It’s not easy, being rich.

This isn’t a sermon, but I’ve been thinking about wealth a lot recently as a result of Luke’s Gospel banging on about money and rich people. It’s pretty stark stuff from Luke, about 1/3rd of his Gospel is about using money properly, and how hard it is for rich people to go to heaven and all that.

I’ve always had an uneasy relationship with money – whether you have lots and want more, or don’t have enough and want more, it’s easy to be obsessed with, not to mention the things you can buy with it.

But I’ve also been long concerned about fair trade. I just can’t understand how any church which claims to seek any sort of moral high ground can possibly do so whilst serving unfairly traded tea and coffee, biscuits etc. I’m horrified that I can’t buy clothes for my son, when I can’t know whether they were made by people his own age. Certainly when you get two pairs of trousers for £3 in Asda, you know that the people making them haven’t been paid enough to send their own children to school.

So I’m conflicted, loving a bargain but hating the consequences of it, disliking the price increase of fair trade stuff, but knowing the moral necessity of it.

I’ve also noticed, in church and elsewhere, that people have very good reasons why not to buy fair trade goods. Really good reasons, sometimes, not just the old “It doesn’t get to the people who need it” (which is rubbish, it really does), but the macro-economic ideas about how introducing a limiting set of principles will in the long run make life worse for too many people not on the fair trade scheme etc.

Such things are too high for me, but I’ve noticed that there are so many good reasons why rich people choose not to benefit poor people, it’s made my wonder “Why do we want these things to be true”?

There’s a social scientist called Paul Piff from Berkeley California, who has been studying the relationship between money and morality. He wrote a fascinating study about social class and money (links at the bottom) and he also undertook a study in the monopoly playing.

Two participants were brought in, and they tossed a coin to decide who was the poor person, who was the rich one.

The rich person began with several thousand pounds in the bank, and picked up $200 for passing Go, whereas the poor person only picked up $100, and there were a number of other ways in which the odds were stacked against the poor person in the game.

Now the participants were all volunteers, and they came from all different walks of life. But whether you were poor or rich in your real life, when they were playing the game of Monopoly biased in the way described, everybody behaved in the similar ways.

The results aren’t formally out yet, (I believe), but not surprisingly the “rich” person almost always won, and always felt that they deserved the win – the reasons for the poor person losing being related to playing tactics, not the bias.

On average the rich player ate three quarters of the food that was on offer.

It does suggest that it is harder for a rich person to be moral – it’s hard not to attribute success to our own skill rather than luck.

We are all in the west varying degrees of rich, compared with those who make our clothes and pick our coffee beans. It is only, I think, when we can have the level of empathy which enables us to put ourselves in the place of the poor that we can see what true righteousness in any situation is. What would we want to be paid for working in the coffee plantations? What would we expect to be able to provide for our children?

It’s then I think that we are able to see that the price of fair trade goods is the Real price – anything less is theft, slavery, oppression.

The more wealth we have the more choice we have to be moral agents. That means we are able to choose how much good, or how much harm we can do. It would be nice to think that we don’t have those choices, that we are really quite poor and we have to save every penny, but for most of us, that’s a shallow untruth.

It’s not easy being rich – and we can either be rich and accept that we have harder moral choices, or we can choose poverty, and do as Jesus suggested to the rich man. The only untenable position is to stay rich and pretend we are poor. We might fool ourselves, if we try really hard, but we won’t fool God. And we won’t fool the poor people who make our clothes and grow our food.

EDIT – promised links:

Paul Piff’s initial study

A new article about the Monopoly study etc.

A New Yorker article about the same :

About frpip

Priest, Dad, A long way away. You can call me Father Father Father.
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12 Responses to It’s not easy, being rich.

  1. Thanks for this thought-provoking blog, Pip.

  2. Anonymous says:

    Well, I suppose it’s easy to write about poverty from the position of a person who lives in 21st century wealthy Britain. Why don’t you just swap your life with any of those people who really struggle to survive, to experience how people live on the other side? To not have running water, or electricity, to go to bed hungry, to feel under threat all the time, to have to pay for medical care in cash, etc, etc. Our happiness is built on other peoples’ unhappiness. We see the problems perfectly well, but it is more convenient for us to remain ‘happy’. No bad feelings, just a challenging thought for you…Damian

    • frpip says:

      Damien, isn’t that the point I was making?

      • Anonymous says:

        Yes, and no. On paper everything looks fine and very godly. However, I was challenging you (because you wrote this article) to swap your life with someone who lives in poverty. Or, why don’t you, for example, sell your car or laptop and give the money to a woman in Africa who cannot afford to pay for her chemotherapy treatment. I can give you her address! Love your brother like yourself in action! Damian

      • frpip says:

        I see, sorry for not getting what you were saying. It’s an important question – why do I not do more than I do? I don’t want to swap my life for someone who lives in poverty – I don’t want anyone to live in poverty. I could sell my laptop and my car, but it would mean I wouldn’t be able to do my job, living in the country. I could do it, but it’s a judgement call. I certainly don’t approach this subject claiming any moral superiority over others, these are difficult questions in my own mind. I suppose most of my energy goes into living as simply as I can, and campaigning for ecology and fair trade, and promoting those things in my church and local community. Could I do more? Certainly. But better to do something than nothing.

