What makes us happiest is being part of a community where we feel connected to one another.

Beginning in 2011 on Wall Street and spreading across North America, Occupy protests have drawn attention to rising rates of inequality in both Canada and the United States. Protesters point out the unequal distribution of wealth and opportunity between the richest 1 percent and the rest of the population, and the inherent unfairness of a system that creates such inequality.

Many Christians don’t like talking about inequality. Talking about poverty is OK because God calls us to care for people who are poor. But inequality—that smacks of envy, and envy is a sin. If we have enough to meet our daily needs, then why would we care how much others have?

Maybe because humans are deeply social beings, as the Bible tells us and social science confirms. We are relational, created to live in community with God and with others. But our social nature can be for good or ill. It can inspire us to create meaningful communities in which we bear one another’s burdens, inspire, and encourage each other. Or it can prompt a constant need to create hierarchies, define and distinguish ourselves as better than others, and compete with others in order to feel better about our own position.

In The Spirit Level: Why More Equal Societies Almost Always Do Better, epidemiologists Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett review studies that show how insidiously hierarchies act on human well-being. In a busy bureaucracy, for example, you might think that it’s the people at the top who bear most of the responsibility for important decisions and suffer the most stress and stress-related heart attacks. Instead, it’s the secretaries and assistants who feel powerless and inferior and suffer the most stress.

Wilkinson’s and Pickett’s research shows that unequal societies suffer from more health problems, higher mortality rates, more crime, more drug abuse, more teen pregnancies, and worse educational outcomes at every income level when compared with a more equal society. So even those with plenty of money are worse off when they live in an unequal society.

In ancient Israel, God’s laws mandated periodic redistribution of wealth to the poor and needy. This ensured that no one was permanently left behind, just as no one was allowed to accumulate wealth at the expense of others. These laws also required redistribution of the means of production—land, grain, and livestock—so that everyone had the opportunity to participate in the economy.

Every seventh year, all debts were to be forgiven and slaves were to be released with generous gifts (Deut. 15:1‐18). Every 50th year was the Year of Jubilee, when land that had been sold was to be freely returned to the seller (Lev. 25:8‐55), as it had been equally divided when the Israelites first entered the Promised Land.

Our modern economy is very different from that of ancient Israel, but that doesn’t mean that an economy of care is out of our reach. Churches can and should be a prophetic voice for a covenant economy, one that is centered on caring for people and the earth.

Recent research on well-being suggests that what makes us happiest is being part of a community where we feel connected to one another. Accumulating wealth without limits can never make us as happy as simply getting to know our neighbors and caring for each other. In the simple act of reaching out we can find abundance.

About the Author

Chandra Pasma is a policy analyst for Office of the Leader of the Opposition, House of Commons, Ottawa, Ontario. She attends Calvin Christian Reformed Church. The views represented in this article are the author's and not those of her employer.

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Comments

I realize the author is limited to a very restricted number of words, but she does not make the case that an economic system that equalizes results is to be preferred.  Inequality in wealth and possessions is not the same as hierarchical.  Nor is inequality in wealth necessarily a barrier to feeling connected to one another.

Furthermore, inequality is a given - ordained by God - as is made clear in such passages as Matthew 25:14-30, 1 Cor 12, and others.  Some people have a gift for managing money and ought to be entrusted with more of it.

True, accumulating wealth merely for the sake of accumulating wealth is empty and void - it will not make us happy.  Caring for one another - loving one another as God in Christ loved us - is necessary.

Then there is the matter of how, in a secular order (we don't live in Christian countries, despite the claims of many who wish to believe the U.S. and Canada are or were).  The disruption, counter-incentives, opportunities for corruption and oppression that result from attempts to establish economies of equal results are well established.

But a non-hierarchical (or as non-hierarchical as we can manage) structure with equality of opportunity that encourages those with much to care for those with little - that might be do-able (in an imperfect, tainted way, at least, as all such things must be this side of heaven).

 

First, Chandra Pasma is to be congratulated for drawing attention to the detrimental affects of wealth inequality on all of society. I myself am writing a PhD on social-justice in the Old Testament and its seems to me that scripture’s view on poverty and wealth is well summarized in this quote by Craig Blomberg: ‘God owns it all, and he wants everybody to be able to enjoy some of it.’ The unrelenting call upon God’s people in the Bible is toward a radical generosity. On one hand Israel is exhorted: ‘There shall be no poor among you’ (Deut 15:4). On the other hand, Jesus says: ‘give to the one who asks’ (Matt 5:42).  

