I recently sent out an email about Solzhenitsyn to a Christian campus group. Two people replied. The following post includes one of those replies, and the email I wrote in response.
Original email from Jan 21, 2008 11:58 AM
That author wrote,
"If humanism were right in declaring that man is born to be happy, he would not be born to die. Since his body is doomed to die, his task on earth evidently must be of a more spiritual nature. It cannot unrestrained enjoyment of everyday life. It cannot be the search for the best ways to obtain material goods and then cheerfully get the most out of them. It has to be the fulfillment of a permanent, earnest duty so that one's life journey may become an experience of moral growth, so that one may leave life a better human being than one started it. It is imperative to review the table of widespread human values. Its present incorrectness is astounding. It is not possible that assessment of the President's performance be reduced to the question of how much money one makes or of unlimited availability of gasoline. Only voluntary, inspired self-restraint can raise man above the world stream of materialism. " [Eve's note: This is a quote from Solzhenitsyn's speech at Harvard].
I agree that the point of life is NOT to simply be happy. However, I don't agree with how he characterizes "a more spiritual nature" or purpose of life. Monetary/financial sustenance is not the most important part of life, and materialism is certainly not a good thing. However, in the act of surrendering some of this that we think is our own for the sake of others we actually perform what theologian John Howard Yoder calls "the messianic ethic." It is our job as those blessed with such material blessings to surrender our attachment to them--and our insistence on attachment to them.
To me, this translates politically into some different things than this conservative political coalition promotes. For example, it suggests the need for more of individuals' income to go to redistribution to those who need it more. It suggests the need for more positive resources that promote health and wellbeing (physically, socially and financially) in needy communities. It suggests the need for sacrificial love in the name of a Savior. Principally BECAUSE materialism is not our singular focus, we need to be willing to dispense with the scarce resources that we have been entrusted (temporarily with) only because of God's grace.
And here's my response...
Good to hear what you are thinking.
I don't think you need the "however" in your third sentence. The concept from Yoder that you give -- the Messianic ethic -- coincides with Solzhenitsyn's philosophy.
In other writings (the Archipelago series), Solzhenitsyn describes two of the various types of brigade leaders he saw during his time in the Gulag -- the Soviet concentration camp system. (A brigade was a group of 20 or so "sloggers" carrying out slave labor in these camps). One type of brigade leader made full use of his status and authority to drive his brigade to death. He used their meager food allotments in the way that benefited him most. He showed no mercy to the men under him, but selfishly used them or neglected them, as he wished. If he succeeded in getting more work out of his brigade than another leader could, he would be commended and rewarded. And the men on the brigade, if worked to death, could always be replaced.
Another type of brigade leader knew the camp system so well that he could advise the people under them in order to save their lives. In many cases the people who worked for this type of leader believed in him fully and regarded his advice as the words of God. This type of brigade leader knew that the daily amount of work demanded from each brigade was impossible to meet, and so would not strain the brigade to reach impossible goals.
The first type of brigade leader was working to save his own skin. The second type of leader was risking his skin for the men in his brigade. What did the first type of leader risk? Nothing. Graft and theft were the guiding principles in the Gulag, and thieves rose to the top of the ranks since their ideologies coincided so well with the camp philosophy. What did the second type of leader risk? If he was found out, he could lose all his authority and end up as a slogger himself. Or they were countless other, worse punishments he could face.
Solzhenitsyn gives actual names of both types of leaders. He speaks bitterly of the first type of leader, but heaps praise on men who served as the second type of leader. During his time in prison he personally saw men who rose above the drive of materialism to find the kind of spirituality that truly causes a man to think of another man before himself.
Being like Christ is more than just denying yourself. It's also taking up your cross. I believe the second type of brigade leader that Solzhenitsyn describes did both of those things. For a Christian following this brand of anti-materialism it's more than just saying, "I won't stockpile things." It's saying -- "this life is not all about me and my wants. It's about loving God and loving other people." Giving up things isn't enough. One has to actively seek God's will, and sacrifice one's own selfish desires SO THAT God would be glorified. I know only too well from my own experiences that I can proudly give up something -- really sacrifice -- but pollute that kind of sacrifice by not seeking God's glory through it.
