Marx, Paul, and Obama? A Comment on “Spreading the Wealth”

From each according to their ability, to each according to their need.”

                 Karl Marx

At the present time your plenty will supply what they need, so that in turn their plenty will supply what you need. Then there will be equality [fair balance, NRSV; or, equity], as it is written ‘He who gathered much did not have too much, and he who gathered little did not have too little” [quoting Exodus 16:18].

                  Apostle Paul, 2 Corinthians 8:14-15

The former quote has become quite popular in some circles since Barbara West quoted it when she asked Joe Biden a question about Obama’s supposed Marxism.

There is something quite healthy about Marx’s point. Indeed, there is something quite biblical about it…sort of. 

Paul writes something similar and even grounds it in God’s distribution of manna in the wilderness. When God distributes wealth (manna), he intends to supply the needs of the impoverished and those who have too much share what they have with those who have too little. God provides every blessing in abundance and blessed people scatter those gifts to the poor (2 Corinthians 8:8-9, quoting Psalm 112:9). God’s creative intent did not design poverty and the kingdom of God–whether Israel (Deuteronomy 15:4) or the Jesus community (Acts 4:34)–should have no needy among them.

Within the community of God this sharing is voluntary. Giving to the poor in both Israel and the Jesus’ community was a choice. It was not violently coerced. Marx, however, was willing to employ violence in his pursuit of economic justice.  In addition to the quote that heads this post, Karl Marx also said, “The last capitalist we hang shall be the one who sold us the rope.”

The kingdom of God, hopefully embodied in Jesus’ church, willingly and generously gives so that there is equity. This does not mean there is no private property or that some will not have more than others. Rather, it means that everyone has what they need. Disciples of Jesus share their wealth, sell their possessions to give to the poor, and announce good news to the poor. They do this out of the riches of the grace God has supplied rather than out of duty, threat, or coercion. Unfortunately, and admittedly too true of me, disciples often do not trust God sufficiently to share their abundant resources with the needy so that those who have too little have enough.

But we move too quickly when we say that it is purely voluntary. The Torah regulated Israel’s treatment of the poor.  It did not coerce lending to the poor, but there were legal protections for the poor and legal provisions for the needy that hindered and even restricted the open-ended growth of wealth. 

The law required the cancellation of debts every seven years.  This hindered the wealthy from exploiting the poor through interest rates and permanent indebtedness.  I wonder how many credit cards college students would receive in the mail if every seven years their debts were wiped clean. This legal provision regulated financial predators.  The return of the land to original families at Jubilee prevented the rich from unlimited wealth through the acquisition of property.  Generational wealth based on land ownership was limited. The Jubillee regulation was partly intended to hinder the acquisition of land to limitlessly enrich a particular family.

Israel’s example of how government can regulate wealth and protect the poor provides some fodder for discussion.  I tend to think unrestrained capitalism is a problem, but neither do I find socialism or Marxism particularly beneficient to the poor or a discouragement to elitist luxury.  Humanity is “naturally” (“by nature” through our sarx) evil, covetous, and greedy whether in a capitalist or socialist society.  

Yet, government, according to Romans 13, is ordained by God to protect the innocent and punish evil. Economic injustice, as the prophets of Israel make clear, is an evil. Given the systemic evil and greed within the structures of society (whether capitalist or socialist), I think government should play a role in restraining greed, pursuing economic justice [e.g., protecting the poor from predatory practices that prey upon their circumstances], and assisting the poor.

I am not a specialist in economics. In fact, I have no doubt that my ignorance is much greater than my knowledge. I wish I knew how to pursue economic justice in American culture. I know I don’t have the answers. I tend to think a restrained capitalism is the best system and can accomplish the greatest good for the poor, but I don’t feel myself qualified to determine whose economic policies, McCain or Obama, are best. I wish I knew though I believe both have a heart and interest in protecting the poor from exploitation.

I do not intend my blog to become a place for political partisanship. My interests are larger than the election of a particular President. I am not advocating for either on this issue. I can see it both ways and I am uncertain about which economic policy is best for the poor and growing the economy.

