St. John Chrysostom on wealth redistribution
Updated February 13, 2017: It has since come to my attention that the quote on wealth distribution discussed in this article may not be authentic. Its original source is a collection of John Chrysostom quotes by Robert Van de Weyer titled On Living Simply, but apparently Van de Weyer does not provide references for any of his excerpts and I have not been able to verify this one elsewhere. I still think the passage is basically sound and insightful.
St. John Chrysostom, Church Father and fourth-century Archbishop of Constantinople, was not what you would call a defender of the rich. He often pricked their consciences regarding both how they got their money and what they did with it. He went so far as to say that not to give to the poor is to steal from them. A particularly pungent passage from one of his homilies: “Do you pay such honor to your excrements as to receive them into a silver chamber-pot when another man made in the image of God is perishing in the cold?”
Given this uncompromising attitude, it may seem surprising that Chrysostom opposed the forceful redistribution of wealth by the state, not only as ultimately ineffective, but even as morally harmful to society. Yet coming from a man who was anything but a “greed is good” ideologue, this prudence is all the more compelling:
Should we look to kings and princes to put right the inequalities between rich and poor? Should we require soldiers to come and seize the rich person’s gold and distribute it among his destitute neighbors? Should we beg the emperor to impose a tax on the rich so great that it reduces them to the level of the poor and then to share the proceeds of that tax among everyone? Equality imposed by force would achieve nothing, and do much harm.
Those who combined both cruel hearts and sharp minds would soon find ways of making themselves rich again. Worse still, the rich whose gold was taken away would feel bitter and resentful; while the poor who received the gold from the hands of soldiers would feel no gratitude, because no generosity would have prompted the gift. Far from bringing moral benefit to society, it would actually do moral harm. Material justice cannot be accomplished by compulsion, a change of heart will not follow. The only way to achieve true justice is to change people’s hearts first – and then they will joyfully share their wealth.
Christianity looks first and foremost to the spiritual benefit of all. The social message of the Church is not to seek materialistic solutions which treat persons as means rather than ends. Chrysostom urged the rich to give to the poor not just because it materially benefits the poor, but even more because without it, the rich are in danger of losing their souls. A remedy involving compulsion, on the other hand, does not look to the spiritual good of either the rich or the poor; charity is left out of the equation.
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