On your last paragraph, the one thing I keep in mind as I approach the question of redistribution is that forced redistribution of wealth is entirely different from individuals voluntarily giving their own possessions or resources to others. (As an aside, what "conservative political coalition" are you referring to?)
In the New Testament, there's amazing examples of people selling a piece of their own property and donating it to the church, for people in need. There's even examples of congregations pooling their resources and living communally. But in these examples, Christians were willingly giving up some portion of their possessions. There is no Scriptural basis for the forced redistribution of wealth, whether the church or the state is the one forcing the redistribution.
As I see it, there's a chasm between the free gift of a heart devoted to God and the seizure of a wealth person's property in order to give it to a needy person. After all, God loves a cheerful giver.
If God was in favor of forced redistribution, the story of the Good Samaritan would be completely different. In fact, there would be no Good Samaritan. (After all, that Samaritan was probably middleclass anyway. Why should he have to pay the entire bill alone when there's so many more wealthy people that could bear the burden together?) Instead of strapping a single person with out-of-pocket fees, taxpayer funds in the form of socialized medicine could be used to transport the mugged man and cover his hospital fees.
While the mugged man is treated and cared for in both the original version and my modification above, the moral of both versions are completely different. Christ's original story demonstrated love: one person caring for another person willingly and wholeheartedly. In the second example, there's no love. Money is stripped from people against their will and used in circumstances they have no control over. They can hardly be credited with helping another person, because they have been left out of the decision-making process altogether. The help the mugged guy receives is entirely impersonal, and so once he gets out of the ICU he doesn't even face the necessity of a thank you note. (He might even resent the fact that the peas they served him were cold twice. TWICE!).
Where's the love, and the blessing in a system of forced redistribution of wealth? In such a system, no individual is motivated by love to give to a needy person, and no individual receives a blessing from God for willingly helping someone else.
Instead, such a system builds resentment. For the wealthy person, there's resentment because what he owns is being taken from him against his will and used without his permission. Whether he's worked to gain his money, or gotten it through his parents (or the lotto, or whatever!), he's going to be riled that someone else has control over what was once his. For the person who receives the money that was forcefully taken, there's little reason to be content. So the goal of the forced redistribution of wealth is equality. This pretty much gives me a license for discontentment until that final day when everyone in the world has the exact same amount of money (but then we'll have to start equalizing everyone's access to plastic surgery!). Even if such a system was foolproof, there would be a whole lot of resentment along the way. Say there were 7 billion people in the world, and 6,999,999,999 of them had 10 bucks. That last guy (named Butch) has 11 bucks. Who's content in such a scenario? Certainly not the 6,999,999,999 people with 10 bucks: Butch has more money than them! And certainly not Butch: he wanted the world's currency to be in pesos!
Anyway, forcefully redistributing wealth cannot be the solution to man's discontentment, because even if the dollars had come out right and all 7 billion people in the world each had 10 bucks, why should anyone be content with just 10 lousy bucks? Wouldn't at least one person covet his neighbors' 10 bucks? And might someone be envious of something else his neighbors owns -- say, his ability to speed read?
I'm not sure that the answer is to "dispense" with wealth. Rather, the Godly way to deal with wealth is to steward it -- Scripturally invest, donate, or spend it! When the master gave money to his servants, the servant who garnered the most praise carefully invested the money. He didn't just fling it out into the courtyard! It can sometimes be harder to give away money judiciously than to have no money to give away!
Also, materialism is not confined to wealthy people. (And how can "wealthy" be defined? Someone with more money than I've got?) A rich person can focus on the things they have or the things they want, but so can a poor person. It's sobering to realize how universal sin is, and that the love of money that's the root of all evil can grow deep in the hearts of all of us.
No man-made system can stifle evil or satisfy anyone permanently. Any political system that sets itself in defiance of God's truth, is destined to fail. For an example, read Solzhenitsyn's full account of life in the USSR from the inside. He lived in the crucible where Marx's and others' ideas were tried, and millions of lives later, found wanting. Only God can address our heart-level covetousness and need. It's through Jesus Christ that we can resist the temptation to covet, and instead, to love.
There are many, many passages in Scripture that encourage us as Christians to feed, clothe, remember the chains, pray for, and visit those around us that are in need. Through God's love, we can find the strength to do these things.
Of course, the world can't understand such love! Because it can't understand God -- who is love! The best substitute the world can find for love is compulsion.