The Good of Affluence by John R. Schneider lays out a theological framework, primarily through interpreting the biblical text, by which to view wealth. In many ways this book is a defense of affluence over and against the view that the wealthy should divest themselves of most or all of their luxuries in order to provide necessities to the global poor. It is also, to a lesser degree, a defense of capitalism as a means of creating wealth which benefits both the rich and the poor alike.
Before entering into an analysis of the biblical narrative, Schneider makes an important observation about modern capitalism. In his view, capitalism is a “new” and different way of acquiring wealth which the world did not know in biblical times. For most of human history great wealth (affluence) was acquired primarily by taking it from other people through unjust means such as war, thievery, or taxation which rose to the level of extortion. But capitalism is different in that it is not a “zero-sum” game. In capitalism wealth is acquired by adding value into the whole system, which raises the level of all, or most, of those involved in the process. “When capitalism really works, every member of society becomes affluent to some comparative degree and (as D’Souza’s numbers show) that is exactly what has happened in some nations. The cultures that capitalism helps to create do not merely contain great wealth. They are cultures of wealth” (25). This “new” form of wealth building is a set of “new wine skins” which require a fresh look at the data, namely, the biblical text.
From there Schneider works through the biblical narrative. He begins with creation (chapter 2) and observes that God’s original intention was for people to live in a state of material delight. This was Adam and Eve’s experience in the garden before the Fall and it is where we are heading after the resurrection. From there he moves to the exodus and the laws of the Old Testament (chapter 3). Here he argues that part of the exodus meant moving the people from a position of slavery (including economic slavery) and into a position of delight and economic freedom – life in the promised land. The laws which govern the people in the promised land do indeed include care for the economically vulnerable but they are followed with the promise of God’s material blessing. Schneider interprets the Jubilee, not as primarily a radical concern for the poor (since many of the most vulnerable – foreigners, for instance, were left out of any benefits the Jubilee might have brought) but as a way to re-establish God’s people in the land – a sort of re-living of the exodus.
At this point Schneider also introduces a principle central to the book, that of moral proximity. The principle of moral proximity essentially means that the closer one’s “moral proximity” is to someone else the greater one’s obligations. For Schneider this means that we are most responsible for our immediate family and have only loose obligations towards the global poor.
In chapter 4 Schneider reviews the Prophets and Wisdom literature. He focuses primarily on Proverbs and the book of Amos. His central thesis here is these writings assume God’s original intention of delight while, at the same time, decrying the abuses of the wealthy over and against the poor. He summarizes his view of Amos in the following way:
“It is a matter of become a mature person with a vision of the Lord and a heart for people, especially the poor and powerless. The rich must be liberated not from riches but from the selfish mind and the heart of the serpent. We must have the mind of God, the true Lord, who is our servant. We must strive toward the light of the exodus vision and recover the spirituality of redemptive power, which turns our delight into love” (106).
Schneider then moves to the New Testament, beginning with the Incarnation (chapter 5), Jesus’ teaching and his call to discipleship – the parable of the rich ruler, the call of Zacchaeus (chapter 6) – and Jesus’ parables (chapter 7). Here Schneider argues that Jesus did not call all to completely divest themselves of property but that he did call all to creatively use their wealth for kingdom purposes. Finally, Schneider moves to the early church, particularly to Acts, James, and Paul’s appeal for funds to help the church in Jerusalem (chapter 8). All in all, his review of the biblical text is representative and he deals with some of the more difficult passages to Scripture without (in my opinion) being evasive.
Schneider concludes the book (epilogue) with a reflection on how his view of affluence might be understood in a world of poverty. His conclusion here is that what holds people in poverty is not a lack of hard work or from a lack of capital, but systems which have not allowed for the release of capital. He summarizes the work of Hernando de Soto who argues that what is common to all stagnant economies is a lack of functioning rules regarding property, which are necessary for the creation of wealth. If this is true then the problems of these countries can’t be solved (at least not in the long-term) through external aid. Instead they need to be solved internally, through the creation of necessary economic infrastructure. The second implication is that in this view the “global poor” are not a problem which needs to be solved, but are in fact, are themselves the solution.
Of Schneider’s work I have two words of commendation, one of critique, and one of warning.
First, Schneider’s exegetical work is of the first order. He offers scholarly, clean, and convincing arguments. Those who would disagree with him, if they are believers, will first need to deal with his formidable exegetical work. Second, reviews which state that Schneider is arguing that wealthy Christians have no obligation to the global poor are mistaken. They simply do not understand Schneider’s argument. If everything looks like greed then the only answer they will accept is divestment of property. But Schneider views the world in a very different way (more nuanced and complex) so they don’t recognize his solutions when he states them.
My critique is that Schneider offers very little in terms of concrete applications to the reader. I believe this is intentional on the author’s part, but it is still frustrating. I was personally hoping for a bigger payoff in his epilogue. I understand his “solution” I think, but I have no idea how I can play any part in it.
Finally, a warning: This book could be read by the rich to justify either inaction or indifference. Again, this is not the author’s intention. I simply state it this way: Wealth, while a blessing from God can, because of our sinful natures, become a deceptive snare. If you have been blessed with affluence Schneider’s call would be to creatively use your wealth in service to others.