Friday, October 28, 2011

Usenet post by someone else, St. John Chrysostom and the Problem of Wealth!

St. John Chrysostom and the Problem of Wealth
by John D. Jones
Wealth … is like a snake; it will twist around the hand and bite
unless one knows how to use it properly.
- Clement of Alexandria, “The Instructor,” 3.6.34
In our social, political, and religious discourse, we tend to focus on
poverty as a problem to be solved, but for St. John Chrysostom,
poverty as such is not the problem, but rather how we acquire and use
wealth, the ideologies and practices that shape economic exchanges,
and the ways in which “the love of money” pervades and poisons human
personal and social relations and, most of all, our relation with God.
In one of his frequent appeals to the wealthy to give to Christ in the
person of the poor, Chrysostom remarks that he makes his exhortations,
not so much because of anxiety for the poor but because I care for
your souls. For they [the poor] will have some comfort, if not from
you, yet from some other quarter; or even if they be not comforted,
but perish by hunger, the harm to them will be no great matter. In
what way did poverty and wasting by hunger injure Lazarus? But none
can rescue you from hell, if you obtain not the help of the poor. 1
At first glance, it appears that Chrysostom is not really interested
in alleviating poverty, but rather in using the poor as a means to
secure the salvation of the wealthy. Indeed, the last sentence might
be taken to justify allowing the continued existence of extreme
poverty as a necessary means for the salvation of the wealthy.
Consider Chrysostom’s claim that Lazarus was not injured by his
poverty. This is an instance of his more general claim that no one is
injured in respect of virtue by suffering injustice or wrongdoing.
Given that our final end is to obtain “everlasting and pure blessings
in Christ Jesus our Lord,” our proper human virtue consists in
“carefulness in holding right doctrine and a righteous life” or “in
being vigilant and sober in the Lord.” In the ancient philosophical
tradition, the specific virtues or excellences (aretai) of something
are those characteristics that it requires in order to live or
function well. Drawing upon a variety of examples found in Holy
Scripture (e.g., Job or the three children thrown into the furnace),
Chrysostom argues that none of them was injured, in respect of virtue
and attaining their final end, by any of the things that they suffered
– indeed, the adverse things they suffered only strengthened their
virtue and deepened their bonds to God.
Although Chrysostom frequently praises poverty and criticizes wealth,
in his view neither is good nor evil in itself. In his Homilies on the
Statues, he praises Abraham for his proper use of wealth. Chrysostom,
moreover, does not view poverty as uniformly good since it can produce
despondency in the poor. Although he often portrays the poor in ways
that emphasize the dire conditions to which they were subjected, he
does not romanticize them. So in contrast to Lazarus, he writes that
the poor “generally speaking, are filled with envy and ill-will when
they see wealthy people even if they have adequate food and other
people are providing for them.” Nevertheless, Chrysostom has little
sympathy with those who wanted to lay the blame for poverty entirely
on the poor and, thus, excuse themselves from showing mercy, from
providing assistance to the poor, or from moderating their
Chrysostom, however, wrote that many people, regardless of social and
economic status, engaged in exploiting others who are weaker than
they. That is, while Chrysostom’s remarks on covetousness or the love
of money most frequently targeted the wealthy, he believed that this
sort of love was rampant throughout society. So, in discussing the
vice of covetousness, he remarks:
Let us therefore, both poor and rich, cease from taking the property
of others. For my present discourse is not only to the rich, but to
the poor also. For they too rob those who are poorer than themselves.
And artisans who are better off, and more powerful, outsell the poorer
and more distressed, tradesmen outsell tradesmen, and so all who are
engaged in the market-place. So that I wish from every side to take
away injustice. 2
Chrysostom recognized that, insofar as people love money, “all things
become money,” “everything is reckoned in terms of it,” and economic
gain becomes the criterion for action. “Should it be military service,
should it be marriage, should it be a trade, should it be what you
will that any man takes in hand, [the lover of money] does not
undertake anything until he see these riches are coming in rapidly
upon him” (Homilies on Matthew, 90.3).
Put in more modern terms: the love of money leads to the
commodification of all goods, services, and people such that economic
gain drives all transactions and interactions with others.
Because the love of money poisons human relations and the ways in
which we acquire and use wealth, Chrysostom questioned the legitimacy
of acquiring wealth, whether for security, status, family, almsgiving,
etc. Moreover, he frequently raised questions as to the manner in
which wealth was acquired. He argued, for example, that inherited
wealth often rested on unjust acquisition or theft.
