My daughter said recently that she had been raised to view extremely wealthy people as wicked. I was appalled, since I am one of the primary people who raised her. What messages had I communicated which elicited those words? I admit that my father, on first view of a cousinâ€™s enormous mansion, said simply, â€œWell, that is obscene,â€? and that I have maybe repeated similar sentiments once or twice. I admit that my time living in 3rd World countries has affected my perceptions of wealth, and I have sometimes commented that the price of the richest homes in Utah could feed whole countries. But have I managed to communicate the idea that rich people are wicked? Apparently so. I would suggest that as a church, we generally do not give that message, though. In fact, we might give just the opposite.
Wealthy people refer to themselves as having been blessed by God with â€œmaterial possessionsâ€? (and surely many give liberally to the poor). We make strong implications that if we are full tithe payers, the Lord will reimburse usâ€“sometimes to the penny. And the Parade of Homes is the new fantasyland in Utah, where we visit family-friendly castles decorated by the best designers around and furnished with brand new, brand name furniture. Frequently, scriptures are prominently displayed in these homes, as well as the full Gerald Lund series. Sometimes there are stenciled Mormon cliches on the walls, such as â€œFamilies can be together forever.â€? I admit that Iâ€™ve always wanted to see â€œItâ€™s easier for a camel to get through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the Kingdom of Godâ€? beautifully stenciled in the family room. I am intrigued by the apparent contradictions. I am equally intrigued by the evangelical TV programs which ask for money with the words, â€œSow your seed.â€? My favorite is Mike Murdock, an â€œobscenely wealthyâ€? guy (as my father might say) who looks like a used car salesman and sits in a chair staring at the television audience with his hawkish eyes, promising miracles if theyâ€™ll just â€œsow a seed of $58. per month for a year.â€? He suggests that they MIGHT have been chosen by God to be one of His designated millionaires, to do His work with the money Heâ€™ll bless them with. So if you feel impressed that God has chosen you to be one of His millionaires, you should â€œsow that seed.â€? Itâ€™s a sort of Celestial lottery. But do we Mormons do anything similar when we talk about wealth, tithing, prosperity being associated with righteousness, etc.? And which is worseâ€“communicating the idea that very wealthy people are somehow wicked, or the idea that God just might give you a home worthy to be paraded if youâ€™ll keep the commandments?
Couldn’t we paraphrase 2 Nephi 9:29 this way: “To be wealthy is good if they hearken unto the counsels of God”? (I like the word “counsels” there better than I like the way we usually quote the verse, inserting “commandments” instead. God might counsel more than he commands.)
But which is worse, judging the wealthy to be wicked or assuming that commandment-keeping will make one wealthy? Tough to say, but the former may be, since it requires a sin against my neighbor, namely my judgment of her. Besides, the second of these is so foolish, so unsupported by experience, that it is difficult for me to believe that very many people can sustain that belief for long.
P.S. My apologies for not posting your introduction until today. A bout with food poisoning, the flu, or something similar delayed my doing so.
Margaret: I sometimes have similar reactions to gargantuan houses, but I am not quite sure why it is that I would think that the wealthy are wicked (or at any rate more wicked than I am). Here are two possibilities:
1. They are wicked because they got their wealth via evil means.
2. They are wicked because they are not sufficiently generous with their wealth; they spend it on themselves.
Generally speaking, I think that 1 is generally not true. I’ve no doubt that there are those who become wealthy by dint of dishonesty and exploitation. On the other hand, it is possible to get wealthy simply be making a better can opener or meeting some other unmet need that people have. Hence, I don’t see that the ability per se to make money is wicked.
The problem with 2 seems two fold. First, I suspect that some wealthy people actually are quite generous. More generous than I. Second — and far more importantly — I doubt that the wealthy are on average LESS generous than others. I don’t live in a smaller house than the wealthy folks across town because I am more generous than they. I live in a smaller house because I am not as good at making money as they are.
Obviously, there are other objections to being wealthy, but there is one other one that I am not sure what to make of. This is the argument that those who are successful at making money are successful because they love money above other things. On this view they are wicked because of the object of their desires. This may well be true in many cases. On the other hand, one can have other overriding objects of desire that don’t result in wealth but are also of limited eternal significance.
In this sense, I suspect that ostentious wealth — to the extent that it is sinful — is rather like smoking. It is a sin of roughly equal gravity with many other sins that most of us probably engage in quite regularlly, but it does seem rather public.
A final point: To what extent is the objection to obscene houses aesthetic? Do we have moral qualms, or do we simply find it rather crass and plebian?
It seems to me that “The Commandments” is too broad of a term for this discussion. The commandments can be boiled down to loving God and loving our neighbors, but there are also clearly principles connected to financial prosperity (and when we adhere to those principles or sow those specific seeds we reap those specific results — see section 130). So it is true that one can love God and love neighbors and remain financially destitute as a result of failing to follow the principles of financial success or perhaps just as the result of bad luck. And one can fail to love God and love neighbors and become financially rich as a result of following the principles of financial success or perhaps just as the result of good luck. Or one can keep the great commandments and still become rich for adhering to the associated financial principles. Or one could break the two great commandments and be destitute on top of it…
You get the idea. There are nuances that need to be distinguished or this oft held conversation ends up going nowhere in my experience.
This is an interesting topic for a worldwide religion which defines Zion as a place with no rich or poor yet half of the church clearly has a far different standard of living and opportunity than the other half.
A religion that defines the blessings of God as both spiritual and temporal prosperity as a natural result of keeping commandments yet every member in the church has to struggle from a different starting point and is given different talents that are valued arbitrarily by a global capitalistic economy.
A religion that has strict instructions about the law of tithing but keeps it own finances top secret so that you don’t know if it is keeping its own commandments or hording wealth or distributing the wealth fairly to its member, let alone how does one determine what a fair distribution of wealth.
A religion that leans predominantly to alliance with a political party that upholds government policies that favor the rich over the poor yet teaches everyone to be self-sufficient.
Personally, I don’t think that the accumulation of wealth is so much of a sin as what you are doing with both your wealth and your time.
Speaking of mansions – many of us in California have seen the market value of our homes appreciate four fold in the last 15 years.
Is that a blessing or a cursing? Am I suppose to sell it, give the profits to welfare and move into a tiny house only worth 1/4th as much?
And do I owe tithing on the appreciated value or realized gain?
“And do I owe tithing on the appreciated value or realized gain?”
Sounds like increase to me. The real question in my mind is about timing.
“Obscene” may be exactly the right word to describe the house, depending on its size and outward appearance, as a house that flaunts the wealth of its owner can be an exercise in immodesty as much or more than a revealing bit of beachwear. Immodesty in a house is only indirectly related to a house’s actual market value, but more directly connected to how a house’s exterior thematizes its price.
Are there really rich people in the Kingdom of God? Because I thought you couldn’t take any of it with you. I was planning to will my wealth to charities when I die, but now you’ve got me thinking…
Re: #4, I would really like to see the Church return to full financial disclosure. They stopped this in the wake of the embarrassing deficit spending of Elder Moyle, on the “if we build it, they will come” theory. See, for instance, the following from a Sunstone article:
“This movement [IE the New Era] was linked with the fact that the LDS church issued its last public statement of expenditures at the April 1959 conference. Moyle, appointed second counselor two months later, assumed direction of Church finances, with President David O. McKay’s optimistic encouragement. President Moyle immediately set aside the current budget and launched a massive increase of expenditures, especially in the construction of new buildings. Six months later the LDS church had spent $8 million more than it had received in 1959. This was extraordinary when compared to the Church’s surplus income of $7 million after 1958’s expenditures. Because the last published report of expenditures included the building program, Elder Moyle persuaded President McKay not to publish even an abbreviated accounting of Church spending. There has been no itemized financial report of LDS expenditures from 1960 onward.3”
My impression is that the Church has persisted in not publishing financial reports for a very different reason, grounded in success rather than failure. I suspect there is a fear that ordinary members of the Church won’t understand the big numbers in the report or that most of the Church’s assets are not revenue-generating, and the widow will stop sending in her mite. If that is indeed the reason why we no longer publish financial data, I think it is overwrought and paternalistic. The numbers could be put in a context such that even ordinary Saints would understand them.
BTW, if anyone is interested in an exegesis of the key scripture alluded to in the post, see here:
Margaret, maybe we need a Relief Society enrichment kit so that the sisters of the Church can make needlework versions of that scripture to hang on the walls of their homes.
I struggle with the perception I have of myself and of others who are very well off. My home is bigger than I would prefer. I give away quite a bit, but always feel that I could do without many of the things that I sometimes consider “appropriate” wants. I think that we justify the things we have by categorizing them as “wants”, when I wonder if the Lord when talking in D&C 82:17 was meaning “lacks” (a more era-appropriate reading of the word which likely means just a step up from “needs” as opposed to how we mostly see “wants” as a step down from “inappropriate desires”).
C.S. Lewis describes sacrifice and charity as things that make us uncomfortable. Giving a few extra dollars to the Fast Offering fund or Humanitarian or PEF may make us feel good, but unless it is truly difficult for us individuals and draws us to a level where we are consecrating all, we (I like to think that others are in the same boat as me so that we can all go down together) aren’t really sacrificing or being truly charitable.
