The Gospel and The Redistribution of Wealth
“It’s the economy, stupid.”
Twenty years after Bill Clinton’s successful presidential campaign, the phrase lives on. And for good reason. The economy was a central issue in the 2008 presidential campaign and in the current campaign of 2012. That’s two full nauseating election cycles! Even if we disagree on how we got to where we are now, it seems we all agree that the economy needs to improve. Of course, disagreement about how we arrived here also means disagreement about how to move forward and improve. A singular point of disagreement centers on the redistribution of wealth and how it relates to economic justice.
Some say that the redistribution of wealth through taxation is necessary for economic justice: Those with wealth have a moral obligation to pay a greater share of society’s tax burden in order to lessen the load on those who have less. Wealth redistribution emerged as an issue in Barack Obama’s successful 2008 presidential campaign, and has emerged again recently as a core value dressed in biblical imagery – if not based on biblical principles.
But conservative economic policies are also based on a form of wealth redistribution commonly called “supply-side” or “trickle-down economics,” in which wealth used as capital for business expansion creates wealth for other segments of society. While the “supply-side” label is largely identified with the presidency of Ronald Reagan, the concept endures as a cornerstone of contemporary conservative policy.
But the central question for Christians to consider is this: Is either form of wealth redistribution reflective of the Gospel? After all, the redistribution of wealth is a thoroughly biblical idea. For example, Deuteronomy 26:12 declares the responsibility of God’s people to care for those in need. This isn’t a uniquely Old Testament idea, however. Most notably, Acts 2:44-45 records how the early church redistributed wealth in order to meet needs: “And all who believed were together and had all things in common. And they were selling their possessions and belongings and distributing the proceeds to all, as any had need.” (ESV)
As the earliest Christians trusted in the Gospel – the good news of Jesus – one result was a spontaneous sharing of resources. This generosity brought about something greater than justice; it brought about a unity only possible through reconciliation. The picture we’re given is one of people, now reconciled to God, able to be reconciled with each other (2 Cor. 5:18-19, Eph. 2:14-22).
Our nation is divided in so many ways and along so many lines, not the least of which are economic divisions. The current election season, from local all the way to national levels, has been filled with promises and claims about fighting for the “middle class.” While the rhetoric is filled with promises of justice, the soul of our nation longs for reconciliation. The generosity of the earliest Christians is a model for economic reconciliation, with three important attributes that reveal why political solutions will always fall short:
It was voluntary.
No one was forced to give. No one was under compulsion. They gave freely because it was the desire of their hearts. Government is incapable of producing this. Government can only produce giving under compulsion, whether via penalty or incentive. Samuel Johnson’s famous quote captures this well; “How small of all that human hearts endure that part which laws or kings can cause or cure!” For the redistribution of wealth to bring about reconciliation between people, it must be voluntary.
It was intentional.
Giving didn’t happen accidently or coincidently. It didn’t trickle down. Economic systems may be created or adjusted in order to spread wealth, but they cannot replace the relationship-building dynamics of people recognizing the needs of others in contrast to their own abundance. The early believers gave purposefully and sacrificially for the sake of others. The wealth didn’t trickle – it flowed to wherever help was needed. For the redistribution of wealth to bring about reconciliation, it must be intentional.
It was responsible.
It was focused on need. Our society has become so prosperous, and so infected by entitlement, that we struggle to note the difference between needs and wants. An increasing number of our “rights” have become detached from the divine providence upon which their existence formed the basis of our independence. As a consequence, we are increasingly concerned more with what is deemed fair than what is ethical. The value of work, a principle derived from scripture (2 Thes. 3:10-12), has become secondary to other values. A system designed to care for those in genuine need has become bloated by those content to avoid work altogether. We all know it, we just don’t agree on what to do about it. The early believers gave to meet needs, not to merely increase the wealth of those who had less than others. In order for them to do this, they had to be willing to discern needs from wants. For the redistribution of wealth to bring about reconciliation, it must be responsible.
Only the Gospel can create a desire to voluntarily, intentionally, and responsibly give to those in need because only the Gospel can bring about true reconciliation. So for wealth redistribution to produce reconciliation, far exceeding any justice sought by enforcing law, it must flow from the heart-transforming power of the Gospel. This is precisely where the Old Testament law came up short; it could change behavior but it could not change the heart. Only the work of Jesus Christ, proclaimed in the Gospel message, can do this. Wealth redistribution that is compulsory, merely systematized, and avoiding responsibility will not bring reconciliation: It will only spread bitterness.
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