SPREAD THE WEALTH: A BIBLICAL LOOK AT ECONOMIC INEQUALITY AND REDISTRIBUTION
Economic inequality and redistribution in recent years have become a hot topic in part thanks to the presidential election of Barack Obama. On October 12, 2008 at a campaign stop in Ohio, then senator, Barack Obama famously said, “I think when you spread the wealth around, it’s good for everybody.”1 The focus on economic inequality and the redistribution of wealth is not limited to presidential elections2 but is important to think about when discussing Christian views on the role of government and the ethics of economics. This paper will be an attempt to look at the issue of economic inequality and the solutions that are often proposed to change it. Turning to the Bible, we will find that the inequality of wealth and income can be attributed to three things: God’s sovereignty, human responsibility, and sin. A biblical understanding of wealth inequality exposes the faulty foundation for governmental redistribution of wealth.
One does not have to be an economist to be aware that some people make more money or have more material belongings than others. A Pew Research Center analysis of data released by the US Census Bureau shows that “the upper 7% of households saw their aggregate share of the nation’s overall household wealth pie rise to 63% in 2011, up from 56% in 2009.”3 Forbes’ Deborah Jacobs explains this a little clearer by saying that “the top one percent of the country owns 34.6% of the wealth in total net worth; the next 19% owns 50.5%; the bottom 80% owns 15%.”4 This data reveals that a small number of people own the majority of wealth in the United States and that number has grown smaller.5
This issue of economic inequality has led many to conclude that something has to be done. Philosophers, religious leaders, and politicians have proposed solutions ranging from full-blown rejection of capitalism to a modification of the economy through strict regulation and high taxation. These are all forms of redistribution. Stanford Encyclopedia offers a rather lengthy definition of redistribution but it can simply be defined as the taking of wealth from one group of people and giving it to another.6
In 1816, Welshman Robert Owen wrote A New View of Society in which he called for the formation of groups or societies that would reject capitalist ideas. He was highly critical of private property and the free market, on which he blamed inequality and crime. He said, “For it is now obvious that such a system must be destructive of the happiness of the excluded, by their seeing others enjoy what they are not permitted to possess; and also that it tends, by creating opposition from the justly injured feelings of the excluded, in proportion to the extent of the exclusion, to diminish the happiness even of the privileged.”7 He proposed that people could form societies, similar to hippie communes in the 1960s, in which everyone would have joint ownership over all assets and property. The democratically elected leaders of these societies would oversee the management of the communally owned property and assets.8
In the 1840’s, Karl Marx would transform Robert Owen’s idea by applying Darwinian evolution and class warfare. Marx taught that “the history of all hitherto existing societies is the history of class struggles.”9 It was these class struggles that he proposed would cause the formation of Communism. He believed capitalism was run by the wealthy classes for their own benefit. He predicted that capitalism due to class warfare would self-destruct and be replaced by a new system: Socialism. Marx in The Communist Manifesto wrote, “the theory of the Communists may be summed up in the single sentence: Abolition of private property.”10 This climatic revolution would result in the complete redistribution of wealth.
Marx and Owen’s ideas, though initially opposed to religion, would find some acceptance in liberal Christianity in the 19th and 20th Century. In November 1914, Episcopal bishop Franklin Spalding stated:
The Christian Church exists for the sole purpose of saving the human race. So far she has failed, but I think that Socialism shows her how she may succeed. It insists that men cannot be made right until the material conditions be made right. Although man cannot live by bread alone, he must have bread. Therefore the Church must destroy a system of society which inevitably creates and perpetuates unequal and unfair conditions of life. These unequal and unfair conditions have been created by competition. Therefore competition must cease and cooperation take its place.11
The idea the church exists to liberate people from a capitalist society and all its trappings is called Liberation Theology.
Liberation Theology never became main stream in the U.S., though it did catch on in some Latin American countries. In 2006, the President of Venezuela Hugo Chavez was quoted as saying, “Capitalism is the way of the devil and exploitation. If you really want to look at things through the eyes of Jesus Christ—who I think was the first socialist—only socialism can really create a genuine society.”12 Liberation theology also has found adherents in some black churches.13
In the early 1900’s, Liberal Christianity melded with politics to form Progressivism. Progressive Presidents like Woodrow Wilson and FDR would use the government to increasingly regulate the economy and to begin redistributing wealth. One way this was accomplished was by a progressive income tax in which the wealthy pay a larger percentage of their income than those of the poor.14
In recent years, some Christians have called for the wealthy to pay an even larger share of the income tax. Jim Wallace, a religious advisor to President Obama and founder of Sojourners, has been a proponent of economic redistribution. Wallace argues in his book, On God’s Side, that economic inequality is unjust and that Christians should be working for the common good.15 William O’Brien in a recent article for the Huffington Post argued that redistributing wealth is a biblical mandate. O’Brien writes, “God’s holy people are clearly and undeniably commanded to redistribute their holdings, to ensure that inequities of wealth and poverty do not corrode their community, to make sure that none of God’s precious children have less than they need or more than they need.”16 Does the Bible really mandate the redistribution of wealth? We will turn now to the Bible to lay a foundation for better understanding the issue.