Regarding Roland’s comment regarding the global capitalistic economy; it really doesn’t seem like capitalism has any place in the Gospel of Jesus Christ. It does have place in the materialism instilled into the churches by Rome and Greece. It just seems out of place with the gospel.
Our first and foremost goal in mortality is to build up the Kingdom of God and then all else will be added unto us. The key to understanding this of coarse is that we never really become richer under this rule because once we have become converted to Christ we have the attitude of service so that as God blesses us more with material wealth we in turn give it unto the poor. The idea of God-like society is the law of consecration where most everything is owned by the people as a whole and all people are of the same wealth and there are no rich and no poor yet everyone does equal work according to their skills. This is all in accordance with the law of sacrafice which first must be understood before one can live the higher law.
Entering heaven requires one to have a heart of service in giving “all that they have” in building up the kingdom of God. As one hoards things for himself to give him stature amongst his peers, he is actually going against the law of heaven.
In situations where a house like in California has quadrupled it’s wealth, the owner is not obligated to sell his house to get to heaven as it is all relative- meaning that all of the houses are raising in value with each other for the area and to relocate within the same area in order to be around those whom you love would be no real gain in wealth. However, I do believe that if a couple is going to retire and sell their house and go on a mission, they should donate the excess that they will not use in their lifetimes to their children and friends who are needy- no reason to hoard.
“But have I managed to communicate the idea that rich people are wicked? Apparently so. I would suggest that as a church, we generally do not give that message, though. In fact, we might give just the opposite.”
Indeed, my ward (at least the richer members of it) seem to hold to the very Calvinist belief that the larger (read “more expensive”) house you have, and the more you make, is a measure of how faithful you’ve been. My ward includes the richest part of the stake (and state, since all of Delaware is part of one stake.) While almost no members live in the very richest area, the “next richest” (for lack of a better term) has produced all the bishops, as well as the entire current bishopric.
Even in my own age group, almost everyone else who’s active paid at least two or three times for their house, than I paid for mine. I don’t find any one such family intimidating – it’s not like we could possibly pay the same amount for the same house in any universe. (Especially since most of them have a bunch of kids running around.) But I find the collective group unbearable, even as many of them helped my wife and me move into our home.
Rats. So the whole “eye of a needle” thing really is just a fancy way of saying “impossible” after all. I wish the Bible were more succinct.
So what is the definition of “rich”? By African standards, most people living in the United States are wealthy.
Jim F wrote: But which is worse, judging the wealthy to be wicked or assuming that commandment-keeping will make one wealthy? Tough to say, but the former may be, since it requires a sin against my neighbor, namely my judgment of her. Besides, the second of these is so foolish, so unsupported by experience, that it is difficult for me to believe that very many people can sustain that belief for long.
Interesting to think of the manifestation of the “righteousness leads to material wealth” meme as a function, largely, of a level of experience and maturity. That would explain its persistence over time, but would also be consistent with the overt and sheer wackiness of the notion from the view of commonsensical life experience. Do you think that it is a notion that is a function of maturation (like invisible friends) or is it created or driven in significant degree by a (mis)reading of our scriptures?
What interesting insights! I agree with Geoff that nuances need to be distinguished, but somehow when I see the phrase “principles of financial prosperity” I can’t help but see Stephen Covey thumb wrestling Tom Brokow while explaining “win/win” and “The Seven Habits…” I enjoyed reading Kevin’s post from BCC. Hugh Nibley had a profound impact on my husband and me when we bought our home. (We bought it a week before we got married and we’re still there.) I have Nibley friends, and so had visited the Nibley home several times in my teen years. It was humble. The furniture needed upholstering. And Hugh would often be sitting on the couch, surrounded by books and papers. When Bruce and I were looking for a house, I drove by the Nibley place several times. We ended up buying a modest little home in middle-class Provo. Bruce is one of a handful of BYU professors in our stake. My bishop works for Brick Oven. A former member of our stake presidency owns a pawn shop. I have no rich neighbors. (In fact, I suspect that Bruce and I are the wealthiest people on our block–probably in our ward.) And I admit that I take some unhealthy pride in all of this. My initial post fights against itself, I think, talking about the unthinkable idea that a mother would train her children to view the very wealthy as wicked, and then proceding to explain how ridiculous and tainted our ideas about wealth are. In my heart of hearts, I do judge the very wealthy rather harshly. I hadn’t realized that I have communicated that to my children, but obviously I have. I’ve spent the summer living amongst some of the poorest people of the world. I actually gasped when I entered my own Provo house and remembered how beautiful it is. My daughter said, “Oh, Carpet!” I have the faces of the Cakchiquel Indian children in my mind constantly, even as I casually buy junk food at Smiths or turn on my washing machine or microwave oven. I am still fighting the battle subtlely present in that initial blog: I desperately want the wealthy to share better, because I believe there really is “enough and to spare” if we can keep from gluttony, if we can recognize where “sufficient for our needs” ends and “consuming it upon our lusts” begins. And I recognize that this desire has led to ungodly judgement of others. (However, I retain the right to judge Mike Murdock, who owns property all over the U.S., several absurdly fancy cars, and still invites people to “sow the seed.”)
but somehow when I see the phrase â€œprinciples of financial prosperityâ€? I canâ€™t help but see Stephen Covey thumb wrestling Tom Brokow while explaining â€œwin/winâ€? and â€œThe Seven Habitsâ€¦â€?
At least I didn’t bust out “synergy” or “proactive“.
“I have the faces of the Cakchiquel Indian children in my mind constantly.”
Ahh the memories. Thinking of the Cakchiquel Indians reminds how unimportant wealth is and how our happiness in independent of it. I fell in love with Guatemala simply due to the simplicity of life there. If I thought my wife could handle it, I ‘d move back and leave behind this life of trouble.
The empirical failure of the ideology that ‘righteousness leads to wealth’ is no deterent to its attractiveness as an ideology. The fact that this is one of the most persistent messages in scripture greatly contributes to its pervasiveness in LDS culture. Further, an ideology wouldn’t be worth its salt if it couldn’t account for its own inconsistencies.
See here for a discussion of the \”eye of a needle\” thing.
Trailer Trash (#17), good point, a point which, I think, goes some way to answering greenfrog (#13). Greenfrog, I think the drive to read commandment-keeping as wealth-producing is driven by our desire to justify ourselves. (DHofman’s and Margaret’s observation that our own homes look like palaces when compared to most of the homes in the world is exactly right.) However, that drive is sustained by a misreading of the scriptures.
“Immodesty in a house is only indirectly related to a houseâ€™s actual market value, but more directly connected to how a houseâ€™s exterior thematizes its price. ”
Jonathan: This is an intriguing idea. If I understand you correctly, the evil of the big house comes from the way in which it displays wealth, rather than in the distributional effects of that wealth per se on others, ie that is wealth that should have been spent on the poor. Perhaps I am over reading you here. I would love, however, to see you expand on this idea a bit (perhaps in a post?) and say something about the morality of display.
“So what is the definition of â€œrichâ€??”
I believe that in the relevent scripture, Christ said that the rich man had to give all that he had to the poor and follow Christ. On that definition, it would seem that ANY wealth counts as rich.
Off topic note to Tim J: What’s your connection to Guatemala? My husband joined my kids and me there for a week and brought our digital video camera, so I decided to make a little documentary. We have marvelous footage of one of the great men of this world–Pablo Choc, of Patzicia. I recognized when I saw him (I had known him thirty years ago) that he was not long for this world, and decided his story deserved to be told. We did two interviews with him. He talked about the quake of 1976 and his coming to terms with its implications for him–his feeling that God must be punishing him for some great wickedness, because God had taken half of his family in that quake, and the oldest son, the first Cakchiquel missionary (Daniel), died a month later while trying to reconstruct a nearby village. The mission president told him, “This is a test of your faith. This is not a punishment.” And Pablo said (as I’ve reported in BCC), “I didn’t forget my promises. I kept the faith.” Pablo knows he’s dying. (I wouldn’t be surprised if he has died already.) He said, “Rich or poor, when it’s time to die, you can’t buy more life.”
I don’t know if my ward is ahead or behind the rest of the church, as far as sunday school lessons go, but this theme has been on my mind since we discussed Job on Sunday. Perhaps I’m misreading Job, and maybe this is no the place to get into an exigetical discussion, but to me a very large part of the substance of Job is to debunk the idea that material wealth is an indication of righteousness and its corrolary that material loss is the result of spiritual deficiency. Job’s friends urge him to recognize his sin, asserting that that must be the root of his problems, and that doing so will lead the Lord to bless him materially once again. Job, on the other hand concludes that “the Lord giveth and the Lord taketh away–blessed be the name of the Lord.” The author even makes sure we understand that Job’s is the proper attitude–in all this Job sinned not, nor charged God foolishly.”
It seems to me that to attribute some person’s success to blessings because of righteousness is to say that God is the author of the inequality we see around us. Clearly, though, he does not approve (his parable in the D&C about the man with twelve sons who dresses half in robes and half in rags and then says “I am just”). Perhaps blaming God for inequality is a way that we “charge God foolishly.”
