Inequality is one of our headline concerns at Joy in Enough, and it has been highlighted again by the Covid-19 crisis. People who were already at a disadvantage, including people of colour, have been more affected by the virus and its economic effects.
Climate change is similar. The richest are more likely to have bigger carbon footprints and cause more environmental damage. They also have the resources to protect themselves should any come threat come their way. It is the poorest, who have done the least to cause the breakdown of the climate, who find themselves at the sharp end of environmental harm. Inequality matters in and of itself, but it also matters because of the way that inequality interacts with other issues of justice and sustainability.
Where does the church stand on inequality? Sometimes it can be hard to tell. It doesn’t come up very often, with much more of a focus on poverty. Where it has been addressed specifically, it has often been individual church leaders that have spoken out.
The think tank Theos have recently released a report on the church and inequality. Called Bridging the Gap, it highlights current inequality in Britain (where the top 10% richest households own 45% of the country’s total wealth), some theological principles around equality, and how the church could respond.
The Bible doesn’t talk expressly about economic inequality in terms we would recognise, cautions the report’s author, Simon Perfect. It doesn’t necessarily lead us towards a particular economic system. It talks about spiritual equality and the shared dignity that comes from the image of God in us. We also see Jesus challenging unjust economic structures, declaring the liberation of the poor, and warning the rich about greed. We find Biblical principles around fair access to resources, rules to stop the accumulation of debt, and the Jubilee that served as an economic reset. Justice and shared blessing are themes that run all through Scripture.
For all the differences between the Bible’s context and our modern capitalist system, it is not hard to see that an economy that rewards the rich and overlooks the poor should be a concern to the church. Differences in wealth and opportunity reflect differences in worth, undermining a sense of the common good and the inherent worth of all human beings. Pope Francis has led the condemnation of the “economy of exclusion and inequality”. But what can the church do about it?
The Theos report has a few suggestions, beginning with talking about it more. That could be through formal statements, or interventions from bishops and other key figures. Churches could serve as convenors of debate, such as the Poverty Truth Commissions that have served as listening exercises in Scotland, or the York Fairness Commission that Archbishop Sentamu was involved in. Some churches play an active role in Citizens UK, which is active in addressing inequality and delivering a living wage. And of course all churches can teach more about inequality, and raise it as part of discipleship.
Many churches are also investors, and the more established institutions of the church control considerable land and wealth. Theos recommend responsible investment. More radical options are available – Jesus did not tell the rich young ruler to invest responsibly.
Theos also suggest that the church could be “offering up a vision of how the economy could be recalibrated from one of exclusion and self-interest to one of hope”, and playing a more active role in calling for wellbeing economics. That sounds a lot like Joy in Enough.