Friday, June 26, 2009

Wealth and Wisdom

Sherman Kuek, SFO
Published in Catholic Asian News
(May 2009 Issue)

As Asians, one of our reference points in moments of crises is our forefathers. When Asian individuals and families are faced with crises and crucial decisions to be made, we are often told to turn to the wisdom imparted by our ancestors. This is perhaps exactly what we should do as we contemplate on the present economic situation confronting us and the rest of the world; we should turn to our ancestors in the faith, our Church Fathers. They certainly have a thing or two to teach us about economics and wealth.

In the face of present economic and financial crises plaguing the world, it is in order that we should examine what has been wrong with the economic system in the first place. Much finger pointing has been taking place, particularly among those blaming America for its implementation of financial systems that permitted for banks to grant unsafe loans since the 1980s.

This is not an economic article that assesses market mechanisms. It is a theological article that examines the human attitudes underlying those market mechanisms. Taken from that perspective, truth be told, a vast many of us might have been guilty collaborators in the success and the subsequent breakdown of these mechanisms.

The problem lies in society’s attitudes towards wealth and possessions. And this is by no means a new problem; just exploring some of the homilies preached by the Church Fathers in the third and fourth centuries would clearly point to the existence of this age-old human disease called “greed”.


Humanity in the developed world as a whole has been guilty of a twofold economic crime: firstly, the obsession with abundance of private possession, and secondly, an obsession to the extent of an indifference towards the economic needs of our deprived neighbours.

This has been precisely the value undergirding the world economic system of the modern era, which propels the excessive drive for ever increasing profits without ethical controls. As a result, two thirds of the world population has lived in relative poverty as the wealth of the other third has kept on increasing.

Much of the suffering in the world today can find its roots in this reality which take a tremendous amount of honesty to acknowledge.

We (even well-meaning Christians) have often failed to distinguish between “wealth” and “riches”, and have misperceived these two terms as synonyms when they should actually be opposites. “Wealth”, referring to the creation of wealth, is to be seen as an activity sanctioned and blessed by God, whilst “riches” refers to the selfish amassing of commodities which results in shortage and the deprivation of others’ needs.

It is important that we understand the Christian calling to create wealth as a fruit of one’s labour, for this is an ordained means of one’s participation in God’s continuous creating acts for the betterment of creation itself. However, the creation and amassing of wealth at the expense of others is another matter all together. Unfortunately, such thoughts are often beyond the scope of our contemplation in our efforts for wealth creation.

As we return to the wisdom of our Fathers in the faith, we would perhaps be able to glean some crucial economic principles with the hope that it can aid an economic recovery for us (even if only a minor one).


St Augustine distinguishes between the “use” (usus) and the “enjoyment” (fruitio) of material wealth. Such finite commodities are to be merely instrumentalised for the service of God’s greater purpose. His concern seems to stem from the human inclination to possess these things for temporal and obsessive pleasure.

St Ambrose teaches: “Not from your own do you bestow upon the poor man, but you make return from what is his”. Basil of Caesarea is recorded to have emphatically asserted that the hoarding of wealth at the expense of one’s neighbour is to commit a wrong towards him.

St John Chrysostom also speaks of the failure to share one’s possessions as “theft and swindle and defraudation”. He reminds his listeners, “I beg you remember this without fail, that not to share our own wealth with the poor is theft from the poor and deprivation of their means of life; we do not possess our own wealth but theirs”.

It is apparent from these instances that the tradition of the Church warns the wealthier Christians to be mindful of the plight of the poor. The failure of these Christians to provide for the sustenance of the poor constitutes a moral injury. Their ventures for wealth creation at the expense of those who had no ability to create wealth were construed as oppression.

It is this line of thought that is perpetuated by St Thomas Aquinas, as he seemingly reiterates the principle that each human person has an implicit or innate right to a means of sustenance, and that it is the rightful duty of those who possess excess wealth to provide a way of access for the poor. (In fact, according to Aquinas, in the case of a failure on the part of the wealthy to execute such provisions, the deprived are permitted the privilege of secretly or forcefully taking what is rightfully theirs!)

In accordance with this, the provision of wealth to the poor by the wealthy is not to be seen as a gift, but rather, a moral duty. Aquinas also emphatically prescribes the use of material wealth for the meeting of one’s most fundamental needs in life such that one is able to reasonably subsist. The breach of such prescribed moderation would render a human person beastlike.

Apparent, the Christian tradition upholds the virtue of temperance and the employment of one’s abundance for the welfare of the needy. It is precisely at this point that the peril of a modern economic culture has been found endangering to the spirit of the Christian faith.

Market players, Christians and non-Christians alike, have indulged themselves in the amassment of wealth with little or absolutely no regard for the wellbeing of the larger society. In most economic activity, the welfare of the neighbour has ranked last in our list of priorities. The present crisis is the resulting consequence of such attitudes.


Where do we go from here? This article has been deliberately focused on the wisdom of the Church Fathers with the hope of demonstrating that economic problems suffered by Christians and the larger society are an age-old phenomenon. But further to that, if there is anything that the Church Fathers offer affluent Christians like us who are caught in the modern economic rut, it is anything but a gentle word of comfort. In many ways, they would come across as saying, “It’s a good time to repent”.

For a fourth-century church leader like St John Chrysostom, the Christian community’s responsibility towards the poor is not dissipated and its conscience not free for as long as there exist the poor in the world. For far too long, we have ignored the economic wellbeing of the larger humanity, often justifying this nonchalance through our occasional Lenten almsgiving.

Chrysostom’s agony stems from the inequitable distribution of resources within his society. For him, such unjust distribution is the inevitable ramification of economic injustice, which in turn is the result of the very existence of the concept of privately owned wealth and luxury. Therefore, this leads Chrysostom to conclude that the categorical existence of “private property” is the source of social and economic evil.

Goods, he asserts, are placed alongside the human existence as a way of testing the human capacity to exercise stewardship with the poor in mind. However, people have become consumed by their love for such goods and degenerated into overt material obsession, hence a perverted economic system for illusory wealth creation.

Chrysostom also speaks of an idolatry which surpasses the abomination of pagan idolatry. Idol worship, according to Chrysostom, means worshipping something which God created. This he distinguishes from the idolatry of covetousness in that the latter pertains to the worship of something of one’s own creation, i.e. the voracious propensity towards acquisition. The latter of the two is considered a more hideous form of idolatry. As such, Chrysostom makes it his project to safeguard the wealthy from an obsessive concern over their possessions.

The only properties that are legitimate, as far as he is concerned, are those things that are required for one’s daily survival. These do not include exaggerated accesses and luxuries we do not need. Isn’t it true that people most usually face economic crises from trying to acquire luxuries rather than from trying to meet their simple subsistence needs?

The solution out of the present economic crisis is quite obvious, if only people would be willing to abide by the law of love and charity. Maybe the Christians should start first.

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