Contra Dave Ramsey or, Sts. Basil the Great and John Chrysostom’s Secrets to Wealth

DSC02094A fair warning: This is going to be one of my harsher posts. I’ve given this time in order to go back and edit to cool it down, but sadly I think this is as tame as I can make my thoughts. I’m against false teachers who parade around as Christian leaders, but then offer damaging advice that contradicts Scripture. I have a heart for the poor and oppressed, so when these false teachers – such as Dave Ramsey – take a low view of the poor and oppressed, it makes it difficult for me to treat the subject lightly and with charity. For that, I apologize if my anger shines forth and ruins the message. 

I’m a little late to the Dave Ramsey controversy, but that’s quite intentional. Rather than being another reactionary voice, I wanted to take my time to form an opinion. Besides, my issues with Ramsey go deeper than the controversial repost of “20 Things the Rich Do Everyday.” Rachel Held Evans does a pretty decent job of debunking Ramsey’s post anyway, so there’s not much need for me to touch that whole issue.

What is more concerning is how conservative evangelical Christians, specifically those who follow Ramsey, are obsessed with obtaining wealth. What Ramsey says about credit card debt and getting out of debt is certainly helpful, but outside of these very practical and common sense approaches, much of what Ramsey says is useless and wrong. He preaches that we ought not be indebted to anyone, which is mostly true. It makes no sense to use credit to acquire stuff; the TV, the couch, and other items can be part of a savings plan. When you pay interest on non-capital producing or non-essential items, it just doesn’t make sense. Getting away from such spending and debt is one thing that Ramsey really gets right.

With that out of the way, Ramsey is apparently woefully ignorant of what it means to be poor – or even middle class – in America. Such an offense is forgivable, of course, and to be expected from someone who has been rich most of his life. However, Ramsey takes his approach to wealth a step further and attempts to say that his methods and teachings are Biblically justifiable, and that to contradict him is to contradict Scripture itself. To hold a different economic theory yet claim Christ, to Dave, is to be a “Christian.” Those with English as their first language understand that to put the word Christian in quotations is to imply that those who claim the title of Christian aren’t really Christians, they’re “Christians.”

My brother taking Ramsey to task before it was cool, making Jon the hipster critic.

My brother taking Ramsey to task before it was cool, making Jon the hipster critic.

In fact, if you teach people not to be successful, or that the Bible might imply that some are called to poverty, not only are you a “Christian,” but you’re a loser.

Screen Shot 2013-12-31 at 11.28.55 AMTheologically, Ramsey is simply wrong. The Bible is full of Scripture that displays one very universal truth: God is with the poor. Notice how in the story of the Rich Man and Lazarus, it is poor Lazarus who goes to Heaven while the Rich Man (who neglected Lazarus) goes to Hell. The Rich Young Ruler was proven a hypocrite because he would not depart with his wealth. Jesus even admits to being homeless in his ministry. Proverbs 14:31 says that whoever despises a poor man insults God (in other words, mocking the poor or taking a harsh view of the impoverished is an insult to God). From a theological viewpoint, Ramsey is not only wrong, he’s anti-Biblical.

Yet, even the advice he gives simply doesn’t work. He encourages people to put their money into mutual funds so they can “drive for free” and retire rich. In the video, the example given has a mutual fund at a 12% gain. Here’s the thing: Very few mutual funds earn at 12% right now. Those that do tend to be international or placed into high risk domestic (both are high risk). In fact, 12% is more of a pipe dream. Not to mention that involving one’s self in these mutual funds also puts you in bed with some morally suspect companies. Many mutual funds invest in private prisons, which make a profit on treating prisoners horribly (which contradicts Scripture). In fact, unless you’re using a company like Ave Maria Mutual Funds, you’re probably gaining money off the porn industry, abortifacients, and other nefarious companies. The international mutual funds – some of the highest earners – come with the cost that they potentially increase slave-labor and sex-trafficking overseas in order to boost profits and thus boost investing.

