“Our desire is not that others might be relieved while you are hard pressed, but that there might be equality.” (2 Corinthians 8:13)
Life isn’t always fair
There are many imbalances in the world:
- Wealth and income vary enormously between different countries, and within each country. The poorest half of the world owns just 2% of global wealth while the richest 10% own 76%. Some people work in sweatshops for a pittance while others add nothing positive to the world and live on their investments.
- Some people have talent, abilities and opportunities to use them, while others are severely limited in what they can do.
- In some countries, women’s opportunities are severely curtailed.
- Educational opportunities vary greatly. One in six children (mostly in poorer countries) are not in school, and the quality and outcomes of education vary widely.
- Some people are born with good mental and physical health, and some struggle, through no fault of their own.
- Some families have the misfortune to grow up in a war zone or a violent society, while others of us live in stable societies.
Each of these inequalities creates inequality of opportunity.
We like to think we deserve our privilege
I think many people who are doing well like to think they deserve their success because they have worked hard. Certainly there are people who believe we can make our own future and be anything we choose to be.
But the reality is that all the effort in the world can be negated by the accident of our genetics and where we are born. It’s much easier to be a billionaire if our parents are billionaires, and much easier to find a good job if we were given intelligence at birth and had access to a good education.
Too many people are born into poverty
Likewise, the poor and under-privileged generally have done nothing to deserve this. For many of them, the lottery of birth put them in families that required them to work at almost slave-labour rates and forego a full education, or in countries where only a select few have opportunities to find well-paying work. For others, sickness, war and discrimination limit them and sometimes take their lives.
Gross inequality harms us all
Inequality doesn’t only make life difficult for the poor, it can provoke them to take some sort of drastic action. Whether they feel injustice, humility or jealousy, the poor may be embittered enough to feel that violence is the only course left for them. Crime rates tend to be highest where inequality is greatest. Seeking greater territory, resources or power is a major cause of wars. The privileged can be seen as partly responsible for these outcomes.
Inequality can also harm the rich and powerful, though they mightn’t recognise it. Materialism can become an endless quest for more. The saying that “power corrupts” is often true. Privilege can lead to entitlement, which can lead to unethical actions to protect or enlarge that privilege and power. Wealth and power can lead us away from God and make us oblivious to humanity.
And in the end inequality harms a whole society. Less equal societies have less stable economies. High levels of income inequality are linked to economic instability, financial crisis, debt and inflation.
Two ways to see inequality
The Bible has two quite different responses to poverty and inequality.
On the one hand, Proverbs in the Old Testament (e.g 12:11, 14:23, 21:25) encourage us to work diligently, and Paul says (1 Timothy 5:8) that we should provide for our families. Working is one of the ways God wants to sustain us and prevent poverty.
On the other hand, there is a strong Biblical theme of caring for the poor and disadvantaged. The prophets speak out strongly that God’s people must care for the poor (e.g. Isaiah 3:15, Proverbs 19:17). The teaching is even stronger in the New Testament. Jesus said we’d be judged by how we treat the poor and suffering (Matthew 25:31-46). See also James 1:27, Galatians 2:10, Romans 15:26)
Not only should God’s people care for the poor, we should seek justice for them. The prophet Isaiah says “Learn to do right; seek justice. Defend the oppressed. Take up the cause of the fatherless; plead the case of the widow.” (Isaiah 1:17) See also Jeremiah 5:28, Amos 5:12, Zechariah 7:9. In the New Testament, Jesus condemns those who don’t work for justice (Matthew 23:23).
Balancing these two principles
Following Jesus often requires us to balance two different principles. Each of us has this responsibility. Here’s how I see it.
We should encourage and support financial self reliance and responsibility. But since we can see that many disadvantaged people have no realistic opportunity to work their way out of poverty because of where they live, lack of education or opportunity, we must recognise their need. They need change, help and support.
Once we recognise that this inequality of income and opportunity is caused not (generally) by laziness but by an unequal world, I believe Jesus would want us to support changes to the structures of inequality that are ingrained in our world.
- We can avoid purchasing from sources that use low-paid labour.
- We can choose to live more simply. (Jesus said “your true life is not made up of the things you own, no matter how rich you may be.” – Luke 12:15).
- Sometimes we may be able to choose a career that reduces inequality.
- We can vote for politicians and parties whose policies lead to reducing inequality, not increasing it.
- We can support charitable organisations who give money and time to the poor, and advocate for them.
Some of these actions may seem radical, but I don’t believe that should deter us. Archbishop Oscar Romero condemed the murder and torture of the people by El Salvador’s regime He was assassinated by a right-wing death squad while celebrating mass in 1980 because he refused to be silenced. He is reported to have said:
“When I give bread to the poor, they call me a Saint …. when I ask why the poor have no bread, they call me a Communist.”
So, is inequality a sin?
There is an obscene difference between the lives of the very rich and the very poor.
Gross inequality affects a significant portion of the world. It causes harm and it denies many people the opportunity to use their God-given gifts and live a fulfilled life. It can be a cause of war, terrorism, dictatorships and starvation. The benefits gained by the privileged few don’t compensate for the disbenefits to the many under-privileged. Jesus and the Bible condemn materiaism, wealth, inequality and injustice.
I think it’s a sin.
But what can we do about it? What are we going to do about it?
Graphic: Inequality shown in the two sides of the fashion industry. Left photo: Andrea Piacquadio. Right photo: each day, Bithi helps create a minimum of 480 pair of pants, sewing 60 pockets an hour — for about $1 a day. (© World Vision Australia 2015. All rights reserved. Used by permission.)