The Problem of Wealth

A Christian Response to a Culture of Affluence

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Elizabeth L. Hinson-Hasty
  • Maryknoll, NY: 
    Orbis Books
    , September
     2017.
     256 pages.
     $26.00.
     Paperback.
    ISBN
    9781626982383.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

Understanding wealth as a problem is exceedingly difficult in a society where wealth is the condition to which we all are led to aspire. Many forms of Christianity have adapted themselves to this societal framework, most notably the prosperity gospel, which positions Christian life as a means to possessing the American dream. Recently I heard the story of one adherent to this form of Christianity who was thrown into existential anxiety by a decline in fortune. As he lost wealth, he began to wonder whether he was really a Christian. In her recent book, The Problem of Wealth: A Christian Response to a Culture of Affluence, Elizabeth Hinson-Hasty prompts us to ask the opposite question, presenting the case that wealth might in fact present a serious obstacle to entering the kingdom of God. She notes the volume of recent research and advocacy dedicated to describing the problems of inequality and poverty, but suggests that by reframing the problem as wealth we might call into question the ways of resolving our current disorder that assume the necessity of greater production and greater accumulation.

Proponents of such resolutions often call attention to the relative increase in living standards for the poor under global capitalism, illustrated by access to the modern comforts of cheap electronics or air conditioning. Hinson-Hasty points towards another way of analyzing the problem, by viewing wealth not as the simple accumulation of value, but as a means of describing one’s material and societal relationships, and specifically the power imbalance between those with many resources and those with less. Such a framework builds on Marx’s insight that the capitalist mode of production falsely presents material relationships between people as relationships between things. When economics is understood to be an analysis of the relationship between things, the world of property relations can be treated as a field of technical rather than moral analysis and inquiry, and theological reflection tends to take place inside these normative boundaries, rather than calling them more radically into question.

Hinson-Hasty writes primarily for white middle class American Christians whose exposure to religious engagement with economic life has been limited to forms which serve to uphold dominant ideologies. She argues that the emphasis in Christian tradition regarding wealth has been on its use for the common good, and against the evils of privation or domination. Her analysis suggests that the way our global economy produces and distributes wealth places us in fundamentally disordered relationships to each other, to the rest of creation, and to God. The problem of wealth is a function of “the way we create wealth and for whom we create it” (91). This leads her to critique the two common responses to inequality—social developmentalism and neoliberalism—insofar as both take for granted the necessity of competitive self-interest rather than the promotion of the common good.

To combat the presumption of humanity’s nature as fundamentally competitive, Hinson-Hasty draws inspiration from the concept of the “social trinity.” She suggests that the interdependent, self-giving relations between the three persons of the Trinity, what she refers to as “God’s own relational ecology” serve as a model and a “norm for human relationships that resist hyperindividualism and hypercompetition” (97). One might wonder whether the social trinity as a metaphor is capable of sustaining engagement with a critique so deep and profound as the one Hinson-Hasty seems to be offering. If wealth itself is really a problem, then the world’s economy does not just need to be tweaked, but fundamentally transformed. A temptation of social trinitarianism is that we may end up reducing or collapsing God’s life into our own, and then projecting back an enchanting vision of the world we would like to see onto our image of God, leaving us in the end with limited capacity for transformation. Thankfully Hinson-Hasty does not leave her constructive project here, but presents a variety of compelling examples that provide imagination for the task of “cultivating consciousness of the commons” (94). She details ways in which capitalist forms of wealth production and distribution are problematic for (or even incompatible with) a variety of world religions and forms of spirituality. Not only does she present the theoretical difficulties, but perhaps more importantly she shares the stories of religious communities whose lives are organized by conscious reflection on faith and economics. Projects like Koinonia Farms, the Catholic Worker, and New Roots provide us with some imagination for how faith traditions can resist commoditization and inequality, and foster relationships marked by justice and solidarity.

Hinson-Hasty sets before us an overwhelming problem, and does not propose as a solution that Christians simply increase their charitable giving, or adjust the inner orientation of their hearts. Her book is not titled “The Problem of Greed.” She is concerned with a system of production and accumulation that shapes us into people who are compelled to produce and accumulate even when we don’t feel greedy or intend to be. Our lives can be completely ruled by money and the market, but as long as we don't believe money has our heart, we see no choice but to serve it with our entire lives. She points out the way most us “live in a state of tension between indignation...and feeling overwhelmed” (189) as we are continually confronted by the scale of economic disorder, and our complicity in its growth and reproduction. To break us out of this paralysis, Hinson-Hasty provides anecdotes, questions, and parables that should stir our collective imagination towards more faithful religious practice, and a more just society.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Nathaniel Grimes is a doctoral student in Christian ethics at Villanova University.

Date of Review: 
October 18, 2017
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Elizabeth L. Hinson-Hasty is professor and chair of the department of theology at Bellar­mine University, Louisville. She is the author of Beyond the Social Maze (Bloomsbury T&T Clark), and Dorothy Day for Armchair Theologians (Westminster John Knox). A 2010 Fulbright Scholar, she has also served as a research consul­tant for the World Council of Churches’ hearings on Poverty, Wealth, and Ecology, and received Bellarmine’s Wilson Wyatt Faculty Fellowship for excellence in teaching and scholarship.

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