Indeed, despite his claim that wealth in itself is neither good nor
evil, at times he seems to view the notion of honest wealth as a
virtual oxymoron. More importantly, since all things belong primarily
to God, theft consists not simply in taking what belongs to the poor
but in failing to render assistance to them and depriving them of the
material goods that they need in order to live. He also took note of
how people pursued wealth to escape poverty while remaining
indifferent to the ways in such pursuit might drive others into
And what is the specious plea of the many [for loving wealth]? I have
children, one says, and I am afraid lest I myself be reduced to the
extremity of hunger and want, lest I should stand in need of others. I
am ashamed to beg. For that reason therefore do you cause others to
beg? I cannot, you say, endure hunger. For that reason do you expose
others to hunger? Do you know what a dreadful thing it is to beg, how
dreadful to be perishing by hunger? Spare also your brethren! Are you
ashamed, tell me, to be hungry, and are you not ashamed to rob? Are
you afraid to perish by hunger, and not afraid to destroy others? And
yet to be hungry is neither a disgrace nor a crime; but to cast others
into such a state brings not only disgrace, but extreme punishment.3
Throughout his writings, in exhorting people patiently to care for the
poor, Chrysostom raised significant questions about the ways in which
people acquired wealth, the dubious ends for which wealth was used,
and the distribution of wealth and other economic means within his
society. He explicitly rejected the idea that we can give alms without
regard to how our wealth has been acquired. In his Homilies on John,
he writes: “By almsgiving, I do not include what is maintained by
injustice, for this is not almsgiving, but savageness and inhumanity.
What profits it to strip one man and clothe another?” In other words,
we cannot seriously appropriate Chrysostom’s teachings about wealth
and poverty for ourselves without raising critical questions about how
we acquire and use wealth in the face of widespread poverty and
Yet, these sorts of questions and concerns may seem moot given
Chrysostom’s own view that voluntary poverty – poverty undertaken out
of love for Christ – is desirable and his constant admonition to the
poor patiently to bear their poverty. After all, if the poor are
patiently to bear their poverty and poverty itself is not to be feared
but even embraced, then why should we be concerned with the
alleviation of poverty even when it arises through injustice? Yet
consider this passage:
The multitude…imagine that there are many different things which ruin
our virtue: some say it is poverty, others bodily disease, others loss
of property… Some bewail and lament the inmates of the prison…others
those who have been deprived of their freedom, others those who have
been seized and made captives by enemies…but no one mourns those who
are living in wickedness: on the contrary, which is worse than all,
they often congratulate them, a practice which is the cause of all
manner of evils. 4
For Chrysostom, it is precisely those who “live in wickedness” that we
should mourn, since those who commit injustice are harmed by
themselves rather than those who are subjected to injustice and
Hence, despite the fact that each of us should patiently endure the
unjust suffering to which we might be subjected, we cannot be
indifferent to acts of injustice. Indeed, with due regard for our own
sinfulness, we must seek to correct injustice and evil primarily for
the sake of those who inflict it since, in Chrysostom’s view, it is
the perpetrators rather than the victims who are harmed.
Thus, given Chrysostom’s views about the evils caused by love of
wealth and the apparently great difficulty of obtaining and using it
justly and virtuously, it is not surprising that, in continually
admonishing people to obtain and use wealth properly, he can say that
he is less concerned with the poor as such than the wealthy or, for
that matter, anyone who acquires and uses wealth improperly.
Note, however, that Chrysostom was not indifferent to the terrible
sufferings and humiliations that the poor endure. While he exhorted
people patiently to bear their own poverty and suffering, while he
commended the life of voluntary poverty, he also encouraged the
citizens in Antioch (as we see in his Homilies on Acts) to share their
belonging in order to eliminate poverty. Indeed, in his Homily on
Almsgiving, he tells his listeners to “correct poverty and do away
with hunger.”
But from the standpoint of our proper virtue – the one thing that
really matters – the love of money poses a far more serious problem to
humans than being subjected to poverty.
The following text illustrates the profound extent of this problem:
How long shall we love riches? For I shall not cease exclaiming
against them: for they are the cause of all evils. How long do we not
get our fill of this insatiable desire? What is the good of gold? I am
astonished at the thing! There is some enchantment in the business,
that gold and silver should be so highly valued among us. For our own
souls indeed we have no regard, but those lifeless images engross much
attention. Whence is it that this disease has invaded the world? Who
shall be able to effect its destruction? What reason can cut off this
evil beast, and destroy it with utter destruction? The desire is deep
sown in the minds of men, even of those who seem to be religious. 5
Chrysostom’s critique here is obviously not directed simply at those
who love gold and silver but to those for whom, in loving money,
“money becomes everything.” Suppose, however, we substitute
commodities for money. Given powerful messages in consumer societies
that happiness, security and self-worth lie in consumption; that we
should buy whatever we desire; and that, because our desire for things
is unlimited, we can in principle never attain “self-
sufficiency” (autarkeia), it is not hard to see how deep seated the
problem of the love of money is in our society.
