Chris H. continues his epic guest stint with us.
Author’s Note: The question of equality came up in the comments that developed on my post about Martin Luther King. Ultimately, my perspective on equality has roots in Rousseau. For him, disparities of wealth make it impossible to have a real social contract, one where all are committed to sustaining the contract. Inequality, particularly in extreme forms, undermines the possibility of social unity and cooperation. I dealt with this topic a bit in an essay that I wrote for Patheos.com. I will share it here with slight alterations. It gets to the heart of why equality (and not everyone having the same amount of money) is so important to me. It is the basis of community and democracy.
Jacob, the Book of Mormon prophet, laments in a speech to his people that their blessings of great wealth and prosperity have caused them to become prideful, even to the point that they “persecute [their] brethren because [they] suppose that [they] are better than the[ir brethren].” (Jacob 2:13)
This encroaching Social Darwinism (not called this during Jacob’s day), the idea that one’s wealth is somehow a sign of natural or even spiritual superiority, has been a challenge to Christians throughout time. Pride not only causes problems for the prideful, who begin to view their wealth as a result of their own effort instead of the providence of God, but also undermines the possibility of community.
Brigham Young was President of the Church during the rise of 19th-century Social Darwinism (again, he would not have known it by this term). He viewed this sense of superiority, along with its inherent acceptance and praise of inequality, as a threat to the community-focused approach to economics and development, which he had used to settle much of the Mountain West.
One of the best descriptions of the dangers of inequality to Christian community in Mormon sources is in the Book of Mormon. In 3 Nephi 6, we read about the condition of the Nephites around the time of Christ. Then, as in Jacob’s day, as well as during the industrial revolution or the 1990s, some achieved great wealth, while others were left behind.
(3 Ne 6:12) And the people began to be distinguished by ranks, according to their riches and their chances for learning; yea, some were ignorant because of their poverty, and others did receive great learning because of their riches. Some were lifted up in pride, and others were exceedingly humble; some did return railing for railing, while others would receive railing and persecution and all manner of afflictions, and would not turn and revile again, but were humble and penitent before God. And thus there became a great inequality in all the land, insomuch that the church began to be broken up; yea, insomuch that in the thirtieth year the church was broken up in all the land…
This great inequality in the land undermined the church, because the people no longer viewed themselves as one. They could not view themselves as all part of the body of Christ. The challenge of inequality to social cooperation is one that is not limited to faith-communities, but is also found in political communities and economic systems.
The 20th century political philosopher John Rawls argued that extreme economic inequality undermines the real possibility of equal democratic citizenship. The reason for this is that the drastic gap between the very rich and the rest of us creates two types of citizens, with the rich having a much greater control over the political process because of their wealth.
Even Alan Greenspan, the former Federal Reserve Chairman and a long-time disciple of Ayn Rand, has expressed concern about the disparity between the wealthy and the middle-class. Greenspan worried that the large disparity between the rich and everyone else would undermine the faith in capitalism held by the average system.
Capitalism cannot be sustained over time in a democracy if people begin to doubt that the system benefits them as well as the wealthy. Such a view throws the system into crisis. In many ways, this is the current public perception of the government bailouts. We all feel tight. Some of us are out of work. But whom is the government helping? Banks and corporations. Now this is not totally fair, as all benefit from a healthy financial system. But as we look at the huge disparity between the wealthy and the rest of us, we are justified in being skeptical as to whether any of these efforts really trickle down.
How do we fix this? Taxes? Public ownership of the means of production? Jacob takes a different approach to answering this question. What we really need is not a different way of thinking about wealth. Instead we need to re-evaluate how we view our fellow human beings.
Jacob says that we should think “of [our] brethren like unto [ourselves].” If we do, then it will follow that we will “be familiar with all and free with [our] substance, that they may be rich like unto [us]” (Jacob 2:17)
I have long valued the second part of this verse, which speaks of giving to others. In particular, it clarifies that the goal of giving is not simply to keep the poor from starving but to bring them up to the level of everyone else. Of course, this is the stuff that stands out to me because my main interest is theories of distributive justice, However, I had failed to give adequate attention to the first part of this verse which says that we should think “of your brethren like unto yourselves.”
Ultimately, the obstacle that keeps us from adequately addressing our most pressing economic and social problems is our inability to see others as ourselves. Theorists of deliberative democracy have called this reciprocity, the ability to put ourselves in the position of others. John Rawls referred to this as our capacity to treat others as free and equal citizens. From a Christian perspective, we must ask ourselves whether we view all human beings as valuable children of God.
If we are instead driven by pride, we turn our backs on others and worry only about our own interests. I have my job, why should I worry about those who are unemployed? I have my health insurance and can afford it, why should we change it? Now, even these responses can be viewed as irrational, since everyone would benefit from a more affordable health care system. However, we seem prone, in our pride, not only to keep what is ours but also to get satisfaction out of the fact that others do not. This type of pride is the most dangerous, because we not only want more, but we also want to have more than everyone else.
If we are able to view others as like unto ourselves, the greatest benefit will be a greater ability to work together. Currently, we too often work against each other. We cannot work toward the common good if we do not feel that we have anything in common. Both democracy and Christianity require us to work together as one, despite our differences and disagreements, if we are to achieve higher goals, whether the goal is salvation or economic well being.
But we are so divided, is this possible? With faith in Christ, all things are possible. What about in the public square of democracy? Perhaps we need to have faith in each other.