Often when we talk about wealth, poverty, justice, and generosity in the church, we don’t define our terms. Who is “rich”? Who is “poor”? My Robert Webber quote from Pt. 3 showed people assuming someone was “rich” (albeit in the 1970s) because he was making $100K in a year, but as a former resident of Los Angeles County, I can tell you $100K doesn’t always get you very far. On the other hand, if one made $100K living in Waco, he or she would probably be set!
But not necessarily. Maybe a woman in Waco has five children and an elderly parent to support. One of the children has special needs, making it impossible for both spouses to work. The child’s care is pricey and requires travel to Dallas two or three times a month. On top of that, they have some medical debt and are starting to pay for their oldest two children to go to college. $100,000 can only take you so far.
Clearly, expenses vs. income is something to consider. But let’s say we have two families of four making $100,000, and, magically, their expenses are equal. Are they both equally “rich”? I would argue that while “rich” is fine to toss around in casual conversation, for the purposes of serious discussion, we should abandon the term entirely. It is simply too easy to think of “rich” as relating to income, or even to income vs. expenses, or income minus expenses plus possessions. But are people rich just because they make a lot of money? Or because they have many nice things? A more beneficial term, I think would be wealth.
Wealth is a broader term which requires us to look at assets and debts. These two families making $100,000 might be paying the same on their mortgages, but one has 80% equity, while another has only 20%. Neither may be paying student loans right now, but one doesn’t have any educational debt, while the other is simply in a grace period while working on another degree. One family may be leasing cars while the other is paying the same amount per month to purchase a car. One may have a lot of credit card debt with low “minimum” payments, but what they owe is continuing to snowball. And of course, the bottom line in their bank accounts may be radically different. Perhaps one has money saved up or received a large inheritance and has $500,000 in the bank. The other family might have only $10,000. Not everyone with a high income is wealthy.
And while “rich” is a bit of a dirty word in justice-minded Christian circles, I don’t think wealth should be. I am reminded of a fair amount of discussion of racial disparities in wealth in Christian Smith and Michael Emerson’s book Divided By Faith. In college, I highly recommended friends to read the book in part because these statistics were so startling (though not surprising once you’re familiar with these sorts of issues). All of us, of course, felt that this disparity was unfair. But what did we ultimately want? We didn’t want everyone’s wealth to decreased to a some terribly low number! Instead, we wished that the black household wealth stats would change for the better. We wanted to everyone to be given an opportunity to build the sort of wealth that would give them and their children financial security.
I think wealth in a good thing. Wealth brings increased options and decreased anxiety. That’s why we hope that those who are currently poor can increase their wealth. But that is only something they will be able to do if we don’t tell them—while they are still building wealth—that their rising income makes them evil. It’s also only something they will be able to do if they spend wisely and avoid materialism. In this way, we simultaneously must warn about some dangers of money while avoid demonizing people for having any money at all.
Some people might ask, though, why accumulating wealth in moral to begin with. When so many people struggle to build wealth, why should anyone be allowed to? If they are Christian, should they give all their money away before they can accumulate it? I will attempt to address this in the next post in this series!