Posts Tagged ‘inequality’

Fortune Obligates

January 30, 2011

 Is it right for some people to be rich while others are poor, or should there be equality? Opinion is sharply polarized on this question.

Much of the conflict in the world to­day is rooted in opposing answers given to the above question. This is at the heart of most wage disputes in our coun­try, with appeals made to either equality or justified inequality, whichever happens to be to one’s advantage in this dispute.

In many coun­tries there is growing conflict, largely due to the disparity between a wealthy minority and a very poor majority. Some are warning us that the disparity between the wealthy nations of the West, and the underdeveloped Third World countries will eventually lead to world conflict. The question I have raised, therefore, cries out for an answer.

One would expect the Scriptures to supply an answer to such a fundamental question, but unfortunately Christians do not agree on what the Scriptures say about equality or inequality of material goods. Some point to the basic principle of “just desert” running throughout the Scrip­tures, as providing support for inequal­ity. “A man reaps what he sows”  (Gal. 6:7).   “If a man will not work, he shall not eat”  (II Thess. 3:10).  The parable of the talents is often interpreted as suggesting that he who is faithful in little, will be given more responsibilities and more reward (Luke 19:11-27).

However, others point to Scripture passages that seem to favor more equality. Jesus encourages a rich young man to “sell your possessions and give to the poor” (Matt. 19:21).  It seems that many in the early church did sell their possessions, “had everything in common,” and “gave to anyone as he had need” (Acts 2:44-5).  Paul quite ex­plicitly refers to equality as an ideal (II Cor. 8:13).

How do we reconcile these two em­phases in Scripture?

I believe it is possible for Christians to learn something from non-Christians who are struggling with the same prob­lem. Some recent writings on the prob­lem of justice have helped me to see the Scriptural answer to the question I have raised from a fresh perspective.

John Rawls and other philosophers have argued that “nature” itself is not just in its distribution of natural capaci­ties. Some individuals seem to be born with all the advantages; others, with various handicaps. Therefore it is surely unjust to distribute benefits in society simply on the basis of achievement or merit, because this gives an unfair ad­vantage to those who have been born “lucky,” just as much as it gives an un­fair disadvantage to those who have been born with certain handicaps. Rawls, therefore, argues that the distri­bution of natural talents should be re­garded as a common asset. Those who have been favored by nature have an obligation to improve the situation of those who are less fortunate. Another writer sums up this principle in the phrase, “fortune obligates”.

Rawls’ stress on the arbitrariness of nature’s distribution of gifts and oppor­tunities is helpful, although we may want to reinterpret this from a Christian perspective. It is God who determines where we are born, and it is God who distri­butes gifts and opportunities. Most of us are born with normal abilities. We, in North America, live in a land of plenty and in the midst of abundant opportun­ity. Have we earned this? No! “What do you have that you did not receive?” (I Cor. 4:7)  Everything we have is a gift, a result of a “divine lottery,” if you will. Therefore we should be very careful not to become proud about our abilities and gifts.  It is simply wrong to give ourselves all the credit for what we achieve.  It is also wrong to feel that we are entitled to the advantages that we enjoy. 

Further, those of us who have been given an undue share of God’s blessings have an obligation to share with those who have been less fortunate. Fortune obligates. “From everyone who has been given much, much will be demanded,” Jesus said (Luke 12:48). We owe some­thing to those who have not been as richly blessed as we are. Generosity is not an option, but an obligation.

Again and again in Scripture, we find that God has a special interest in the dis­advantaged, and God calls on the advan­taged to help the disadvantaged. What follows from this? If the rich share some of their wealth with the poor, and the poor receive from the rich, then there will no longer be as much inequality between them. There is no way we can escape this conclusion. Paul is crystal clear on this point as he encourages the Corinthian church to be generous: “Our desire is not that others might be relieved while you are hard pressed, but that there might be equality” (II Cor. 8:13).

 Paul, in this same context, describes the meaning of the Incarnation: “For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, so that you through his poverty might become rich”  (II Cor. 8:9). As followers of Christ, should we not similarly become poor, so that others might become rich, or at least equal?  

(This blog first appeared as a “Personal Opinion” column in the Mennonite Brethren Herald,  Dec. 19, 1981, and is here slightly revised.)