Of course, the Bible is quite explicit on ill-gotten wealth. Proverbs 22:16 says that whoever oppresses the poor in order to obtain wealth will find poverty (obviously, not always in this life, which should worry those who gained wealth via oppression). Yet, one can’t come close to Ramsey’s 12% without investing in some pretty questionable mutual funds – even if one goes with Ave Maria, in the long term the investment will net around 7-8% return (which is good, but remember a higher return means a higher risk).

Finally, Ramsey says that he wants people to retire rich so they can “give it away.” He encourages people to live within their means so later in life they can help others via charity. But I don’t think he understands what “charity” really means. Certainly, Ramsey gives far more than I do to charitable causes. After all, he’s a multi-millionaire and I’m not. But the Bible’s view of charity is not a matter of quantity, but of quality. In Luke 21:1-4 we see Jesus praising the widow who gives two mites – quantifiably less than what the rich gave – because it was given cheerfully and it was all she gave. She gave 100% of what she had while the rich gave out of their abundance. Note that Christ doesn’t condemn the rich for giving out of abundance, he simply notes that the widow gave more. Even the idea of “retiring rich” doesn’t seem to coincide with Biblical teachings, mostly Proverbs 11:4 which states that righteousness, not riches, will aid us in our day of judgement.

I state the above because Ramsey, who believes in giving away his money, recently spent over $4 million on a house. The man has made a living off people who lack common sense when it comes to finances, saying he can give you financial freedom if you’d only buy his book, his program, and so on (none of it is free).  The only reason Ramsey is able to say any of this to us, of course, is because he declared bankruptcy (a selling point in his books). In other words, he owed a debt and didn’t pay it back (Psalms 37:21 is pretty clear that you shouldn’t do that). Maybe he went back and paid all those he owed a debt to, but the point is the only reason Ramsey is successful is because he was able to declare bankruptcy, something he tells people not to do.

Of course, he ignores the very real situation that many Americans find themselves in, namely that their salary simply doesn’t allow them to save up money. I know of a Walmart employee who had to choose between paying the electric bill or the water bill, and his personal hygiene suffered for it. I know of many people who struggle with paying for gas that week or for groceries. These stories are not anomalies and are growing in frequency. While you shouldn’t go into debt for a TV, what about a necessary medical procedure? What about the fact that even after insurance, an appendectomy can come with $11,000 in out-of-pocket costs?  What about the fact that 20% of adults in America will struggle with medical bills and that the vast majority of bankruptcies are caused by medical debt? Of course, because people spend their money trying to pay off medical bills, they sometimes squander their cash flow and end up using credit cards to extend cash flow while paying off medical debt (which is a bad idea).

What about poverty around the world? 2 billion humans, or approximately 28-30% of the world’s population, live in abject poverty. Imagine a Christian putting Dave’s “Biblical Principles” into action while living in China, Syria, Sudan, or any number of countries. Do you really think working hard and saving up money will make them rich? Of course not, because if the Christian isn’t murdered, imprisoned, or left jobless, his money will be taken from him. Dave’s principles really only apply to middle-class Americans (even the lower-class can’t apply them because they don’t make enough money to save money, even if they live as frugally as possible), which is to say that Dave’s principles aren’t really Biblical principles. Biblical principles tend to be universally applicable, even if the application looks different in different areas. There’s only so many ways to be holy, to be charitable, and so on. All of these, however, are applicable regardless of the time or place the Christian finds himself in. Not so with Ramsey’s principles, which are only applicable if you happen to be middle class and living in America.

