Class Warfare or Not

President Obama is inciting “class warfare.” That is the charge of numerous Republicans in the wake of Obama’s Jobs Bill that proposes increasing tax rates for millionaires. The war that is feared is between the wealthy and the rest of us. Whether Obama’s proposal amounts to class warfare depends on your response to a prior question: What does it mean to be a human being?

My views on human nature are deeply informed by my Christian faith. I embrace “individuality,” by which I mean that each human being is a unique individual, endowed with gifts that he or she ought to be able to exercise. That is part of my understanding of what it means to be created in the “Image of God.”

But I also embrace “connectivity.” An essential aspect of the human condition is that we are social beings who are connected to other persons, and we have a responsibility to care for the well-being of others. For Christians that is our response to the call of Jesus for us to “love our neighbors.” There is a plethora of biblical teachings that elaborate on this responsibility. For me the most compelling is the teaching of Jesus that those who will “inherit the kingdom” are those who give food to the hungry, drink to the thirsty, welcome to the stranger, clothing to the naked, and visits to the sick and imprisoned (Matthew 25: 34-40).

Biblical teachings that focus on our connectivity are not limited to the words of Jesus. Both testaments of the Bible are replete with the call do justice, which includes caring for the poor, the homeless, the orphaned, the stranger, the disenfranchised and oppressed, and all those less fortunate than us (for a rich compendium of biblical teachings on justice, see Timothy Keller’s recent book Generous Justice).

The need to create a proper balance between individuality and connectivity, often holding the two in tension, is pointed to in the Apostle’s Paul teaching about the nature of “Christian liberty.” Paul teaches that Christians have indeed been given “freedom,” an idea that fits well with an emphasis on individuality. But, he explains that such freedom is bounded; it does not provide license to do as you please. Rather, Christians are called to give expression to their freedom by “being servants to one another,” because “the whole law is fulfilled in one word, ‘you shall love your neighbor as yourself’” (Galatians 5: 13-14).To be sure, this teaching is directed to Christians at a particular place and time. But I believe it is a universal teaching intended for all human beings because of our common humanity.

To be even more meddlesome, I point to another teaching of Jesus: “Every one to whom much is given, of him will much be required; and of him to whom men commit much they will demand the more” (Luke 12: 48). President Kennedy appropriated this teaching of Jesus when he told the American people that “To those whom much is given, much is expected” (The Uncommon Wisdom of JFK:A Portrait in His Own Words).  This teaching does not preclude the earning of wealth. But it suggests that we use our wealth for the greater good that reflects our connectivity with others.

Note carefully that the many biblical teachings that point to our human “connectivity” are not meant to negate our “individuality.” But they do negate an abuse of the our individuality that Alexis de Toqueville, a French visitor to the United States in 1831-32, called “Individualism;” which he defined as “a calm and considered feeling which disposes each citizen to isolate himself from the mass of his fellows and withdraw into the circle of family and friends; with this little society formed to his taste, he gladly leaves the greater society to look after itself” (Democracy in America, trans. J. P. Meyer, Anchor Books, 1969, p.508; quoted in  Parker Palmer, Healing the Heart of Democracy: The Courage to Create a Politics Worthy of the Human Spirit, Jossey-Bass, 2011, p.  41).

My problem with the claim that President Obama is inciting class warfare by proposing an increase in tax rates for the wealthy is that it buys into “individualism,” thereby ignoring our connectivity that calls all human beings to care for one another.

Of course, the above reflections do not settle the issue of how we should care for one another. A possible response is that we should care for one another through private initiatives and charities; government should not get involved.

My short response to this position is that with the growing gap between the rich and poor in our country, the magnitude of the current problems faced by the poorest and most vulnerable persons in our society is simple too great to entertain the idea that all these pressing needs can be met though private philanthropy. Government must play some role beyond keeping individuals from getting in each other’s way. But this governmental role must be carried out with vigilance to maintain a proper balance between individuality and connectivity (since exclusive concern with connectivity can deteriorate into a “collectivism” that smothers all individuality by making us part of a collective that allows for no individual creativity and initiative).

And this balance between individuality and connectivity will enable Warren Buffett to exercise his entrepreneurial skills in ways that make him wealthy. But that balance should also require that his tax rate not be lower than that of his secretary.  To require that is not class warfare between the wealthy and the rest of us. Rather, it is an acknowledgement that we are all members of the same class: connected human beings who have a collective responsibility to care for one another.