…give me neither poverty nor riches,
but give me only my daily bread.
Otherwise, I may have too much and disown you
and say, ‘Who is the Lord?’
Or I may become poor and steal,
and so dishonor the name of my God.
– Proverbs 30: 8-9 (NIV)
The above quoted scripture is referring to both ends of a spectrum that can affect a Christian’s spiritual life. If a person is too poor, then they may be likely to despair and reject God. If a person is too wealthy, they may believe themselves to be self-sufficient and reject God. This is the context within which this scripture is to be understood—I want to be clear on that at the outset, so as not to take it out of context. Even so, there are a number of related truths packed into this Proverb. Consider this portion of the scripture:
“Give me neither poverty nor riches, but give me only my daily bread…..Otherwise I may have too much…”
I first heard the this scripture preached as a lens for discussing material wealth by a pastor in Louisville, Kentucky. He had recently returned from Africa, and the profound poverty that he witnessed on his journey caused him to recall this scripture. Perhaps nothing demonstrates the polar opposite life states captured by this verse than traveling directly from where he was serving in Africa—where people had far too little—to the United States—where people have so much (the average American consumes as many resources as 43 Africans). I have often pondered the quandary highlighted in this scripture as it relates both to my own life, and within the scope of my profession. What I have realized is that, for the Christian, the problem with wealth and associated consumption becomes when the pursuit of wealth blinds us to our responsibilities to each other. When consumption, or a fixation on increasing our ability to consume, consumes us.
Is making a plea for only our basic needs something we ever really do in the United States? Isn’t the opposite sentiment most often our plea?: “Help me to prosper.” Many Christians in America are just as caught up in the drive for “the American Dream” as the rest of the nation. That dream has long embodied the notion that anyone, regardless of background, can lift themselves out of the depths of poverty and achieve success, and in particular can achieve financial wealth. This is something that most of us strive for, and that that we teach our children to do. We are told (and we tell others) to work hard, be financially responsible, improve our position, and leave our children with better, healthier, more financially secure lives than we have had.
In particular, those identifying with political conservatism (in its many forms) view conservation of financial resources and preservation of the ability to grow and maintain wealth as a foundational principle for living. A problem arises, however, when the desire to maintain and grow fiscal resources, and the corollary spending of those resources through consumptive activities, causes Christian conservatives to run afoul of other biblical principles, such as caring for our neighbors (the widow, orphan, mentally handicapped, refugee, or other disadvantaged group), engaging in stewardship (by taking care of creation and our children’s health), not giving in to covetousness, among a number of other scriptural commands.
Scripture is clear that Christians are to be productive and not “bury talents in the dirt” (Matthew 25: 14-30), and Christians are to work hard (a host of scriptures on this topic here). It is natural that every parent wants to provide for their children. Education, for example, is something that I personally have a hard time putting a price tag on because I view it as so important. I want my children to receive a good education, and with the cost of college tuition skyrocketing, I work hard, just hoping that when the day comes I can provide for their educational pursuits. I do not want my children strapped with the $180,000 of student loans that I had coming out of law school. Also, parents are aware of the potential risks children might face as they grow older, such as needing expensive cancer treatments or other medical care as they age. There is no doubt that we have responsibilities to do as well as we can (balancing other biblical virtues) to take care of those that we love. Building wealth can be an important part of that.
But wealth and associated consumption in America have become much more than preparing for a rainy day or taking care of the children. I have written before about how consumption is off the charts in the U.S., draining people’s bank accounts (so that they have less for their neighbor) and undermining stewardship (leading to dramatic environmental problems):
By some estimates, if everyone on the planet consumed as much as the average American, we would need about 4 earth’s worth of resources to sustain demand. Consumption directly contributes to water pollution, air pollution, habitat destruction for species upon which we depend (for medicines and other ecosystem services, like pollination), hazardous wastes, and a host of other environmental problems. The environmental strain from overconsumption causes American taxpayers to turn around and expend even more income to fund basic environmental regulatory programs aimed at cleaning up the mess. So, overconsumption results in a double tax—we overspend on unessential items, undermining household wealth, and then must expend even more income to keep consumptive behaviors from harming human health and welfare.
Consider these further facts, detailed in Scientific American:
- A child born in the United States will create thirteen times as much ecological damage over the course of his or her lifetime than a child born in Brazil;
- The average American will drain as many resources as 35 natives of India and consume 53 times more goods and services than someone from China;
- Between 1900 and 1989 U.S. population tripled while its use of raw materials grew by a factor of 17;
- With less than 5 percent of world population, the U.S. uses one-third of the world’s paper, a quarter of the world’s oil, 23 percent of the coal, 27 percent of the aluminum, and 19 percent of the copper;
- American fossil fuel consumption is double that of the average resident of Great Britain and two and a half times that of the average Japanese;
- Americans (again) account for only five percent of the world’s population but create half of the globe’s solid waste;
- Americans are least likely of all people to use public transportation—only seven percent make use of transit options for daily commuting;
- National Geographic’s Greendex found that American consumers rank last of 17 countries surveyed in regard to sustainable behavior;
- The study also found that U.S. consumers are among the least likely to feel guilty about the impact they have on the environment, even though they are near to top of the list in believing that individual choices could make a difference.
