I am an American who has spent six months in Africa. The contrast between the wealth of the two nations is striking, to say the least. Theologically, many American Christians view American prosperity as a blessing of God bestowed upon the United States because her citizens have worked so hard and have honored God. Is this the case? Or has American wealth come at the cost of oppressing and exploiting others: stealing Native lands, enslaving Africans, killing off Natives who resisted displacement, paying immigrant laborers virtually nothing, importing goods from abusive and oppressive sweatshops, and being environmentally destructive and irresponsible?
The answer to the question is important. Jesus, for example, viewed his world as being dominated by the oppressive Roman Empire. Those who had wealth gained it at the expense of others. (The Romans, however, saw things differently. Their gods were on their side and the Emperor was a manifestation of God, the Son of God.) In the Gospel of Mark, Jesus is recorded as stating, “How hard it will be for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God! It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God.” Why so hard on the rich?
Certainly it is true that it is difficult for anyone to enter the kingdom of God, to envision the dream of God for a world of equality, respect, and peace. Even more difficult to invest one’s life doing the work of the kingdom and surrendering lives of convention and (in the case of many of us in the States) a life of ease. But while it is difficult for all of us to live according to the radical vision of Jesus, it is particularly hard (says Jesus) for the rich. Why?
I’ve been reading one of Marcus Borg’s books on Jesus. Here’s what he says: “The rich, full, laughing, and well-regarded were obviously those who were doing well within the present sate of affairs. The coming of the kingdom would be good news for the poor and hungry, but not for them. It would involve a great reversal of the way things were…”
The reason that the kingdom of God is so difficult for the rich to enter is because the kingdom of God is about aligning one’s self with those at the bottom of the hierarchy. It is about giving up wealth, privilege, status, and power. It is about calling into question the whole premise that so many take for granted: that powerful people can and should rule and dominate.
When Jesus says that it is difficult for the rich to enter the kingdom of God, in Mark (chapter 10), this follows from a rich man who comes and tells Jesus that he wants to become a disciple of Jesus. “Go and sell all that you have” is Jesus’ reply. The man had to leave, saddened, because he had great wealth. He walked away from the kingdom, and he walked away from the liberation he could have had by renouncing his wealth.
Camels don’t go through the eye of a needle because the dimensions aren’t right. Likewise, the rich don’t enter the kingdom of God because the kingdom of God is not for them. It’s not for those who want to hold on to their power and privilege. It’s for the poor whose power and dignity has been amassed by the rich. The kingdom of God is not about gaining more and more individual power; it is a deconstruction of the systems of power and domination. The kingdom of God is a new vision of a new reality, where all beings are invited to participate as equals and share in common the world’s power and resources, so that all beings are honored and respected as God’s creation.
If one adopts Jesus’ kingdom of God, then any justification for amassing wealth and power for one’s self at the expense of others is invalid. The God of Jesus is always the God of the poor, always aligned against those who gain wealth at the expense of others. Always. It doesn’t matter if you appeal to your Roman gods or to your American Dream. God’s dream is for a world free of oppression and the hierarchies of power.