I am bothered by those who seem to think that only Obama cares for the poor or middle class.  I am bothered by those who will vote for McCain simply because they want to keep their money. I tend to think that McCain and Obama are fighting over a middle ground of some kind–protect the poor, assist the poor, but do not punish the wealthy simply because they are wealthy. 

I am not even an economic specialist when it comes to my own lifestyle.  I “tithe plus,” but it still seems inadequate to me.  I drive cars over 100,000 miles and don’t buy new cars.  I shop first at Goodwill.  But it still seems inadequate to me. I am rich…and I certainly don’t make anything near $250,000.  :-)

I suppose my point is this.  Disciples of Jesus share their wealth. Government has a function to punish evil, including restraining the evil of economic greed and injustice.  How that should play out is uncertain to my mind. I simply don’t know, but I don’t have to know.

What I think I know, however, is that disciples of Jesus spread their wealth around and give their gifts from God to the poor. This is my point, a reminder to myself and perhaps to others.

Whoever is elected, McCain or Obama, my allegiance to the kingdom of God means I will share my wealth with the poor. Whoever is elected, McCain or Obama, God will accomplish his will and continue to introduce his kingdom into the world. Whoever is elected, McCain or Obama, has little to nothing to do with the in-breaking of God’s kingdom.

P.S. Charitable giving by the candidates according to tax returns (where not all charitable giving is recorded, at least for my family).

McCain personally gave 26% of his income in 2007 and 18% in 2006 plus donating his book royalties since 1998 which totals almost $2,000,000.

Obama and his wife gave less than 1% from 2000-2004 but 5% in 2005 and 5.7% in 2006 (book deals gave the family increased income in the last few years).

Biden and his wife gave .03% in 2007 and .01% from 1998-2007.

Palin and her husband gave 3.3% in 2006 and 1.5% in 2007.



27 Responses to “Marx, Paul, and Obama? A Comment on “Spreading the Wealth””

  1. Profile photo of Matt Dabbs  mattdabbs Says:

    John Mark,

    I have been thinking about a few bits of this post over the last few weeks and you said it much better than I could have. I appreciate that. It is eye opening when you look at the dollar amounts and percentages of what the candidates for president and vice president are personally giving. It is appalling to me that someone can make hundreds of thousands of dollars and only give a few hundred dollars to charity. What is more all four of them claim to be Christians. In my opinion charitable giving is a real measure of priorities and what is on the inside. So this is not the sole issue deciding my vote but I have considered it.

  2.   Carisse Says:

    I think it could be pointed out that McCain could give 100% of his income to charity and still be married to one of the wealthiest people in the world and still own more houses than he could count.

  3. Profile photo of John Mark Hicks  John Mark Hicks Says:

    I deliberately resisted interpreting the data on charitable giving since I am certain I don’t know enough about any of them to make a judgment. Everyone has their reasons for what they give, how much they give, etc. And the data from income tax returns is certainly not the full story.

    I think it is better to look at those figures and reflect on my own giving, my own motives, and how I use my own money. I intend it as a call for all of us to look carefully at our own charitable giving and the divine intent that we should spread his gifts to us to others.

    At what percentage? Maintaining what assets? How many cars and homes? What should we sell and give to the poor? I don’t know…it is for each of us to decide in our own hearts. It is clear to me, however, that there is a serious call in Scripture to reject hoarding wealth and to priortize the poor. I feel so inadequate in my own handling of my gifts from God that I hesitate to do more than remind us of the call and encourage introspection of ourselves rather than others.

  4. Profile photo of Bobby Valentine  Bobby Valentine Says:

    This is a courageous post John Mark and I commend you for it. I think for the most part none of the politicians running can relate to the ordinary person … I cannot imagine 300 or 400 thousand a year of Biden much less the millions of McCain and Obama. what we do with our money is a very spiritual commitment … I am challenged on multiple levels by this post. I am sure lawyers do not count as charitable giving …

  5. Profile photo of John Mark Hicks  John Mark Hicks Says:

    Presently Bobby has an extended post on the care for the oppressed and impoverished at his blog that gives a fuller biblical backdrop to “spreading the wealth” in God’s world and redeemed community.