Francis A. Schaeffer wrote in A Christian Manifesto that “True spirituality covers all of reality.”17 Thus while the Bible is not an economic manual18, it has quite a lot to say about wealth and the acquisition thereof. Most people will be familiar with 1st Timothy 6:10, “For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil.” This verse alongside others provides a warning about greediness and materialism. The Bible ,however, does not condemn wealth altogether. Instead it presents three reasons for economic inequality.
One of Jesus’ parables, the Parable of the Talents (Matthew 25:14-30), provides a structure for understanding economic inequality. The primary purpose of this parable is to remind Christians to use their talents and abilities wisely in preparation of the Kingdom to come but the parable also provides some understanding of economic inequality. In this parable, three different causes naturally result in economic inequality. The parable begins with a man preparing for a journey by leaving some of his belongings behind for different servants to oversee. It is clear from this passage that this man symbolically represents God. Economic inequality in this parable is a condition that begins at the beginning when the man gives his servants differing amounts. Therefore, the first principle in understanding economic inequality is God’s sovereignty.
All wealth comes from God. Being creator (Gen. 1:1), God has complete ownership and control of all things. Deuteronomy 10:14 says, “Behold, to the Lord your God belong heaven and the heaven of heavens, the earth with all that is in it.” The Bible consistently teaches that everything everywhere belongs to God (Ps. 50:12). His ownership includes all of the world’s gold (Hag. 2:8) and livestock (Ps. 50:10). Not only does God have complete ownership over everything, he is in total control of it. God raises up kings and rulers and also humbles the mighty. In 1 Samuel 2:7, God is the one who makes people rich or poor. The Bible also teaches that riches and wealth are gifts of God (Ecc. 5:19).
God’s sovereignty and creative power is on display in his creation of mankind. People are created with different abilities and talents. Some people are given the ability to be neurosurgeons, professional football players, or business leaders. Some are given natural talents to work with numbers or abstract principles while others enjoy working with their hands. Some people have higher IQ’s or may be more inclined to musical talent. This does not mean that some people are of greater eternal worth or due less respect. In our world, however, it will mean that people will naturally have different levels of wealth. Dr. Anne Bradley explains “Because gifts are different and value in the market place is subjective, incomes will be different. . . Income inequality is a natural part of the human condition. We are created uniquely and that means that there is no universal Biblical standard for income equality”19
This first principle of God’s sovereignty goes hand in hand with the next principle, man’s responsibility. Man is given responsibility by God just as the servants in the parable are entrusted with the talents. The responsibility for taking care of the creation is given to Adam and Eve (Gen. 2:8, 15). Dr. Chad Brand explains that “Men and women were created, in part, to work … they were intended to employ their creative genius in understanding the world they were placed in, they were intended to mirror God’s eternal triuneness in enjoying one another’s fellowship, and they were intended to worship the One who had made them and placed them there.”20 The book of Proverbs speaks often about responsibility. Possessions or property can be gained by industriousness (Prov. 13:4, 14:23), wisdom (3:16; 24:3), or by development of insight (14:15).21 Work is a gift from God and for His people to be blessed (Ps. 104:1-35; 127:1-5; Ecc. 3:12-13, 5:18-20; Prov. 14:23).
This responsibility of man coupled with God’s sovereignty gives dignity to career choices. This also means that people will vary in their material wealth. Wayne Grudem explains that:
In a free society, with no government confiscation of wealth, the amount of money that people earn will vary widely. This is because people have different abilities, different interests, and different levels of economic ambition. . . Therefore, if people are free from government intervention, some will become very wealthy, others will have a comfortable level of income, and some will remain relatively poor.22
Thus income inequality is a natural result of man’s responsibility to work.
Sin is third contributor to economic inequality. Two of the servants put their talents to good use and earned a return on their investment (Matt. 25:14, 16). They were reward by their master while the third servant out of fear did not earn a return on his investment and thus lost all he had (25:18, 28). Sin keeps this servant from using his talents. There are several sins that can contribute to economic inequality. In this parable it is fear and laziness. The Bible is firm in its condemnation of laziness (Prov. 18:9). Paul makes the Christian work ethic abundantly clear: “If anyone does not provide for his own, and especially those of his own household, he has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever” (1 Tim. 5:8).
