Rich v Poor: My Place in the world as a Christian
by Matt Cairns
I’m a middle-aged Australian male who lives in Sydney. I don’t consider myself rich but after 20 years of working, my wife and three kids live comfortably enough. We don’t earn heaps of money but enough to probably own 2 bedrooms and a bathroom in our house, and while the bank owns the rest, we still get to live there. We enjoy eating out with friends regularly and from time to time get away for a nice family holiday. I don’t feel rich – I don’t own a plane or even fly business class, I drive a fairly standard car that doesn’t even have hands-free phoning, and I’m using an iPhone 4 – but I was somewhat stunned to see that my ‘wealth’ places me in the top 1% of the world’s richest people! I am, according to www.globalrichlist.com/wealth roughly the 45 millionth richest person in the world. And according to a report from last year, based on median wealth (income and assets), I live in the wealthiest country in the world – Australia. Knowing this has made me consider my place in the economic world and my responsibility as a follower of Jesus.
An Oxfam report has just found that the world’s 62 richest people own the same wealth as the world’s 3.6 billion poorest. Try to get your head around that… just 62 people, that is about one bus load of people, own the same wealth as 3.6 billion people, which is more than 58 million busloads of people. Now I’m certainly not on that bus with the world’s richest people but remember I am in the top 1% which means compared to the rest of the world – I am certainly very wealthy and getting wealthier. Stats show the rich are getting richer every year (their wealth has increased 44% in just the last 5 years) and the poorer and actually getting poorer every year (their wealth has decreased by 41% in that same period). Since 2000, the world’s 50% of poorest people have only received just 1% of the global increase in wealth; while in that same time the world’s top 1% have received 50% of that global wealth increase.
These and other similar statistics really challenge me and my 1% place in the world, and I’m reminded of the social justice principle – Confronting the Powerful – explored in the excellent book “When Justice is the Measure”. Chapter 3 begins with a discussion around what a just society will look like and includes this powerful challenge – “Those with more wealth will acknowledge that it is the strength of society that has helped them make their wealth possible and they will be challenged to share with those who have less.” It examines the idea of ‘challenging unjust behaviour’ and uses the example of Jesus and his encounter with Zacchaeus the tax collector, who like many wealthy people was rich at the expense of others. Jesus directly challenged Zacchaeus’ behaviour and the outcome was amazing – “Zacchaeus stood there and said to the Lord, “Look, half of my possessions, Lord, I will give to the poor; and if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I will pay back four times as much.” 9 Then Jesus said to him, “Today salvation has come to this house” (Luke 19:8-9a).
This is a story of transformation, not just for Zacchaeus, but also for his community who now had the financial support of one of its wealthiest citizens. When Justice is the Measure puts it this way, “The encounter between Zacchaeus and Jesus generated two primary outcomes: one was social and the other was spiritual. Zacchaeus reordered his public behaviour. He became compassionate towards the poor and started sharing his riches… restored his relationship with the God who loved him and the people he had cheated experienced just treatment.” An amazing outcome for both Zacchaeus and his community!
But what about our community? My community? I am challenged to think about how I use my wealth and whether or not Jesus would confront me over a meal about what my riches are doing. Does my wealth just go to benefit me and make me comfortable, or do I look around and ask what I can do with my wealth for God’s Kingdom? Yes I tithe and pay my taxes, but is that all God expects or can I do more as the world’s 45 millionth wealthiest person? As someone in the top 1%, I’m challenged that just tithing 10% and paying my due taxes is not enough. I am challenged that:
How I make my money is important – does my job which provides me with wealth hurt others, both directly and indirectly? Are my superannuation and other assets ethically invested and not making money at the expense of others?
Where my money goes is important – do I spend my money on things that rob others of life and freedom? Does my spending bring about or inhibit God’s Kingdom come?
What my money does is important – does my tithing make a real difference? Do the charities I support make a real difference in real people’s lives? Do my taxes go towards things that make society better and reduce inequality?
Would you be happy to chat with Jesus about these three questions?
But further than just how my money is used is the challenge of my wealth is used, and by this I mean power. I stand amongst the top 1% of the world’s wealthiest people and so I have power. At the beginning of the prophet Isaiah’s call for God’s people to ‘loose the bonds of injustice’, he exclaims “Shout out, do not hold back! Lift up your voice like a trumpet! Announce to my people their rebellion” (Isaiah 58:1). We as followers of Jesus have the calling to stand up for the oppressed and if needs be confront the powerful by challenging unjust behaviour. Did you know that the recent Oxfam report “analysed 200 companies, including the world’s biggest and the World Economic Forum’s strategic partners, and has found that 9 out of 10 companies analysed have a presence in at least one tax haven.” And it is estimated that worldwide, big business has at least 7.6 Trillion hidden away from government eyes in tax-free havens. That’s $7,600,000,000,000 and the tax owed on that is more than enough to end world hunger, provide everybody with clean and safe water, and give every kid a free education.
As we fight injustice, we can make a stand and confront the powerful by calling for fair and liveable wages for all, and that businesses “will acknowledge that it is the strength of society that has helped them make their wealth possible and they will be challenged to share with those who have less” through paying their fair share of taxes. Recently multinational corporations in Australia (such as Google, Apple, Ikea and so on) have been under pressure to explain why they pay so little tax in our country despite record revenues. Those of us with power must ‘shout out and not hold back’ on behalf of those who cannot. “Tragically, the poor too often learn to tolerate neglect and abuse because they think it’s normal. They learn to keep a safe distance from the powerful instead of confronting them or collaborating with them for change. God has given The Salvation Army access to places and people who have social power.”
The challenges of injustice regarding wealth can seem as overwhelming as the huge statistics involved. But transformation can start with just you and Jesus having a chat over lunch. By reordering your own priorities about what wealth and money will do for you, you can make a difference – locally and globally. Challenge unjust financial behaviour whether you own, in others, or in the business in which you engage with. Confront the powerful to change their social practices so that everybody, not just the top 1%, can enjoy the benefits of a modern society – there is more than enough to go around.
“As for the rich in this present age, charge them not to be haughty, nor to set their hopes on the uncertainty of riches, but on God, who richly provides us with everything to enjoy. They are to do good, to be rich in good works, to be generous and ready to share.” 1 Timothy 6:17-18
 This statistic and the following ones from the report located here: https://www.oxfam.org.au/wp-content/uploads/2016/01/an-economy-for-the-1-percent.pdf
 Christine McMillian, Don Posterski, & James E Read, When Justice is the Measure (Toronto: The Salvation Army, 2014). Also explored in the study “Jesus and Justice” by The Salvation Army’s International Social Justice Commission.
 When Justice is the Measure, 54.
 When Justice is the Measure, 57.
 When Justice is the Measure, 57.