  6.   Stan Says:

    Great thoughts. Thanks for sharing these helpful insights.

  7.   weswoodell Says:

    Good post, good thoughts.

    Thanks for sharing the info on the candidate’s charitable giving. That’s pretty telling, huh?

  8. Profile photo of Matt Dabbs  mattdabbs Says:

    I agree that self-examination is important but I also think it is important to examine someone with quite a bit of scrutiny before you vote for them, whether it be McCain or Obama. There are certainly more important issues than this one but there seems to me to be a disconnect when one of the candidates wants to “spread the wealth around” when it comes to everyone else but then doesn’t even give that much personally when it comes to charitable donations. Seems like if Obama really thought the poor were that important that he might actually do something personally to help. I know I am making some assumptions there but I think it needs to be said. Sorry if I am off base. It is the classic case that they know what is best for us but would never put up with doing it themselves.

  9.   K. Rex Butts Says:

    I had never heard that about Karl Marx hanging the last capitalist who sold the rope. I admit that made me laugh a bit — though I am fully opposed to hanging people.

    —-

    Wonderful post! America has had how many years of Democrat and Republican? And yet economic injustice remains the same. One side believes that economic wealth will trickle down but some how by the time that flow reaches the least among the world their is not even enough to satisfy one person. The other side parades itself as being for the common man (that is, the middle class) but the middle class still sits at the top of the food chain when the entire scope of the world is taken into consideration.
    So who will care for the poor? I am called to task, you are called to that task, and so is everyone else who professes the name of Christ. And there lies our challenge. Because that call demands we remove ourself as the focal point of our concern. This is what bothers me about the Presidential election… it seems to be about our concern and not the concern for others.
    Nevertheless, I struggle everyday with being a person of economic justice. How much do I give? How much do I retain to care for my wife and children? What is the difference between a need and want? Is there ever any shades of gray between need and want?
    Thank you for this post!

    Grace and peace,

    Rex

  10.   Brian Says:

    First, from a practical standpoint, socialism on a widespread scale does not work. Socialism in a small, isolated community might work, but when you have socialism on a national level, it devolves into communism. Whether it is the communist Soviet Union to Cuba 90 miles from the state of Florida, the 20th century is full of examples of how socialism does not work. as an ideal, yes socialism is appealing becuase everyone is treated the same. However, just because you eliminate the mechanism (capitalism) that feeds greed does not mean you can eliminate the naturaly human inclination toward greed. Suddenly, those in power are the only ones able to satisfy their greed.

    When socialism devolves into communism, the poor are not lifted up to a point where their needs are met. Rather, the middle class is forced down into equality with the poor so that the number of poor vastly increases rather than decreasing. Meanwhile, the assets confiscated from those with “ability” are not given to those in need, but are taken and used by a small, elitist ruling class.

    From a spiritual standpoint, I would like to make a couple of observations. You referenced Acts 4:34 which says “There were no needy persons among them.” This “them” is one of a series pronouns and when one looks for the noun modified by the pronoun, you end up back in verse 32 which refers to “All the believers.” In fact, the actual examples of giving in the Acts and epistles seem to be for the benefit of fellow believers.

    This is confirmed by the very passages cited from the Old Testament. Jews were not allowed to profit and accumulate vast wealth at the expense of fellow Jews and others living in Israel, that is, citizens of the kingdom. As a type for the kingdom of God, it makes sense that the early Christians’ first responsibility seemed to be directed to fellow members of the Kingdom. I don’t deny that the C of C has become very middle class. We need to do a better job of becoming economically diverse and meeting one another’s needs, but I’m not sure how far outside the kingdom our responsibility to the poor extends.

