Located at it is on Wall Street in Manhattan, Trinity Church was an apt place for four panelists to wrestle with the question of when inequality becomes exploitation and sin.
Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby opened the discussion, which was part of the Trinity’s Institute’s conference on Creating Common Good: A Practical Conference on Economic Inequality, Jan. 22 to 25. Examining scriptures from both the New and Old Testaments, he said, “There is an ambivalence, an acceptance of wealth as blessing and yet a hesitation, a doubt, a fear about its consequences.”
Of course, examples of people who have created great wealth and used it for the common good, such as Bill Gates and Warren Buffet, spring to mind and are reason to give thanks, he acknowledged. There is no biblical injunction against all personal wealth but, he said, there is an injunction against “the systematic and indefinite accumulation of grossly unequal [wealth in] societies.” That, he said, “always leads to abuse, even if every wealthy person is generous, because the asymmetries of power means that wealth allocation becomes a matter of paternalism not a basic issue of justice.”
Putting the problem in a recent context, he recalled that in the financial collapse of October 2008, British finance minister Alistair Darling was told, after negotiations with two major banks in England, that unless he immediately underwrote a cheque for £250 billion, the banks would not open in the morning, the cash machines would not work and the whole economy would cease to function. “He looked down the barrel of that gun and realized he had no choice,” said Welby. He noted that despite this “catastrophic failure,” the banks now seek “to get back to the enormous levels of leverage and gearing and freedom from constraint totally inappropriate to an industry that can destroy an economy overnight or at least over a few weeks.”
The example, Welby said, illustrates the theological understanding that “wealth is always in danger of corrupting its holders and in most cases, the corrupted become too powerful.” He said that economists such as Lawrence Summers foresee growing inequalities that will mean a few people will be able to enjoy the benefits of new technology such as artificial intelligence and gene therapies, but the large majority of people will see their incomes stagnate. “We face the challenge of a society in which inequality of education or health and opportunity becomes a life sentence to poverty.”
Welby then joined a panel with the Anglican bishop of Panama, Julio Murray; R.R. Reno, editor of First Things magazine; and author and blogger Rachel Held Evans.
Murray said Christians must have the courage to question the system that is causing inequalities and injustice. “When you talk about economic growth, there’s no trickle-down effect to everyone within the society. What we see more and more is a smaller group getting richer and a larger group getting poorer,” he said. How the church addresses this issue “is the challenge of the time,” he added.
Murray suggested that the church needs to raise awareness of such issues, particularly “life-threatening issues,” and try to impact public policy, reaching decision makers and helping those who are marginalized make their voices heard.
Evans said that in moving Christians to take action against injustice, it’s important to get beyond speaking about sin in general and making it concrete. “It’s the dirty water and the dirty air that disproportionately affect the poor,” she said. “It’s the fact that when my black friends talk about giving their children ‘the talk,’ they don’t mean the birds and the bees, they mean they are going to talk to their children about how not to get shot. It’s in that moment when I come face to face with both the system and my complicity in it.”
Relationships are also vital, Evans said. “I used not to believe that the system was rigged. I used to think that people were poor and people struggled because they were lazy; it wasn’t until actual relationships challenged that, that I repented.”
Evans grew up in an evangelical tradition but now attends an Episcopal church. She noted that she has seen a growing interest in evangelical churches, which have more typically disproportionately emphasized personal sin, in examining systemic injustices. With that, she said she has also seen a new openness to ecumenical dialogue and partnerships with mainline churches. “We can both learn so much from one another.”
When talking about where to start taking action, Evans suggested starting close to home, in one’s own faith community. “My friend Shane Claiborne puts it like this: a lot of people talk about loving the poor, but not a lot of people know the poor. In true friendships, you kind of rely on one another,” she said. “If we can just start with our own faith communities, making them real [partners] with the poor, real communities that watch out for one another, I think that’s where it starts, and then we could cast a vision for the rest of the world.”
Welby offered this note of hope: “The church, in the grace and providence of God, holds within its hands the beauty of opportunity that can change our world, liberate the enslaved, create the conditions of human flourishing and bring in the common good.”