The Damned Rich?

Cadillac ad

At Religion News Service, Jonathan Merritt lays down the smack on rich people—at least the kind of 1%-er depicted in this Cadillac ad:

You can read Merrit’s full rant at “Sochi Cadillac Ad Encourages Worship at the Altar of Work and Stuff.” It’s hard to come away from reading that piece and not think that all rich people are damned.

I think Merritt’s complaint is an extension of the radical discipleship trend.

I used to be one of those people who thought scant numbers of the rich would inhabit the more heavenly portion of the afterlife. At least that’s the way I once read the Bible. (Frankly, we know all the anti-rich verses in the Bible, so I’m not even going to bother putting them here.)

Here’s part of the problem:

There’s no glory in being poor, and all the sociological studies show as much. The poor are by far less happy about life. They struggle more and appreciate the “spiritual benefits” of life’s struggles less. And if anything, “the love of money is the root of all evil” is more of a problem for the poor than the rich. Anyone who has seen a parking lot of a retailer that sells lottery tickets on those days when the government welfare checks arrive knows from the discarded tickets littering the lot’s asphalt that there’s a lot of love of money on display.

Merritt also decries the workaholic lifestyle, but who is the true workaholic when the rich man works 60 hours a week and saves enough money to retire at 50, while the poor man works 40 hours a week and keeps working until he drops dead at 75?

And from what did the attitude in the Caddy commercial originate? The Reformation perhaps? Luther had strong opinions about the sanctity of work, and it was Calvinists who gave us the Protestant Work Ethic concept that now powers much of the mentality on display in that ad.

Here’s the more discombobulating part of the anti-conventional wisdom regarding rich and poor:

In Rodney Stark’s The Triumph of Christianity, the renowned sociologist of religion makes interesting arguments that Jesus was not only not poor, He was likely upper middle class. Stark is no theologian but a sociologist, yet his arguments in favor of his theory are well-reasoned and interesting to ponder.

Even more contrarian is Stark’s less conjectured argument that the early Christian Church was not only bankrolled by the richest members of that era’s society, but the rich were Church members at twice the percentage as their representation in the general population. In short, the Church in Acts was loaded by the organizational standards of the day, and the rich were some of its most prevalent members.

Yet even more upending is Stark’s contention that the rich Church has been the case for almost the entirety of its history. This was true in Rome, where the homes that the traveling evangelists often stayed were on the order of today’s McMansions—or even larger. This was also true in post-Rome Europe, where the poor were almost never Christians (but instead practiced pagan religions) and Christianity was bankrolled and supported by the nobility.

In fact, when Merritt claims that rich people finance today’s megachurches—as if this is some damning statement—in reality, this has always been the case in history.

Stark notes the fledgling Church would not have gotten anywhere and definitely would not have spread as it did without people with a lot of money investing in the work of the Kingdom. Same for the Protestant Reformation. That Luther-led revolt against the RCC would have died early on, since Luther would have been assassinated and his writings unpublished—if not for the German nobility who protected the reformer and funded his writings.

Is it hard for the rich to enter the Kingdom? Sure. But hard does not mean impossible. Stark’s historical research shows as much.

Christians need to be very careful about painting with a broad brush with regard to rich and poor. Many times, the supposed materialist is the one secretly funding a ministry you and I swear is life-changing and godly.

7 thoughts on “The Damned Rich?

  1. Heartspeak

    The current animosity towards the ‘rich’ is rooted in Jealousy and Pride and fueled by the world’s now Conventional Wisdom that the rich are greedy, selfish buggers and holding down the common man.

    Jealousy, because like the proverbial fox and sour grapes, the ‘poor’ want and when they can’t reach it they call it sour.

    Pride, because supposedly the ‘poor’ are noble and ‘not like those buggers at all’! (This is supposed to be ‘better’? Take a gander at the greed, crime, and ugliness in the poor sections of our cities and countries and the favalas– no more nobleness there than in Beverly Hills!

    Conventional wisdom = Man’s wisdom = Not God’s Wisdom. Indeed, Jesus and the Disciples were supported by some wealthy women/widows/wives. He was placed in a rich man’s grave. Paul was greatly supported by the entrepreneur business couple of Priscilla and Aquila and also Lydia.

    We often cite the passage about God owning the cattle on a thousand hills. In fact, by earthly standards, they are (nominally) owned by people. God’s people understand that they are but caretakers of what God owns however. When they are acting as stewards, not only does God give them much to steward, but those belongings are His to bestow where He chooses, thus the cattle on a thousand hills.

    We would do well indeed, not to condemn those who have much, especially those of the house of God.

    • Heartspeak,

      I find it also intriguing that what passes for some readers of Merritt as snobbery, duplicitous wealth, and pride from the main character of the ad would have been lauded 100 years ago, with the lead considered the epitome of a savvy, American, Christian businessman.

      Has God’s standard of salvation changed or have we?

      I think what is most in question is the lead’s tendency to take all the credit for his success. If so, then I would be against him also. Still, the blanket condemnation only serves to remind us that we need to be careful of our own opinions about another’s salvation.

  2. Diane R

    Something you never hear in evangelical churches or in their meida is the fact that evangelicals’ attitudes toward the upper-middle and upper classes are very bad. And therefore, they aren’t reached for Christ. Since our countrys’ leaders are mostly in this top tier, this is very bad news. Out here in Southern California where I live we have probably at least 50%+ of suburbs that are professional high middle, upper-middle and upper classes. I really don’t even know where poor white people live here as the poor are almost always minorities. If by chance the top tiers become Chrisitans it usually is because, like me, they met a Christian in college or at work that told them the gospel. We just do not hear it out hear. I notice that the poor and homneless are constantly reached for Christ but as I previously stated, the attitude on the part of evangelicals toward the top tiers is really bad.

    • Diane,

      In some ways, I’m not sure if some of these 1% folks can be reached. If you read the article Oengus posted, you start to wonder.

      Honestly, I think that the worst thing these folks think might befall them is to become a born-again Christian, as it would mean an end (in theory) to the shenanigans like the article depicts (and only serves to reinforce what we already suspected).

      I wonder if the 1% will always be out of reach for that reason. The question is whether the top 10% are reachable, which I think they might be. In fact, those are the folks who are better 1:1 comparisons for the rich in the Bible.

      • Heartspeak

        I think what the article posted by Oengus below describes is one of the main reasons why it’s harder for a camel to pass thru the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter into the Kingdom. However, it’s equally inappropriate to conclude that they just can’t be reached. Most likely it won’t be by someone from outside their world however. Our job is to reach out to those who are already our neighbors and not to be too terribly concerned about those with whom we lack influence.

        Again, I will tell you that such actions and attitudes exist within all strata of life and are equally hard to come against. I’ve seen the same mind sets and isolation in a number of different socio-economic spheres. This is no different and is merely the state of fallen man.

  3. Dan: “The Damned Rich?

    I don’t know, but after seeing this article, I wondered if maybe they are damned after all, at least the Ultra-Rich.

    James 5:1-6 is pretty harsh, although I think what he was targeting was riches that are ill-gotten by exploitation.

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