    I also notice that most discussions regarding “economic justice” in the New Testament neglect the words to the Thessalonians. In verse 4:11 of the first letter, the Thessalonians are told to work with their own hands and not be dependent on anybody. This admonition comes after a commendation for the love they have shown to all the Macedonian brothers. The admonition is even stronger in verse 3:10 of the second book where the Thessalonians are told that a man who will not work will not eat. The writer declares that nothing was eaten without payment in order to set an example that no one should be idle. Those that are idle are commanded to earn the bread they eat.

    From my standpoint, the practical and spiritual considerations I have laid out in this limited forum lead me to conclude that giving should be done upon a voluntary basis. The Jews had compulsory laws favoring the poor and they were no more spiritual for the laws because they were not followed. Government compulsion of sharing with the poor does not bring about the heart that God desires any more than the sacrifice of a lamb brought about the heart desired by God. And government compulsion of sharing ultimately fails in the goal of helping the poor because it only creates more poor.

  11. Profile photo of John Mark Hicks  John Mark Hicks Says:

    Thanks for posting, Brian. Here are a few comments to consider.

    My post was not an argument for or against socialism. Also my post identified Acts 4 as referencing the community of Jesus. Galatians 6:10 can also be read as prioritizing the community of faith. So, I have no problem with that. But Gal. 6:10 also says to “do good to all people” and even the collection for the saints given to Jerusalem benefited more than the saints themselves (cf. 2 Corinthians 9:13).

    “Poor” should not be read as equal to lazy, idle or slothful. Rather, biblically, it refers to those who experience need due to circumstances or economic injustice. There are poor who do not fit the circumstances of 1 Thessalonians which is about idleness due to eschatological expectations.

    I think I stated that the biblical call is voluntary. But I don’t think we can ignore or neglect the function of government to punish evil, including economic injustice. Israel’s laws were, in fact, a way of bearing witness to the kingdom of God that should also bring light to the nations (including our own nation). It won’t bring about the heart of God any more than punishing a murderer will do so, but it will protect and assist the poor which is the heart of God.

    Ultimately, my concern in the post was not political but personal. It is a reminder that “sharing the wealth” is a means by which God manifests his kingdom in his community and in the world. “Sharing the wealth” is voluntary but economic justice for the poor is also a governmental function and something Christians should voice in their communities as well as in the world.

  12. Profile photo of Adam Metz  Adam Metz Says:

    Political posts are sure to get a few responses! Thanks for sharing Dr. Hicks. In my ministry setting this year, I have found it more difficult than ever to sail the tide through politics. I was raised in a liberal setting (politically). Thought everyone was until I found myself on the outside looking in at Lipscomb and everyone assumed things about my ideology which didn’t jive. As a minister, I find myself often in the minority in that perspective. The idealist here may choose to encourage a move past those polarization, but the fact of the matter is that they are both there, and have always been there, and stated in that is probably the fact that both perspectives have a great deal of truth and significance. As a result, I find myself often over-stating my case in hopes that another perspective can be heard. Especially challenging in a ministry setting. Surprisingly, not often popular in churches for some reason.

    We Christians must be prepared to live out our call in utter faithfulness and dependence upon God. I appreciate in the above posts the struggle that I have in my own world – being content, learning to take care, not just financially, but holistically, of the other. If only we would get as excited about taking care of others in practice as we do in rhetoric (especially on the national political platform). Think of all the people we could help if we used the money spent on political ads on television (and in Ohio, you wouldn’t believe how many there are!) The church must be a place that permeates through the ideological polarization that is happening in our country. Unfortunately, more often than not, we simply proliferate it. Whether it’s James Dobson and his crusade for Christ in the Right or countless African American churches and their rallying for the Left. Unity is more essential than ever. The last thing Christ would want is the public bickering among churches and Christian leaders.

    I see two great opportunities for hope right now in our churches. One is finding a renewed sense of unity among our churches. In the midst of a raucously divided country, what solace would there be in a group of vastly different people rallying around the Crucified Christ?! And two, in a world of economic instability, what an opportunity for the church to be a great place of stability and peace. A world of simplicity. The renewal taking place in theology finding hope in communal living and a renewed interest in ecology and food. Holistic theology has a bright future in the postmodern world and the world is hungry for it!