Then again, if that is the message of Job, isn’t the ending kind of self-defeating? Job gets his stuff back because he was righteous, faithful, etc.
P.S. to Tim and anyone else who has been persuaded to move to Guatemala by this blog: I can set you up. We desperately need volunteers to teach in our schools there. The Rose Foundation sponsors three schools (Chimaltenango, Momostenango, and Patzicia.) The one in Patzicia needs the most help. Any takers?
Here is the link to make a donation to the Rose Foundation, which sounds like a pretty good organization:
My ward is full of rich people. Believe me when I tell you this. I like to think that I’m better than them because I’m not rich. Some times I can barely choke back my rage at their thoughfully-planned career paths!
I do wish that I had been taught some lessons in humility, or foraging or something, by some sort of exotic Indians first-hand, because that would be a great thing to throw in some rich guy’s face.
I presume you know Randall Ellsworth, the one who started the foundation. I was in Chimal (on the mish) when they first started the school there and a few members of the ward were trying to get their kids signed up. It’s a wonderful thing that they’re doing. I would LOVE to go back and teach there… maybe one day when I have enough wealth built up and can afford to not work for a couple months :)
I can have a modest home and still be guilty of not sharing my wealth with the poor. I have to remind myself of this lest I lull myself into a false sense of security by saying that because I do not own a masion that I am not guilty of greed.
Also, if there were no poor in the world, I think that exorbitant displays of wealth would still be a departure from a Christ-like attitude towards worldly possesions. That is to say that the display of wealth reflects an attachment to the wealth, which attachment is always a sin in it’s own right and is not dependent on the needs of others.
I happen to think that there are lots of common business practices that fall in the general category of violations of the golden rule, in this context “grinding upon the faces of the poor” through a wide variety of subtle and not so subtle means. It is worth noting here that Isaiah 65:21-23 implies that the Lord’s metrics of the value of labor seem to be rather different than what often prevails in the marketplace. Indeed the scripture seems to imply a non-experience weighted suffering theory of value. After all the Lord suffers when we suffer, right?
Scripture also condemns to extremes the practice of usury, but not the practice of investment. Usury (an obligation to pay interest at supra-nominal, fixed rates) seems to be the practical equivalent of slavery, so far as the scriptures are concerned. “Pay thy debt to the printer and release thyself from bondage”. Many other unwarranted contractual terms (e.g. anything not on the golden rule), such as those used to securitize a customer base, could also be justly compared with slavery.
Also contemporary corporatism seems to be a way for shareholders to wipe their hands clean of reponsibility for the most amoral (and ofttimes immoral) behavior imaginable, and this obligation for amorality (short term self-interest) has been written into common law, and of course institutionalized by other means. [SBC/AT&Ts attempt to charge monopoly rents for all next generation Internet services is a good example of something they are presumably obligated to attempt on behalf of their shareholders, and yet one of the most vile sorts of abuse of monopoly power imaginable, a practice that the dunderheads in the FCC paved the way for, in explicit (and semantic) contravention of the principles of the Communications Act of 1934.]
As to the second category Nate mentioned, I think it should be apparent that there is no such thing as “ownership” in the Kingdom of Heaven, only stewardship. Ye are not your own, for your bodies have been bought with a price, and all that. It is only by the grace of God that anyone acheives wealth by any means other than wanton criminality – that is the basis of the obligation to share with others, to the point that one has no more material blessings than his neighbor.
Of course the neighbor has to place his all on the altar as well, to qualify for such a blessing. No idlers allowed. Of course some may have greater stewardships, over servants and lands and factories, etc., but a greater stewardship does not give any sort of license to spend the fruit thereof largely on himself or his friends and family alone.
Also one should not forget the commentary on current business practices as well as all around materialism that the following scripture implies:
David Brook’s Bobos in Paradise: The New Upper Class is an excellent description of this sort of thing.
I really appreciate your distinction between ownership and stewardship. Once we think something is “ours”, our selfish nature most often overcomes our desire for our fellowman and prevents us from doing the giving. Nothing we have on the earth is ours. It’s suprising to me that those of us who claim to believe that everything comes from (and is therefore belonging to) God seem to be less willing to give than those who ascribe to humanism.
The simple life sounds great until you have medical problems, especially with your kids. . . Then suddenly modernity starts looking great.
Note to Rusty, who is waiting until he has enough money to go back to Guate: Of course I know Randy. He gave me 20/20 vision (except when I’m reading) through his able surgery. (I’ve also traveled to Guatemala with him.) One of the interviews we did with Pablo involved Randy. On the night of the quake, Feb. 4, 1976, Pablo’s married son heard that a missionary had been injured. A beam of the beautiful LDS Church had fallen on him when the church collapsed. (The missionaries were having a district conference and were asleep in the chapel when the quake struck.) Pablo’s son, who had just lost two brothers, a sister, and his 8-months pregnant mother, went to the chapel and got a machine to lift the weight from Randy’s body. He saved the missionary’s life. Pablo said, “I didn’t go, because I was removing the bricks which had crushed my wife’s body.” Randy is a great example of someone whose life was really changed by Guatemala. There are others. John Bringhurst, now a doctor, still travels to the Coban area to serve the people there. Julio Salazar lives in Chimaltenango and runs the schools. I suspect there are MANY people who learned to love the poor and who have used their wealth to continue serving larger missions–in Guatemala and elsewhere.
And a P.S.: Bruce and I and our kids have traveled a lot. This has been possible largely because we live in such a modest home. But we have also used our retirement money and borrowed on life insurance. There are ways. I figure if we are destitute after we retire, we can move to Patzicia. I can get by on about a dollar a day there.
Margaret,– Is your husband the Bruce Young who taught (teaches?) Shakespeare at BYU? If so, he was one of my favorite teachers there several years ago.
I can’t seem to shake the idea that the whole argument about whether riches are a sign of debauchery or a result of righteousness is societal rather than religious. I know in my own case, I sometimes view those much richer than me (and there are a lot of them here in No Cal) as obviously “too” rich, and tend at first to judge them harshly, but I think it’s more sour grapes than doctrine. Whenever I get to know either people much richer or much poorer than I, they consistently disprove any generalizations I may have made. People, rich or poor, are just people, good and bad.
I do believe that we teach as a church that righteousness brings both spiritual and material blessings. I don’t know how many tithing stories I have heard about how people have received financial blessings for their obedience. I have witnessed these blessings myself. I think we can go wrong, however, when we over-apply this principle. I think the Lord will bless us with our needs, but it doesn’t follow that we will be financially blessed in direct proportion to our righteousness. I also think that wealth often follows many of the teachings of the Church like industry, moderation, honesty, self-sufficiency, etc. not as a direct blessing from God, but as a natural byproduct of a lifestyle.
Honestly, I think it is irrelevant to the Lord how rich or poor we are, and he makes that abundantly clear in the scriptures (Ruth, the story of Job, the widow’s mite, the widow and Elijah, Joseph and Mary’s humble circumstances, the men chosen as apostles by Christ, David, King Solomon, the prosperity cycle among the Israelites and the Nephites). He’s far more interested in what kind of people we are. If our priorities are skewed, riches can make it harder for us to be humble and to put God first in our lives because they are a tempting idol. I think wealth often is just a condition of mortality, like height, eye color, or genetic predisposition towards diabetes–you get what you get, make the most of it.
I don’t think wealth per se is a proble, as long as it is collective wealth, not individual wealth. The prosperity scriptures largely apply to societies, not individuals, implying that we would be wealthier, happier, and more prosperous in the best sense if we worked (voluntarily) as a community instead of practicing the doctrine of strategic exploitation.
Also worth noting is the following principle: A laborer in Zion shall labor for Zion, if he laboreth for money, he shall perish. In other words, work hard, but do it for the benefit of all, not for personal advantage. Zion is a society. Money is man’s claim against society. In practice man benefits far more from society than society benefits from any individual man – in other words the debt goes the other way. This is the basis of the doctrine of grace.
No matter what we do, we will always be indebted to a righteous society as a whole – through a righteous society we receive far more than we contribute. Thus the surplus properly belongs to the society, and not to us as individuals, provided the society is sufficiently righteous. Money, above and beyond our daily bread, is the opposite of grace, in its abuse the currency of the devil himself.
Not only will rich people find it hard to get into heaven, but rich nations will as well. For, though the earth may be full and there is enough, that is not the case if one country (or person) hogs it all.
It’s my humble opinion that until we find ways to help the poor (and not by increasing our stock optons so that we can give out more money) in a serious way, we will not be heaven material.
Nearly all our wars are a result of rich and powerful nations wanting the copper, oil, riches of another nation. Somehow we have to figure this out.
#6 Gain is only tithable if it is is a taken gain. An increase of a value of a house is not realized until it is sold being a millionare on paper doesn\’t buy the rice crispies today. Think of the other items this line of thinking sucks into it\’s too-simple-application…Antiques Roadshow on perpetual call for LDS people worried their Great grandma\’s original BOM or Handcart might have appreciated in the market and it needs to be tithed …appraisal please. Perhaps your dusty 80\’s records are now being sought by some retro disco geek who\’s paying $20 for Duran Duran originals… Last example, you have a 401k/Cash Plan from work you sock $35 per paycheck into it and it\’s been growing at 2% every year for the last 5 are you expected to pay on that increase? No it is not a realized gain until it is accessed… so I maintain tithe upon actual gains.
