Padded edges and the Commonwealth of Heaven
Last week, I heard an account of a high-worth individual. Hugely successful in his business, he had all the accoutrements of a luxurious lifestyle and sufficient certainty of future security to enable him to take early retirement.
I want to believe that this man was a fair employer and that his success both created employment and put some money into the economy. How much of his wealth and status was the product of sheer hard work and how much might have been due to inherited money with its associated personal, professional and social advantages, I was not told. Nor do I have any information about his attitude to those less fortunately placed, though I am left – for reasons that will later become clear – with a sense that he may have been deficient in understanding the drawbacks of his advantages.
“Money pads the edge of things”, observes the wealthy Margaret Schlegel in EM Forsters' Howards End, “God help those that have none”.
The edges are ever sharper for many people today. They are made jagged, threatening and more proximate not just by benefit cuts and sanctions, not just by the unaffordable cost of housing nor by the anxieties that come with knowing you can't buy yourself out of unforeseen setbacks. They wound and terrify the most vulnerable because of the gulf of experience and understanding between themselves and the law-makers who prescribe the lives they must lead.
Backbench MPs have a salary of just under £75000. Ministerial salaries range from £96395 to £141505 and expenses are generous. In many cases, MPs draw more in expenses than they do in salary. Whatever protestations some of them may make to the contrary, this is a lot of money, even where they have no extra-parliamentary income. I do not intend to engage here with whether or not this is excessive, but it is certainly remuneration on a scale which puts them at a considerable distance from millions of their constituents.
This would matter less if more of them were aware of how fortunately placed they are, and of the consequent obligation to act with sensitivity and empathy. A series of memes have been going around on social media media lately on the lines of 'This is X, MP for Y. S/he took £130000 in expenses last year (inserted here some of the more apparently self-indulgent uses of this money). S/he voted to cut ESA by £30 a week'. It may be annoying to those delineated, it may not in all instances be fair, but it is telling. That £30 taken from people whose health is poor and who are already struggling, may seem insignificant to the men and women who are drawing down such large sums, but they are desperately damaging to the mental and physical health of those so deprived.
This is not about going to the theatre less often or cutting down on the wine bill – it is about 'heat or eat' and about not being able to pay the rent. The bond of understanding and therefore ultimately of justice, is likely to be broken and our legislators increasingly despised for their failure to understand – or apparently to care – much about lives full of hardship and anxiety.
People come by their money in ways which demand varying degrees of respect. They may be rentiers; they may – to quote Margaret Schlegel again – “stand upon money as upon islands” due to their family circumstances; they may have toiled, risked and sacrificed, as workers by hand and brain for what they have accumulated. But what that accumulation makes them and whether they choose to use their security for self-protection at the expense of others, or for lifting up the bruised and crushed, is of the greatest importance if we are not to confuse prosperity with virtue.
Perceptive readers will have realised that the high-worth individual with whom I opened this piece is not our contemporary in chronological terms. He is the rich man of the parable Jesus told in Luke's Gospel in one of those overturning of quotidian expectation narratives which jolt us into the challenging inversions of the Commonwealth of Heaven. He is the man who did not expect to hear the words we must all one day face: “This night shall your soul be required of you”. The subsequent question: “Then who will get what you have prepared for yourself?” would of course, be answered in our own time by the apparent security of that kind of creative accountancy which enables wealthy people to pass on their assets without taxation.
But it is not only in the economy of eternity that this question may be posed. What is done with material blessings should not be simply a post-mortem consideration.
© Jill Segger is an Associate Director of Ekklesia with particular involvement in editorial issues. She is a freelance writer who contributes to the Church Times, Catholic Herald, Tribune, Reform and The Friend, among other publications. Jill is an active Quaker. See: http://www.journalistdirectory.com/journalist/TQig/Jill-Segger You can follow Jill on Twitter at: http://www.twitter.co/quakerpen
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