The Treasures of the Heart
Several years ago, I visited the Carnegie Library in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. For those who aren't familiar with Carnegie-Mellon University or any of the Carnegie libraries scattered throughout the United States, it is an awesome experience to wander through towering shelves filled with books, music, and reference materials; vast resources—more than I could ever utilize—amply aided me in the writing of my research paper.
At the time, I was too preoccupied with my research to take advantage of all the resources available to me in this great library. I didn't wonder about the history behind the library, or think about what great act of generosity made it possible and brought it into existence. Carnegie, a Scottish immigrant to the United States, represents the classic tale of rags to riches that is the quintessential reflection of the American dream. Ingenious, shrewd, and visionary without any formal education beyond grade school, Carnegie became the richest man in America during the "The Gilded Age" of the late nineteenth century.(1) Riding the wave of rapid development from the Industrial Revolution, Carnegie became the king of industry, first of railroads and then of steel.
But Carnegie's was a mixed legacy. While he amassed fortunes, his workers languished for pennies in what is described as one of the "darkest chapters in American labor history."(2) He may have been less ruthless than some of his other industry contemporaries by today's ethical standards for laborers, but Carnegie was brutal in his demands for long hours of labor with very little pay.
I began to pay attention to Carnegie's life and legacy because he is an oft-cited inspiration for two of the richest men in the world today who started a philanthropic movement to systematically give their money away. These two men are Bill Gates and Warren Buffett. Gates and Buffett cite an oft-quoted refrain from Carnegie: "The man who dies rich dies disgraced... And besides, it provides a refuge from self-questioning."(3) Perhaps some of Carnegie's own self-questioning came from the way in which he made his money, seeking efficiency and profit at the expense of worker well-being. Whatever the case, the richest man in the world believed that money made from society should be given back to society. From Carnegie's example, Buffett and Gates go and encourage other wealthy individuals to do likewise with their own fortunes.
Capitalism, at its heart, is about multiplying and advancing capital. But what is to be done with immense profits? Despite his mixed legacy, the example of Andrew Carnegie offers an intriguing option. Wealth production should include social capital—namely, that great gains financially can be accompanied by great gains for society and for the public good. Wealth can accumulate profit not just for individuals, but for communities, cities, and indeed, regions all around the world. Just as the biblical patriarch Abraham was blessed to be a blessing, we who are wealthy in all sorts of ways can allow caritas, or charity, to guide us in bringing blessing for others. Whatever the wealth—time, treasure, and talent—can be used for the sort of profit that is more than just individual, capital gain.
Those who seek to follow Jesus have a powerful motivation to view wealth in the same manner, and his instruction on the matter is yet another illustration of his concern for the whole and not merely an isolated group. Jesus instructed his followers to "go and sell your possessions and give to charity; make yourselves purses which do not wear out, an unfailing treasure where no thief comes near nor moth destroys."(4) This means, as one commentator on Luke's gospel points out, that "possessions in themselves are neither good or bad; it is the choices that one makes concerning them that determines their significance...[T]he proper use of material goods that are non-essential to the disciple is to be manifested in the positive act of helping those in need."(5)
In other words, wealth does create profit; but the kind of profit wealth creates is up to us to decide. It has been said: where your treasure is there will your heart be also.
Margaret Manning Shull is an adjunct speaker with RZIM based in Washington.
(1) From American Experience: "Andrew Carnegie: The Richest Man in the World," www.pbs.org.
(3) Andrew Carnegie, "Wealth" North American Review, June 1889, Volume 148, Issue 391, 653-665.
(4) Cf. Luke 12:33.
(5) John Sheila Galligan, "The Tension between Poverty and Possessions in the Gospel of Luke," Spirituality Today, Spring 1985, Volume 37, 12.