I guess I never had a problem with people becoming rich, as long as they were honest and had good designs for the money (and did it the right way).
Our stake president is in his 50s, and very wealthy, but one of the most humble people you’ve ever met. His youngest starts college this year and he’s retiring. He says that he’ll wait until he’s released and then he and his wife are leaving for the first of many missions. Why begrudge that opportunity? He’s been a bishop or stake presidency counselor/president for well over a dozen years — and during that time, his career took off.
I should point out — I’ve always felt that in some case, very rich people’s wealth is the salve with which they soothe the boringness of their lives that they self-inflicted on their way to becoming rich.
[Or something like that – my syntax is tortured tonight.]
What would happen if all the rich people in the church (let’s use Nate’s definition from #22) gave away all their money to the poor tomorrow? Would this be a good thing? Would it lead to a better world in 10 years than the one that will actually exist in ten years (the one where we won’t give up all of our money)? How would we justify giving away all our wealth given the counsel to become self-reliant and plan for a rainy day?
To answer 40 — the money would probably be wasted. You don’t fix the world’s problems with money; you also fix them with elbow grease and smarts. That’s one reason why obscenely rich people are sometimes criticized, for the premise that they don’t spend enough *time* on other pursuits.
Gack! I mean to say, you don’t fix them ENTIRELY with money.
I served in Chimaltenango about a year after Rusty left. I was very familiar with the school there as I baptized the President of the PTA, Augusto Rivera (now a member of the Stake Pres. there).
I am also familiar with the Rose Foundation through my bro-in-law, Scott Lazerson. I’m guessing you probably know him(?).
I don’t think there is any sin in holding savings or true (productive) investments per se. That is just good stewardship. The sin lies in what one spends his money on, and the motive for which he or she acquires it, and of course the undue focus on the acquisition thereof.
In other words, provided one makes regular (say tithing size) contributions to the poor, I think the Warren Buffett strategy is an example for truly talented investors everywhere, at least in a telestial world. He really treated his wealth as a stewardship, and not as something to be exploited or developed for personal gain, nor acquired by any obviously unethical (if sub-celestial) means.
I think it is important to keep in mind that when a latter-day saint says that their material blessings are a result of righteousness, they may be bearing witness to their personal situation and not declaring a general principle that applies to anyone. I am quite sure that my family’s comfortable situation (not wealthy by any means) during the last decade or so has been directly related to our willingness to serve. We feel that in our case, the Lord has provided for things to be relatively calm financially so that we could spend our time/worry in other ways (serving as RS president, bishop, high council, etc.)
Yet I would never presume to declare that anyone who is willing to serve will be so blessed. Of course we know stake presidents, bishops, and lots of missionaries\’ families who are laid off or hit by natural disasters.
Your essay reminded me of a deleted scene from the movie TWO WEEKS NOTICE that shows the wedding, and the parents sadly observe, “She is so rich! Where did we go wrong?”
re #36–I think both David and Solomon are examples of individuals blessed above and beyond society (interestingly, the wealth seems to have done neither of them much good) Or how about Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Joseph? Each of them was blessed with great material blessings because of their obedience. I think stewardship is a good way to look at it (comment 44). Which is why random redistribution of wealth would be counter-productive (look at what it did for the formerly communist block countries–now there’s an example of effective management of wealth). The Lord was setting up a new nation in Israel, and that required wealth.
But I still hold that it’s the heart that interests the Lord and will get us into or keep us out of His presence. Which is why we simply cannot judge others, as we do not know what is there. As for ourselves, if we are honest enough, we can decide if our hearts are set upon riches or if we are seeking first the kingdom of Heaven and our riches are the “all else” that has been added on.
“how a houseâ€™s exterior thematizes its price”
Ooh, Jonathan, I love it! Wish I had written it. Why just the exterior, though? (And if you can work “liminality” somehow into your answer, I’ll be devoted to you forever.)
Margaret, you wrote, “Wealthy people refer to themselves as having been blessed by God with â€œmaterial possessions.”” I’ve been thinking about this some. It could very well be that many of those wealthy people feel they’ve been blessed with money as a result of their righteousness; some of them may feel that they’ve been blessed with money only as a result of God’s lovingkindness. Both those groups might have mistaken the etiology of their money. But maybe some of those wealthy people suspect that God had very little to do with their material well being, but that it’s becoming to give thanks to God in all things, regardless of his proximate or ultimate causation.
A few weeks ago there were massive, extended power outages in St. Louis. Our neighbors lost power for six days; we lost power for ten minutes. I couldn’t figure out whether or not I should thank God for blessing us with power, because I’m pretty sure God had very little to do with the geographical distribution of the outages. Yet it felt wrong *not* to thank him for something that we were appreciating so much. I finally settled on thanking him that the storms hadn’t knocked out power to every house in the region. But I’m not sure whether I got it right.
Rosalynde: I think ‘getting it right’ would have had more to do with sharing your juice with your neighbors than praying correctly. I imagine you got it right.
I think God is involved with every good thing in one way or another to the degree that it is ungrateful not to be thankful for any blessing, whether the connection to his agency is apparent or not. I would rather thank him for too much rather than too little in any case, and not draw any hasty conclusions about the motives, reasons, or timing of the blessings that I receive, or for that matter the ones I do not. I am not convinced that God is responsible for the laws of physics, but I know he is pleased when I thank him for not falling through the floor just the same.
Indeed, my ward (at least the richer members of it) seem to hold to the very Calvinist belief that the larger (read â€œmore expensiveâ€?) house you have, and the more you make, is a measure of how faithful youâ€™ve been.
That is a very strong neo-calvinistic theory of inherent virtue. Similar things went on in the military in Europe. Once had a general authority announce he had interviewed every high priest. He hadn’t, only those who were officers (and he had not been told about the rest, until they challenged the statement). Those in charge assumed that anyone who was enlisted, temple worker, etc., was really not worthy or worth the time.
The simple life sounds great until you have medical problems, especially with your kids. . . Then suddenly modernity starts looking great.
Or just normal dental needs.
C. S. Lewis in The Great Divorce spoke on reverse snobbery as well, commenting that there was no virtue in abject poverty. Virtue and sin are quite apart from either end of the spectrum of wealth.
I’d add more, but I’m at a loss at what to say.
A few principles that are important to me:
Modesty is a virtue. Showing off possessions causes trouble for others, and we shouldn’t do it. It tends to contribute to enviousness and competition. We should worry about making others feel poor or envious.
Comparing ourselves with others causes either pride or despair. We should ponder teachings about wealth as they apply to ourselves, without worrying too much whether others are getting it right.
Wealth is relative. My modest lifestyle by modern American standards is rich beyond imagination by the standards of 200 years ago or the standards of most people around the world today. I suppose that most people in the celestial kingdom will have command of resources the folks highest on the hill in Bountiful can’t imagine. My boss is one of the richest people in America. I can easily imagine that a century from now most people will command more resources than he does. The thing to concentrate on is what can we accomplish with the resources we have, trusting that more are coming.
Wealth is a burden. It takes tremendous time and energy to keep a large order. Monitoring a staff is work. Pity the rich. Poverty is also a burden, which sometimes crushes. Pity the poor. Simplify. Concentrate on the work to be done.
Said belief is an unusual perversion of Calvinism. In fact it is directly contrary to Calvinism, which basically says that God never rewards people for righteousness, that rather he makes people righteous (fills them with grace) according to his sovereign will and pleasure. Nowhere does Calvinism imply that God’s sovereign will to save those whom he elects necessarily corresponds with a will to enrich them in this life, quite the contrary.
Roland #5: “many of us in California have seen the market value of our homes appreciate four fold in the last 15 years. Is that a blessing or a cursing? Am I suppose to sell it, give the profits to welfare and move into a tiny house only worth 1/4th as much?”
Sorry if somebody else has already mentioned this, but you may recall in Edward Kimball’s latest book on his father, President Kimball, Edward asked his father if “consecration” requires one to give away all one’s excess (I’m paraphrasing). President Kimball’s response was, “I’m not that strong.”
Hey Roland, maybe we could work out some sort of profit/virtue-sharing program: sell your house to me at a quarter of its value, and I’ll give you half the virtue of my poverty. Do we have a deal?
(Actually, I’m not that poor, so you’d be a sucker to take it.)
President Kimball, Edward asked his father if â€œconsecrationâ€? requires one to give away all oneâ€™s excess (Iâ€™m paraphrasing). President Kimballâ€™s response was, â€œIâ€™m not that strong.â€?
Whenever I get worried about things like this, I just remember that our prophets themselves have counseled us to not go to extremes in our purchasing, to keep debt in check, and also to save for a rainy day. Food storage is also something that could be considered “hoarding” by some, and yet we are commanded to do that, even as people in other places don’t have food at all. Since we don’t live the law of consecration, I find it difficult to think that caring for our own is a sin. And I haven’t heard the Brethren condemn all the building and growth that happens in many places. In fact, the Church builds to accomodate such growth. I don’t know where to draw the line…the older I get, the more sensitive I am about having and buying “stuff” when there are so many who are wanting so much, and yet, I can’t believe God expects us to give all yet. Who knows? Maybe we will see that day, but until then, it is up to each to figure out what it means to be a wise steward.
