Inequality has been a feature of human society since time immemorial, with a wide variety of ideologies and movements that have offered opinions about it. Today we find that ideas about inequality diverge along the political spectrum, leaving little room for addressing something that – when you ask – most people care about a lot.
This is the subject of some new research from the Theos think tank. Beyond Left and Right – Finding consensus on economic inequality takes a step back to find points of agreement. It also asks whether theology can open up a different perspective.
Inequality matters for a variety of reasons, beyond our innate (but hard to articulate) sense of what is fair. It undermines community and sets people against each other. It breeds mistrust and resentment, which in turn makes other political decisions difficult. When societies are unequal, rewards accumulate to those who already have more than enough and the poorest lack even the basics. This can lead to poverty at the bottom, and over-consumption at the top – with all the ecological damage that brings with it.
This, argues author Hannah Rich, is a relational problem that requires relational solutions – not treating people as competing tribes or statistical units. There are theological principles that can help here. For example, we recognise that we are made in the image of a Trinitarian God, who is by nature relational. “Humans are fundamentally dependent on a network of relationships to flourish and make meaning; inequality is harmful when it prevents people flourishing in this way.”
Christian understandings of sin can help to illuminate the injustices of greed and selfishness, rather than dismissing them as inevitable. Concepts of responsibility to our neighbours can help to foster solidarity. We are all equal in the eyes of God. And of course justice is a theme throughout the scriptures.
These principles have been applied in different ways throughout history, from ideas such as the Jubilee in the Bible itself, to medieval views of luxury and waste, to Pope Leo XIII cutting a path between capitalism and socialism to focus on the poorest first.
The report concludes with some policy recommendations for applying these sorts of principles today. They include fair pay ratios that focus attention on high pay as well as low wages. They mention universal benefits that treat everyone equally, eliminating tax havens, and social wealth funds that create a more inclusive economy.
Finally, Theos highlight the importance of enough: “In our current economic paradigm, it seems there is no such thing as too much growth – no concept of having ‘enough’ – and what growth there is, is unevenly distributed. This is at the root of economic inequality.”
In response, they suggest that “a Christian approach to inequality would mean recalibrating the economy to prioritise wellbeing, while recognising the appropriate role for growth in a healthy economy.”