When (rich) Christians defend mammonism, the idea that Christians may or should be rich, they often include arguments that aren’t necessarily based on Bible study – such as the arguments I discuss in my God vs Wealth series – but rather in philosophy or economics. These are the sorts of arguments I tackle in my Why Wealth is Wrong series. You can also read my discussions on the economic argument and the mathematical argument.
The Bill Gates argument for why it’s OK to be rich is a variant of the mathematical argument that involves billionaires. Look at Bill Gates, the mammonist says, he’s so generous! He has his Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation that does so much good for the world’s poor. This is because Gates is the richest man in the world, with his net worth of 75 billion US dollars. His abundant wealth allows him to be abundantly generous, and thus he as a rich man should not be condemned but celebrated both for his skills in computer invention and business, and his philanthropy.
The problem with the argument is that it tries to eat the cake and give it away at the same time: wealth is good, because you can give it away. This is the same error as the mathematical argument makes. Saying that wealth is good because billionaires can give lots of money to the poor, is like saying that it’s good to be fat because then you can lose a lot of weight. It’s trying to rationalize a phenomena by arguing that you can get away from it.
The important question is really not how much Gates gives away, but how much he keeps. Since he is the richest man in the world, the numbers he give away will most definitely astound us, because he has a lot to give. However, he did buy a private jet for about 40 million dollars and a house for 63 million dollars. The latter includes a swimming pool with “underwater music”, and guests wear pins that adjust lightning, music and temperature in whatever room they enter.
Such luxury consumption should be viewed as outrageous by those who defend wealth by its ability to be given away to the poor, but this is not very common in my experience. On the contrary, billionaires’ luxury consumption is often defended by that they also give other portions of their wealth away. I was having a discussion with a friend about Kenneth Copeland, the televangelist who possesses a mansion worth six million dollars, several private jets and even an airport – Kenneth Copeland Airport – where he stores his jets close to his mansion. I said that this amount of wealth is unacceptable for a follower of Jesus, but my friend responded “don’t you know how much Copeland has given to missions and to the poor? He’s given millions of dollars!” My response was simply: “Not the millions of dollars he used to buy a mansion, an airport and private jets.”
Jesus once watched rich people lay down their generous gifts in the temple treasury, and after them a poor widow who donated two copper coins. He told His disciples “Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put in more than all the others. All these people gave their gifts out of their wealth; but she out of her poverty put in all she had to live on.” (Lk 21:3-4) What matters isn’t really how much you give but what you have left. That’s how God measures generosity. And frankly, I find no philosophical or economic objection to this definition of generosity. So God bless Bill Gates, but he could step up his generosity even more.