Yesterday I had the privilege to speak on the topic 'Faith and Wealth/Poverty' at Nanyang Girls' High School. The event was part of the school's participation in Tony Blair Faith Foundation's Face to Faith Lead School program, which facilitates students through issues pertaining to religion and contemporary society. I represented the evangelical-Protestant tradition alongside ambassadors from Sunni Islam, Roman Catholicism, Taoism, Hinduism, Sikhism, Sri Lankan Buddhism, and Bhutan Buddhism.
Each of us presented how our respective religious traditions approach the issue of wealth and poverty, and then followed by Q&A session from the floor. It was a rare event where I could learned from other religious leaders how they understand and deal with this issue.
My presentation revolved around 3 main points: First the origin of wealth, second the origin of poverty, and third the implications.
I started by pointing out that wealth needs 2 things in order to exist: Raw materials and people. Without both, it is impossible to have wealth. Then I went on to say that Christianity teaches that these two things are created by God (Gen. 1:1, 27). For this reason, subsequent generation that has inherited this idea from the Book of Genesis continued to develop an understanding that God is the origin, owner, and distributor of wealth (Ecc. 5:19, Deut. 8:18). Even our very ability to create wealth comes from God (Jas. 4:13-15).
Before I moved into the second point, I made a disclaimer to the audience that what I was about to say may be controversial. I told them that poverty is also given by God. This is what 1 Samuel 2:7-8 says:
"The Lord sends poverty and wealth; he humbles and he exalts. He raises the poor from the dust and lifts the needy from the ash heap; he seats them with princes and has them inherit a throne of honor."
The idea that God sends poverty to people may seem unthinkable, if not theologically disgusting. I understood this. But that is only one part of the picture. The other part lies in the fact that God raises the poor, lifts the needy, and seats them in places of honor. I told the audience that this may be the reason why God sends poverty to people: to build them up in honor. I gave example of rich people who do not pass down their substantial wealth to their children for the reason that they want their children to build their own life in a deserving and honorable way.
The presentation ended with Jesus' teaching in Luke 12:48 and Paul's exposition of it in 1 Timothy 6:7-10, 17-19.
The interesting thing about this event was that there were 2 representatives of Christianity: A Roman Catholic priest and me.
During the first round, the priest presented his view after me. In his presentation, he specifically mentioned that his Roman Catholic position is different from mine. He said that God does not give wealth to people as blessing because if He does, then God is unjust since wealth is only given to certain people while others are left in poverty. He emphasized that poverty is also not from God because making people poor is not a loving thing to do. God is loving, so He does not make people poor. Our differences can be simplified as follow:
Me: God is the origin and distributor of wealth and poverty. The wealthy and the poor are similarly accountable to God. The wealthy are commanded to share their wealth with the poor, while the poor are to build their life up in honor by honest work. And if the poor become wealthy, they are likewise to share their wealth with those who are still in poverty.I was actually quiet puzzled by the priest. He made no mention of either the Scripture or the Church tradition to support his point. When he talked about Jesus' parable of the sower, he made no connection with his position on wealth and poverty. The parable was alluded to talk about God's grace in loving people regardless of what people do or not doing for God.
The priest: God is not the origin and distributor of wealth and poverty. God doesn't give wealth to the poor because it is humiliating to the poor; it is like an arrogant rich man who thinks that he is superior to the poor, so he gives out of his superiority. And in return, the poor are to adore and grateful to the rich man. This is humiliating to the poor. God does not humiliate, therefore God doesn't give wealth to people. Likewise, God is loving, hence He doesn't give poverty to people too.
So in the second round, when I get to present after the priest, I took the opportunity to clarify that what I presented is not really in contrast with Roman Catholicism. It may be different from the priest's own view, but not the view of the Vatican.
I alluded to Pope Paul VI's encyclical Populorum Progressio which states that (with emphasis added), "In God's plan, every man is born to seek self-fulfillment, for every human life is called to some task by God." And I also pointed out Pope Benedict XVI's Caritas in Veritate that said (with emphasis added), "everything has its origin in God's love, everything is shaped by it, everything is directed towards it." I couldn't put it as eloquently as the Popes, but if I am not wrong, I think that wealth and poverty are part of everything which originated from God. Besides, this is also something the Scripture teaches (1 Sam. 2:7).
Then I mentioned that not all charitable deeds are motivated by arrogant-superior ego. For example, the Vatican has built an international portfolio worth £500million with commercial property in London, France, and Switzerland. And I don't think the Vatican has invested so much money to have their priests living in luxurious lifestyle, but to channel the funds into charitable work. Not all charitable work is humiliating. God's blessing the poor with wealth is not humiliating either.
The students asked many good questions in the formal Q&A session as well as the informal interaction time during lunch break. The first question from the floor was, "Is not our good deed a form of selfish pursue for after-life reward?"
My fellow panelists answered well from their own religious tradition. Many new things I have learned. In my own attempt for an answer, I said that Christianity teaches that our discipleship (i.e. how we live and behave) comes out from our gratitude to God, for what He has done for us (Col. 3:17). So doing good is not a selfish motivation to earn after-life reward. Nonetheless, we cannot dismiss entirely that we will be rewarded according to how we live and act in this life. For example, the parable of the rich man and Lazarus shows that what we do in this life has consequence to our after-life. Christians have to engage all the data found in the Bible to come to a comprehensive and balance view of things. However, the motivation part is clear, it is out of gratitude and not selfishness.
The second questioner asked how do we know what good deeds can a person from one religion to work together with those from other religions?
Again, my fellow panelists answered well. On my part, I said that the good is constantly under the threat of other ideologies. For example, there are Muslims in Malaysia that champion racism due to political forces at work, but my fellow panelist who represents Islam differs from them. Due to this, it is important for people from different religions to come together and discuss what is good in order to prevent the good from being distorted. And when we find out the shared good, then we can work on them together.
Many other questions were raised during lunch time by Christians and non-Christians: Is it true that Christianity condemns homosexuality? If wealth is originated and owned by God, then why doesn't He make everyone wealthy? Can Christianity accept the idea of Karma? What do you think of coversion to another religion? Can we believe and practice 2 or 3 religions, like Pi in the movie Life of Pi?
And the question that was most asked of me was this: Why Christians keep evangelizing to non-Christians? This question came to me at 3 different times by 3 different groups of students! How fascinating!
It was a very well organized event. The reception was cordial and the interaction was rich. The students were enthusiastic, articulate, and confident. This reflects well the school's stature as one of the top schools in the country.
The most valuable lesson that I have learned from the event was when a student came to me and said that she "hates Christians". Her antipathy was due to her observations of the church she grew up in. This is the reason why I think programs such as Face to Faith is so important because it is a platform not only for the youths to learn about religions but also an outlet to have their own opinion and sentiment expressed and made known. There is so much to learn from youths.