If the Poor Become Middle Class, Are They Still Blessed?

Capitalism breeds attachment to material goods. I get it. It may even tempt — make that, cause — its users to measure happiness and the good life by worldly standards. But is socialism any different? If capitalism breeds haves, does pointing out what the have-nots don’t have really challenge materialist notions of wealth, standard of living, property, or means of production?

The Social Gospel has always struck me as just as materialist as high capitalism, though it is much more sanctimonious about it since for every Russell Conwell ten ministers publicly identify with the poor even while depending on market mechanisms for their wages. In other words, applying a materialist reading of the beatitudes — either pro-free markets or pro-redistribution — misses the point. A capitalist might say that free markets lift all boats and will take the poor off poverty rolls and put them in the suburbs with a mortgage and car loan payments. A socialist might say that the elimination of private property and free markets will distribute wealth to all citizens so that everyone has a home and a car. But what about when the home owner or sharer dies? What kind of home does he have then? Neither the capitalist or leftist reading of the Beatitudes addresses the matter of spiritual poverty, or the understanding that this world’s goods are inconsequential for the world to come, when the spiritually poor, whether financially rich or destitute, will inherit the kingdom of God (if they trust in Christ)?

These questions follow from Andrew Sullivan’s rebuke to Rush Limbaugh. Conservative talk radio’s supreme host is worthy of all sorts of criticism. But I don’t think Sullivan’s complaint hits the mark:

But the Pope is not making an empirical observation. In so far as he is, he agrees with you. What he’s saying is that this passion for material things is not what makes us good or happy. That’s all. And that’s a lot for Limbaugh to chew on. And if the mania for more and more materialist thrills distracts us from, say, the plight of a working American facing bankruptcy because of cancer, or the child of an illegal immigrant with no secure home, then it is a deeply immoral distraction. There’s something almost poignant in Limbaugh’s inability even to understand that material goods are not self-evidently the purpose of life and are usually (and in Jesus’ stern teachings always) paths away from God and our own good and our own happiness. Something poignant because it reveals a profound ignorance of one of the West’s deepest cultural inheritances in Christianity.

If Sullivan had wanted to show his spiritual understanding of Christianity, he might have re-written this line: “… if the mania for more and more materialist thrills distracts us from, say, the plight of a working American facing bankruptcy because of cancer the wages of sin and death, or the child of an illegal immigrant with no secure home without the assurance of God’s forgiveness through the cross of Christ, then it is a deeply immoral distraction.”

As it is, paychecks and housing appear to rank high in Sullivan’s understanding of Christianity. That makes him anti-materialist and separates him from Rush Limbaugh how?

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10 thoughts on “If the Poor Become Middle Class, Are They Still Blessed?

  1. Pascal—I have often said that the sole cause of man’s unhappiness is that he does not know how to stay quietly in his room.

    Blessed are those who have no “room of their own”?

    Marx: “Religion is, indeed, the self-consciousness of man who has either not yet won through to himself, or has already lost himself again. But man is no abstract being squatting outside the world. This state and this society produce religion, which is an inverted consciousness of the world, its basis of consolation and justification The struggle against religion is, therefore, indirectly the struggle against that world.”

    Marx: “Religious suffering is, at one and the same time, the expression of real suffering and a protest against real suffering. Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world. It is the opium of the people. The abolition of religion as the illusory happiness of the people is the demand for their real happiness. To call on them to give up their illusions about their condition is to call on them to give up a condition that requires illusions.

    Marx: “Criticism has plucked the imaginary flowers on the chain of bondage not in order that man shall continue to bear that chain without fantasy or consolation, but so that he shall throw off the chain and pluck the living flower. The criticism of religion disillusions man, so that he will think, act, and fashion his reality like a man who has discarded his illusions and regained his senses, so that he will move around himself as his own true Sun. Religion is only the illusory Sun which revolves around man as long as he does not revolve around himself.”
    from the introduction to A Contribution to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right;

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  2. Victim of the crises Sean,

    I didn’t realize you shared the same views as Pope Francis on Vatican 2. A couple of questions

    1. Do you also find Archbishop Agostino Marchetto to be the best ever interpreter of the council?

    2. Do you also embrace the hermeneutic of continuity?

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  3. Darryl,

    “In other words, applying a materialist reading of the beatitudes — either pro-free markets or pro-redistribution — misses the point.”

    Agreed with your larger point here, but can’t Sullivan’s point be seen as showing how either system can miss the mark in terms of sacrificing morality/charity in achieving its goals of materialism/comfort? The cancer-stricken patient needs to understand his spiritual bankruptcy, but does that mean banks (or the state) can just ruthlessly foreclose on him and we should just be cool with it because, shrug, that’s the way things work? Or we shouldn’t take biblical admonitions to care for the weak and vulnerable when the child of an illegal immigrant has no secure home? I think it’s right what you point out, but you can focus on the weightier matters without neglecting the lesser.

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  4. The guy with alleged talent on loan from God weighs in on the vicar’s economic views.

    And here I was starting to get bored of what the internet was piping to my eyes.

    As for me, I saw the interweb today, and saw that it wasn’t just good. But very good.

    Lates.

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  5. CvD (your preferred moniker), at the OPC deacons conference, we studied “when helping hurts,” a book by Brian Fikkert. You can read about it on amazon, or read a review, if you like. Fikkert was excellent in his presentation of it at the conference. There’s value to your points here, but it’s also a complex issue raised, as no doubt Ruling Elder Hart here has experienced it first hand in a way that I have, as well. My point here is just to cite experience and perhaps s helful resource to you or others for this question. Take care.

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  6. As much as what Sullivan says about politics often has merit, it’s pretty hard to take the views of an impenitent man seriously on the scope and substance of Christianity. It’s also hard to take Rome seriously as long as individuals like him, who openly and publicly defy church teaching on faith and morals, remain in good standing with the church.

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  7. Andrew,

    Yes I’ve heard of that book and some of its points but have not yet read it, though I mean to. If you are interested in a secular look at aid from a similar perspective, you should check out Bill Easterly’s White Man’s Burden and Moyo’s Dead Aid – both economists (Easterly especially) are dead set against the policies and recommendations of the Jeffrey Sachs and Bonos of the world. I did not mean by my previous post we should endorse blanket socialism or just throw aid at people and think that will solve any root issues (or even not cause more harm than good).

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