Greed and jealousy also lead to inequality. In Luke 12:15, Jesus warned a man who asked him to force his brother to share his inheritance that he should “take care, and be on your guard against all covetousness, for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions.” The last of the Ten Commandments forbids coveting our neighbor’s belongings. These sins are not limited by the amount of money one has. Both rich and poor can be greedy and jealous. Dr. Albert Mohler, president of The Southern Theological Baptist Seminary, wrote “those given to comparisons of personal wealth can always find someone with a larger fortune,”23 when describing millionaires in California who have been complaining about having a hard time maintaining their lifestyles.
The Bible is abundantly clear about theft and unjust gain. James condemns poignantly those who have gained riches by not paying their workers (James 5:1-6). Stealing is forbidden in the Ten Commandments thus protecting the right to private property. The Bible condemns those who abuse others to gain wealth whether through fraudulent business deals or theft (Prov. 15:27 & 22:16-17). Thus some levels of economic inequality can be attributed to man’s wickedness.
Having now laid a biblical foundation, the redistributionist view does not adequately take into account the three biblical reasons for economic inequality. The redistributionist position does not acknowledge God’s sovereignty nor does it account for the positive contribution of human responsibility. This would leave one to think that the problem for redistributionism is that it places too much emphasis on sin. However as Francis Schaeffer explains these views are:
(B)uilt on the concept of Man being basically good, linked with the idea that all people need is to be released from their economic chains. The Perfectibility of Man was the basis of much of the Enlightenment and of the French Revolution. Theoretically it was a basis of the Marxist-Lenin revolution in Russia. Each place this concept of the Perfectibility of Man has been acted on it has led to tragedy, to political chains, and to the loss of humanness. Every attempt to put this utopian concept into practice has led to failure because it is false to what Man as he now is, really is. Man is not intrinsically unselfish, corrupted only by outward circumstances. He is fallen; he is not what he was created to be.24
John Humphrey Noyes, a socialist in the 19th century, wrote a book entitled A History of American Socialisms in which he surveyed the various attempts to form socialist communities in the US. Over and over again, he recounts the formation of communities that start off enthusiastically using socialist concepts and in the course of just a year or two succumb to failure because of infighting and other problems. In his analysis, he comes up just shy of renouncing socialism and communism instead concludes that it must be the upbringing of those involved.25Instead of understanding that the problem is human nature, redistributionists blame the system. They believe that if just the right leaders can get elected then the government can lead the world into economic equality.
Lacking this understanding of human nature and God’s sovereignty, redistribution has another fatal flaw, the problem of unintended consequences. When the state or government heavily imposes itself in the economic system there are often unintended and disastrous outcomes. The problem occurs when a complex organization tries to control an even more complex system. Adam Smith in his book The Wealth of the Nations noted that the division of labor in modern countries has led to many great contributions for civilization. This division of labor is one of the reasons that markets are extremely complex. Smith while observing the making of a woolen coat notes that even “the woollen coat . . . as coarse and rough as it may appear, is the produce of the joint labour of a great multitude of workmen.”26 He then lists all of the different workers and supplies needed to make a single coat. While the technology of 1776 has since become out-dated, the concept has not. The economy has become even more complex with an almost infinite number of variables.
The governmental system is almost as complex. It operates through a bureaucracy that takes many steps to accomplish even the smallest of tasks. Add in the political process and one can see how complicated things can be. No wonder it often seems like the government moves at a snail’s pace. There is nothing necessarily wrong with government operating this way because the complexity and slow process should help prevent one person from making large sweeping changes that would be detrimental to the entire nation. Of course, if the constitutional limits to government are not followed then it can become easier to make these changes.
Noting the complexity of both government and the economy, we can then see why it becomes impossible for government to be able to adequately account for all of the variables. The history of the 20th century has shown that this complexity has not prevented the government from trying to assert a controlling influence on the economy. To be fair, there are some legitimate economic areas in which government should be involved such as punishing theft and immoral business practices. However in central planning and attempting to redistribute wealth from one group to another, the government has often caused additional problems.
One consequence is that in taking money from the wealthy and giving it to those who did not earn it, the government ends up punishing hard work and creativity while rewarding slothfulness. It is not fair to say that all people who have received government benefits have been lazy bums mooching the system. There are some people who are truly in need of help. However, the governmental programs often cannot distinguish between those who are truly in need and those who are slothful. Dr. Brand notes that a similar situation happened in Solomon’s kingdom, “There is a clear link between Solomon’s extraction of wealth from fruitful people to use in building his empire and the moral weakness, decay, and corruption that resulted in his life and the life of his sons. Here are people, living on other people’s money, and all it does is drive them into moral decay.”27
Another unintended consequence is that redistributionism often creates more inequality. It works by two methods. One, it often makes it hard for people to move from one class to another. Instead of raising all people it often limits success. Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary professor Craig Mitchell notes that “Class warfare, wealth redistribution, and socialism can, at best, make people only equally miserable.”28 The second way it creates more inequality is through abuses of the governmental system. This can lead either to tyranny as warned by F.A. Hayek29 or to what is often called crony capitalism. Crony capitalism is what happens when certain businesses or people work to get preferential government treatment. This leads to even more economic inequality. In the last century as the US government has grown larger and extended more control over the economy, economic inequality has increased.
