Economic Equality or Justice? Howard Snyder Speaks

Howard Snyder:

HT: JS

First off (to set aside an issue some of these books raise): Economic inequality itself is not the issue. From a Christian and public welfare perspective, the question is not equality or inequality. It is economic justice. Let’s avoid the trap of thinking the public-policy goal should be economic or income equality, since that is both unachievable and undesirable. Would be we be happy if everyone’s income were equal but unlivable, or just at the poverty line? Would we want everyone to be equally poor, or equally rich, or equally middle-class? This line of reasoning quickly leads to absurdity.

So let’s lay aside the question of equality and speak rather of equity and justice in economic, political, and social relationships.

A main argument of capitalism is that economic inequality is a key driver of the economy, gradually leading to general prosperity. Rising living standards in the West were driven by the pressure of economic disparity, it is said, whereas Communism with its attempt to enforce economic equality was a disaster. In a measure that’s true, but it’s not the whole truth….

These are biblical issues. Perhaps Paul best summarizes the general biblical perspective in 2 Corinthians 8:13-15—“I do not mean that there should be relief for others and pressure on you, but it is a question of a fair balance between your present abundance and their need, so that their abundance may be for your need, in order that there may be a fair balance. As it is written, ‘The one who had much did not have too much, and the one who had little did not have too little.’”

Some may object: Paul is talking about the church, not government or general society. But the mission of the church is to model now what should be true in society—and not only model it, but be salt and light, leaven, so that the kingdoms of this world look more like the kingdom of our Lord and of his Messiah….

These are gospel priorities in society. Yet as Christians we find our greatest meaning, security, community, opportunity, and prosperity not in or through government or public policy, but in responsible discipleship in and through the Christian community.

I close with this quotation from Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Second Inaugural Address in January, 1937 (with thanks to Mike Rynkiewich for the citation): “The test of our progress is not whether we add more to the abundance of those who have much; it is whether we provide enough for those who have too little.”

That sounds more like St. Paul than like a political ideologue.

About Scot McKnight

Scot McKnight is a recognized authority on the New Testament, early Christianity, and the historical Jesus. McKnight, author of more than fifty books, is the Professor of New Testament at Northern Seminary in Lombard, IL.