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.