I think it’s also difficult to explain away impressions and guidance that many feel to move to a certain place, even a certain house, that may put them in a middle- to upper-middle-class place. I’ve heard so many comment that they feel such guidance — not led to a poor area where perhaps they could save and give more. I think there may be more at work with our test of stewardship than completely giving things away, at least for now. We always have to be keeping our hearts in check and striving to not place them in our wealth. We here are all wealthy by many nations’ standards. I agree with Starfoxy…it’s not just those with big houses who may have issues with pride and excess. The heart is just so big in all of this. Where are our hearts? Would we be willing and able to give everything away tomorrow if asked? I’d like to think I would…but I enjoy the trappings of life too much, I’m sure. So that makes me wonder — how can we work on our hearts even while we enjoy so many blessings? Does God fault us for the comforts of life that we have? Or is it more what we do with what we have? I dunno….
I imagine beautiful homes, with graceful amenities, are part of the plan. But also generosity and modesty. I work hard to beautify my place and to make it function more gracefully, and I don’t see any limits to our development in this direction, nor do I see any conflict in the gospel. I’ve been studying various hardwoods and thinking about kitchen cabinets I plan to build. I don’t think I would be more righteous if I made them of particle board.
But I need to watch those around me for opportunities to serve and I need to be willing to leave it in a moment if so called.
A nonmember friend of mine criticizes the church for its fine buildings in a world where there is so much need. I see them as islands of something better, part of the vision that’s needed to move forward temporally, which is linked to moving forward spiritually.
I don’t think the beauties that often accompany wealth are all vanities. Some of them, I think, are fully in keeping with the commandment to keep and dress the garden.
I admit to feeling somewhat appalled when I drive up to look at the mansions on the hill in Bountiful when I visit family there. They are far more lavish than any homes in the region where I live, and it seems presumptious and wasteful. But I don’t really know, and so I attribute my feelings at least in part to my various forms of poverty.
I make about $40,000 a year, down about $20,000 from a year ago. I gave up three months of work each year to have more time to read. Obviously, I’m a stunningly wealthy man.
Important topic, Margaret, I’m happy you brought it up. It’s interesting to note how reading objective defenses of consumption or wealth sound like personal justifications.
I grapple with what it means to love my neighbor as myself. I spend money on myself because I think it will make me happy, and if I love my neighbors as much as I love myself, I’d be as concerned about their happiness as my own, which would lead me to spend on them . . . how much?
While I don’t know the precise amount, I know that my choice to spend money for a meal, or a vacation, proves that I don’t love orphan children as much as I love myself. Maybe I should buy an expensive plane ticket and travel to an exotic country so I can spend a couple weeks building an orphanage. That way I could justify spending $1200 on myself so I could donate my unskilled labor in a country where adults dream of $10-a-day manual labor jobs. ; ) (“Service” vacations are one of my pet peeves. The people who do them always pretend their reason for going is to help the locals, but the best way for an American lawyer or dentist to build a Honduran orphanage is to hire a bunch of Hondurans who actually know how to build. Helping people is only a *secondary* purpose for a “service vacation.”)
I understand your peeve Matt, but don’t you think spending that time and effort building that orphanage might contribute to the wealthy person’s continued commitment to it? 5 years from now they might still remember the orphanage is there, feel some “ownership” and still support it.
Anything that opens peoples eyes to the suffering around them and motivates them to participate in assuaging it can’t be all bad. It certainly beats spending that $1200 on glitzy hotels and restaurants. Besides, service blesses people more when it is personal, otherwise we would just hire professional home and visiting teachers and be done with it. I’m sure the number of visits would increase, but somehow I think we would all be missing out on something rather important.
That said, the local Hondurans would probably be thankful for the construction jobs.
What is difficult for me, are the decisions between spending money on my children and spending money on complete strangers. Is it gymnastics or the homeless shelter, Soccer or magazines to support that inner-city kid who comes to the door. I know I am greatly blessed, but somehow it seems, probably because of where we live (which is close to family and good schools, but pricey) and the fact that I have 5 children, that financial obligations grow to match or exceed available funds, so I never feel rich. I wonder if this is true for all those people I feel are so obviously rich. And so that definition of excess becomes slippery.
Young #16 â€œA former member of our stake presidency owns a pawn shop.â€?
Now there is topic for a separate discussion! Members in good standing owning, running, or working for businesses that would appear to run counter to many of the Churchâ€™s and the Gospelâ€™s teachings. The whole gambling industry and supporting vendors, many areas of legal practice, politiciansâ€¦.
I think that at times people may make a real sacrifice to do a service vacation. I know of someone on a forum that I participate who took one of his breaks during the academic year to go to Louisiana to do what sounded like gutting a house. I was really touched that someone who has been working so hard in medical school would spend time here when he could just be resting and relaxing. I understand Matt\’s point about hiring local labor to help both the local economy and the advancement of the cause. I never thought of it that way. I still think think it is great that people are working hard and trying to make a difference. And I think they should feel good about themselves.
I will try to make some comments more directly related to the article in a moment
I don’t remember who, but someone said that being rich or being poor does not make us good or bad, that people are just people.
I think Depeche Mode said it best: “people are people so why should it be that you and I should get along so awfully?” And “get along so awfully” obviously refers to judging each other based on our relative poverty or wealth. Everything I ever needed to know about the gospel I learned from 80’s bands.
Seriously, though, my view is that looking at wealth or its lack as an indicator of spiritual standing is just another way that we look on the outward appearance instead of the heart. The Lord will judge us for our use of wealth, but we should not, even if our rich neighbors are guilty of selfishness or greed, it is still required of us to forgive all men.
I knew a young men in the Church who was very depressed that he was not rich and he was paying his tithing. This was shortly after I joined the Church and I mentioned this to an older woman who was a Stake Missionary who \”took me under her wings.\” She told me that people get rich due to hard work. Later, this young man seemed to have a much more positive outlook. He had inherited money from a grandmother and shared it with his siblings as he felt that was the right thing to do. I do not think either of his siblings were active in the Church. He was not wealthy, but was saving a a lot of money as he was in the Navy and spent little on himself. He seemed to have a healthy view of wealth.
As a missionary, I was a little shocked by one of my companions and how she seemed to talk about living in the rich part of town and who popular were peope were(not necessarily one in the same). She also would talk about how rich her father was. She was a wonderful person and very compassionate, but I was surprised that Church members used a paradigm of what part of town a person lived in or about being popular.
We had a few problems in a companionship mainly due to her learning disability and difficulty in learning the discussions. I was accepting of her learning disability and had taken classes at the University in Special Education. I just expected her to study every free moment of the day like I did such as during breakfast. For the most part we got a long.
I think there is also a lot of prejudice towards the poor and as such I think people sometimes justify not helping a person as they should. Just recently, I know of someone who was trying to get a little assistance. I will not make a judgment call in this person as I have some doubts about whether they are not just trying to use people. Or at the very least, they seem to have a very \”dependent mentallity.\” However, one of the persons who they told their plight of needing a few hundred dollars within a short time as they were moving and used their extra money for a deposit on the new house said that they daughter could get a second job. The daughter was lucky to get the job that she had and even if she could get a second job, she would not make that much money that fast as they needed it. And I also know of a young man who is very smart and received a degree in electronics, but never received a job in the field. He does not have very good people skills. For years, he worked at Fast Food Jobs, but as you grow older you get to the point where the pace is too fast. He felt resentment at times when people did not help him as he would like. I can see both sides. I feel people do get to a state known as \”learned helplessness\” when they do not feel they have a lot of control. He was going back to school and taking difficult classes so it is not like he did not have hopes of making it in the long run. In the end, he qualified for governemnt assistance to help him until the time when he would have more steady employment.
I have heard reports a few years back about people working 60 plus hours a week and still having to get help to make ends meet. So I guess I have a real problem with rich people thinking that they deserve to be rich because they work hard. As it has often been said, our civillization has been built on the backs of those doing hard, back breaking labor.
This is not to say that many rich people have not worked hard. However, I do not believe that everyone who works hard will get get rich.
I have read that giving to the poor is what will allow a rich man to get into heaven. And I am as much as all at a loss for how much is too much. I am given as of late a lot more freedom in how I spend my money. Disposable income is new to me and with it comes decisions on how to spend money or save money. I am not into spending too much on myself although I could probably rack up a pretty big bill buying books for myself if I did not watch myself. But my bedroom is unfished and I have no place to really store \”material things.\” And I have never been into material things too much. I guess I am not quite at the level of the man who was living in a tent and said that \”houses are just glorified tents.\” But I do remember how happy my youth was in a home with three small bedrooms, a family room that was child-centered with a huge table and shelves for toys, and a patio taking up much of our backyard. My mom saw rooms of the rich and famous and said our set up was just as nice. And my mom was raised in a very small home with two bedrooms until a third very small one was built in the basement. But the yard had a very nice yard to play. And though small, they took in her grandpa and a cousin who needed a place to live. Plus, my parents lived there at times in their early years of marriage while my dad was going to school. And at one time, they had both my brother and I as well as my parents. And my present home is quite large. I worked at a place where I learned that the wife of a co-worker used to state up at our house on walks and wonder what it would be like on the inside. To be vague, there have been some very bad times in this large house probably due in large part to financial strains of living here coupled with other expensses such as private high school tuition. Whether this caused chemcial changes in a parent to become very violent at times is something that I cannot say for sure. I just know times were much happier before.
