CultureWatch

Bill Muehlenberg's commentary on issues of the day...

Celebrities, Christianity, Wealth and Poverty

Dec 30, 2008

Paris is in town. Paris Hilton that is. And with her there is a whirlwind circus of the media and adoring fans. I have yet to figure out just what it is about Paris that attracts such interest. But she is nonetheless at the centre of attention, just as she is wherever she goes.

When she arrived in Melbourne yesterday she and her entourage checked into a spiffy hotel, only to emerge a few hours later to do what she seems to like to do: go shopping. She went to an upmarket Chapel Street boutique and managed to dish out $5560 on new clothes in just 40 minutes. Not bad for a day’s work.

But she will not be missing the money. She will get heaps more cash back in media appearances. For example, she is expected to pocket a tidy $25,000 appearance fee from a bar in South Yarra. With megabucks like this coming in, she should not have to worry much about what she blows on new clothes.

The media, ever ready to create controversy in order to make a headline, featured Paris prominently. In today’s Herald Sun she even made the front page – all of it. The story noted her expensive tastes, and a comment was made by the head of World Vision Australia that for the money she dished out on clothing, a village in Africa could be ensured of clean water for the rest of its life. Another social worker called her spending “obscene”.

So what is a Christian to make of all this? There is no question that the Bible speaks a lot about the importance of money and how we should be wise stewards of it. Scripture also speaks much of the needs of the poor, and our obligation to those less fortunate than ourselves.

Of course it is easy to criticise Paris. But a few qualifying remarks might be made. Why pick on Paris? Wealthy people do this sort of thing all the time. I am certainly not trying to defend Paris here, but this is what rich people do: they go out and blow a lot of money on all sorts of things. It happens every day.

And the truth is, less wealthy people are not much better. For example, many households received an early Christmas present from the Rudd Government in the form of a $1000 cash bonus. The question arises, just how was this money spent?

We know that video game sales went through the roof during the past few weeks. And how many families lashed out and got a new plasma TV, or other luxury items, entertainment items, or for the most part unnecessary items?

How many people instead used the $1000 bonus to feed the poor or help the homeless? Indeed, how many Christians spent the money on themselves and their wants just as most non-Christians did? The truth is, most of us would do the same as Paris if we were put in her position. We all tend to be selfish, greedy pigs.

So what should a believer do? This is not the place for a full discussion of the issues of wealth and poverty. Just a few thoughts will suffice. Back in 1978 Ronald Sider wrote an influential book entitled, Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger. In it he took the church to task for not caring about the poor, and argued for greater involvement in this area.

This was one of those books which I both strongly agreed with and strongly disagreed with. I agreed that the Bible says much about the poor and our obligations to them, and the need for Christians to stop living selfish, greedy lives in the face of so much global poverty, starvation and misery.

But I very much disagreed with his proposed solutions. Being a Christian of the political and economic left, his solutions were more or less that of socialism, welfare-ism, statism and redistributionism. He blamed most of the economic woes on capitalism, and opted for non-free market solutions.

This was the book’s downfall. It has been the free market, not socialism, which has done the most for the world’s poor. Indeed, one free market Christian, David Chilton, wrote a point-by-point rebuttal to Sider in 1981 called Productive Christians in an Age of Guilt Manipulators.

Sider himself seemed to recognise that he may have gone too far to the left: he later came out with a revised edition of the book, and in it he admitted (if memory serves me well) that he had been too critical of the free market, and too much supportive of socialism.

Interestingly, just in today’s mail I received the quarterly magazine for Wheaton College alumni. In it economics professor Peter Hill had an article on “Why Do Some Nations Prosper?” He noted that in 1800 “the richest countries of the world had per capita incomes about three times that of poor countries”. But in 2005 “this gap had widened so significantly that the per capita incomes of the richest countries were sixty times that of the poor countries”.

He said that “this growing difference is not because of exploitation of the poor by the rich. Instead, the vast gap has arisen because of varied abilities to produce wealth. In other words, some parts of the world have discovered the engine of economic growth, while such growth has bypassed other parts.”

He continues: “The fundamental cause of economic growth is found in the institutional structure of the economy. The rule of law, protection of property rights, openness to trade, enforcement of contracts, and a stable money supply are all-important for rewarding the individual endeavour that produces increases in economic wellbeing.”

Of course many nations do not have these pre-requisites. Thus giving foreign aid to such nations can be of limited use. As economist P. T. Bauer used to put it, foreign aid usually means taking money from poor people in rich countries and giving it to rich people in poor countries.

The free market in other words is the best generator of wealth, but certain conditions such as the rule of law and private property must be in place for it to work well. So we must be concerned about helping the poor, but there is a big difference in terms of what approach we use to deal with poverty.

