“If you don’t have a job and you’re not rich, blame yourself.” Thus says Herman Cain to the unemployed Wall Street protestors. I understand why he said it. He wants to live in a world where the American Dream works, where being optimistic and entrepreneurial and hard-working guarantees success. Cain wants for blame to be something that is distributed neatly and perfectly between individual people. This could be described as an ethic of individual responsibility.
In a different context, Cain credits God’s grace for his fortune: “As you get older, your faith gets stronger because of your own personal experiences where you know the only way you could have made it through some of those personal experiences was by the grace of God.” This way of understanding our dependence on God’s grace is often termed the doctrine of divine providence.
The question is whether these two belief systems are compatible. Can you say at the same time that people are individually responsible for their success or failure but then credit their success to the grace of God? I would argue that the humility of knowing your dependence on God’s grace ought to keep you from saying something like “If you’re not rich, blame yourself.” If you really believe that you stand on God’s grace, that means your work ethic, intelligence, and creativity are to God’s credit, not yours, which disqualifies using these qualities as a soapbox from which to judge other people. A lot of Christians want to get credit for the humility of believing in divine providence while retaining the right to judge others based on an ethic of individual responsibility.
John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, lived in a very different time than ours. He framed his entire theology around the concept of divine providence. His understanding of our dependence on God led him to believe that the rich were supposed to take care of the poor. Instead of saying, “If you’re not rich, blame yourself,” Wesley said, “If I die rich, blame me.” Here’s exactly how he put it in 18th century language: “If I leave behind me ten pounds [when I die]… you and all mankind bear witness against me, that I have lived and died a thief and a robber.” Wesley believed that there was nothing wrong with making money as long as you spent all of it helping the poor after “supplying thy own reasonable wants, together with those of thy family.”
In his sermon “The More Excellent Way,” Wesley explains that all wealth belongs to God and is given to those who have it for the purpose of taking care of others:
You may consider yourself as one in whose hands the Proprietor of heaven and earth and all things therein has lodged a part of his goods, to be disposed of according to his direction. And his direction is, that you should look upon yourself as one of a certain number of indigent persons who are to be provided for out of that portion of His goods wherewith you are entrusted.
Wesley assumed that being truly dependent on God’s grace meant seeing ourselves as “indigent persons” (poor). People who have money have the God-given responsibility to help those who don’t. If Christians lived according to Wesley’s vision, none of us would have financial security but it wouldn’t matter because everyone would trust God and lean on each other. When Wesley saw that members of his Methodist movement were adding small luxuries to their life as they increased their wealth, he ripped into them in his “Causes of the Inefficacy of Christianity”:
But you say, you can ‘afford’ it! O be ashamed to take such miserable nonsense into your mouths…. Can any steward ‘afford’ to be an errant knave? To waste his Lord’s goods? Can any servant ‘afford’ to lay out his master’s money any other wise than his master appoints him?
Wesley was utterly scandalized that anyone could spend more money than necessary on themselves. He contradicts the views of people like Herman Cain most squarely when he blames the rich among his followers for the plight of their poor brethren:
Many of your brethren, beloved of God, have not food to eat; they have not raiment to put on; they have not a place where to lay their head. And why are they thus distressed? Because you impiously, unjustly, and cruelly detain from them what your Master lodges in your hands on purpose to supply their wants!
Whereas today wealth is supposedly the measure of hard work and diligence, in Wesley’s sermon “The Mystery of Iniquity,” he writes that poverty is the greatest virtue:
As long as the Christians in any place were poor they were devoted to God. While they had little of the world they did not love the world; but the more had of it the more they loved it. This constrained the Lover of their souls at various times to unchain their persecutors, who by reducing them to their former poverty reduced them to their former purity. But still remember: riches have in all ages been the bane of genuine Christianity.
I’m sure that somebody will say Wesley was just an oddball and he certainly was, but his views on wealth and poverty are far closer to the norm of historical Christianity than our age’s view that wealth shows our virtue. For most of Christian history, poverty was idealized because it meant putting your full trust in God. Part of the difference between Wesley’s vantage point and ours is that he was writing in a time when the values of capitalism were only starting to replace the values of feudalism that had preceded them.
The glue that held the feudal order together was the doctrine of divine providence, the idea that everything in creation belonged to God and everyone had a place within this order. The king’s privilege and power were accompanied by an awesome responsibility for his subjects, each of whom had a certain acreage of land to tend for God and their king. If kings were not so easily corrupted by their power, then this order grounded in divine providence might have worked. Because divine providence was associated with the corruption of feudal Christendom, the presumptions that frame our secular society and free-market economy push in the entirely opposite direction.
The ethic of individual responsibility that people like Herman Cain are trying to make “Christian” is actually the core of the secular humanist response to feudal Christendom’s understanding of divine providence. It is secular to think of our wealth as something we’ve earned and can use how we please instead of seeing it as a gift from God to use for His purpose. It doesn’t mean anything to piously credit your fortune to “the grace of God” unless you really see it as an unmerited gift. So many Christians today want to talk one way when the topic is economics and another way when the topic is religion.
John Wesley really believed that God has given us everything we have to share with others. And while I don’t think we should return to feudalism, I do think that divine providence lays the foundation for a better world than the world of individual responsibility we have now. It’s also more honest. As Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 4:7, “What do you have that you did not receive? And if you received it, why do you boast as if it were not a gift?” Everything that we have ever accomplished is the result of skills and habits that were cultivated in us through the guidance of parents, teachers, and mentors over the course of our life. To falsely individualize our accomplishments is to mock all the people who have made us who we are and the God who has worked through all who helped us because He loves us. We are the product of a community investment in our success ordered by the “invisible hand” of divine providence.
In one sense, Herman Cain is right. As Christians, we shouldn’t blame anyone else if we’re not rich; we should instead thank God for sparing us the treacherous temptations of wealth. The richer we are, the more we should blame ourselves if people around us are suffering because we haven’t shared what God gave us to share with them. In truth though, “blame” shouldn’t be part of Christian vocabulary. Jesus took the blame on the cross so that we could simply be grateful as the foundation for everything we do with whatever God has given us to share.