I read an article in a magazine aimed at the elite where rich people who were having to cutback were really feeling it. They spoke of 60,000 tuition for children under 18 while they lived in a house with patched furniture if memory serves and drove a car that I think was not up to par. I know this is judgmental, but I cannot imagine spending that kind of money for tuition for anything other than maybe graduate school or maybe an Ivy League College.
I hate that I do hold prejudices towards both rich and poor to some degree. Oh, the virtues of the middle class lol.
Kathy, I agree that service vacations are better than none — even if one spends $1200 on themselves in order to donate $200 worth of labor, the orphanage is still $200 better. My complaint is just that Honduras would be $1200 better if the person just hired a dozen locals to work on the orphanage for two weeks instead, and that people who go on “service vacations” fail to see that. I wouldn’t have any gripe at all if they recognized that *they* were the beneficiary of most of the cost of their vacation.
I agree that our spending closely matches the money available to us. About 10 years ago the theme of our Holladay, Utah stake one year was Moses 7:18 (one heart, one mind, no poor among them) and during one testimony meeting two (two!) people said how much they looked for the day when “the rich” would do more for us. Both these sisters lived in homes costing twice the Salt Lake average, had multiple cars, health insurance, etc. But “the rich” were those above them. I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry. That experience made me decide that one of the most important points to make in gospel discussions about Zion or wealth is that *we*, the people who have time to discuss Zion and wealth, are the only rich people.
What bothers me more, is the appearance of wealth. I am still quite young (27) and my husband and I are just starting out. Some of my friends have huge houses, nice cars, etc etc. We are currently looking for our first house, and we are looking very small and simple, because that is what we can afford on one income. We have one used car, and my husband rides the bus. I asked a couple of my friends how they afforded such a life, and I was told “Mortgage, second Mortgage, student loans, credit cards, car payments, etc”. It is crazy. I am glad to live in a tiny house, and know that I still have money for food and necessities without resorting to credit cards.
The “no poor among them” ideal is alive and well in zoning boards across the country. The great thing about it is way abstract appeals to property values (i.e., what everyone else wants) cover for what the people making policy and their constituents want (the poor somewhere else, preferrably another town, but some contained, isolated corner of our town if absolutely necessary).
Funny Maren, student loans and car payments are why I CAN’T afford such a life….;)
This is a hard discussion for me, as I tend to result to reverse snobbery, as CS Lewis points out. So I’ll try to avoid that.
But try as I might, I cannot help but feeling very strongly that members driving ferrari’s to church is somehow like spitting on all our doctrine of being of one heart and one mind…that driving a porsche SUV is obsenely excessive, and that wearing 350 dollar pumps to church is immodest (well, wearing them anywhere…but, it seems even worse at church, sitting in the pew next to a family who is struggling to get by).
And try as I might, I cannot help but judge those who make a quarter million dollars a year (and much much more in dividends and such), complaining about those illegal immigrants who aren’t paying into social security or income tax (and who also are struggling to EAT). Members of the church, who claim to have a testimony, who teach me every sunday about keeping the commandments and how paying their tithing has made them rich, should not be greedy or stingy or begrudge ANYONE the blessings they enjoy, including living in this country. To me, its not a political issue, its an issue of them thinking they somehow deserve their wealth more, because they were born here.
But at the same time, I realize they are my brothers and sisters, that we need to all be one, even with our sins and weaknesses.
The problem is not just with wealthy members, it is one members become wealthy (and not all who become wealthy do this), and at some point in time, little by little, they come to love money “THEIR money” more than they love each other. They begin to feel they deserve their excess, they deserve MORE than others somehow, and they begin to begrudge those with less. The poor and downtrodden become burdens…I mean, if they just worked hard and lived righteously, then, they would have what they have!
We should be a society focused on living the law of consecration (well, at the very least those who are endowed). Yet, in our country at least, we have come to a level of unreasonable expectation of “need”. We live in a constant mad frenzy of conspicuous consumption. No matter our income, I think we could rest easy if, as a general rule, we always live generously (did you just get mad at the guy who tried to bum 3 bucks for the bus? I mean, who cares what you THINK he’ll do with it! Its only 3 dollars1 What kind of person is stingy about 3 bucks??), and we don’t consume conspicuously. And in the mean time, I will work (very hard) to not judge those who may be struggling with those things right now. We are all sinners, after all.
John Mansfield, I hear you. The primary purpose of residential zoning restrictions is to keep poor people out of the neighborhood. Some zoning restrictions, minimum lot sizes being the best example, exist solely to benefit the rich at the expense of the poor. (Size restrictions make larger lots cheaper by reducing the number of potential purchasers.)
On the other hand a lot of zoning laws are to ensure low income housing amongst the rich. Especially in larger cities this is a big issue since all the rich people want to live there but you need lower income workers to support the infrastructure. If you don’t have housing for these people things start to break down.
BTW there are a few good blog overviews of inequality that are worth reading (regardless of your positions on it all)
The first is at Brad DeLong and the second at Marginal Revolution. Each then has links to other stories.
Here’s one of my pearls. I had a dream one night. I was standing out in a field when an angel came walking up behind me to one side. He said that he had been sent by Father to give me a gift and that I could have anything I wanted. Too quickly, I said that I could use some money because I had a daughter in college and another one going soon. He had a disappointed look on his face and turned to prepare the gift. I reached out and touching his shoulder said “Wait. That’s not what I really want. What I want is eternal life for me and my family.” He smiled and said, “Yes, that’s what I thought you really wanted.” He turned away and prepared the new gift. He turned around and handed me a wrapped package. He then turned and walked away.
Sometimes I ask myself, what do I really want? What am I really working for? Eternal life for me and my family or money?
I’m more inclined to believe that money is morally neutral. But one’s behavior and attitude regarding it reveals character.
Growing up, my parents never made enough to make ends meet. I believe this is because they were irresponsible with it–they were unwise stewards. While it can’t be said that everyone just barely scraping by is irresponsible, I think it’s safe to say that many are. And those big houses on the hill are not necessarily any indiciation of financial solvency. In our material-centric society, many of us worship at the altar of the almighty dollar, whether we bring home $30,000 a year or $300,000. It’s amazing how many people in the highest tax brackets are still strapped for cash because they have spent more than they make and are slaves to their debts.
To me, that is the ultimate expression of materialism: when we borrow unnecessarily to make purchases we can’t afford. And I say it without malice, because like most Americans, my husband and I are struggling under the weight of credit card debt, student loans, car loans, etc. It’s the “I want it NOOOOOOOW!” mentality of popular American culture that seems to me the most spiritually-damaging. It’s the focus on THINGS that gets us in trouble, regardless of how much we’re spending or bringing in. And I can attest from personal experience that you can become fixated with money and “stuff” at any income level–even the low ones.
So I’m learning to change my focus and the way I relate to money and wealth. I don’t (or I try not to, anyway) begrudge anyone else their material possessions. I’ve been caught in that game, and it’s just as much a sin of pride to look with malice, envy, and judgment on someone with an abundance of wealth as it is for someone with an abundance of wealth look down on me because of my lack thereof. God has given us the good things of the earth–it’s not obscene for a person who makes $2 million dollars a year to drive a car worth $100,000, any more than it is for a person who makes $50,000 a year to drive a car worth $10,000. What’s obscene is if either allows the pursuit of material things to become their god.
Well, I do need to comment on service vacations, and I will do it honestly. I freely confess that the “service vacation” I took my children on this summer was NOT primarily to teach English in Patzicia, Guatemala. It was based in my profound concern that my daughter was becoming obsessed with fashion, weight, and all things Cosmopolitan. I wanted to get her to a place where fashion doesn’t really exist. (Guatemalan Indians dress modestly and very similarly, though there are levels of embroidery which might indicate greater wealth.) Because I had had a life changing experience thirty years ago when I lived in Guate, I thought she might also have one. It didn’t quite happen the way I had hoped, but there were some profound changes. Both of my kids adjusted almost instantly. My daughter did say, “I wish some of my friends could see this place so they’d realize how much they have.” And on our last day there, my daughter stopped as we were walking home from the school and said, “I just want to feel the love.” Both my children have expressed a desire to return, and I’m hoping they’ll have a better handle on Spanish when we do. But even without the language, they fell in love with the children we taught. I suspect that the impact of our summer is yet to be fully felt. I returned to Guatemala twice after my initial trip there and became very bonded with the people. I’d say that if a service mission involves true love for the people we’re serving–not just a few admirable acts to be reported in the annual Christmas letter–it is a good and maybe even a vital thing. And I’m curious about RMs who’ve served among the poor. Would you go back now, with your families, to continue an unauthorized mission? (Btw, there are dangers in going to underdevelped countries as “Saviors on Mt. Zion.” _Heart of Darkness_ gives the best description of what CAN happen when someone undertakes to “save” a population using his greater knowledge and wealth. My own book, _Salvador_, tells the story of a man who begins to consider himself beyond any law as he returns to his mission territory. And I won’t say how fictional that book is.) But putting such risks aside, would you go back to the primitive conditions you faced–and maybe even grew to love–as a missionary?
