by David Clough.
Inequality is lethal. That’s the conclusion of a recent report by Michael Marmot and colleagues. It asks why the UK had one of the highest mortality rates from COVID-19 in the world, and concludes that a key reason is pre-pandemic inequalities that left particular groups of people vulnerable. We were not all in this together: you were much more likely to die from COVID-19 if you had a previous health condition; lived in a deprived area; lived in poor or overcrowded housing; had a high-risk job; or were Black, Asian, or from another ethnic minority.
In the past, Christian thinkers have disagreed about whether inequality as such is a bad thing. Some have seen the practice of the early church where everyone sold what they owned and gave according to need (Acts 2:44–5; 4:32–34) as an endorsement of socialism or communism. Others have claimed that Christianity affirms the individual economic liberty of capitalism. But these disagreements seem quaintly irrelevant when confronting the extraordinary economic inequalities that confront us today.
At a global level, we tolerate increasing levels of extreme wealth inequality. Oxfam reports that the richest 1 per cent of the world’s population own more than twice as much as 6.9 billion other people. Just 22 of the world’s richest men have more wealth than all the women in Africa put together. This inequality has grown rapidly since the 1980s. The reason for this is not mysterious: we give assent to economic systems that redistribute wealth from the poor to the rich and allow these gains to accumulate. This results in the scandal that some enjoy obscene affluence while others suffer from malnutrition. During the COVID-19 pandemic, the richest have increased their wealth further: billionaires increased their wealth by more than a quarter between April and July 2020.
Inequality is growing within the UK, too, where the richest 10% of the population own 44% of the wealth, while the poorest 50% own just 9%. This impacts not just standard of living, but health and life expectancy. People in more deprived areas have shorter lives and spend more of them in ill-health. No wonder they were disproportionately vulnerable to the current COVID-19 pandemic. The Joint Public Issues Team (JPIT) have identified poverty and inequality as a key priority, and have reported on the impacts of Universal Credit, benefit sanctions, food banks, and poor housing.
One key academic contribution to the debate about inequality was the 2009 book The Spirit Level: Why More Equal Societies Almost Always Do Better by Kate Pickett and Richard Wilkinson. It argued that societies as a whole do better when there is less inequality: there is more mutual trust, less anxiety and illness, and less excessive consumption. The findings of the book are very likely to be confirmed in relation to the relative performance of countries responding to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Private property is hard to justify theologically. I still recall a childhood walk in the company of my grandfather, Rev. J. Leonard Clough, who represented the Primitive Methodist Hartley College at the Uniting Conference of 1932. Walking through a wood not far from our house, we were challenged by someone who told us we were on private property. My grandfather roared the opening of Psalm 24: ‘The earth is the Lord’s!’. He was agreeing with early Christian theologians who held that God was the only proper owner of land, that the goods of the earth were for the common good, and private property was a consequence of the fall. The 13th century theologian Thomas Aquinas, who does not have the reputation of a radical, agreed and argued that taking goods from the rich that were not being used for the common good to meet urgent human need was not theft. The only final theological justification for private property is that it serves the common good. Where there is both abundant wealth and urgent unmet human need, nationally and internationally, it is clear that it is not serving this purpose. There is then a strong argument for redistributing surplus wealth to provide the poor, reversing the current direction of flow.
The question that follows is how Christians can help to shape policy on taxation, public services, and benefits that address the lethal effects of the inequalities we confront. The work of JPIT and Oxfam are important in raising awareness of these issues nationally and internationally, respectively, but their work needs much wider reception among the churches to enable change.
13 thoughts on “Inequality Kills”
A Roman Catholic priest (I can’t remember his name but I recall what he said) put it this way ‘Anything which you possess and do not use belongs to the poor.’ Every so often I take this one out and look at it. What does it mean for society? I write to local and national politicians telling them that I can’t be the only person who would willingly pay MORE in taxation than less, and that I believe in e.g. social housing, and the NHS, and access to education for all, and a safe water supply, and public service broadcasting.
But I still have more of this world’s goods than I actually NEED. So what does it mean for ME, NOW?
Not a bad exercise for the fourth and subsequent days of Christmas and before we begin a New Year in hope.
It seems to me that one of the main problems is that the Church(irrespective of denomination) , has far too many buildings etc and is, in fact, overall a bad steward of the resources that it has. I’m afraid that Christ would be overturning many more moneychangers’ tables than the Church of the 2020’s would allow.
Deeply moved by this post David! Many thanks for expressing so well the injustice of inequality.
I find it difficult to work out why anyone could claim that Christianity affirms the individual economic liberty of capitalism! A system that brings poverty, hunger and homelessness on the scale we have in the UK is unethical, abhorrent and certainly not Christian. What can we expect when government prioritises the economy over care for people! And I am not convinced by the idea that it is all right to support a system that is taking us back to the Middle Ages if we support the food bank!