The Traditional Christian View of Wealth

With the above, one might think that I’m against being rich or wealthy. The reality is, I’m not against wealth or being rich. Acts 4 has Barnabas giving away some of his land for Church use. The fact that Barnabas owned land during the Roman era marks him as someone who was wealthy. That the early Church met in the homes of Christians (mostly women as well, which is an interesting side point), means that some Christians were wealthy enough to afford homes large enough to accommodate groups for worship. The early Church had wealthy members. In fact, that the Bible has multiple commands on giving to the poor implies the understanding that some people will have enough wealth to give away.

Biblically, there’s nothing wrong in being rich. Certainly, I think it’d be quite nice to have money someday. It’s the obsession and pursuit of wealth, however, that is the issue. Rather than quoting the Bible – because it’s quite easy nowadays to perform some exegetical maneuver and get the Bible to say whatever you want it to say – perhaps it’s best to look at how the early Christians viewed wealth. Let’s look at two of the greatest Christian thinkers/writers of all time, Sts. Basil the Great and John Chrysostom. The books I’ll quote from are both put out by St. Vladimir’s Seminary. The one from St. Basil is “On Social Justice” and the one from St. John Chrysostom is “On Wealth and Poverty.”

In a homily given on the rich young ruler, St. Basil summarizes Christ’s message:

“For if what you say is true, that you have kept from your youth the commandment of love and have given to everyone the same as to yourself, then how did you come by this abundance of wealth? Care for the needy requires the expenditure of wealth…Thus, those who love their neighbor as themselves possess nothing more than their neighbor…But now your possessions are more a part of you than the members of your own body, and separation from them is as painful as the amputation of one of your limbs. Had you clothed the naked, had you given your bread to the hungry, had your door been open to every stranger, had you been a parent to the orphan, had you made the suffering of every helpless person your own, what money would you have left, the loss of which to grieve?”

While St. Basil’s point might seem extreme, what teaching from the Bible doesn’t seem to go too far? Obviously, in practice such a requirement might be impossible. After all, one ought to feed one’s family and provide for them, even for future generations (Proverbs 13:22). The point, however, is that how can we justify an over-abundance of wealth (you know, like a $4 million house) when there are those down the road struggling to put food in their mouths? If we truly cared for the poor, we would spend at least our time if not our money doing what we could to help them.

“What well-dressed person has ever been granted even one additional day of life? Has death ever spared anyone on account of wealth? Material things exist to assist with life; surely they were not given as a provision for wickedness?”

Even Steve Jobs, one of the richest people in the world, died. The point made is that we’re all going to die, rich or poor, and upon our death we will have to leave a reckoning to God. We will have to state what we did with what we had on earth. At that point, your 401k, that you lived like no one else so you could live like no one else, your savings account, and so on won’t matter. What you did with those things will matter.

“Come now, distribute your wealth lavishly, becoming honorable and glorious in your expenditures for the needy. Let what is said of the righteous be said also of you, “They have distributed freely, they have given to the poor; their righteousness endures forever.” Do not enhance your own worth by trafficking in the needs of others.”

I assure you, St. Basil is not a Marxist or a Socialist (especially considering those ideas are neo-classical views of economics, something that didn’t develop until the 18th and 19th centuries). Notice the last point, which seems to strike to the heart of Dave Ramsey’s business (it’s not a ministry); he charges money to people who do need his advice. They have a need and are desperate and he makes money off that need. While it’s okay to make a profit, the man earns hand over fist. The whole point being, it’s okay to make money, but don’t make money off people’s desperation, especially the poor.

“Did you not come forth naked from the womb, and will you not return naked to the earth? Where then did you obtain your belongings? If you say that you acquired them by chance, then you deny God, since you neither recognize your Creator, nor are you grateful to the One who gave these things to you. But if you acknowledge that they were given to you by God, then tell me, for what purpose did you receive them? Is God unjust, when He distributes to us unequally the things that are necessary for life? Why then are you wealthy while another is poor? Why else, but so that you might receive the reward of benevolence and faithful stewardship, while the poor are honored for patient endurance in their struggles? But you, stuffing everything into the bottomless pockets of your greed, assume that you wrong no one; yet how many do you in fact dispossess?”