Yes. Like I said, if I thought my wife could handle it, sign me up. Those two years were, yes, the happiest of my life. I absolutely lost myself down there and make a round of phone calls to four or five families each month–mostly so they can make fun of my Spanish. I often check the Prensa Libre on line to see how the country is going, and shudder every time I hear the name Alfonso Portillo. Leaving Guatemala to go home was far more difficult than was leaving home to go to Guatemala.
The interesting thing is, I served both in a very wealthy part of Guatemala (almost like an American suburb), but would much prefer to live in Chimaltenango, though there are much poorer areas.
I had intended to work at one of the schools there through my Bro-In-Law, Scott, who ran the thing, but got married instead. Damn priorities! :)
Related to the zoning issue: I had thought that the gated communities were to keep the rich penned in, that is, to protect us all from the danger of free-range rich people.
This was fascinating to read….I have to admit, growing up in a rural mid-western ward chock full of western “exiles” from Utah, Arizona, and California, I was actually reared in a mind-set of “if you aren’t poor and suffering then you aren’t righteous”. Only if you were being allowed to suffer and go through trials were you considered righteous. It was warped and there was definitely a major prejudice against anyone who had any kind of wealth (or even good income). Fascinating topic. Thanks for the good afternoon read.
“God has given us the good things of the earthâ€“itâ€™s not obscene for a person who makes $2 million dollars a year to drive a car worth $100,000, any more than it is for a person who makes $50,000 a year to drive a car worth $10,000. Whatâ€™s obscene is if either allows the pursuit of material things to become their god.”
I would submit that driving a $100,000 dollar is allowing material things to become your god. And I don’t think its really going out on a limb to say a car which cost that much is obscene. Truly obscene. We need a car to get reliably from place to place, right? That would be defined as sufficient for our needs? I don’t think anyone needs a sports car that cost more than many houses to do so. We are lying to ourselves if we say this is ok. It is conspicuous consumption at its worst. That money could fund missions, family vacations, a new chapel for a struggling stake, education, fund an entire year of retirement or two, or even pay for a small village to eat for an extended period of time in a third world country. In India, that could pay for a small orphanage of 50 kids for over a year. How is this wise stewardship?
Veritas, verily, I don’t see it as owning a $100,000 car. Rather, I consider that the Lord has made me steward over this fine European automobile. Having it hand-buffed every week is merely wise stewardship.
One more quick confession related to zoning before I head to the gym: I sent my children to the rich neighborhood schools. (Yes, that falls under the definition of hypocricy.) I did not intend to do this. But here’s the truth: The poorer neighborhoods have worse schools. I didn’t fully realize that until we needed to withdraw our children from school when we helped supervise Semester Abroad. Because the school they were enrolled in was year round, we could not continue in it, so we sent them to the school of my childhood: Wasatch Elementary–on the other, nicer side of town. I was astounded at “Back to School Night” when I saw the huge disparity between what was available for my children at Wasatch as opposed to Timpanotos (our poorer school). After our return from England, I kept them in Wasatch. I did feel guilty about this, let me be clear. And I’m so relieved to finally get it off my chest. But let me get specific: In Timpanogos, my daughter was far beyond the other students in reading skills. Her teacher was working out a separate program for her when we decided to keep her at Wasatch. My sister-in-law did student teaching at Timpanogos and warned me that the parents were notoriously uninvolved. (Much of this, no doubt, was because the parents were struggling to make ends meet and both likely working full time or beyond. And some might be due to the possibility that education affects earnings, so poor people might be in a poverty cycle which includes a devaluation of education.) Behind this confession is an ugly issue: Schools are funded through property tax. Our property is not in a wealthy area of town, and thus our designated school could simply not afford amenities. Wasatch, on the other hand, had to find things to do with an excess of money, and finally purchased a beautiful grand piano. The Church corollary is in the budget. Despite the changes the Church has made, poor neighborhoods can’t afford the ward activities richer neighborhoods can. Our ward stretches fast offerings to the max. Sometimes, the stake president has to beg our members to be generous–more generous–in fast offerings. I suspect the Osmonds’ ward doesn’t have to make that plea. (“Sister Jackson really needs a nanny and has asked that we give more generously to fast offerings so that we can help her out.”)
Don’t you feel bad about belonging to a gym?
Certainly from our perspective, hovering somewhere in middle-class America, a $100,000 sports car may look excessive.
Of course, from the perspective of the people among whom I served on my mission, my modest Chevy Impala could look terribly excessive, even obscene, like I’m flaunting my wealth and privilege. After all, my Chevy could probably pay for an entire family of Bulgarians to live for a year–and Bulgaria is by no means among even the poorest nations of the world.
But am I obscene for driving what I drive? Am I obscene for owning a DVD player, or a personal computer, or a nice pair of running shoes for that matter, when so much of the world’s population lives in squalor and can only dream of such luxuries? And if I am–then should I relegate myself to a life of abject poverty in order to avoid appearing excessive? And if I should–with what resources will I assist others?
I don’t NEED my car. I can walk. Or ride a bike. Or take public transit. Or downgrade to an old, beat-up automobile if I’m unwilling to make even those sacrifices. Does that mean I worship wealth, because I enjoy the blessings the Lord has given me–the opportunity to drive a comfortable, reliable car with air conditioning and power windows? I don’t think it does. Likewise, I honestly don’t believe it is excessive or immoral or obscene for a person more wealthy than I to enjoy luxuries that I don’t have access to if they give generously, can legitimately afford it (i.e. haven’t gone into debt to buy things these things), and recognize the true source of their material abundance.
What really makes the huge houses of the rich obscene is that so many of them have no taste whatever. And that, brothers and sisters, is a sin!
Which raises another question: Does being rich cause one to have bad taste, or is the other way ’round?
When our family (including teenagers) spent a semester in Brazil, it was a mind opener. Partly for our kids, but also for the brasileiros we met.
I had brought along a small photo album that included a picture of our concrete block house, our one small car, and my husband riding his bicycle to work. They were shocked to find out how we lived, and that we didn’t have a cook or maid.
They had an image of americanos ricos (rich Americans) that was fueled by movies and television. Of course that part of Brasil is second world, not third world (obviously, since most ward members did have some access to television). We did initially encounter some reverse snobbery, which fell apart once they got to know us. I was very glad that I had done the photo album–it explained more than any words could have, especially with my poor Portuguese.
I tend to think the “all wealth is relative” argument for any amount of personal or family consumption is perverse in the extreme. In other words, just because person of average means A could do better by his foreign neighbors C does not justify person of extraordinary means to fail to do the same. Two wrongs do not make a right.
“does not justify the failure of person of extraordinary means B”
C’mon, Mark. Some folks walk to the rice field others commute on the interstate.
gst: You amuse me no end in this chain. I hope if you’re ever in Maryland we can have Mormon coffee in Borders.
I do not mean to imply that the proper administration of material resources is a simple matter by any means, but otherwise I do not take your meaning.
Perhaps I’m not understanding what you’re saying, but I don’t think the “relative” argument is so “perverse” when (snarky-ly) using an example of relative levels of wealth between two diverse societies/cultures.
Now I think you did not understand my point which is, that there appear to be many people who justify their non-love of the poor and the needy by saying that being poor is all relative. For example saying that I felt no particular obligation to give when I was middle class, despite being far wealthier than those in foreign countries, why should I feel an increased obligation to give now?
Or saying that one is no worse than those middle class non-givers despite having 10x or 100x the disposable income because look they are so much wealthier than others as well. The principle is that the weakness of another can never justify a weakness in oneself.
Didn’t Brigham Young say somewhere that if the streets of heaven are paved with gold, it will be because we did the work and the paving? I’m all in favor of living simply and giving resources to those who have less, but I don’ t think the gospel requires a grim asceticism. I look forward to the time when all our homes are kept somewhat like Temple Square.
Though I think modesty and service to the poor are vital principles, I also think we need to be trying to make things in the material realm work better, which means paying attention to them and investing in them. If we were too content, we would still be riding in 1845 horse-drawn wagons, or walking. Those who are building and buying better machines that cost more aren’t necessarily doing anything wrong, I think, and they may be contributing to something right. Any hobby, even a gospel hobby, can become a false god, but it seems okay to me that some people race yachts and some people skydive and some people collect expensive books. . .
The early saints in Utah were directed by church leadership to build better fences, paint their houses, etc. To pay attention to the trappings of material prosperity.
Of course, the car I drive is a subcompact with 185,000 miles on it. I could afford something else, maybe, but I worry that my children are too attentive to vehicles as lifestyle statements, and I want to set a good example. Nevertheless, I’m quite glad there are better cars out there and that some people are thinking about how to make them even better. Someone with a $100,000 car might be obscene, but I don’t really know.