Thanks for this David. You are echoing the words of Pope Francis 1 who said “human rights are violated not only by terrorism, repression or assassination, but also by unfair economic structures that create huge inequalities”. Presumably Robert is not suggesting that we shouldn’t support food banks because we have to meet immediate needs and work on the system as well I believe.
Yes John. Of course I support food banks! What gets to me is the idea that it does not matter if we remove the safety net that tries to provide the food and shelter that all God’s children need to survive, so long as we put some nominal amount in the food bank! I am disgusted and appalled that we even need food banks! Stuff the economy, what about the people! Yes, I am angry! Perhaps the taxes we pay should go direct to the charities that do the work of government in providing a just and fair society!
So are we saying that God is a Communist then?
As someone who acknowledges Christ as my Saviour I find it helpful to set my thoughts to music even when the subject is serious. I offer these verses which can be sung to the ‘Match of the Day’ signature tune and would make the suggestion that our thoughts and actions could centre around ‘ Injustice kills’!
It’s 20/21 now,
‘So what?’ you all may ask.
It’s 52weeks specially given
To help folk in the task
Of seeing that we all are brothers
And sisters on God’s earth,
Whether in Nottingham or Derby
Paris, Kolkata or Perth.
When Jesus walked this earth before us
He thought of others first.
He asked His friends to seek for justice
For those who were immersed
In problems brought about by evil
In systems large or small.
He was asked ‘Who is my neighbour?’
Said He came to die for all
Beginning first day after December
The weeks should make us think
Of those who suffer and are hungry
And help us see the link –
Which means that one part of the problem
Of not enough to eat
Stems from people as a whole here
Consuming a lot of meat.
Surely as we live out our lives here
On earth which God has made
We ought to note effects on others
Of unjust means of trade;
And if Jesus is our Saviour
We ought to be prepared
To seek justice and help others
So that all folk have fair shares.
Sorry should say 2021 instead of 20/21
I don’t understand Robert’s last sentence. Perhaps he could explain?
Extremists of all political persuasions can find something in the Bible to support their views.
The danger is when we project our political opinion onto God and use that to try and enforce it on other people. In this country we have democracy and a welfare state. I think most people would agree that the benefit system is inadequate in meeting the needs of the poorest people among us, which is why we must support the foodbanks, even though some people will take advantage, especially now they don’t need a referral!
I prefer the more moderate view of the hymn writer Fred Pratt Green:
‘In the just reward of labour, God’s will is done.
In the help we give our neighbour, God’s will is done.
In the world-wide task of caring for the hungry and despairing,
In the harvest we are sharing, God’s will is done.’
Human knidness is what Jesus promoted, not political propoganda.
Thanks for this Yvonne. Further evidence for the need for people of goodwill to redouble their efforts to ‘level things up’ is apparent from today’s(January 3rd) Observer article which states that a recent thinktank report states that ‘almost a quarter of the UK’s wealth is owned by 1% of it’s population’!!
John, we are in full agreement that it is totally wrong that some people are obscenely wealthy while others live in total deprivation. There needs to be a levelling out of the world’s wealth; anyone of sound heart and mind must surely agree? But that is a different thing to all men being equal. We were put on this earth with different skill sets, different abilities and different opportunites to generate wealth. Some people are very generous with what they earn, others less so, but if a wealthy person chooses to spend thousands of pounds on a new car rather than helping the poor, how many people have been employed in designing, manufacturing, marketing and selling that car, providing incomes for countless families along the way?
God gave us a free will, and I can’t help wondering if some of the ‘righteous anger’ that many left-wing people claim to feel is in fact simply because they can’t control the will of those who do not share their socialist principles? In communist states, the majority of people are equally poor, not equally rich.
Didn’t Jesus say ‘You will always have the poor among you’? He obviously didn’t foresee a time when all men would be materially equal; his message was that, whatever our status in this world, all men are equal in the heart of God.
This will be my last comment on this website. I can’t support a church which passes off left-wing political propoganda as theology.
Hello again Yvonne. I didn’t say that all men(and women) should be equal I was just pointing out how pronounced the inequality is and encouraging people to help lessen this within their spheres of influence.
Found this apposite quote on a US site from a young woman called Beth Moore “When the gospel has become bad news to the poor, to the oppressed, to the broken-hearted and imprisoned and good news to the proud, self-righteous and privileged, it is no longer the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ”. Actually I wanted to move on from “Isn’t it a shame” to “What can be done about it”. How can a gospel based on powerlessness overcome the abuse of power that has created the gross inequality we see each day?