Income Inequality and Jesus Christ
by Rev. Paul J. Bern
I have always vigorously maintained that the gap between the rich and poor is a moral problem as well as a socioeconomic problem in desperate need of solutions. Yes, it’s a religious problem too, and religious people are causing it. They come to church faithfully every Sunday, dressed like fashion models, and go through all the motions of worship and praise. Sometimes there will even be some tears or some healing that takes place. But, as the Bible says, if we do all that and even more without compassion for all humankind, none of those church services I just mentioned will mean one stinking thing. Neither will the people at church, particularly the rich or comfortably well off who do nothing to help those less fortunate than themselves. All their praising, worshiping, preaching and their exclamations of, “Thank you, Jesus!!” will be meaningless. Regarding this the apostle Paul wrote, “If I give all I possess to the poor and surrender my body to the flames, but have not love, I gain nothing. Love is patient. Love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It is not rude, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.” (1st Corinthians 13, verses 3-7, NIV)
So we can see that at least part of the reason for inequality is people who keep all they own and all they earn completely to themselves. They won’t share anything – nothing! Despite near-record levels of economic inequality, many politicians and pundits still don’t think this widening chasm is much of a problem in a country supposedly dedicated to egalitarian ideals. Inequality, the logic goes, is a natural result of different degrees of work and creativity. Some people strive harder and have better ideas, as well as take more risks, and giving them out-sized rewards is a good thing, since it encourages others to emulate this behavior and makes us all wealthier in the end. The only problem with this story, of course, is that it’s persistently contradicted by the actual facts about inequality today. In truth, inequality in America tracks more closely with a classic Marxist analysis whereby the owners of capital exploit a surplus of labor to keep wages low and generate high profits for themselves – depriving workers of a fair share of the value they are creating for companies. Yes, there are smart entrepreneurs taking big risks in America, but the more dominant face of the economy is well-established corporations run by professional managers who keep finding new ways to drive labor costs down and profits up.
The big losers are the people who are actually creating most of the value of these companies — i.e., the workers who make the sales, prepare the food, stock the shelves, handle the phones and so on. Many of these people are paid under $10 an hour, which is not enough to live on – and certainly not enough to save for retirement or buy health insurance, which is not offered to most low-wage workers. All of us are hurt, too, by the way that the low-wage model drags down economic growth. If you give a low-wage worker higher wages, they immediately pump that money back into the economy through more spending. But if you give a CEO another few million dollars in compensation, he’ll most likely just plow that money into his stock portfolio or other savings vehicles, which doesn’t do much for the economy since capital is cheap right now and customers are scarce. If we want an economy with robust consumer demand, workers need to a bigger slice of the pie. Business leaders once understood that elementary fact.
Jesus, Pope Francis, and brain scientists have asked what happens to a person who is repeatedly given a larger and larger portion of the economic pie at the expense of the workers, and the answers are clear if unnerving. Wealth and power are dangerous for your mental health, your spiritual condition, and for society in general – especially when they contribute to the neglect of the poor. Ridding the world as it exists today of poverty is currently a fantasy. Jesus spoke of this: “The poor you will always with you, but you will not always have me” (Matthew 26:11). He also said, “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God” (Luke 6:20). Only a few verses before this moment in Luke, he cries (quoting Deuteronomy 6:13): “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, for he has anointed me to preach the good news to the poor.” (Luke 4:18). Jesus also noted, famously and controversially, that it is easier “for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven.” (Matthew 19:23-24).
Jesus discouraged the accumulation of wealth, worried about its effects on those who had it, and took special pleasure in helping the poor, dedicating His efforts to them. He must have shaken his head at the large gaps between rich and poor throughout the Middle East in the first century. Pope Francis has taken up Jesus’ call on this. During his 2014 visit to South Korea, he repeated a cry that has become a central theme of his papacy, telling hundreds of thousands of listeners in Seoul that the gap between the rich and poor in Korea was a problem, and they should think back to early Christian martyrs in Korea. He said: “Their example has much to say to us who live in societies where, alongside immense wealth, dire poverty is silently growing; where the cry of the poor is seldom heeded and where Christ continues to call out to us, asking us to love and serve him by tending to our brothers and sisters in need.” Now, I’m not a fan of the Catholic church, but I must admit the pope has a good point here.
Everyone knows that the wealth gap in the U.S. has increased dramatically. “The top 10 percent took more than half of the country’s overall income in 2012, the highest proportion recorded in a century of government record keeping,” the New York Times reported in April 2014. It’s a problem that makes you dizzy, and one that will never be easily solved. Indeed, the concentration of wealth at the very top of American society recalls the early 20th century, before the income-leveling measures of the New Deal kicked in. The growing income gap is perhaps the most pressing issue before the world, not just the United States, as the level of misery rises among the world’s poor. Even those formerly known as the middle class, who have struggled mightily to make ends meet for decades now, face an array of problems that create mental and physical pain on a vast scale. So let’s go back to Jesus and Pope Francis and their concerns. Do people on the other end of this inequality equation really fare better? Does wealth make you happy? Jesus certainly didn’t think so, and neither do I. Although I’ve never been really rich, there was a time in my life during the 1990’s when I owned and operated a small computer repair shop. For the last 4 out of 8 years that I was in business, I earned a 6-figure income. But in the process, my life had sped up to a frenzied pace. By the time I closed that business in June 1999, I was so exhausted that I took a couple of months off to recuperate. So I know first hand that money does not necessarily solve all problems. Indeed, it can sometimes create more problems than it solves.
Three Canadian neuroscientists have suggested that being rich and powerful actually makes you less happy and, even worse, incapable of sympathizing with the poor. They find that the rich and powerful among us show less brain activity in that region of the brain where human sympathy is excited. Power diminishes all varieties of sympathy, and it drowns empathy in a sea of greed. Conversely, those who feel poor and marginalized in society show a great deal of sympathetic activity. The ability to sympathize with those around us seems crucial to our survival, and it’s connected to the mirroring functions of the brain. As the research now suggests, the richer and more powerful we feel, the deader will be that area of our brain where this crucial activity, which generates empathy, occurs. In fact, power fundamentally changes the way we respond to those around us.
Is it any wonder that when a rich young man came to Jesus asking for spiritual guidance, Jesus said what he was not expecting to hear. “’All these I have kept’, the young man said. ‘What do I still lack’? Jesus answered, ‘If you want to be perfect, go, sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.’ When the young man heard this, he went away sad, because he had great wealth” (Matthew chapter 19, verses 20-22, NIV). The young man “went away sad,” since he had so much materialistic stuff and didn’t want to let go of any of it. But letting go is essential to our own happiness as well as the world’s economic equilibrium. Jesus, Pope Francis and brain scientists would agree on this. It’s a hard teaching, but it’s important. We as humankind must – absolutely must – outgrow our childish need for accumulating material things. The notion that economic prosperity equals happiness borderlines on insanity because of the deliberate refusal of those who practice it to plug into reality. And so on and on it goes. The saying used to be, “On and on it goes, and where it stops, nobody knows”, remember that one? The difference between then and now is that the stopping point is finally in sight due to a series of wars and natural disasters culminating in the return of Jesus Christ. Oh, what a day that will be!