By all means, then, we need to be concerned about the poor, and we need to ease up on our out-of-control consumerism, materialism, and greed. And that goes for Christians just as much as non-Christians. But on the global scene, we need to be aware of what economic policies we are promoting, since some are more effective than others.

And on the local scene, we need to be careful of judging people like Paris Hilton when in all likelihood we may be just as hung up on money and spending as she is, just on a smaller scale. We all can be far too concerned about self, and too deaf to the cries of the needy.

We can all be guilty of hypocrisy here. We can all rightly condemn Paris, but the truth is, most people reading this article right now live in a home which would be the envy of 90 per cent of the world’s population. Even we middle class folk are really quite well off.

But how much are we personally doing to help the poor and needy? How many genuine sacrifices have we made to do something about not just global poverty, but the poor neighbour across the street, or a needy friend? We are all very wealthy by the world’s standards, but what are we doing with the blessings of wealth which we enjoy?

Who or what is our God, in other words? Is it the one true God, or is it the materialism, the comforts of the middle class, the desire to get yet another new car, and so on? Our heart should be one with God’s heart. We should have compassion and concern for those less well off. That does not mean we need to embrace distributive economics, or decry capitalism. It does mean looking at our own lifestyles, and asking, when is enough? Am I caught on the consumerist treadmill?

Sure, Paris wasted a lot of money, but we all tend to do the same, albeit on a smaller scale. We need to break free from the Western mindset of endless consumerism and materialism. We need to do this on an individual level, and on a national level. It will take careful use of mind and heart to get it right. But we must try nonetheless.

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12 Responses to Celebrities, Christianity, Wealth and Poverty

  • I must confess to having been sucked in by Ron Sider’s “Rich Christians” too.

    But I was pleased much later to read and absorb (and I have just finished re-reading) David Chilton’s 3rd Ed of “Productive Christians”.

    It reminds me that Biblical progress is from a Garden surrounded by an untamed and empty world to a city with a teeming population.

    John Angelico

  • Bill

    Great article. Most churches just don’t get it do they? They don’t understand that by fighting for a free market and limited government they are actually helping the poor in a far more lasting and effective way. This is one of the best means of doing Jesus’ will of serving the poor that I can think of.

    Take something as seemingly harmless as feeding the homeless in Australia. Is this really a good idea? Is it really kind? Or is it just encouraging the wrong form of behaviour? Is it just helping people like this remain in their miserable condition?

    Damien Spillane

  • Thanks Bill for this analysis of both Paris and the rest of us in the light of Poverty and Wealth. Bertrand Russell observed that Communists were more interested in the downfall of the Upperclass than the uplift of the workers. Can I encourage you to write on the ‘Politics of Envy’?
    Stan Fishley

  • Indeed, many churchians, e.g. the Evanjellyfish Alliance, follow the secular Left in assuming that if we don’t support the Left’s “war on poverty” programs, then we don’t care about those these programs are meant to help. But as Damien says, the free market is often the best way to help the poor to cease being poor. After all, this applied to countries as a whole: the rich countries were once poor.
    Jonathan Sarfati, Brisbane

  • Tim Blair has some good comment on this story too.

    As Blair says, Paris is simply following Kevin Rudd’s orders to spend quickly in order to “create more jobs across Australia and strengthen the Australian economy”.

    He also reports that Costello is paid $250,000 per year.

    Ewan McDonald.

  • I must confess that I never read Sider’s book when it first appeared, but I did meet certain Christians who were completely swept away away with his contentions. Hence I soon realised what his programme was, and browsed through his much vaunted volume. Both from the disciples and the book itself I was appalled at the view that mere possession of wealth was a sin per se.

    I argued this point with several of the disciples, pointing out that the Bible warns against the deceitfulness of riches (Matt.13:22; Mark 4:19), against putting one’s trust in worldly wealth (1 Tim.6:17; the parable of the Rich Fool in Luke 12), and against exploitation by the rich (James 5:1-6). But it NEVER condemns mere possession of wealth as evil. However, the Siderites were unmoved.
    Of course, what Sider pleads for is not really help-for-the-poor so much as statism, the notion that the State should be the great benefactor, and if all are on mere subsistence incomes, then we all become mendicants to the all-powerful state. The Siderian adage, “Live simply so that others may simply live” may pull on the heart-strings, but is totally impractical, and nobody really observes it. Furthermore, it is indefinable: what exactly is “the simple life”? Does that mean no ornaments on the mantelpiece or in the crystal cabinet? Does it mean eating nothing other than “No Name” foods? Does it mean driving a 1970s vintage “old bomb”? (Bear in mind that many people in poor countries do not own a car of any sort; they are lucky to own a rickshaw.). Or perhaps it only means, “Cut down on confectionery, and go without a meal on Saturdays”.

