Radical Inequality

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Words like “equality” and “fairness” get bandied about a lot around election time, and we are in the thick of it here in the UK this week. The UK is the fourth-most unequal society of the 25 richest nations (the U.S. is second only to Singapore). London is the most unequal city in the developed world, which doesn’t surprise me one bit given the dominance of the City (if you think Wall Street is full of fat cats…). These findings are based on the ratio of the comparisons between the income of the richest tenth and the poorest tenth of the population. Theos has the topic of inequality as its debate this week, which is worth reading. Labour’s manifesto is called “a future fair for all,” Nick Clegg of the LibDems has the word fairness on his auto-speak. [picapp align=”right” wrap=”false” link=”term=equality&iid=5271754″ src=”c/8/8/4/man_holding_a_7892.jpg?adImageId=12729673&imageId=5271754″ width=”380″ height=”382″ /]

Now I’m no economist, and I hesitate to make sweeping statements about what works best for a national economy, particularly in a recession. But I’ve been thinking a lot about what a Christian approach to equality should be. Let’s first consider the model of Jesus: “who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness.” (Philippians 2:6-7)

This seems to me to be a model of radical inequality. Christ made himself unequal to God so that we could become children of God. And because of this God exalted Christ to the highest place and he will one day return to earth to rule forever. What a grand example of humility and submission that we should emulate, and indeed Paul exhorts us to do so.

Christians often call for equality and fairness in society, whether it is to protect the rights of Christians or to uphold the cause of the disadvantaged and marginalized, both noble goals. But the question is, do we love our ¬†neighbor? If we are rich, do we give generously, beyond what is “fair”? If we are poor, like the woman with her last coin in Jesus’s parable, do we use what little we have for the kingdom of God? I’ve not often come in direct contact with poverty in the UK, but I have done a few service projects for people living on the dole. Each flat I’ve visited to do painting or gardening has been bigger and more spacious than the one I currently live in. In each case it was very easy for me to build a grudge against the people I was helping, as if somehow just because I live in a smaller flat I shouldn’t “qualify” to help these people! As if “fairness” should even come into the equation. What we were doing was loving our neighbors, regardless of circumstances. One woman we helped was a widow and an African immigrant, which automatically makes her at a disadvantage in Western society. Yet she was one of the most generous people I’ve met here in London, keeping us hydrated with bottles of water and feeding us a big lunch during the day we spent with her.

When it comes to poverty in the UK, I don’t think the African widow who is trying to build a life here, or the Polish woman who works day and night in the laundromat just to support her family, should be in the same category as the unemployed person who spends their weekly government allowance on lottery tickets and junk food. While there are systemic issues here that obviously need to be addressed, personal responsibility should also be taken into account. But what about instead of seeing the poor as mere recipients of other people’s help, we saw them as contributors to society, just like everyone else? What if true “fairness” means that everyone loves their neighbor, regardless of circumstances? What if we measured equality not by how much each person “gets” but by how much each person gives? This is radical stuff, but it is worth thinking about how we as Christians should model Jesus in going beyond what society expects, and not settling for simple equality.


Owning the moment


I once had a teacher who explained to us the difference between enjoying a thing and wanting to own it. When we “window shop” we are taking in visual delights that we don’t take home with us. But when we go into the shop and purchase said delights we are taking ownership over them, perhaps over time to lose that original sense of wonder. When we go to a live concert it is very different from buying a CD or mp3 and enjoying it in the comfort of our living rooms, but then tiring of it after the 100th listen, putting it away where it gathers dust or becomes buried in our iTunes list.

Choristers From Westminster Abbey Prepare For Christmas

Today we went to hear the Winchester Cathedral boys and girls choristers sing Benjamin Britten’s Ceremony of Carols ¬†during a lunchtime concert at Winchester Cathedral. I love the Ceremony of Carols, not least because I grew up listening to a CD recording of it. My dad owns that CD and we listened to it every Christmas (and still do when I visit). Hearing it performed by 50 boys and girls with their tiny voices floating up to the rafters of the cathedral was heavenly. But I realized that during the half-hour concert I was straining to hold on to the moment of listening to them, and afterwards I wanted to somehow wrap it up and take it home with me. But I couldn’t – it lives on only in my memory, and it’s settled happily there. I wouldn’t trade it. It made me think of the Nativity verse: “Mary treasured up all these things and pondered them in her heart.”

All this is not to say that we can’t enjoy things that we own. Far from it. But how much happiness and contentment would come about through the enjoyment of things without owning them? In my experience, quite a lot. It sets us free from the burden of consumption when we take delight in each moment.

Still, I don’t think I can resist playing Britten’s piece over Spotify this Christmas. (Is streaming music online owning it, or merely enjoying it in a succession of fleeting moments? You decide.)