Over the long history of religion, people of faith often have been divided about great wealth and the obligations, if any, of those who possess it.
Some Bible verses are well known even to people who don't own or read a Bible. Such as I Timothy 6:10: "For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil, and in their eagerness to be rich some have wandered away from the faith and pierced themselves with many pains."
And part of Matthew 6:24 says it plainly: "You cannot serve God and wealth."
Jeremiah 9:23 offers this caution: "Thus says the Lord: Do not let the wise boast in their wisdom; do not let the mighty boast in their might; do not let the wealthy boast in their wealth."
The Qur'an, too, has lots to say about money and how to spend it. Verse 262 of chapter 2, for instance, says: "(As for) those who spend their property in the way of God, then do not follow up what they have spent with reproach or injury, they shall have their reward from their Lord, and they shall have no fear nor shall they grieve."
The question across history is how people are to think about wealth and the people who hold it. And that's the very question that Guido Alfani, professor of economic history at Bocconi University in Milan, takes up in his engaging new book, As Gods Among Men: A History of the Rich in the West. Its publication date is Dec. 5, but it can be ordered now.
Quite wisely, Alfani spends a good deal of time focusing on what religion and its various leaders and thinkers have had to say about wealth over the centuries. My hope is that readers will want to ponder anew what their own faith traditions today have to say about this subject, given the many economic inequities in the world and the systems that create both poverty and wealth. In fact, a good companion book to Alfani's would be Matthew Desmond's recent book, Poverty, by America, which I wrote about a few months ago here.
"What makes the rich today similar to those of the past?" Alfani asks -- and then tries to answer, noting that much thinking about all of this has "been shaped by the Christian religion."
For instance, he notes that "in the medieval Christian tradition, well represented by the thirteenth-century theologian Thomas Aquinas, the very accumulation of wealth was considered to be sinful. This led the rich to be scorned and, at the same time, generated in them a constant worry about the afterlife."
Other eras have taken different approaches, including some that have glorified wealth and seen it as a sign of God's favor. For example, Alfani writes, "In early modern times, the Protestant Reformation, and especially its Calvinist component, only gave some extra lustre to the rich, insofar as it hinted that material success might reflect on being destined to salvation."
Indeed, John Calvin, father of the Reformed Tradition (read Presbyterian) had a doctrine about predestination, Alfani writes, that "led believers to seek material success as a sort of proof that they belonged to the elect (those destined for heaven)."
A radically twisted version of such thinking today is found wherever the so-called Prosperity Gospel is preached. That sickening recasting of the good news of Jesus insists that God wants each of us to have wealth, health and healing on demand, and if you don't have them you are somehow at fault for not having enough faith.
Also in our modern era, we are often awash in stories about the superrich and the ways they use their wealth for good or ill. That, in turn, has led people to pay considerable to their own economic status and needs, leading to accounts such as this story about many why people with a net worth of at least $1 million don't think they're rich.
Alfani's book is a more scholarly approach to the question of great wealth than it is a self-help book or a polemic denouncing the wealthy. But it's a helpful addition to the literature that can move all of us -- whether people of faith or not -- to give deeper thought to whether we own money or money owns us. Religions of many sorts would call the latter condition idolatry, the very sin outlined in the first of the Ten Commandments.
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IS THIS AN OPENING FOR A PERMANENT PEACE?
It certainly is good news that the pause in the Hamas-Israel war has allowed the release of some hostages in return for some prisoners. The long-term question, however, is whether this slight break in hostilities can become an opening toward a more permanent solution to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, which is a subset of the Arab-Israeli conflict. That slim possibility will require more enlightened, creative and persistent leadership than what appears to be present now on either side. Hope is a frail bird, as this photo I took in Jerusalem in 2012 shows. That's the dove of peace looking for a place finally to land.
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P.S.: My latest Flatland column posted Sunday morning here. It's about how widespread Buddhism is in Kansas City.