The fine thread which Margaret Young’s post kicked off yesterday reminded me of some equally fine ones from the past. I’ve posted on the topic before a couple of times as well, and so–given that there was a lot to say–I was having a hard time keeping my comment to managable size. So I decided I ought to just put up in a post of my own–especially since I’m going to take the contrary position, and suggest that, while I think Jim (in comment #1) is right that “judging the wealthy to be wicked” is potentially a sin against one’s neighbor, Margaret actually shouldn’t be “appalled” that her daughter views very wealthy people as wicked. Concerned maybe, but not appalled.
Why? Because that judgment of hers–leaving aside how it might wrongly influence her ability to treat wealthy people as fellow children of God, as she should–is, in my view, more often accurate than otherwise. Great extremes of wealth in society are wicked, and the people who generate and benefit from those extremes often (too often) reflect that wickedness. Hence Margaret, I think your daughter’s conclusion is, while potentially morally problematic for herself, not necessarily unwise. We should love rich people, but also treat them (and that means–given that everyone reading this blog is almost certainly quite wealthy in an absolute sense, as Nate notes in comment #22–also treat ourselves) in the same way George Orwell recommended judging saints: as guilty until proven innocent.
Ok, the caveats:
1) I think Mark Butler is basically correct when he writes (comment #36) that “I donâ€™t think wealth per se is a problem, as long as it is collective wealth, not individual wealth,” though I would extend on that a bit. Surely it isn’t simply the fact of possessing wealth that is an evil; if that were so, then wealthy people could never be held up as examples of righteousness, and clearly that hasn’t been the case. I think God wants the societies His children live in to be abundant ones, as much as possible, because that will mean less absolute levels of deprivation, hunger, and sickness for all. And given the differing stewardships which characterize human life, living in abundant (or even just self-sustaining) societies will probably result in varying levels of personal wealth. I think the reason why that neutral fact changes and becomes a condition of wickedness (with the result that those people most responsible for creating those conditions are likely to be similarly partaking of wickedness) in societies where wealth is not collective–where instead what wealth that exists is generated by and hoarded by a select few–is because as such inequalities harden, they make it increasingly difficult to produce any kind of wealth without continuing (unintentionally or otherwise) to “grind the faces of the poor,” as Mark also notes (#30). In a winner-take-all society, where notions of stewardship are rare and ownership is held as both an invioble right and an important marker of status, simultaneously generating significant wealth and living according to the counsels of God becomes, more often than not, impossible (perhaps not as impossible as a camel going through a needle’s eye, but close to it). I think this is why God makes it absolutely clear that when one person’s possessions put them “above” another (interesting way to put, don’t you think?), “the world lieth in sin.”
2) Leaving completely aside the wickedness of creating and perpetuating such inequalities–that is, assuming that somehow a person of great wealth is able to attain and maintain that position without adding to the continuing exploitation or manipulation of those poorer or less powerful than themselves–there remains the problem of consumption. I don’t object, and I don’t think anyone should object, to the use of wealth to create and preserve and share beautiful things; that’s all part of beautifying and taking good care of the earth. While I think the main standard here must be the accessibility of the beautiful thing to all, some goods exist in the grey area between private and public, and thereâ€™s probably room for some purely private pleasures as well. This is where I think Jonathan’s comment (#7) about “modesty” comes in. Nate links Jonathan’s comment to a “morality of display” (#21); while what that would involve theoretically is an interesting question, I think the fact that such a basis for moral judgment exists is intuitively obvious. When wealth is ostentatiously displayed (“thematized”) through the size or luxury or frivolity of a material possession, you’re no longer only communicating what it is you value (which may be problematic enough!); you’re also communicating how aware you are, and how proud you are, of your own superior ability to achieve what it is you value. And whatever else that is, it most certainly is “immodest,” as Veritas points out (#67).
3) I agree with everything that MLU has to say (#52), though I would disagree if anyone would take that comment to mean that the burdens of wealth and poverty somehow cancel each other out. There is a reason why the scriptures link wealth with pride, wickedness, and apostasy, and link poverty with humilty, teachableness, and holiness. That said, I agree that calling repentance down upon the wealthy that benefit from our unequal society doesn’t let the poor off the hook. Clearly, some wickedness is far more common and visible in poorer communities than in wealthy ones. But I suspect that “the poor” we talk about today are not “the poor” that the Savior blessed, and not the poor that can serve the rest of us as a reminder of what God wants from His children (as Margaret hopes coming to know some Cakchiquel Indians will help her daughter). Poverty in the advanced, capitalist societies of today (and in those touched by such societies–which unfortunately probably also sometimes includes even rural Guatemala) usually means indebtedness, unhealthy lifestyles, the disappearence of jobs, a breakdown of the family, crime, drug use, welfare dependency, alienation, insolvency, an entitlement mentality, and a host of other ills. Poverty in agrarian, rural, or otherwise more “simple” societies usually simply meant, and still means today, “not very much money.” While it is better to have an abundant life than a strapped and desperate one, those who live simple lives, or at least accept or even inject some simplicity into their lives (like, say, gardeners and farmers, or like Hugh Nibley for that matter) seem to me to have much greater likelihood of avoiding both the sins which usually come with wealth, as well as the particularly modern burdens and trials associated with poverty. I think this is what MLU and Tim J. (#17) are getting at in their emphasis on simplicity.
4) Are there exceptions to this? Sure there are. There are lots of exceptions; there are scads of exceptions. I would even go so far as to suggest (or at least hope) that there are more exceptions amongst wealthy Mormons than amongst other segments of the world population, if only because we have the legacy of the United Order hanging over us, the temple covenants regarding consecration to commit us, and the basic duty of tithing to remind us regularly of all these principles. Still, I think they remain exceptions. Given the clear teachings of the prophets and the scriptures about what wealth tends to do to a people, I would be interested to see any argument that could prove otherwise.