The worship of the ancient golden calf has returned in a new and ruthless guise in the idolatry of money and the dictatorship of an impersonal economy lacking a truly human purpose. -Pope Francis
Inequality is nothing new. There has always been a big gap between the rich and the poor and that gap has always widened and narrowed. The one thing it has never done is go away. The Bible, in both the Old and New Testaments, tells us to be on our guard against wealth being a divisive force in what should be a thriving community. Humans were not created to prosper but rather community based prosperity was created so humans could thrive.
Jesus told this story:
“The ground of a certain rich man yielded an abundant harvest. He thought to himself, ‘What shall I do? I have no place to store my crops.’ “Then he said, ‘This is what I’ll do. I will tear down my barns and build bigger ones, and there I will store my surplus grain. And I’ll say to myself, “You have plenty of grain laid up for many years. Take life easy; eat, drink and be merry.”’ “But God said to him, ‘You fool! This very night your life will be demanded from you. Then who will get what you have prepared for yourself?’ “This is how it will be with whoever stores up things for themselves but is not rich toward God.” The Gospel of Matthew
The modern western reader might take this text and wonder what the big deal is about. Why would God have an issue with a guy for making his pile and doing what he wants with it? In contrast, a first century listener to the text would be shocked at the man’s behaviour. After all, there is only so much wealth in the world and to hold on to so much of it (and keep it out of circulation) was immoral. The “villain” of the piece has more than his fair share in doing so, makes others poor.
Our inability to see what the first century person sees comes from living in a world of credit and “made up” wealth. Our recent financial crisis wasn’t caused by a plague or a failed harvest. It was caused by people loaning money they didn’t have to people who couldn’t afford to borrow it. It is beyond our capabilities to picture finite wealth and hence we are doomed to boom and bust forever.
Because we can’t picture finite wealth, we don’t recognise inequality till it stares us in the face. And when our economics begin to almost deliberately hurt us if we are poor we begin to see what Pope Francis is on about: our economic system does not have to benefit us to be good. It can go on and on without being disturbed by the effect it has on flesh and blood.
The Bible is fairly consistent in presenting the world and all that is in it as gift. In Chronicles 29 David prays:
Praise be to you, Lord the God of our father Israel, from everlasting to everlasting. Yours, Lord, is the greatness and the power and the glory and the majesty and the splendour, for everything in heaven and earth is yours. Yours, Lord, is the kingdom; you are exalted as head over all. Wealth and honour come from you;
When Israel enter the promised land, one of the stipulations was that the people did not own the land or each other. God introduced the Jubilee which taught that everyone should be prepared to let go of their wealth and to see that what they held in common was the stewardship of the land and the care of their neighbour.
When wealth is allowed to reign as a power in its own right (which Israel eventaully allowed), as if it were God, then it is condemned in the fiercest terms (see Amos for a great example). Inequality is not seen in scripture as a natural result of wealth. Instead it is a sinful outcome of mismanagement of the good gifts God has given to and from his creation.
What is condemned is not that some people have wealth, but that some have more than their share of the common wealth at the expense of others taking a living from it too. The outflow of that are the corrupt relationships of “I own you” or “you owe me” or “you don’t deserve this”. We will speak of “my” wealth rather than ours and make up fantasies of independently generated wealth rather than wealth generated communally. With inequality, others simply become a means to an end or a problem to be solved.
Over the next year in Britain we will be hurtling towards an election. Over those months, we will be subjected to a myriad of visions of this nation’s future. Rest assured all of those visions, left or right, will tolerate inequality and will pitch life primarily through an economic lens rather than a human one.
The question each of us will have to answer is a simple, life or death one. Does the economy and wealth exist to serve us and our common thriving or do we exist to serve economics which has no obligations to our common wellbeing?