Avoiding extremes

Published January 1, 2000

I BELONG TO that small group of precise calculators who insist that Jan. 1, 2000, is not the beginning of the third millennium (who ever heard of a millennium ending after 999 years?), and therefore not the first year of the 21st century.

[ Michael Peers ]

But I will concede that Dec. 31, 1999, is the end of the decade called “the ’90s.”

And for what should the ’90s be remembered? I believe that it was the time when the gap between the rich and the poor widened more dramatically than in any other decade in the 20th century.

I recently read a commentary pointing out that in the first decade of the century the British introduced social legislation like the old age pension. Critics wailed that it would destroy the moral fibre of the country.

In the middle of the century, in an age of general prosperity, many of those programs became universal as we began to think that compassion could be extended as a right, not a condescension.

Now we see the social safety net being unravelled and a new attitude to wealth arise among our economic masters in which the poor are becoming expendable at the same time as their ranks expand, and the “middle classes” feel increasingly powerless.

Our Lord seemed not to have problems with the generating of wealth. He supported work and its adequate reward as a way of generating wealth ? “the labourer is worthy of his hire.” He told the parable of the talents in which those who used their money to make money were commended.

But the ’90s were the decade when public policy turned from rewarding the generation of wealth to rewarding its accumulation.

Wealth (money) is simply the capacity to do things and to choose what things you want to do (power), and we rightly and naturally strive for that capacity. But inordinate, accumulated wealth becomes inordinate power.

I have always thought that Jesus’ violent outburst against the wealthy, “It is easier for someone who is rich to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God,” was addressed to the hardening of the heart that so often accompanies the accumulation of wealth.

Moses addressed the temptation of the rich to equate wealth with virtue when he said, “Do not say ? ‘My power and the might of my own hand have gotten me this wealth.’ But remember the Lord your God?”

I love the prayer in Proverbs 30.8, “Give me neither poverty nor riches; feed me with the food that I need, lest I be full, and deny you, and say ‘Who is the Lord?’ or I be poor, and steal, and profane the name of my God.”

A cynic might say this is the ultimate middle-class prayer, and that of course someone like me would resonate with it. But I believe it to be a prayer commending the generation of wealth, and against, on the one hand, the accumulation of wealth, and on the other, destitution.

Is this sane prayer an option for the next decade? If the next decade continues to widen the divide between rich and poor, it can never be an option because ultimately only conflict can spring from that widening gulf.

I hope that the justice and the sanity of that prayer will prevail. Archbishop Michael Peers is Primate of the Anglican Church of Canada.


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