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 :