The rich get richer – but what's Jesus got to do with it?

We all know that the world is a very unequal place. Anyone reading this is probably not doing too badly, but billions struggle to make a living.

But you may not be aware that, by some measures at least, inequality is increasing.

They own what??

There are about 7.6 billion people in the world right now. It has been estimated that, in 2015 when world population was 7+ billion, the richest 62 individuals had a combined wealth equal to that of the 3.6 billion who made up poorest half of the world. These poor people faced a daily struggle to survive.

In 2016, the combined “wealth” of the poorest 3.6 billion people was matched by the combined wealth of just 8 billionaires – 4 of them earning their wealth through technology companies (Microsoft, Facebook, Amazon and Oracle).

Half the world’s wealth is in the hands of the top 1% of the population, which probably includes a high percentage of people in first world countries.

And so inequality is growing. Between 1988 and 2011, the incomes of the richest 1% of the world grew 182 times faster than the incomes of the poorest 10%. In half the countries of the world, including 26 advanced nations, median incomes have fallen in recent years, and inequality is increasing.

Oxfam says:

“While one in nine people on the planet will go to bed hungry tonight, a small handful of billionaires have so much wealth they would need several lifetimes to spend it.”

Inequality is bad, even for the rich

We tend to think in terms of winners and losers. And we all want to be winners. So the rich are winners and the poor are losers. Right?

Well, it isn’t quite that simple. The rich (and the well off) depend on economic growth to increase their wealth. The last thing they need is instability and slowed economic growth.

But inequality, understandably, often breeds social polarisation and dissatisfaction which affect profits and economic growth. So much so that the World Economic Forum warns that the greatest risks to continued economic growth are (1) rising income and wealth disparity, (2) climate change, and (3) increasing polarisation of sectors of society.

How the poor react

Historically, when people get desperate enough, they may react. In democracies, they may vote for unlikely candidates who promise to put things right, and may vote for policies that redress inequality. In extreme circumstances, inequality can lead to revolution.

One surprising trend in today’s world is that the poorer sections of a society can be fooled by empty promises and dishonest media to ignore the obvious greed of the rich and vote for candidates who disguise their support for the rich with patriotic slogans.

Bending the law as an art form

We should not therefore be surprised at the revelations in the past week in the Paradise Papers, outlining how rich individuals have vast sums of money in off-shore tax havens. The amounts of money are not trivial, but are estimated to total of the order of $US30 trillion, which would be about 40% of the annual world GDP.

The methods used to avoid tax are not always illegal (though they are arguably immoral), but often dishonest statements, illegal activities and dodgy accounting are involved.

Where would Jesus put his money?

So how should christians respond? Is this dirty world of finance something we should ignore while we get on with evangelising?

Some say that, but it wouldn’t appear to be how Jesus would see it. Jesus (and the rest of the Bible) said a lot about money, the perils of wealth and the trap of greed. Parables like the sheep and the goats (Matthew 25:31-46), the talents (Matthew 25:14-30) and the shrewd manager (Luke 16:1-15) all show that Jesus cared a lot about the poor, money, greed and the abuse of wealth and power.

And his brother, James, spoke very strongly against the wealthy who misuse their position (James 5:1-6):

“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 yourselves in the day of slaughter. You have condemned and murdered the innocent one, who was not opposing you.”

These are terrifying words for those of us in the rich first world. If we weren’t told this was from the Bible, we would suspect it was spoken by an anti-capitalist revolutionary! We cannot ignore it.

What have we done for the “least of these”?

Have we contributed to wage injustice for poor workers in third world countries who make our clothes and electronic goods? Have we lived in luxury while others suffered? Have we voted for policies that continued our privilege while caring little for the poor?

There are things we can all do

Don’t be fooled again

Capitalism is not God’s plan for the world any more than communism was. Both ideologies have strengths and weaknesses. Capital, investment and finance are all important parts of the way our world works, but the idea that capitalism is always beneficial to the poor and that wealth “trickles down” from the rich to the poor can be seen to be often not true. The rich need to be kept accountable just as the rest of us do. And they should be made to pay their fair share of taxes, instead of avoiding tax by shifting wealth off-shore, and leave the necessary tax burden for others.

Vote carefully and prayerfully

Patriotic slogans don’t help feed the hungry or care for the poor. Jesus teaches us that both justice and mercy are necessary on the part of those of us who are in the top half of the world’s income-earners. Let’s be very careful to consider the poor when we vote.

