After the riots (5)... what about wealth?

First published 26th September 2011

In the penultimate article of our After the riots series, Simon Topping challenges us to step back and be challenged by the radical notions in the Gospel of justice and shared responsibility considering the issue of economics and a theology of possessions.

A Christian response to the recent looting which limits itself to thou shall not steal overlooks questions concerning the rights to wealth and possessions explored elsewhere in the Bible.

A reoccurring theme within the Bible and the early Church is that the right to accumulate private wealth is subordinate to the right of the poor to live with dignity.

The Mosaic Law establishes that ownership of land and wealth is not inalienable. This is in contrast to Roman concept of dominium which (still) gives absolute and exclusive rights to property owners.

Leviticus 25:23 clarifies that no-one can claim absolute ownership of the land. The land belongs to God and the people occupy the land as tenants, on condition that they obey God's law under which the rights of the poor are defended. The Jubilee laws further clarify that ownership of land and property is subordinate to redistribution in favour of the indebted and the enslaved.

Jesus deepens this critique of wealth accumulation.

Instead of storing up personal treasures on earth Jesus calls his followers to travel light with few possessions, putting their trust in God's providence and seeking first God's kingdom of justice. Private wealth, therefore, is to be distributed in favour of the poor. Jesus describes a community in which people leave property and land (and family) only to receive a hundredfold land, property and family through the shared resources and relationships of God's kingdom (Mark 10:29-31). The Jerusalem Church seeks to make a reality of this community of goods described by Jesus (Acts 2:44-5, 4:32-5).

Paul introduces the idea of sufficiency or enoughness (autarkeia 2 Cor 9:8) when urging the Corinthian Christians to be generous in their giving to the Jerusalem church, whose members were experiencing extreme poverty. A sense of sufficiency in term of personal wealth and possessions liberates Christians to redistribute their surplus in favour of the poor.

Clement of Alexandria emphasises that possessions were only to be held by Christians in order to be used, not accumulated, and a Christian would not need the use of many possessions before they had achieved a state of enoughness. Basil the Great argues that the surplus goods of the rich are, in reality, the property of the poor.

The biblical economics of enoughness places the needs of the poor before the right to accumulate private wealth and obliges us to ask the question who is stealing from whom?

Simon Topping

Social Responsiblity Officer, Swindona nd North Wiltshire

Simon Topping is a member of the ISR team.

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