  13. Profile photo of John Mark Hicks  John Mark Hicks Says:

    Thanks, Adam. I appreciate your extended comment.

    It is a shame that the kingdom of God is divided by politics and that some believe their political agenda is practically identical with the kingdom agenda or those they oppose are outside the pale of the kingdom.

    I would prefer a sentiment that there is neither Jew nor Gentile, male nor female, Republican nor Democrat in the kingdom of God. That does not mean we cease being Gentiles (or Jews), males (or females), or ….., but it does mean that these do not shape the identity of the kingdom.

    There are many issues about which kingdom people should be concerned about …. abortion…. economic justice… racial injustice… etc., etc. And, in my opinion, there is no idealistic total package available…if there ever could be. Christians themselves disagree how best to proceed, and thus Christians are both Republicans and Democrats, and vote differently. So be it.

    But if the church is to be a peaceful, stable, simple and just place, then it must proclaim kingdom values irrespective of whether they line up with Republicans or Democrats. And the kingdom of God, I hope all agree, cannot be identified with either the Republican or Democratic parties…or any other political party.

  14.   rich constant Says:

    Well I’ve been thinking again,
    John Mark hear something that would be easy to do and I think quite practical and it would be “doing”.
    Let’s just say there’s 50 guys here reading the blog.
    Every guy has an address all over the world.
    and every guy makes a check out once a week and sends you five dollars,
    and every week you send a checkout to one of the 50 guys for $250 to use as they see fit.
    might be a fun way of starting a personal work.
    i could think of a lot of things.

  15.   caleb Says:

    I appreciate so much your call to think about the ways in which we use our money. While God wants a voluntary giver, I believe it to be a command (Matt 25), if not in the traditional way, then at least in the way of the C o C of command by apostolic example.
    I think its great that the presidential candidates give of their money at all. I am sure they both give more than goes reported on their taxes. My standard for giving must be at their level, preferably higher.

    I also echo your statements that our responsibility for giving extends beyond our own flock. If we just take care of the people in our family, how are we any different than a pagan? More children die each day from lack of clean water than by all other means put together. As a people of faith, who follow Christ command to care for the little ones, how do we not see our responsibility to step in and help? Excuses that our responsibility extends only to our own flock show a cold heart, especially considering so many in our brotherhood are princes living in castles when compared to so many of our brothers living south of the border.
    Thank you again for your encouragement and your call for us to re-think how we use our money.

  16.   Doug Hall Says:

    While I deeply appreciate Obama’s concern about helping those who are weak and poor and encouraging all of us to redistribute our own wealth to help others, I still have a disconnect with those who on one hand would stand up for the helpless and on the other would approve of allowing the aborting of the most helpless among us. It does not make moral or ethical sense to me. At the same time I am distressed by wars that seem to be fought over economic issues and having candidates that are all about protecting our money. I am so discouraged during this political season. I honestly do not know what I will do when I enter the booth on Tuesday. May the Father help us through this time and work on the hearts and in the lives of those who are elected.

    Blessings,
    Doug

  17. Profile photo of John Mark Hicks  John Mark Hicks Says:

    I, too, appreciate Obama’s concern though I don’t appreciate his recent equation of anti-socialism with selfishness. I appreciate McCain’s pro-life advocacy though I don’t appreciate his recent emphasis on associations.

    I have no interest in persuading anyone either way. I believe neither represent the kingdom of God–neither are all good or all evil. The election season is a mixed bag, as it always is. And…I might add…so are churches. : -)

    The future does not rest in who wins this election. The future rests in the hand of God. Cliche? Yes, but true…I think.

  18.   laymond Says:

    This only tells who took full advantage of tax deductions, so they would pay less taxes, not how much each gave to those in need. and Mr. Hicks mentioned that himself. I think we should be careful here before we hang the collar of judgment around one’s neck, because they do not take advantage of those deductions.

    P.S. Charitable giving by the candidates according to tax returns (where not all charitable giving is recorded, at least for my family).

