(Photo: Kelly Roche/QEW South Post)
BY DANIEL PHANNENHOUR
The rich always find a way to get richer, while the poor continually face the threat of losing what little they have. The scriptures of the world’s great religions all warn against the uneven accumulation of wealth. Each scripture recognizes that wealth tends to accumulate at the top end of any given society, no matter the economic system that has been devised.
Wealth is a product of human civilization. Our efforts at survival are much more efficient when we cooperate to take care of each other. This cooperation creates a surplus of benefits beyond what we need for our immediate survival. The surplus then accumulates as wealth in the form of goods, land, livestock, or money.
Not everyone’s contributions to our cooperative efforts at survival, however, are valued equally. The power of necessity makes some people’s efforts more indispensible than others while the necessity of power requires some people to be in control of organizing and maintaining the whole system. In these positions of power, people are able to accumulate wealth more efficiently than others. They then use their wealth to enforce their power in a self-perpetuating cycle of accumulation. The result is an ever-widening gap between the rich and poor and ever-increasing exploitation of the poor by the rich.
The rich lose sense of the cooperative nature of human life by assuming that all economic function needs to serve their accumulation of wealth while the poor are driven in desperation to commit acts of violence and destruction in order to ensure their future chances of survival. The resulting social strife, which often masquerades as religious, national, or class conflict, threatens the stability and functioning of our economic and social order.
Religious scriptures warn those of us caught in the midst of such conflict that wealth needs to be redistributed if we are to continue to enjoy the benefits of social cooperation. The Hebrew Scriptures, for example, provide for a mechanism for the redistribution of wealth expressed in their primary value of Sabbath rest. They imagine that every 50 years, at the end of seven sets of seven years, there would be a super-Sabbath year, a year of Jubilee. In this year all debt would be forgiven, all slaves would be set free, and all land that had been sold would be returned to the family that had originally owned it.
In effect, the economy would hit the reset button, and everyone would begin again on an equal footing at year zero. Wealth would again accumulate as it always does, but it would be subject to systematic redistribution in another 50 years. Ironically, no record exists of such a year ever being celebrated, but the concept of such intentional equalization and liberation inspired the teachings of the later prophets and of Jesus of Nazareth in the Christian tradition.
Only one modern political entity has attempted to reset its economy back to the year zero. Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge in Kampuchea tried to erase all social distinctions and claims to wealth by returning the entire Cambodian economy to its primitive agricultural origins. The methods it used, however, to enforce such a radical leveling have become a primary symbol of the twentieth century’s politically motivated brutality.
We may not be able to return to year zero in a global economic Jubilee, but the wisdom behind such a vision remains vitally relevant in our time. We need to put as much effort into redistributing wealth as we put into creating it in the first place. Our future potential to survive and create wealth as a civilization depends upon it.
Daniel Phannenhour (Pastor Dan) is an unretired Lutheran pastor and father to three lovely young women. He currently lives with his wife in the Oakville parsonage, and is exploring new ways of embodying the Christian faith while celebrating the multicultural and multifaith diversity of our community and nation.