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.