We may disagree with the particular analyses and solutions that
Chrysostom offers, but as Fr. Georges Florovsky rightly observes:
[Chrysostom] had to face the life in great and overcrowded cites … He
simply could not evade social problems without detaching Christianity
from life … In his sermons we find, first of all, a penetrating
analysis of the social situation. He finds too much injustice,
coldness, indifference and suffering in the society of his day. And he
sees well to what extent it is connected with the acquisitive
character of [his society].
Even if we correctly grant, with Fr. Florovsky, that Chrysostom was
not primarily a social reformer, nevertheless, we cannot follow
Chrysostom’s teachings about wealth and poverty and remain unwilling
to critique and change the social relations, institutional structures,
and ideologies that undergird our acquisition and use of wealth; and
to challenge the widespread belief that people are poor simply because
of their alleged behaviors and attitudes.
For Chrysostom, our primary task is not simply to establish new modes
of economic exchange and social relations. Our primary task is neither
reducible to, nor understandable within, purely secularized approaches
to social reform. For this task is grounded in metanoia (repentance) –
“the complete change and renewal of heart and mind: from the heart and
mind of sin to ‘the mind of Christ’.” This requires a spiritual
transformation of our relationships with one another in an imitation
of Christ that is made possible by our cooperation with divine grace.
Chrysostom notes that “the rule of the most perfect Christian life is
seeking those things that are for the common advantage…. For nothing
can so make a man an imitator of Christ as caring for his neighbor.”
In particular, almsgiving is not simply a means by which wealthy
people give money to the poor. He exhorts everyone to give alms. No
one, he often says, is so poor that they cannot imitate the poor widow
who gave two mites. Even if they have not a single penny, they can
always provide a cup of water to a stranger, comfort others, or in
some way show mercy and kindness to others.
First in Antioch and then in Constantinople, Chrysostom sought to
establish a community in which people mutually cared for one another.
Such a community is grounded in a gift economy – that is, in
intentions and actions that have a fundamentally Eucharistic nature to
them. In giving alms to Christ in the person of the poor (more
broadly, in rendering assistance to all of those in need), we
effectively offer a sacrifice on the altar, the body of Christ, that
is the poor person.
Having said “The first and great commandment is ‘You shall love the
Lord your God,’” he added “and the second … is like it. ‘You shall
love your neighbor as yourself.’” And see how with nearly the same
excellence he also requires this. For as concerning God, he said “With
all your heart”: so concerning your neighbor, ‘as yourself’ is the
same as ‘with all your heart.” If this commandment were duly observed
there would be neither slave nor free, neither ruler nor ruled…. There
would be no poverty, no unbounded wealth if there were love, but only
the good parts that come from each. From the one we should reap its
abundance, and from the other its freedom from care and should neither
have to undergo the anxieties of riches nor the dread of poverty. 6
In this way, our actions are a way of giving thanks to Christ for the
love he showed to us in his passion and resurrection. In this self-
sacrificial love or, better, co-suffering love, we take up the Cross
and follow Christ. In so doing, we obtain Christ’s loving kindness
towards us. That is, through our actions we communicate to others the
loving kindness that Christ has shown to us. In this way, we imitate
Christ and become in some way like Christ.
For Chrysostom the real solution to the problems posed by wealth lies
precisely in this sort of love writ large in community. Noting that
for Christ “the sign of perfect love for him is the love of one’s
neighbors,” Chrysostom offers this remarkable observation:
Dr. John D. Jones is Professor of Philosophy at Marquette University.
One of his research areas is poverty and social marginalization. He is
currently working on a book on philosophical and theological issues
pertaining to poverty. He is a member of SS. Cyril and Methodius
Church in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. He is also participating in the local
Late Vocations Program of the Orthodox Church in America with the
intention of seeking ordination to the deaconate. The complete text of
this article, with notes and a reading list, will also appear in a
forthcoming issue of the Marquette journal, Philosophy and Theology.
1. “Homilies on John” 37.3; Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers [NPNF] XIV:
2. “Homilies on I Thess.” 10 (NPNF XIII:504).
3. “Homilies on 1 Thess.” 10 (NPNF XIII:502)
4. “No One Harms Himself” 2 (NPNF: IX:294)
5. “Homilies on 1 Thess.” 10 (NPNF XIII:502)
6. “Homilies on 1 Cor.” 32.11 (NPNF XII: 263)

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