 

Second, I respond my fellow commenter who writes: ‘Some people have a gift for managing money and ought to be entrusted with more of it.’ Good management is not the primary explanation of the extreme inequality of wealth, globally and domestically. Those born poor remain poor tend to remain poor, and those born into wealth tend to keep it. This trend has to do with opportunity, education, health, access to power, oppression etc. On wealth in the New Testament I recommend Craig Blomberg’s ‘Neither Poverty Nor Riches’.

 

Mark Glanville – blog: markrglanville.wordpress.com

 

What are the detrimental effects of wealth inequality?  I realize the detrimental effects of poverty but inequality per se?  Nope, not seeing it.

Both my fellow commenter and the author seem to confuse inequality with poverty.  I did not say, for instance, that good management is the cause of disparities in relative wealth (it is often a factor, however).  What I said is that inequality ought to exist as there is inequality in ability with regards to managing wealth. If you want to discuss how best to discern those with that gift and the extent to which they ought to be trusted, we can do that - but that's not what Ms. Pasma's writing about.  My point is merely to demonstrate that wealth inequality in and of itself is not only not a problem, but can be a positive good and in any event is inevitable.

If my neighbor has a billion dollars and I have a million dollars, the relative inequality is great indeed - far greater than the inequality that exists between me with my million and the person on the next block with a hundred thousand.  But none of us (given the current purchasing power of a U.S. dollar) is suffering and the inequality that subsists can upset us only by virtue of our jealousy.

The person in the next town who only has $1,000 is - relatively speaking - very close to my neighbor with $100,000, far closer than that neighbor is to the one with $1 billion.  That they are closer to equal doesn't help the guy with $1,000 one bit, however.  His problem isn't that I have a million or somebody else a billion or still another has $100,000.  In fact, if we were to all give up our wealth and have only $1,000 with him, his problems would not be solved in the least by such equality.  That's because his problem is poverty, not inequality.

How do we address his problem?  Well, that depends on what causes it.  Is it "can't" or "won't"?  If it's the latter - that he won't do what he could do to lift himself out of poverty with the gifts God has given him, then perhaps the best way to address his problem is to let him suffer until he develops the will to act.  If it's "can't", then we must ask what hinders him?  Physical difficulty?  Lack of an available job?  Oppressive governance?  What?  It's worth trying to find a way to distinguish between "can't" and "won't" and the various causes of "can't" so we can help him prosper.  But inequality only matters if it can be shown to be the cause of his inability. 

That's a very difficult case to make and neither Ms. Pasma nor Mr. Granville has made it.  Nor do I believe it can be made.  But I can show, through multiple historical examples, that efforts to enforce equality of result have tended more towards increasing the number of people in poverty than towards actual equality of means.

I'm not advocating boundless greed.  Not hardly.  I concur that wealth in itself is empty and its wholehearted pursuit is a form of idolatry - the love of money is not to be encouraged, to put it mildly.  I merely point out that the problem isn't inequality, and you won't fix the actual problem, or even achieve a relative improvement in the actual problem, by spending a lot of time and energy going after inequality.

There is a billboard in my town that says, Socialism/Marxism = Poverty and Hunger

Dozens of nations give us real-world examples of socialism everyday.

it's been proven that:

        1. You cannot legislate the poor into prosperity by legislating the wealthy out of prosperity.

2. What one person receives without working for, another person must work for without receiving.

3. The government cannot give to anybody anything that the government does not first take from somebody else.

4. You cannot multiply wealth by dividing it!

5. When half of the people get the idea that they do not have to work because the other half is going to take care of them, and when the other half gets the idea that it does no good to work because somebody else is going to get what they work for, that is the beginning of the end of any nation.

Very well said!!

There seems to be a bit of confusion about inequality in status, and inequality in income. I think that what Chandra writes about health and psych problems in societies or places with more inequality of status, has to do with a lack of respect of people for each other, and thus a lack of trust, and an inability to feel like one is contributing. If the rich respect the poor, and the poor respect the rich, then an inequality of income does not lead to these types of problems.

For example, if we realize that the incentive for wealth can lead to the possibility of employment for many others, and can lead to innovations and conveniences which can be obtained by many, then we will appreciate that others can become wealthy. For example, the production of cars, furnaces, natural gas, TVs, insulation and vacumn cleaners and automatic washing machines makes almost everyone wealthier in a real sense, if they can purchase them. So the cheaper they become (assuming similar quality), the wealthier everyone else becomes, since they can afford to buy them and use them. Wealth is required to produce such things in a way that most people can afford them (and do you know anyone today who can not afford a TV? or a stove? or a fridge?)

It might sometimes seem that the rich do not need to respect the poor. However, those who are poorer constitute the majority of those who will purchase things designed and made by the wealthy, and they are also the workers who produce the goods. Without them, the wealthy would have no way of achieving their goals. Therefore, they ought to respect the middle class and all those who are not as wealthy.

