Stolen Goods: The Myth of Financial Sovereignty

You deserve a break today." "God rewards faithful followers with prosperous living." "I earned it; I deserve to enjoy it." Whether a corporate jingle, smarmy phrases from a fundamentalist preacher, or our own ego justifying a comfortable lifestyle, the concept that financial resources that come our way— through employment, inheritance, or gambling in the stock market—are ours to use as we choose, is widely accepted. But if all wealth derives ultimately from God’s creation and is therefore common property, and if God loves and valsupues all people equally, does it not behoove us who accrue more than our fair share to redistribute our wealth in a globally equitable manner?

Whose creation is it, after all? I’m a believer in geologic and evolutionary forces when it comes to explaining the creation of the universe. But I also believe that God (which I define as the Great Spirit of Goodness and Love) animates creation and thus imbues all creatures with a measure of sacred goodness. Traditional people worldwide have acknowledged this condition for millennia by honoring the spirit in animals and plants before they consume them and by periodically redistributing wealth among humans (through potlatches, jubilees, etc.) to maintain social harmony and right relations with God’s creation. Even atheists will probably agree that since we humans did not create the natural world from which we all derive our wealth, it’s not our prerogative to consume and pollute our planet cavalierly.

If we accept that God intends that creation be used as a global commons to sustain all creatures equitably, then the idea of amassing wealth beyond our fair share becomes abhorrent. Anyone who has studied statistics knows that in distributions that are highly skewed (such as wealth accumulation), the median is far more representative of central tendency (average) than is the mean. After searching for this elusive statistic for over a decade, I’ve concluded that the current global median income is about $1,500 per person per year. Since presumably everyone who reads Friends Journal has an annual income above this level, and since wealth is even more highly skewed than income, we’re all excellent candidates for Sr. Marie Augusta Neale’s theology of relinquishment— a liberation theology for the "first world," which she fleshed out at Harvard Divinity School 40 years ago. It states that the liberation that the wealthy side of global equity seeks requires merely that we voluntarily relinquish our portion above the equity level to organizations such as our own Right Sharing of World Resources (RSWR), which exist to implement just such a wealth transfer.

While I strongly affirm this logical complement to the moral suasion of Dom Helder Camara and other liberation theologians, I go one step further. In my view, through colonial legacies, through a series of global trade rules rigged to favor those in the overdeveloped world who devised those rules, and through a common acceptance of the idea that progress and success are best served by the unexamined embrace of high-tech wizardry in the service of unbridled capitalism, crimes against both traditional people and the web of life that their collective wisdom reveres render the wealth that flows unjustly and inexorably to global elites such as myself to be essentially stolen goods. And thus the return of said stolen goods is not a magnanimous act of charity but simply the bare minimum expectation of humanity’s social contract; when wealth flows to you above and beyond your fair share, you return that wealth to its rightful owners. Instead of attempting to absolve ourselves of blame for complicity in this global crime (which is committed often against our wishes and to our chagrin, but of which we all sheepishly and willingly accept the lifestyle-enriching benefits), I suggest that we are not helpless victims of a systemically evil behemoth; I suggest that we have the opportunity to mitigate our ethical dissonance by embracing a minimalist lifestyle, returning the stolen goods as a token retribution for the crimes, and dedicating ourselves to supporting global injustice organizations like American Friends Service Committee (AFSC) that are attempting to address the structural systems that perpetuate the normalcy and societal acceptance of these crimes. Is this an invitation to social insanity—a fool for Christ? Yes, it is. But I, for one, would consider it an insult to be deemed sane by a society whose values of progress, success, and affluence I reject.

Do I earn (and therefore deserve) my wealth? Let’s examine the three sources I listed in the first paragraph:

  • Employment: I work less than half as hard as the typical African farmer (whom my wife and I observed firsthand during our five years there); yet, my $10-per-hour wage is five times that farmer’s daily wage. To my ears, that sounds more like theft than earning.
  • Inheritance: Most of us would agree this is not earned. A revealing United States statistic recently cited an 8,000:1 ratio of wealth disparity between white and black women aged 65, and 95 percent of it was attributed to inheritance, which simply serves to perpetuate privilege. No one is pointing a gun at our heads demanding that we accept inherited wealth.
  • White-collar gambling (a.k.a. stock market winnings): Is anyone bold enough to call this earned? Likewise usury (a.k.a. interest) on bank accounts or money lending, which Bible- thumping preachers would be wise to note is roundly condemned in their sacred book. Gospel means good news, but it’s only going to sound like good news to those on the underside of the global opulence scale.

So let’s stop being victims, Friends. Instead, let’s return the stolen goods that flow unjustly our way (through RSWR) until we achieve parity with our global siblings. Then let’s join AFSC and retool the global structure that systemically generates the stolen goods in the first place.

Chuck Hosking

Chuck Hosking, a member of Harare (Zimbabwe) Meeting, lives in Albuquerque, N.Mex.