    McCain personally gave 26% of his income in 2007 and 18% in 2006 plus donating his book royalties since 1998 which totals almost $2,000,000.

    Obama and his wife gave less than 1% from 2000-2004 but 5% in 2005 and 5.7% in 2006 (book deals gave the family increased income in the last few years).

    Biden and his wife gave .03% in 2007 and .01% from 1998-2007.

    Palin and her husband gave 3.3% in 2006 and 1.5% in 2007.

  19.   rogueminister Says:

    Im glad Im not the only one who has been thinking about this. As Matt said, thanks John Mark for writing this as it is articulated better than I would be able to do.

    I hope the church catches on to the importance of giving, especially sacrificial giving, regardless of what the nation does.

  20. Profile photo of Philip Cunningham III  Philip Cunningham III Says:

    Thanks for your reflections, Dr. Hicks. They’re always thoughtful & thought-provoking

  21.   rich constant Says:

    My wife used to belong to a small C.O.C. group on the internet. She still has emails sent to her and this came on Sunday. She thought it was worth posting as it’s “so unlike we are here”, and thought it was a perfect example to our conversation.

    “We had a humbling sermon this past Sunday. One of our mission churches in Africa heard of the damage caused by Hurricane Ike in our area. They took up a special contribution to help us. Their regular weekly contribution is 18K Ugandan shillings. In addition to that, they raised 36,250 Uganda shillings just for us. That equates to $21.96. This is from a country where the average cost of living a day is $1.00. Many of these Ugandan members likely went without a meal or two for this gererousity. It is humbling that a congregation with little material wealth has so much spiritual richness. It reminds me of words from the Apostle Paul, “they gave out of their poverty.”

    We plan do follow the example of the 5 loaves and two fishes – give this to the Lord so that it may multiply. It is our prayer that the $21.96 gift from Uganda will be the seed to multiply many fold to help the congregation in Galveston which was heavily damaged by Ike (and which serves as a food distributor for the homeless in Galveston).”

  22.   Brian Says:

    Rich,

    I would like to know more about this donation and who it is being given to. Please contact me off the blog.

    berg_11@hotmail.com

  23.   rich constant Says:

    Brian,

    In case what I wrote is confusing to others, this is not our church, nor do I know which church it is exactly. This was sent to me via email from a small group I used to belong to. What I have in quotations is what the person had written, so what it says is all I know. Hope that helps. Guess this is what happens when you write in under your husband’s screen name. Should have stayed in my own space. :)

  24.   rich constant Says:

    PRESIDENT ELECT OBAMA…..

    A GREAT SPEECH….

    AT 61 YEARS OLD…

    I KNOW POLITICAL TALK IS CHEEP…

    I WILL PRAY FOR CHANGE…

  25.   rich constant Says:

    P.S.

    GOOD CHANGE

    HE DOES HAVE A GOOD SPIRTIAL ADVISER????

    RIGHT JOHN MARK … I WOULD THINK THAT YOU WOULD KNOW OF HIM OR KNOW HIM…..

    BLESS US ALL, LORD
    THE SALT OF THE EARTH …
    MY BROTHERS.
    RICH…..

  26.   John Says:

    “…economic justice for the poor is also a governmental function…”

    Hello John Mark. Do you have a New Testament text that teaches this is ‘a governmental function’? I had always understood the Torah to be civil and religious, whereas the NT was never intended to be a civil law. Your thoughts….

    • Profile photo of John Mark Hicks  John Mark Hicks Says:

      My thinking would be rooted in Israel as a model of how God uses human structures/regulations to protect the poor. Israel was a witness to the nations, including a witness about economic justice within the ANE culture Israel existed. It provided a redemptive model for society.

      The church, of course, is not a geo-political reality. But the economic–as well as other–principles are applicable to the church (as Paul himself applied such to the church in 2 Cor 8-9).

      While the church is not a geo-political entity, the principles of justice in the Torah and Prophets are still applicable to governmental entities as they were intended as a witness to the nations even then.

      That would be my opinion, at least. :-)

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