Wealth is a means to an end, both for the rich and the not-so-rich. It is a gift, and a responsibility. It gives some power to those who use it wisely, and to those who give it away judiciously, and to those who allow others to have it and use it.

PNR, just to clarify. The Matthew 25 passage is in no way meant to clarify a pariticular economy but rather, as a parable, the challenge for followers of Christ to use their God-given abilities responsibly as a sign of a right-relationship with God. In context then, even though Jesus uses a financial example the people would understand, he is in no way advocating it per se, but rather helping them understand that a person's faithfulness is evidence as to whether they are truly one of his own.  And the 1 Cor 12 passage is again clearly for those within the church so that there be no concern of one persons Spiritual gifts being any better than the next persons, but all used for kingdom work.  Their context is not advocating a particular financial system or view point or suggesting how we treat the poor.  If anything the Bible tells us that for those who are given much -- especially in the way of giftings, but also $$, much more will be expected of them in how they responsibly carry out God's desires for a community in society and especially how they care for the less fortunate.

You wrote, But a non-hierarchical (or as non-hierarchical as we can manage) structure with equality of opportunity that encourages those with much to care for those with little - that might be do-able (in an imperfect, tainted way, at least, as all such things must be this side of heaven).

I believe that's what Ms. Pasma is trying to get across as I read her here.

 

A K D - To clarify, I didn't say Matthew 25 or 1 Cor 12 endorsed a particular economic system. I said they endorsed inequality - some are given gifts in greater measure than others. This is a fact and it applies to pecuniary gifts as well as to others. The attempt to force equality of economic result is akin to trying to make the whole body an eye. It is not only foolish to attempt, it is impossible to achieve.

Nor may we say that Jesus, using a parable about money, was "in no way" talking about money. That he wasn't talking EXCLUSIVELY about money is clear, but that's not the same as "in no way" talking about it.

As for whether or not Ms. Pasma is trying to say some version of, "Of those to whom much is given, much is expected", it is incontrovertibly true that she did not say that. Her basic thesis is that inequality in material wealth is, by definition, an injustice. I say it is not, never has been, and it is not biblical to say that it is. Whether Matthew 25 refers to cash or skills or what we call "talents" in English does indeed indicate that inequality is to be expected, and the fact that someone has more is not an excuse to refuse to use what I have to God's honor and glory.

There is a difference between ability and opportunity that is being neglected in many of the comments here.  While I heartily agree that some inequality is desireable (GINI indexing shows this), too much is problematic because, as one person pointed out, 

"When half of the people get the idea that they do not have to work because the other half is going to take care of them, and when the other half gets the idea that it does no good to work because somebody else is going to get what they work for, that is the beginning of the end of any nation."

The corruption in businesses and banks (and really everywhere) makes the work-a-day person feel that there hard work is being siphoned off by others.  

The other major issue is that if you put two snapping turtles in a tank with a limited amount of food, the bigger one will get bigger and the smaller one will never catch up.  

Globally, the greatest determinants of success are; 1) where you were born 2) who your parents were.  Hard work and ability are all well and good but unless you re-level the playing field every once in while (as in the old testament system), then inequality begets greater inequality. 

First, I want to congratulate Chandra for putting out this challenge to all the readers of The Banner. You clearly make a point that as Christians we are called to be different than what general society is asking from us. We are the salt of the earth and if we lose our saltiness we are of no use for God's Kingdom.

As Christians we are called to having relationships by loving God as well as our neighbours. In order to love someone you have to have a relationship with them. You can not love someone without knowing that person and knowing that person means you are part of a community. That sense of community is a first step in living out the Greatest Commandment.

As the Bible tells us: there will always be people that have more than others. However, as Christians we are called to look after the poor and needy. In the early church the people that had more would sell their possessions and goods and give it to others as they had need (Acts 2:46). If we see other people struggling to survive, we are called to share! The result of this sharing is that I will have a little less and someone else has a little more.

Maybe this is what Chandra was pointing at when she talks about less inequality. If we honestly and generously share our possessions and wealth with the less fortunate in and around the world, the world would be a much better place. Maybe the real issue is that we have lost the connection and sense of community with the poor and needy of this world. We prefer not to know them personally anymore. They are not part of our circle of friends and we don't socialize with them. We tend to stay in our own circles. But Jesus did not put any limitations on "our neighbour". Our call to helps others never ends.

Yes, there will always be poor and needy people but they should always be able to count on us Christians to help and support them since that is what we are called to do. For a person in need, a true Christian is a friend indeed.