    Then we have more recently the slogan, “Make poverty history!”, seen on many a church notice-board (usually UCA boards). Similar comments could be levelled here, e.g. What is poverty? The fact is that in Western countries it is constantly being redefined upwards: today’s “poverty level” would be classified as well-to-do by the standards of London slums in C19th London or Glasgow.

    I would declare roundly that these sorts of slogans are distinctly unhelpful, and do nothing to alleviate poverty. All they achieve is to provide a sop to the conscience of Western folk in their relative affluence, and provide a path of cheap virtue.

    The proper path for the Christian is to take up the cause of human need privately, not sounding a trumpet before him (Matt.6:2), and to pursue that project with all zeal on that personal level. There are many Christian organisations which can assist here, and one can work through them. By contrast, the “social justice” bandwagon, like the old “Social Gospel”, seems to me to be nothing more than a huge exercise in trumpet blowing.

    Murray Adamthwaite

  • I was very interested in the comments on Ron Sider and his book. My position on politics is that I find not one redeeming feature, associated with socialism. An interesting and exhaustive survey conducted in the USA last year, found that 98% of private donations to charitable causes came from people, who would be described as conservatives, Only 2% from Lefties. The Left is happier in distributing other people’s money, feeling good about it and being able to satisfy their disastrous inclination to be envious, particularly of those, who have money through hard work. Obama is a typical example- he wants to “spread the wealth”.
    Frank Bellet, Petrie, Qld

  • I fully support each of us individually seeking God with regards to being good stewards, of the blessings God has given us. This is not limited to the money he has given us but to our time, emotion, intellect and “talent”.
    I struggle with the discrepancy between the other countries I have lived in, and the affluence I experience here in Australia. I could blame the people in the other country and the choices they make, but I know that is not the whole of the picture.
    Greed is what is abhorrent to God. The love of Money is the root of all kinds of evil (1Ti 6:10) not money. Money used well is what enables us to live in society. This greed is not new and happens at many levels: Individual, village, city, national, and more recently international. It is at each of these levels that we must hold each other accountable to ensure the enemy does not trick us into thinking that a little bit more for ourselves is not so bad after all.

    I am all for innovation and entrepreneurship as long as it is not at the expense of someone else, be it in my home, my village, city, nation or world.

    Johaan Ernest , Melbourne, Australia.

  • I write as the wife of the CEO of World Vision. The one you have liabled in the above article. You need to be very careful in what you write. You did not extend politeness by checking the facts with him or his organisation. No wonder Christians are held in low regard when they do this to each other. I demand you apologise to him and to the readers of Culture Watch. He does not take business or first class in any of his travel for World Vision. He actually changed to policy for World Vision execs when he took over in 2004. If you had done your homework you would have found this out – even check with Qantas! They sometimes upgrade him but this is at their expense and a never a cost to World Vision. It means he often arrives at destinations of crisis extra exhausted,,,and I wont begin to mention the state he sometimes comes home in from some of the world’s worst disasters but I can assure you it will in economy class!
    Merridie Costello

  • Many thanks for the correction Merridie

    While I did say “if economy class was used”, I offer my apologies to Tim and World Vision. And I have removed the offending paragraph, and associated comments. Thanks for the good work that you are doing.

    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

  • The key is to be willing to work and to make good use of what you have. Some people won’t take a job because it is not what they like. I have employed some ‘not so bright’ people, but I have noticed that where they are faithful and do their best, they are always employed and have enough to live reasonably.
    Tom Wise

  • Tim Blair said in his article (in response to social worker Les Twentyman saying that Hilton’s spree was “obscene” at a time when “thousands of people a week are losing their jobs”):

    A lot fewer Australians would be unemployed if we had more millionaire heiresses throwing money at local businesses. Besides, we’re only talking five grand here; would Twentyman be so outraged if Hilton (or anyone else, for that matter) had bought a fifteen-year-old Holden instead of clothes?

    The point being that this kind of purchase hardly warrants the kind of moral outrage expressed by some. I recall that it was often reported that the late Kerry Packer would gamble (and often lose) millions of dollars in the casinos of Las Vegas, but I don’t recall a similar outrage from the charity groups on those occasions. Perhaps Packer was too powerful a target to take on – much easier to attack a soft target like Hilton.

    I agree with those who have commented above that the tendency of the Left (of both the religious and political variety) to criticise wealthy people spending their money, is often motivated by a prejudice against capitalism. I think it is reasonable to point out a double standard when those making such criticisms could be considered wealthy themselves.

    Ewan McDonald.

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