The Common Good

Congressman Paul Ryan vs King Solomon

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Again I saw that under the sun the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, nor bread to the wise, nor riches to the intelligent, nor favor to the skillful; but time and chance happen to them all.
-- King Solomon (Ecclesiastes 9:11)

As a Christian, I believe the world is fallen. Part of what that means is that bad things happen to good people and good things happen to bad people. People don't always get what they deserve. Or, as Jesus said, "[God] makes [God's] sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous." (Matthew 5:44b)

Yet, Christianity is not fatalistic. Job, when visited by tragedy after tragedy, still chose to be righteous. He questioned God and the injustice of his situation, but he was ultimately faithful.

Bad things happen because of forces beyond human control, but also because humans take advantage of and exploit each another.

These issues are addressed throughout scripture, especially the exploitation of the poor by the rich and the weak by the strong. In the Hebrew scriptures, even good and generous employers were required to set aside part of their crops for the poor to harvest for themselves (see the story of Ruth and Boaz).

Employers weren't just warned about the immorality of exploiting their workers. Farmers and winemakers were required by law to leave some of their yield behind in the fields and on the vine, for the poor. In a jubilee year, landowners were required to return land to those from whom they purchased it and, again according to the laws of the time, slaves were ordered to be set free. In the Old Testament, redistribution of land, admonitions against employers exploiting workers, and a redistribution of agricultural wealth to those in need were all considered part of a good and just society.

This week, a Vatican document expressed grave concern around the growing inequalities both between countries and within countries, and called for renewed morals as well as increased taxes and regulation on financial institutions and businesses.

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All of this stands in stark contrast to a speech Congressman Paul Ryan, a Catholic, gave to the Heritage Foundation earlier this week . In it, he set up an imaginary choice between equality of "opportunity" and equality of "outcome." He said that he was for the former and President Obama for the latter.

Ryan said in part:

"If you believe in the former, you follow the American Idea that justice is done when we level the playing field at the starting line, and rewards are proportionate to merit and effort.

"If you believe in the latter kind of equality, you think most differences in wealth and rewards are matters of luck or exploitation, and that few really deserve what they have.

"That's the moral basis of class warfare -- a false morality that confuses fairness with redistribution, and promotes class envy instead of social mobility."

First, I have never heard President Obama, or any other U.S. politician, argue for equality of "outcome." I've heard them argue that opportunity is predicated on access to basic needs such as food, shelter, education, and health care. But, I have never heard expressed the idea that everyone deserves fancy cars, nice electronics, and a wine cellar.

Second, biblical notions of fairness are tied directly to redistribution. Because the world is fallen, people don't always get what they deserve. Redistribution doesn't need to equalize outcomes but it can mitigate their extremes.

Third, I'm really not sure what he means by "class envy." Our country has a problem with people confusing "needs" with "wants." If Ryan is echoing the Vatican's calls for Christians to fight back against a market that has corrupted our morals with greed and disregard for the common good, then I agree with him.

Too many people in our culture have bought the lie that human fulfillment is equivalent to market consumption.

But, if Ryan is fighting back against "class envy" and his budget plan that takes two-thirds of its cuts from programs that serve lower-income people -- then I can't make any moral sense out of it.

It's not "envy" for the 9.6 percent of the population that is unemployed each month to want jobs. It's not "envy" for parents to want to feed their kids when the 14.5 percent of American households aren't able to provide enough food for their families. It's not "envy" to want health care when you need it or to be able to pay your bills when you are working. It's not "envy" to want a quality education or to see your aging parents cared for.

There is no doubt that we have a problem with envy and greed in this country. I just don't think it's "envy" to fight for fully-funded nutrition programs or to let tax breaks for millionaires expire.

More words of wisdom from Solomon in Ecclesiastes 9:14-18

There was a little city with few people in it. A great king came against it and besieged it, building great siegeworks against it. Now there was found in it a poor wise man, and he by his wisdom delivered the city. Yet no one remembered that poor man. So I said, "Wisdom is better than might; yet the poor man's wisdom is despised, and his words are not heeded." The quiet words of the wise are more to be heeded than the shouting of a ruler among fools. Wisdom is better than weapons of war, but one bungler destroys much good.

While much of the world looks to the wisdom of the wealthy (or "job creators"), it might be better to look to the wisdom of the poor.

T.KingTim King is Communications Director for Sojourners. Follow Tim on Twitter @TMKing.

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