Invest ethically

There are ethical investment schemes that avoid companies with poor track records of exploitation of labour or environmental degradation.

Purchase ethically

We can choose to purchase chocolate, coffee, tea, clothing and electronic goods from more ethical companies. There are certification schemes (like Fair Trade, UTZ and Rainforest Alliance) and ethical buying guides to help us. None of these is perfect, but they are way better than doing nothing. Sure, we may have to pay more than for less ethically sources products, but that is because they are trying to pay a fair wage. Remember James’ warning: “The wages you failed to pay the workers who mowed your fields are crying out against you.”

Be generous

We are so comfortable with our wealth in the first world that we don’t always realise how much we have, much of it not really necessary. Jesus approves of generosity to the poor, and we can show it by supporting reputable overseas aid and development organisations.

Seek first God’s kingdom

It’s a matter of priorities. Wealth inequality matters.

Photo by Jesse Schoff on Unsplash

6 Comments

  1. When you have so called Christians like Morrison, Turnbull and Abbott protecting the rich and privileged with tax dodges I don’t think there is much hope for more equal wealth distribution.

  2. I don’t think Turnbull calls himself a christian, but the others do (to my shame!). I think activism by Get Up and others, plus the votes of the ALP and Greens can make some changes. At least I hope so.But of course it won’t be as much as it “should” be unless other countries do the same.

  3. Christianity is no longer connected to our current economical system. The system we are living in is build in a clear manner to promote the interest if the few on the account of the many. For the sake of promoting the well being of the masses a shift in the way we see our economy is required. I will love to hear your opinion on the following post. https://backtoourselves.org/2018/03/11/the-vicious-cycle-of-our-new-economy-why-the-poor-stay-poor-and-the-rich-get-richer-part-1

  4. Hi Amitai,
    Thanks for the link, and for your interest in this subject. It is impossible to give all my opinions on the matters in that post in one comment, but here are a few thoughts.
    1. I agree with many things you write. I think the governmental and financial systems of the world are more often than not controlled by a very small number of powerful people who would see themselves as an elite.
    2. I don’t think christianity is “no longer” connected to the economic system, for I think it never was. It is true that many people who identify as christians are caught up in the economic system, and few are among the “elite”, but I think christianity, as defined by Jesus, is opposed to most of that.
    3. But Jesus, in the parable beginning in Luke 16:1, says we shouldn’t be afraid of using the system, but in other places he makes clear we shouldn’t get caught up in it.
    4. Many, many people are genuinely oppressed and their lives stripped of value because of the economic system. But at the same time, if they live their lives with God, their lives have new meaning that far transcends the meaning and value supposedly given by the world’s economic values.
    5. But it is nevertheless possible to live a life which isn’t too badly stripped down, if one is fortunate enough to have a moderate level of wealth. Then we can refuse to get caught up in the treadmill of the system.
    6. All of us can, to some degree at least experience the blessing of walking with Jesus, that far outshines a life of wealth. The wealthy think they have what makes for a good life, but it many respects it doesn’t make them happy (surveys show) and it doesn’t provide meaning. They think they are winning, but in most cases they are not. I wouldn’t trade my life for theirs!!!

  5. I know this is an old post, but I just found this site and I love it!!! I just wanted to say that this topic reminds me of Andrew carnegie, a steel magnate in the late 19th century, he had a concept he called the gosoel of wealth. He believed a man should make a fortune the first half of his life, and spend the 2nd half of his life using that money to better the world. Before his death he gave almost all his money to education and the poor. In his will he gave the rest to assorted charities. It was his belief that a man who died wealthy was not truly a man. Personally this seems like a very christian idea, but sadly many wealthy folk today are too greedy to do such a thing.

  6. Hi thanks so much for your encouraging comment about this site. It really means a lot to me.
    That is an interesting thought by Dale Carnegie. Not many of us will ever be in a position to amass a lot of wealth, but I’m sure most of us in the first world could do more with our money than we do. Giving up a few luxuries or expensive behaviours and giving that money away is within most of our reach. But there is one difficulty if we live in an expensive city as I do – sometimes children need to inherit some of their parents’ wealth or they can never afford to purchase a home in that city, so sometimes passing money onto our children at death, or preferably before death, may be necessary.
    Thanks again. I hope you find other things of interest here.

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