Our wealth comes from God. It doesn’t come from being savvy with investments, it doesn’t come from chance, it doesn’t even come from hard work (a cole miner is a hard worker, but hardly wealthy); God gives us what we have. He gives it to us, whether He gives us riches or poverty, so that we might honor Him with what we have been given. If we store up our riches or lament our poverty, we miss out on honoring God and partaking in His kingdom.

St. John Chrysostom does not water-down his message on wealth and poverty either. He is just as adamant on the issue as his friend St. Basil.

“You are a spiritual soldier; this kind of soldier does not sleep on an ivory bed, but on the ground. He is not anointed with perfumed oils: these are the concern of those corrupt men who dally with courtesans, of those who act on the stage, of those who live carelessly. You must not smell of perfumes, but of virtue.”

Again, if one focuses solely on the material aspect of what St. John is saying, one misses the point. After all, I sleep on a mattress, something not afforded to other Christians or people around the world. Does this mean I’ve missed the point of the Gospel? No, the point is that we ought to pursue virtue instead of riches. If we have riches, then let our virtue dictate how we spend them. If we are poor, then let our virtue be our wealth.

“Just as the dogs licked the wounds of the poor man, so demons licked the sins of the rich man; and just as the poor man lived in starvation of nourishment, so the rich man lived in starvation of every kind of virtue.”

In speaking on the parable of Lazarus and the rich man, St. John points out the vast disparity between the two. He shows how the coldness of the rich man and his neglect to his poor neighbor robbed him of the wealth that really matters, the kind that can’t be bought or invested in.

“But with God we cannot say this; for no one will escape His judgement, but all who live by fraud and theft will certainly draw upon themselves that immortal and endless penalty, just like this rich man. Collecting all these thoughts in your minds, therefore, my beloved, let us call fortunate not the wealthy but the virtuous; let us call miserable not the poor but the wicked.”

Ultimately, what matters is how we live, not what we have. One can be rich and virtuous (again, look at Barnabas) or poor and wicked. Likewise, one can be rich and wicked or poor and virtuous. The truth is that one’s wealth does not determine one’s standing with God (as implied by Ramsey’s tweet shown above). How we live our lives ultimately determines our stance with God. St. John reiterates this point later, by saying;

“So if you see someone greedy for many things, you should consider him the poorest of all, even if he has acquired everyone’s money. If, on the other hand, you see someone with few needs, you should count him the richest of all, even if he has acquired nothing. For we are accustomed to judge poverty and affluence by the disposition of the mind, not by the measure of one’s substance.”

Finally, St. John gives possibly the best advice on giving:

“Let us also do this, I beg you, without making any inquiry more than necessary. Need alone is the poor man’s worthiness; if anyone at all ever comes to us with this recommendation, let us not meddle any further. We do not provide for the manners but for the man. We show mercy on him not because of his virtue but because of his misfortune, in order that we ourselves may receive from the Master His great mercy, in order that we ourselves, unworthy as we are, may enjoy His philanthropy. For if we were going to investigate the worthiness of our fellow servants, and inquire exactly, God will do the same for us.”

When it comes to giving, we often question whether our money will help. We question whether someone deserves it. We question the state of the person receiving the benefit. But we never remember that God gave us the greatest gift of all even though we were in the worst state of existence. We are not saved by our works, we are not saved by our faith, for our works and faith are never enough. We are, instead, saved by God’s philanthropic mercy. If he can grant us eternal life, peace, and union with him, certainly we can depart with a few material possessions to help those in need, regardless of how we think those possessions might be used.

There is nothing wrong with being rich or having wealth. If God has blessed an individual with such things, then we should be happy for the individual so long as the individual’s virtue overcomes his wealth. We shouldn’t seek a plush retirement or wealth, contra Dave Ramsey, but instead we should seek the virtue of God and let the money fall where it may.