I don’t know when exactly the “good old days” took place, but I’m sure they were before the arrival of cable news networks. I find the so-called culture wars that are kept alive daily on television and other media outlets to be both frustrating and destructive.
But there’s a really important economic issue within these wider debates that continues to come up. Well, perhaps it’s better to say that this economic issue doesn’t usually come up and get discussed. Instead, assumptions are made about it. And the differing assumptions about the issue have ripple effects on a range of debated economic policies and proposals—ensuring that any attempted debates among news network pundits will quickly descend into recriminations and moral outrage.
The issue is income inequality. And here’s how the battle lines are drawn. One camp points to the growing income disparity in our country and contends that something, somewhere has gone terribly wrong. You can watch YouTube videos on the distribution of wealth in the United States (like this example) and on the distribution of wealth worldwide (like this example). If you haven’t seen them, they’re worth a look. The charts genuinely are staggering in terms of the huge percentage of wealth owned by the top 1-2%, as compared with the little that is owned by everyone else. The videos are even accompanied by ominous background music, helping drive home the concluding point: Surely there is a more fair and just way to compensate all the hard working people who are not among the small group of the wealthy elite.
And then there’s the alternative camp, who objects to the way the debate has been framed so far. They press the point that there isn’t some great big “pie of wealth” waiting to get distributed in a fair or unfair way. The economy is not a zero-sum game in which I can only gain wealth at some other person’s expense. Wealth is something that can be created. Our capitalist system has lifted hundreds of millions of people throughout the world out of extreme poverty in recent decades. If we’re concerned about the poor in this country or any other one, then we’ll let the free market do its work of creating wealth and lifting more and more people out of poverty. Yes, within this system, certain entrepreneurs may become exceedingly wealthy as they provide something of value to a great many people. But if this is the best way for people to receive this value (that is, to come to possess resources, or wealth), then so be it. Why in the world would we adopt policies that curtail the activity of those people who are creating the most value, the most wealth, for everyone?
And thus the battle lines get drawn between the two camps on how to frame the discussion. But how should Christians frame the discussion? Opinions vary. Not too long ago I heard a prominent theologian begin a sermon with the words, “If Jesus were alive today, I think the social issue he’d be most concerned about is the gap between the wealthy and the poor.” Conversely, I recently heard a recently retired economist from a prominent Christian university say, “If there’s one thing I wish every pastor knew, it’s that the economy is not a zero-sum game.”
So which of these outcomes is God most concerned about?
*Ensuring that the gap between the wealthy and poor does not become too great.
*Lifting the poor out of poverty.
Now, maybe you’ll say that God is concerned with both outcomes. Fair enough. But what if one outcome comes at the expense of the other? We may face this dilemma on a host of currently debated issues: the minimum wage, tax codes, etc. So which outcome should take priority? Which outcome is God more concerned about?
A theological case could conceivably be made for either side. Christians who emphasize lifting the poor out of poverty might point to Jesus’s stated mission in Luke 4:18-19: “The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” While there’s nothing explicit about income equality here, there’s certainly plenty about lifting up the poor and marginalized. And as followers of Jesus, called to join him in his ministry to the poor, our call is likewise to lift others up. If, once again, the free market system best helps us do this, then so be it.
That at least is how one theological argument might go. An alternative argument would stress the loving, interdependent relationships that mark the eternal fellowship of Father, Son and Holy Spirit. As creatures in God’s image, we humans achieve our deepest flourishing as our relationships with God and others mirror these loving, interdependent relationships within the Trinity. But how is our interdependence with one another going to be achieved if some people are very wealthy and other people are very poor? What needs of the very rich can the poor supply? How can the rich genuinely depend on the gifts and graces given by God to the poor? As followers of Christ, we are called to help others come to participate in the loving, interdependent relationships for which all people were created. And moving others toward this outcome requires us to move them away from the extremes of great wealth and great poverty. To focus on how the most overall wealth can be created is to completely miss the point about interdependent love, which remains the highest good humans can provide for one another.
Well, these are two quite different lines of theological thought. Again, I think it’s possible to affirm both of them in principle. But in terms of priority, which should take precedence? I’ve come to believe that a great deal of disagreement—at least among thoughtful Christians—on economic policy issues stems ultimately from differences on this question. So I for one would love to see serious, further theological engagement on this question.
I’m thinking that the cable news networks aren’t going to provide a forum for this kind of extended discussion. So I suppose it will need to happen within the Church.
In part 2 we’ll look at how the Old Testament Laws may provide important insight into what God wants our economic relationships to look like—including our relative proportions of wealth possession.