  3. Anonymous says:

    OK, so in effect you are saying that you will continue to live your sheltered life which inevitably is built on the unhappiness of other people. You will continue to buy cheap clothes from ASDA, enjoy the warmth of your home, your car, your laptop, claiming that these are essentials, whilst someone would die in the 21st century because of thirst or hunger! I do wonder why you wrote this article then?! Damian

  4. noahdiary says:

    Damien, do you live in poverty in Africa, because if you challenge Pip to do that for challenging us, rightly to stop justifying our lifestyle in the West. If I buy fairtrade wine, I prevent a family working in a vineyard in South Africa being paid their wages in wine – maybe not in the short term, but in the long term when companies get that giving people fair wages for their work. I doubt if my family swapped places with a family trapped in poverty then they would be much better off here because they wouldn’t be able to have my husband’s job or my children’s places – they would simply be people having immigrated here and would not be treated as we are. Claire

    • Anonymous says:

      Claire, you wrote: “I doubt if my family swapped places with a family trapped in poverty then they would be much better off here because they wouldn’t be able to have my husband’s job or my children’s places – they would simply be people having immigrated here and would not be treated as we are.” I agree with you about the short-term implications. However, a generation later, these people (and their children) will have better opportunities and better lives. This, of course, is not a solution for various reasons. As a person living in the West, I feel that we expect to have good lives; we feel we are entitled to having good jobs, income, living conditions, etc. We don’t see it as a privilege, but as an entitlement. Also, it often feels that if someone makes a bad decision (due to greed or lack of wisdom) it is somebody else’s fault. For example, it’s not those young peoples’ fault that they go abroad in search of cheap alcohol and drink themselves to death. No, our media solely blames those who provide the cheap alcohol. This changes our perception of things and our perspective, I think. And another example. There are countries where there is no free medical care, no care homes, no charities, so very often people have to care about their ailing parents or relatives by themselves. As a result, especially women, cannot get married and have their own families, they cannot build up their own lives. This is their life. So, the perspective of these people is very different and we don’t even know about them, but I think we should.

  5. noahdiary says:

    I agree, I think we should get to know people – if we all got to know each other in this world then we would see we all very similar, with the same needs (not wants), I agree we don’t appreciate what we have here, which is why it was good when three of my children went to Africa, India and China, they got to know people there and see what life looks like for them, it helped my children to appreciate the education they have had (at state school) and the health care they can access.My son was ill in India and in the middle of the night there was no one to help him when he needed it because everyone brings their family in to take care of them and he had no family there and, in when I worked as a nurse in the West Midlands all the patients who had an Asian background had the whole family come at visiting times, bringing food in – despite food being provided in hospital, so, yes, I think a different perspective changes things considerably.
    Also, I do tend to think that societies that are dominated by men seem to treat women as less, and this is still true in lots of places in the West too.
    I think though, what you are saying is no different from what Pip was saying, but I think to say to Pip he has no right to say it unless he swaps places with someone is rather unfair, he just wants to challenge himself and us in our comfort, which is realistic and reasonable, swapping places with someone is just not realistic, sadly, if only it were so simple, maybe we could swap places with someone in Syria and allow them to some peace, security, health care and food. Claire

  6. Anonymous says:

    What is “rich” and what is “poor”? Are we only talking about monetary wealth, or are we talking about spiritual wealth? My grandmother is almost 90. Her pension is £30 per month, she has had a heart attack and only partially sees with one eye. She still insists on living independently in her house in a small village, and rarely asks for help. She grows her own vegetables and rears her own chickens. Whenever we visit, she always sends us back with flowers (picked from her garden), fresh eggs (from her own hens), herbs and vegetables (from her vegetable patch), and MONEY. Yes, it is not a lot but to her, it is an absolute fortune, and yet, she is “rich” enough to spare as a gift for her family. On the other hand, I know of elderly people in the UK who are quite a few years younger than my grandmother but depend on their children and children-in-law to take them out for coffee and shopping, to take them to the hairdresser, to satisfy every whim of theirs. They think of themselves as “poor” and “disabled” but seriously, compared to my grandmother, are they? Or is it just a matter of them having been spoilt by living a life in a country where everyone feels they are entitled to be looked after and cared for. Those children who made the trousers that sell for £3 at Asda may be richer spiritually than the children who end up wearing those trousers. Calling them poor and tossing a few pennies to them, and supporting some dubious schemes that claim to be benefiting them is, in my opinion, derogatory and humiliating. If we stop buying the cheap goods, will that give those children more opportunities, or would that cut off their only source of income? I find this stance of us being rich and helping the poor extremely arrogant and annoying, and very, very humiliating. Who do we think we are? We have money but that is just about all we have – we certainly do not have any moral superiority to decide what is right and what is wrong.

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