The outrage of inequality and the joy of enough

John D Anderson on injustice, poverty, and the opportunity for the church to lead on a more equal society.

“Inequality is the root of social evil” said Pope Francis, because of ‘the idolatry of money’. It concentrates power in the hands of the wealthy, creating “a new tyranny… Invisible and often virtual, which, unilaterally and relentlessly, imposes its own laws and rules”.

In the UK the wealthiest 10% own 45% of the wealth.  In the years 2017-18, 20% of households earned nearly half of all income. One third of children are in relative poverty, having access to less than 60% of median income.  And yet we are the fifth richest country in the world. (The poverty I saw in Sierra Leone, Ethiopia and Botswana, where I worked for eight years, was of an entirely different order.)

Inequality is getting worse.  In the UK the average pay of a CEO in 2017 in FTSE 100 companies was 105 times higher than the salary of their average worker; this is 47 times greater than in 1998.

Every generation since the baby boomers has less wealth than the generation before at the same age. Generational inequality is now a real and dangerous problem. The level of home ownership, particularly affecting the young, is declining; the rate of return on capital, particularly benefiting the old, has exceeded the rate of economic growth. Social mobility is declining, partly because of the lasting power and influence of the 7% of the population which has attended private schools where the input per pupil is typically five times higher than the £5,000 per head that a state secondary school pupil receives. Because of inadequate capital gains taxes and death duties, wealth is passed on to children who have not earned it. Lower life expectancy, poorer mental health, under-resourced schooling and consequent poverty of aspiration all affect social mobility. 

The inexorable juggernaut of capitalism and the destruction wrought by global heating are making the inequitable global situation worse. The short-termism of the balance sheet outweighs the constructive long view of the statesman. Unpayable national debts are the playground of vulture capitalists. We know that climate change is racist: black people suffer while white people scoop temporary financial gains. Black and Asian women suffer most: they scratch in the increasingly parched fields; they try to feed their children on crops diminished by desiccation.  Growing economic inequality leads to burgeoning political inequality and the rise of the populist emotion-fired demagogue.

As Francis Bacon wrote “Money is like muck, not good unless it be spread.”

But there is joy in enough. As Lao Tzu said 2600 years ago, “The person who knows enough is enough will always have enough”.  Wilkinson and Pickett show in The Spirit Level that richer and poorer are both happier in a state of greater equality: the poorer have more sustenance; the richer have less fear.

If we have enough, we will have less competition of companies and more cooperation of communities. We are made, Genesis tells us, in the image of God. R H Tawney in Equality, written in 1931 but still inspiring today, wrote that inequality is “an odious outrage on the image of God”.  As St Paul puts it in Galatians 3:28 “there is no longer slave or free: there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.”  The more abundant life that Jesus offers precludes the love of wealth.  In Luke 16:13 he said “You cannot serve both God and wealth”. He spent more time dissecting wealth and poverty than any other single social issue. In Luke 4:18 he said, “The spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor.” He came to comfort the afflicted – but also to afflict the comfortable.

The great truth is that action on inequality must come from below. Top-down change on this issue is difficult for politicians; it is seen as vote-losing because too many people feel that they will lose money. A bottom-up efflorescence of support for more equality is essential. The beautiful petals will be:  valued shared community assets such as faith centres, schools, libraries, parks and countryside, all sufficiently cherished and financially supported. Christians, in the name of Christ: lead this!

John D Anderson.  Member of Baildon Methodist Church

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