"Who is the rich man?" asked the New Testament professor at Yale Divinity School. David Lull was discussing the parable about a person unwilling to give up his possessions to follow a more selfless path to love and happiness.
I barely paid attention that day in 1985. I was lost in my own thoughts of repaying student loans and finding an alternative to the cockroach-infested married student housing.
Until I heard his answer: "You are the rich man," Lull told us. It only took a moment to realize he was right.
We were not like much of the world's and the nation's population. Most of us did not have to worry about food, housing or medical care. We had enough income to pursue a graduate degree at a prestigious university.
Would that someone could create a similar national epiphany today.
The nation is hovering near financial crisis. More and more Americans are falling into poverty. Universal health care, Social Security and Medicare have become political bargaining chips. But the national debate is focusing on whether to raise taxes on the top 2 percent of high-earning households.
Economists argue that the ultra-rich alone cannot solve the debt crisis. But many Americans seem to have decided only the tiniest portion of the wealthiest of the wealthy bear responsibility for paying higher taxes. In a September 2010 CBS News-New York Times poll, only 19 percent said the 2001 tax cuts should be allowed to expire for households earning less than $250,000 a year.
What about the moral responsibility of the rest of us?
Faith and taxes
Religious groups would seem to be in a strong position to raise these ethical questions. Scripture and tradition across many faith groups demand care for the poor and powerful symbols such as the widow's mite hold up the responsibility of each person to sacrifice for the common good.
In the pews, religious individuals consistently identify concern for the poor as integral to their faith. For example, 70 percent of respondents to the 2006-2007 study on "The Orthodox Church Today" said a person cannot be considered a good Orthodox Christian without donating time or money to help the poor.
Yet research indicates that faith groups have a mixed record in getting people in their flocks to share their wealth and possessions with their neighbors in need.
In examining interview data from the 2004 Consumer Expenditure Survey, researchers from Bradley University and Illinois State University found that households giving to religious organizations not only donate a significant amount of their income to religious organizations, but also give, on average, about $25 more to charitable organizations than households who give nothing to religion.
Evidence in their study also "points to the possibility of an altruistic motive rooted in agape (self-sacrificing) love as the basis for religious and charitable giving for some," Vince Showers, Linda Showers, Jeri Beggs and James Cox Jr. reported in the January 2011 issue of The American Journal of Economics and Sociology.
When it come to taxes, religious individuals also appear more likely to meet their obligations. An analysis of data on 46,000 individuals in 36 nations from the World Values Surveys found that the more religious a person was, the lower her or his tolerance was for tax fraud. Steven Stack of Wayne State University and Augustine Kposowa of the University of California, Riverside, reported the results in the Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion.
However, faith groups seem to have less success when it comes to motivating individuals to pay higher taxes for social needs.
Some research indicates religious conservatives give more to charity and liberals are more likely to advocate higher taxes to aid the poor. Just not always higher taxes on themselves, as is evidenced by their strong support for the Democratic idea of asking only the richest of the rich, those with household incomes $250,000 and above, to sacrifice with higher taxes.
In the end, money talks. In a June 2011 Gallup Poll, a majority of respondents with incomes less than $75,000 a year said that government should redistribute wealth with heavy taxes on the rich; just 31 percent of respondents with incomes greater than $75,000 supported the idea.
Was blind, and do not want to see
There are reasonable public policy debates over government spending and tax policies. And the cost of living varies by region, leaving people with equivalent incomes with somewhat greater or lesser amounts of discretionary income depending on where they reside.
What is more problematic -- and unsupported by scientific data -- is the idea that there is little real difference in the economic circumstances of the great majority of Americans, and consequently little ethical responsibility for the more affluent to pay a greater share of their income for the common good.
The facts are there is no "middle range" theory, or any reasonable research or ethical model that would back up politicians' claims, echoed by many in the media, that households in the first 20 percent, or even the top 3 percent of incomes in the nation should be considered middle-income or middle-class Americans.
The U.S. Census Bureau reports the real median household income in 2009 was $49,777. The Pew Research Center estimates middle income as those households with earnings from $30,000 to $75,000, or up to about 150 percent of the median income.
Still, you can hear on CNN during discussions of the financial crisis the "struggles" of a family with an income of $270,000 a year getting by in a major metropolitan area. What you are less likely to hear about are the real economic struggles for food and shelter and any kind of higher education endured by those below or barely above the poverty line, the life choices faced by the service workers, office assistants, store clerks and dishwashers who also have to make a living in New York or Los Angeles.
Yet, perhaps that is a better starting place for Americans to be able to truly answer the question David Lull posed to our class some 25 years ago.
It's time to start making those struggling to meet basic needs more visible. Then maybe people with household incomes one-and-a-half times or more above the median; or four, eight, 10 or more times above the poverty level, might start to realize how well-off they are, and be willing to sacrifice a greater part of their discretionary income in taxes.
Who is the rich person?