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Woe to the Wealthy

The recent extension of Mikhail Khodorkovsky’s prison sentence, took my mind back to the Tuesday in 2005 when the Russian courts initially sentenced the billionaire tycoon to nine years in prison for tax evasion and several counts of fraud. Worth an estimated $15 billion before his arrest, Khodorkovsky had accumulated his wealth following the collapse of the Soviet Union when he purchased oil fields from the state and formed the giant corporation, Yukos. Among free-market enthusiasts in the west he had become a poster-child for capitalist success. They saw his company as a perfect model of what can happen when the government steps back and allows private citizens to exercise their creative genius. In their estimation, Russia had finally entered the post-modern age of unbridled big business.

However, not all shared the enthusiasm of the western plutopaths. Millions of struggling poor in his home country viewed Khodorkovsky as a frightening example of capitalist excess. Indeed, it is when Khodorkovsky began to use his wealth to influence the political process that he attracted the attention of the government revenue department, and the rest is yesterday’s news.

Glass House Hypocrisy

At his initial sentencing, President Bush was first among world leaders to criticize the ruling of the Russian courts. I still recall the arch-warden of Guantanamo Bay remarking, “[in this country] you are innocent until proven guilty….” It’s easy to look out the thick distorting window of your own home and criticize the magnified weeds in your international neighbor’s yard, but I recall a proverb that cautions glass house occupants against throwing stones. As members of the current administration join their meddling predecessors and other Moscow-bashing sympathizers, I feel compelled to whisper a name in their ears: “Martha Stewart.” Need I say more? And she is just the tip of the iceberg. Who can forget Leona Helmsley–remember the “only the little people pay taxes” person–who was also rewarded by an all expenses paid detention in one of Uncle Sam’s penal facilities? And lets not forget Hollywood’s Wesley Snipes, Enron’s Kenneth Lay and WorldCom’s Bernie Ebbers.

Further, what about those who are able to fly below the radar? This is still the nation where the formerly ousted CEO of AIG could gift his wife with $2.2 billion in stock options while my premiums went up and the workforce was “downsized.” It is still the nation where the former Vice President has reaped millions of dollars from the same Haliburton that receives billions of dollars of tax payers money each month. It is still the nation where the middle class bears the brunt of the tax burden while the wealthiest get rebates for luxurious summer homes, only pay federal insurance taxes on a fraction of their income, and are entitled to Social Security and Medicaid even if they have billions in the bank. It is still the nation where three sons of President George H. Bush received painless slaps on the wrist for their involvement in the Savings and Loans debacle of the 1980s and other activities resembling fraud and insider trading.

Double Standards

I really don’t know if Mikhail Khodorkovsky is guilty of the charges levied against him, but I do know that there is something inherently wrong with an economic system that allows one person to stockpile wealth while others in the same geographical vicinity are dying of starvation.

Somehow in the west, we have no problem lambasting the Mbitis, Amins, Gadaffis, and Husseins, but tend to excuse the exploitative business strategies that will catapult a William Gates to the position in which his individual wealth is ten times as much as the combined wealth of the 33 million African-Americans residing in the United States. We have no problem criticizing nations who redirect international aid to building grand stadiums and presidential palaces, but say nothing when the Thatcher government implemented the controversial Poll Tax that exempted the royal family from millions of pounds in property taxes while further burdening the “little people.” We have no problem decrying socialist economies where government controls many of the services, but are conspicuously silent when an economic system produces the heirs of Sam Walton–three of whom are among the ten wealthiest in the world–who make their billions by eliminating established American companies while strengthening the capitalist friendly Chinese economy.

Woe to the Wealthy

Each year, leaders of the G8 nations convene at luxurious locations around the globe. It has been customary for protestors to appear at these conferences en masse as they voice their displeasure at the way in which the world’s wealthiest nations shamelessly continue the legacy of global exploitation. While the G8 voices are often muffled by the New Age visionaries who predominate the protests, I believe that Christian leaders also need to make a statement to the international oligarchy. They need to stand with prophetic boldness and let the privileged few know that God is not pleased with their selfish misuse of the world’s resources and their manipulation of the two-thirds world with their economic terrorism.

Our leaders need to remind the oligarchs of Jesus’ words in the Sermon on the Plain: “Woe to you who are rich, for you have already received your comfort. Woe to you who are well fed now, for you will go hungry. Woe to you who laugh now, for you will mourn and weep. Woe to you when everyone speaks well of you, for that is how the ancestors treated the false prophets” (Luke 6:24-26, TNIV). They need to confront the systems of oppression with the courage of James, who cautioned: “Now listen, you rich people, weep and wail because of the misery that is coming on you. Your wealth has rotted and moths have eaten your clothes. Your gold and silver are corroded. Their corrosion will testify against you and eat your flesh like fire. You have hoarded wealth in the last days. Look! The wages you failed to pay the workers who mowed your fields are crying out against you. The cries of the harvesters have reached the ears of the Lord Almighty. You have lived on earth in luxury and self-indulgence. You have fattened yourself in the day of slaughter. You have condemned and murdered the innocent one, who was not opposing you” (James 5:1-6, TNIV).

For the Glory of God

As we enter 2011, I trust I’m not the only person who is concerned about the widening gulf between the rich and the poor. I believe it is our Christian imperative to confront injustice wherever and whenever it arises. With over 156,000 people dying from starvation every day, professed people of God need to reassess their priorities and ask the Lord what we can do to make a difference in the global community. This is not the time for the propagation of a prosperity gospel and the adulation of those celebrity preachers who have been possessed with the materialistic spirit of Hollywood movie-stars. This is not the time for adding non-functional icons in our places of worship as we attempt to pacify our cognitive dysfunction with the excuse that it is being done “to the glory of God.”

God is glorified when the people of God understand that we are our brothers and sisters’ keepers, and we have a responsibility to agitate the conscience of world leaders whom God so desperately wants to use as His benevolent servants (Rom 13:6). God is glorified when the “least” among us are touched by acts of compassion (Mt 25:31-46). As you consider the role that you will play in making a difference this year, never forget that “a tree is known by its fruit.”

Keith Augustus Burton is an adjunct instructor of Religion at Florida Hospital College of Health Sciences and Oakwood University. The column is an updated version of a commentary written on June 3, 2005 for his lifeHERITAGE Perspectives blog. Other commentaries can be found at

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