Redistribution of wealth has many other problems including the questionable moral nature of taking from one person to give to another.30 Its fatal flaw is that it does not have a biblical understanding of the reasons for inequality. What should Christians do? The Bible gives us a clear picture of the attitudes we should have regarding wealth. Money and wealth are tools to be used by Christians to bless others. We are commanded to help our neighbor and to use our wealth for others. We are not however given the option to outsource that duty to the government. We should use our influence in the political realm to ensure that government is operating in a way that gives people the freedom to be able to use the talents and gifts that God has given them.
In the book of Acts, we are given a picture of Christians of various economic standing caring and giving to each other voluntarily. As Christians, we should be known for our charity. Charity is not only a monetary donation but an investment of our lives into the lives of others. Andrew Carnegie, a wealthy business man in the early 20th century once said that ““The man who dies thus rich dies disgraced.”31 He did not believe in governmental redistribution of wealth but believed that people should work to gain wealth so as to be able to help others. He set up many charities and worked to give away much of his wealth before his death. This is the attitude we should have as Christians.
In God’s wisdom, he has given us each talents, gifts, and resources. We should be wary of systems or proposals that may sound good on the surface but ultimately do not conform to what the whole Bible teaches on the reasons for inequality. In some way, economic inequality exists to give us an opportunity to use our resources to help others. Economic inequality instead of being a great evil may be a gift to the church that will encourage us to trust in God’s provision, and to enable us to be a blessing to the world around us. We should be a people who use our resources to enrich the lives of others. In that way, we may not all die materially rich but we can die wealthy in the kingdom.
2During his 2012 re-election campaign a video surfaced from 1998 in which Mr. Obama was filmed saying, “I actually believe in redistribution, at least at a certain level, to make sure that everybody’s got a shot.” Peter Grier, “Romney, Obama, and ‘Redistribution’: How Much Do US Taxes Reallocate Wealth? (+video),” CSM Blog: Decoder Wire, September 21, 2012, accessed November 13, 2013, http://www.csmonitor.com/USA/DC-Decoder/Decoder-Wire/2012/0921/Romney-Obama-and-redistribution-How-much-do-US-taxes-reallocate-wealth-video.
5 This data does not take into account the fluidity of movement among people from one grouping to another.
7 Robert Owen, A New View of Society (Prism Key Press, 2013), Kindle.
9Karl Marx, The Communist Manifesto (Point Blank Classics, 2013),Kindle.
11Berman, David (2007). Radicalism in the Mountain West 1890-1920. University Press of Colorado. pp. 11–12.
12 Tim Padgett, “Chavez: ‘Bush Has Called Me Worse Things,’” Time, September 22, 2006, accessed November 13, 2013, http://content.time.com/time/world/article/0,8599,1538296,00.html.
15 Jim Wallis, On God’s Side: What Religion Forgets and Politics Hasn’t Learned about Serving the Common Good (Brazos Press, 2013), 201.
17 Francis A. Schaeffer, A Christian Manifesto (Crossway, 1982), Kindle.
19 Anne Bradley, “Why Does Income Inequality Exist? | Institute for Faith, Work & Economics,” Institute for Faith, Work & Economics, last modified May 18, 2012, accessed November 13, 2013, http://tifwe.org/research/income-inequality/.
20 Chad Brand, Flourishing Faith: A Baptist Primer on Work, Economics, and Civic Stewardship (Christian’s Library Press, 2013), Kindle.
21 Bradley, “Why Does Income Inequality Exist?”
22 Wayne A Grudem, Politics according to the Bible: A Comprehensive Resource for Understanding Modern Political Issues in Light of Scripture (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan, 2010). 281-282
24 Schaeffer, A Christian Manifest.
25 John Humphrey Noyes, History of American Socialisms (HardPress Publishing, 2013), Kindle.
26 Adam Smith, The Wealth of Nations (Simon & Brown, 2013), Kindle.
27 Brand, Flourishing Faith.
28David Roach, “Bible Doesn’t Command Wealth Redistribution, Presenters Say at Theological Meeting,” Baptist Press, last modified December 13, 2012, accessed November 13, 2013, http://www.bpnews.net/bpnews.asp?ID=39349.
29 F. A. Hayek and Bruce Caldwell, The Road to Serfdom: Text and Documents–The Definitive Edition (The Collected Works of F. A. Hayek, Volume 2) (University of Chicago Press, 2010), Kindle.
31 Andrew Carnegie and Andrew Carnegie, The Autobiography of Andrew Carnegie; And, The Gospel of Wealth ([S.l.]: Renaissance Classics, 2012), Kindle.