I am in the $100,000 cars are obscene club. It is not just the waste of resources in the presence of real poverty that bothers me – I think that such material disparities make it almost impossible for their to be a true unity of feeling between the wealthy and not so wealthy. as the Lord said, how can we be equal in heavenly things, if we are not equal in earthly things? How can someone in danger of dying or simply living in day to day misery for lack of money to get proper medical treatment not resent somebody who spends that kind of money on a rapidly depeciating asset? There can be no unity of the Saints there.
“there to be a true unity of feeling”
Mark, you articulated exactly how I feel about it. Someone always pulls out the ‘its all relative’ argument, and it always strikes me as a horrible justification. But as for: “I donâ€™t NEED my car. I can walk. Or ride a bike. Or take public transit.”
-well, exactly! You’d save money and protect the environment :) (ok some people do NEED a car…walking or riding or public transit are not available/feasible where they live). Might a suggest a scooter though? The moped is my new favorite form of transportation. :)
I also agree that we should work hard and make an effort to make our homes etc. look nice. That doesn’t mean they can’t be modest. I hear this justification ALL the time regarding dress and decor and all that – that its ok to wear 250 dollar coach pumps or buy a 20K dollar rug because us mormons believe in looking nice. Give me a break.
Large homes are obscene and or immoral: Here’s why
1) Large/Expensive for the unfairly take advantage of the income tax deduction. I don’t think we can draw an absolute line, because of the relative values in Real Estate markets. However, the purpose of this deduction, to encourage homeownership, is not best served by encouraging the purchase of the $3 million dollar home in Provo.
2) Overly large homes consume too much material. The 8000 sf house for the family of 3 consumes an inordinate amount of material to build, as well as maintain. That’s four times the lumber, four times the concrete, four times the wiring, etc. Sure they can pay for it, but it drastically increases their ecological “footprint”. Same argument for heating/cooling. This is simply not wise stewardship! I can’t see anyone arguing they need a house that big.
3) Overly large homes/large lots consume too much land. Large lots increase the amount of roads needed, the spread of services, increase our demand on automobile transportation, and otherwise increase our demand for oil, roads etc.
Margaret, your #79 gets to the bone of my self-conflict with money. I’m a complacent snobbish hypocrite like most of us—I have absolutely no desire for an ostentatious house, designer clothing or expensive cars, but I would love, someday, to be able to afford original artwork, world travel, and a part-time nanny. I daresay every one of us harbors this kind of inconsistency at some level, and most of these discussions are, at root, so much justification or flagellation. Fine.
But my children make the issue much more complicated for me. Plainly put, I want my children to grow into middle-class adults (assuming they stay in the US; I know very little about class systems elsewhere). There are a lot of middle class values that I don’t like—consumerism, careerism, obsessive focus on self-expression—and while I think that critiques of souless suburbia a la “American Beauty” tend to overdo things a bit, they may be on to something yet. Still, though, it’s my judgment that the good outweighs the bad in the bundle of values, practices, environments, and attitudes that constitute the middle-class, and I want my children to grow up with the emphases on work, citizenship, obligation, education, achievement and so on that characterize it. Money and class are related to one another in complicated ways, and they are reproduced by very different methods. But reproducing middle-class values in children requires, at the least, some exposure to middle-class environments and activities—foremost, probably, being schools. And that requires money.
This question is complicated because it is only the love of the excess of money, or money to accomplish selfish ends, that is evil. In a society like ours everyone needs money for their daily bread.
Money is like sexual attraction. Some is absolutely necessary for the preservation of society, and too much (in the wrong hands) is fatal.
Mark and Veritas,
You’re right: and I certainly didn’t intend to make it sound as though I believe that people with extreme wealth shouldn’t give. Or that somehow people should use a “relative wealth” argument to justify their lack of love for the poor.
In fact, I believe that giving comes first, and that consistent, generous giving should be the foundation of EVERY budget.
Where I think a “relative wealth” argument is useful is when we begin to attach meaning and moral judgments to others for what we perceive to be an inappropriate or grotesque display of their material abundance. I would simply point out that before we reprimand others for owning things we can’t afford, it’s probably worthwhile to remember that to some, we may appear just as unbecoming as those with nicer, fancier things appear to us. Thus, the “relativity” is not in the numbers per se, but the perception.
Having said that, if Ed McMahon knocked on my door tomorrow, would I buy a $100,000 car? Nope. I’d agree that from where I’m sitting, there are much better things to spend that money on. But if someone’s got the resources of Ed McMahon, is giving generously, and really wants that car–(and can really afford it)–well, I’m not going to begrudge them that. I’ll leave it up to them to make that decision with the Lord.
Or perhaps I should say that the desire for money is like sexual attraction. Some is necessary for the preservation of life, too much is fatal. Whence the curious and much underused term lust, meaning an unrighteous or excessive desire for anything.
“Reproducing middle-class values in children requires, at the least, some exposure to middle-class environments and activitiesâ€”foremost, probably, being schools. And that requires money.”
That’s true, and I’m in the same position. But how much money does it require? How far should you be willing to drive (family time lost, oil burned) to get your child into cello lessons with an exclusive teacher, as opposed to those offered through the local public school? Which skills do we think are worth paying for (in terms of not just money, but also in terms of separating our child out from her perhaps less economically secure and/or educationally ambitious schoolmates)? For Megan, our oldest, right now piano is a definite yes. Swim team, maybe. But diving? Cello? (Does she even really want to play cello, or is an attempt to join some more elite crowd?) These are all hard questions, but I can’t think of any other way to respond to them except by continuing to work our way through the challenges the principles we profess to believe in pose. (Reminds me of a couple of good old posts by Greg Call and Ryan Bell.)
Wait just one sec…
Are you saying, Margaret, that major and/or minor parts of _Salvador_ may be non-fictional?
P.S. All the rest of you should read the novel. Sadly, it seems to be out of print. But here is an Abebooks link to buy it. Amazon, half.com and other online used-book sellers usually have it.
Part of stewardship is actively and consciously enjoying the good things we have. That can be hard to do in the presence of the middle- or upperclass guilt most of us have. Aceticism can be as ostentatious as the $100,000 car we\’ve heard so much about in this conversation.
The cure is as Ecclesiastes suggested, to simply do one’s duty, enjoy one’s meals, maintain one’s possessions and acknowledge that they are fleeting. Ecclesiates 2:24; 3:12.
I ride a bicycle to work, but not as a grim duty to society. I do it mostly because I enjoy the ride. I enjoy being subject to the weather (which, granted, is easy in sunny and temperate Colorado). I firmly believe that many of our anxieties, inequalities, and overcomsumption (and our judgments of others’ overconsumption) would be greatly reduced if we cultivated our ability to enjoy things. In a way, I guess, we need to be more materialistic, not less, and truly enjoy the materials that we have. We would consume less and enjoy more. And we would be too occupied visiting with our neighbors, savoring our food, playing with our kids, to worry so much about those richer than us.
This does not, of course, absolve us of our obligations to the poor, but like Christ, we have to realize that the poor will always be with us, and others’ misery is no excuse for us not to enjoy the good of our present lives.
About the eye of the needle we started with, it seems clear to me that the phrase that Christ follows it up with explains it perfectly, how with man it is impossible, but to God it is possible. The rich get to heaven by grace, like anyone else. The rich man in the story goes away sorrowing because he realizes that in trying to save himself through keeping commandments, there would always be more he could do, and in the end it would be vain. (Ecclesiastes again.) The story is not (primarily) a lesson about wealth but one about grace.
I\’m new to Mormon blogs/Times&Seasons… but I like this topic because I happened to live in a community my senior year of high school that was, how do you say… well I guess I\’ll use the term already in use, obscene. Full of CEO\’s, Presidents of well known companies, and sucessful buisness men of all ranks.
Never in my life have I enjoyed a ward more than this one. My family was the \”poorest\” family there and you wouldn\’t know it by the way they treated us. The people there were so kind and so giving. I loved the example they gave me of how to have money and be good people. I see nothing wrong with having a lot of money. I see nothing wrong with having a bit of extra stuff as long as you can afford it. I loved comment #2, maybe the reason they have more money is not because they don\’t give it away or because they are making it in evil ways but because they are better at making the money. I loved that ward and if I were good at making money and could afford to live in that community I would be back in a heart-beat!
When I grow up and make my millions, I promise to buy a big house on the hill, in Davis County of course. I will then proceed to tear it down and build a modest brick home, one that resembles the brick houses in Rose Park.
Do you think the neigbors would find that obscene?
For the masses of people who blaze dangers to immigrate to other lands.
Dying to Get To The Promised Land
There is no secret to hide,
Communications are instant
And global to villages large and small
No more hiding from these influences
As they transcend fortifications
Built to prevent those from outside .
Desperate to reach the promised land
Amid sufferings injuries and death
They scale fences and deserts .
Lurking in shadows that are not there
To wait for a chance and a time .
Risking lives over and over again
To reach the promised land.
They leave homes with one aim
To return home some day with riches .
We never know of the ones who failed
Maybe it takes luck and who can blame them.
The brave die first to get their share
And the rest become statistics.
The news never reach home of those who left.
To look for the promised land that never existed.