God and Income Inequality

Here’s an idea: let’s stop obsessing over “income inequality.” It changes nothing for the better, and it makes us feel bad.

There is, after all, no biblical basis for doing it. Comparing levels of income is not a means of practicing compassion. Indeed, cultivating indignation over income disparities is too often made a substitute for actual compassion. Compassion is directed at our fellow humans individually, in their specific situations, and on a spiritual level. Theorizing about income disparities, on the other hand, is a mental exercise that approaches the humans in the equation as if they were abstractions.

In his parable of the wage laborers in Matthew 20, Jesus was clear that there is no nobility in the human propensity to focus on differences in pay, income, or reward. Our modern culture has made it a moral standard to do so, but there is no support from scripture for the idea that focusing on invidious material distinctions is an element of godly living.

If we survey the Bible, we see over and over that God’s approach to the material is a combination of personal intervention, practicality, and bounty. He urges His people not to worry about having their needs met, and He acts in different ways to meet those needs, sometimes providing supernaturally and sometimes using humans as His agents. We cannot make a mechanistic system of God’s methods; the only thing systematic is His standard of personal and comprehensive care.

But He also promises -- and delivers -- overflowing bounty when we live according to His rules for material life. One of those rules is tithing: the allocation of 10 percent of what we have to His work. Much of that work is devoted to relieving the distress of the poor. Another “rule” is that the level of our generosity functions to govern our level of reward: “Give, and it will be given to you. A good measure, pressed down, shaken together and running over, will be poured into your lap. For with the measure you use, it will be measured to you” (Lk. 6:38, NIV).

But in God’s economy, the attitudes of the heart matter more than absolute numerical measures. The poor widow’s gift in the temple (Lk. 21:2-4) was greater in God’s sight than the mighty gifts of the wealthy, because, in Jesus’ words, “she gave all she had.” Most of us know the powerful urge to hang on to our last dollar when we can’t quite see where the next one is coming from; the poor widow’s trust in God to provide for her needs was an example for the ages that none of the temple’s wealthy donors could match.

In a moral concept focused on “income inequality,” there is no room for God’s personal, situational, and heart-oriented economics. Christians might consider this: the more we think that collective action is needed to systematically “reallocate” material things, the less we are respecting and relying on God’s demonstrated intention to have a personal economic relationship with each of us. To study and bemoan income disparities is to write God’s providential care out of the equation. It is to assume an unwarranted authority for ourselves and our limited vision and understanding.

Choosing human understanding as our lodestone in this way is an Enlightenment-era phenomenon. We are not wrong to take encouragement from our expanded mastery of the material world; it has meant increased opportunity, prolonged life, and the relief of suffering for millions of people. But we tend to mistake our new technological abilities for triumphs over our enduring moral nature and our need for God.

One of those abilities is accounting for income. The ability of central authorities to count and record individual incomes, routinely and comprehensively, is a modern development. The method by which wages and salaries are paid to modern workers is itself a refinement of the last century. We’ve become so accustomed to government knowing our incomes down to the last penny that we retain no corporate memory of the millennia throughout which governments did not actually have the means to keep all the statistics ours now keep on us. Only a few generations ago, the U.S. government didn’t know what everyone’s income was. Taxes were levied on property, imported goods, and certain types of consumption (e.g., liquor and cigars); the government did not assume a need on its part to account for the annual income of each and every citizen.

It’s a good mental exercise to imagine what it was like not to have detailed income records maintained on all our citizens. Neither the government nor private entities had the means to brood over recorded income disparities. This did not prevent people from engaging in charity and compassion; the American Red Cross and the Salvation Army USA were both founded in the 19th century before income declaration and payroll deduction were instituted. But we might say that the absence of systematic income inspection helped keep the focus of organized charity on actual indigence and need. Income disparity is not, by itself, an indicator of either.