated community near Nashville.

The rest of the article was about an understanding of Biblical stewardship that not only encourages generous giving (which Ramsey certainly does), but with periodically and systematically redistributing and reinvesting wealth in ways that give a hand up to the underclass (which he doesn't). I noted that the Pentateuch commands the latter as well as the former, and that the church of Pentecost and of the apostle Paul clearly promote such "Christmas-like" giving. 

While I'm neither an economist nor a theologian, I do believe that when we discuss whether Christians should be wealthy that we need to clarify what kind of wealth we're talking about, capital wealth or consumer wealth.

It's often assumed the two are inseparable. "Let's not be too hard on the rich for having bigger homes or better cars," I hear people say, "because they are, after all, the job creators who make the economy work for the rest of us." Or, "We're highly dependent on the wealthy to support our church institutions, mission and relief programs and other charitable causes." In other words, it would be wrong to criticize such folks for living more lavishly than the rest of us.

But what if we clearly differentiated between people's capital wealth (their means of production) and their consumer wealth (their level of consumption)?

It would clearly be possible for an individual or a group to own and manage huge enterprises that generate large amounts of goods or services (at a fair and reasonable profit), but to still see themselves as simply managers of that wealth, wouldn't it? The whole concept of Christian stewardship, after all, is based on the concept that God really "owns" everything we may happen to hold title to and use on God's behalf.

So should stewards of large amounts of capital investment assume the right to siphon off a larger than needed portion of that wealth for their personal consumption? I don't think so. If we were really serious about God being the sole owner and we being only the caretakers, we might even consider that a form of embezzlement.

Having said that, I wish I could come up with more examples of Christians who were CEO's of successful companies, for example, but who made lifestyle choices like using public transportation when possible, living in modest homes, and vacationing pretty much like most of their workers. Or of well paid heads of Christian-based institution who chose  to live in places like Harrisonburg's Northeast community instead of in a wealthier part of town.

I was impressed, however, when someone giving a stewardship sermon at a local church recently made the statement, "We've chosen to live in a simple house on Stuart Street that is small and doesn't even have a basement, but it's comfortable and meets the needs of the two of us very well." While there is obviously no one right size for a suitable house, and certainly nothing wrong with having a basement, I thought that statement might have been the most powerful one in the entire message.

I also think of a retired couple in our church that gives generously, drives a modest used car and lives in a small duplex, in spite of their being blessed with some considerable family assets--and do all this joyfully and generously.

We need more good models of people who avoid feeling entitled to more and more consumer wealth, or to laying up more perishable stuff for themselves, while at the same time managing significant capital wealth in growing good food, manufacturing useful products and providing needed services--all at a level of profit they celebrate and share as a gift.

What do you think?
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