Interestingly, at the same time that Americans are consuming copious amounts of resources, most are saving less—arguably burying their talents in the dirt. Consider that:
…at the time of the first Reagan administration, the bottom 90% of households saved 10% of their income. By 2006, their savings rate dropped to nearly negative 10% (though it has since rebounded to slightly above 0%).
So it seems that there is something about wealth and consumption—the American Dream, keeping up with the Jones’s, having the latest gadget or toy—that has taken away from many Americans’ ability to utilize their talents responsibly. Rather than burying their talents under a sofa cushion, it seems Americans are increasingly burying talents in all of the unnecessary stuff that we buy. We have more than our daily bread.
I am absolutely part of this problem. I consume, I travel, I spend (though I do try hard to be a good steward of my financial resources and to give accordingly). My environmental passion is protecting land from development, which is a different form of consumption and where I am more consistent in my living and my advocacy. But when it comes to consuming unessential products and goods (so much of which ends up being discarded), I have been (and remain) very much a part of the problem. Though I have made efforts to cut back on many fronts, particularly by reducing consumption of commodities like throwaway plastics, sometimes I even feel helpless because of the “systems” and path dependency I seem to be caught up in. And indeed, sometimes it feels like we do not have a choice (though we do, of course).
My concern in recent years, as I have watched political rhetoric change around environmental issues and the economy, is that many conservatives, whether Republican, Libertarian, or otherwise—and many Christians who identify with those parties—have become increasingly fixated on conserving one thing in particular: their own personal personal assets, primarily by painting governmental regulations or services of virtually any kind as “liberal” or “socialist.” Discussions of topics like providing affordable higher education, funding court systems so that people of lesser means have access to justice, maintaining basic infrastructure to keep our families safe on the roads, providing government assistance to the mentally ill and handicapped to facilitate a better avenue to success in our society, or rectifying/addressing environmental harms that our consumptive lifestyles lead to, increasingly lead to visceral responses linking such causes to some liberal, “socialist” governmental agenda. Consider environmental regulation. Christianity is premised on the fact that humanity is flawed (that is, sinful). We have a criminal justice system—which is a form of government regulation—because people will murder. But people will also pollute, poison, and harm us and our children because of greed and other vices. So, as with murder, government engages in efforts to rectify those harms, which may involve tax expenditures, prescriptive regulations, or other policies. An average citizen, “free” from the restraints of government, cannot stop people from murdering or bring about justice through some philanthropic effort. A government can. In the same way, a citizen cannot stop a corporation from dumping hazardous waste in the ground or water, or clean it up if they do, but a government can. We can certainly debate whether government is operating the way it should, and whether and how it could be made better. Governments make many mistakes, and are not the answer to everything, which is why we have the option to engage in the democratic process to make its operation better. But to paint governmental efforts to reign in, for example, environmental polluters bad behavior as part of some liberal agenda is simply illogical for the Christian conservative. Environmental protection, from addressing climate change to preventing mercury pollution, is not and should not be a partisan issue.
In short, conservative politics has increasingly become the party of “no” on issues that conservatives once cared about—conserving and growing the knowledge and earning capacity of the next generation through affordable education (not burying talents), conserving the natural resources that sustain our very lives and health (exercising stewardship), conserving the well-being of the marginalized in society, and conserving access to justice and the rule of law. While modern day conservative rhetoric—at least at the national level—all too often involves rejection of these basic tenants, it helps perpetuate a culture in this country that is not conserving much at all—from natural resources to financial resources. Instead, this worldview fixates on conserving citizens’ ability to consume as much as they want without owning any responsibility for the problems that consumption may cause themselves and the rest of society. Something is awry, and there is a cognitive dissonance between what conservatives, and many Christians who identify with that political ideology, claim to value and the consumptive culture of which we are all a part.
To the extent that Christian theology has become entwined with political ideology in this country—which, for many Christians the two have become worryingly entwined—Christians should stop and reassess: do I have more than my daily bread? Could I consume fewer unnecessary goods and services, and put those financial resources to good use through philanthrophic or other endeavors aimed at the issues described above? Can I think more critically about an environmental regulation or other form of governmental act that also seeks to cure social ills, and engage in making it better, fairer, and less costly, rather than just resisting it outright because of political ideology?
We have more than our daily bread. Much of it is wasted, leaving too little for us to use for others (undermining personal acts of philanthropy and giving). Much of it is used in a way that causes environmental harm. Some of it must be used to address problems that society itself, as a collection of individuals, is unable to address (like murder, toxic pollution). There is nothing wrong with having bread. But we would all (including me) do better to ask only for our daily bread—and hold on to whatever is left over much more loosely.
– Blake Hudson