Saturday, November 05, 2011

The Church's War on Filthy Lucre

John Sentamu, Archbishop of York, is the other highest-ranking cleric in the C of E. He is sometimes presented as a more reliable friend to theological conservatives than the brilliant but much-distracted Archbishop of Canterbury. This makes his piece in today's Yorkshire Post especially interesting, since he lashes out at the ultra-wealthy plutocrats who are so often admired by political conservatives.

Sentamu expresses his annoyance with the fact that FTSE 100 CEOs received average pay increases of nearly 50% last year, while the Western economy was in freefall. He argues that this is both illogical and socially destructive:

Top pay has been found to bear little or no relation to company performance, but even if it did, isn’t the performance of a company dependent on the work and well-being of all its staff?

Among the ill effects of very large income differences between rich and poor are that they weaken community life and make societies less cohesive.

No argument, but nothing new, either. We are more interested by Sentamu's prescription for change, which is that society should, basically, stop honoring the rich. Encourage (but don't require) people to make public the amount of tax they pay; don't give the Queen's Award to Industry to CEOs so much as to whole companies, and especially don't give it to people who are already rich.

On their face, these suggestions are laughably weak tea, but they move toward an important idea. Prestige, social status, "cool" -- these are all names for the same basic commodity, and it is extremely valuable. Prestige ranks with sex and money as one of the great motivators of human activity. Now, in life as we know, it these things are often companions; people with one have easier access to the other two. But there are exceptions. At least early in the game of life, the cool kid with no money has a better shot at the pretty girl than the well-off jerk.

So what if being rich weren't cool? That's what Sentamu seems to be proposing here. What if honor were not publicly held to accrue to wealth, but rather to, say, activities that improve society? It's utopian, but it could happen. As he observes, it wasn't that long ago that "honor" among the English (and French, and Italian) aristocracy meant killing each other in duels.

Of course, honor in society isn't all about wealth. Bill Gates may be richer than Steve Jobs ever was, but until he started his Foundation, there was zero chance he could ever be as cool. But let's be serious: each of these guys enjoys a social status unimaginable even to some otherwise remarkable people -- most Nobel prizewinners, for example, or virtually any serious artist. or, and this is closer to Sentamu's point, the people who actually do the science, engineering and labor that make Microsoft and Apple what they are.

Sentamu's ideas don't seem all that well thought through, but we think he's onto something.

There is nothing new about Christianity taking the side of the poor against the rich -- you are preaching on the Beatitudes this Sunday, aren't you? Take a look at the Anglo-Catholic Socialism website linked on the sidebar for another reminder, or remember that the cause of Archbishop Romero is still working its way through the Congregation.

And yet Archbishop Sentamu's essay follows by only two weeks a statement on global finance by the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace which has managed to offend many of the right people. (George Weigel dismissed it as "rubbish, rubbish, rubbish.") While we haven't had a chance to read the statement yet, we gather that it's a bit confused. Still, strong newsmaking public signs of what Christians know but other people forget -- the Church's concern for the poor -- are always welcome.

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