Thursday, December 6, 2012

Equality is a Moral Issue

In our world today God's name and identity are still defaced. They are slandered by poverty, by injustice, by corruption, by disease, and by human exploitation and suffering. And God's name is defiled when his people willingly and apathetically accept the status quo, lacking the vision to lift up God's holiness, goodness and justice in a crumbling world.

                                                     Richard Stearns in The Hole in Our Gospel
I continue to be troubled by statements I heard earlier this year (about which I wrote previously) to the effect that inequality and poverty are simply the reality of our world which we must live with. In fact, the person who made these statements argued that in fact inequality is good, that we wouldn't want to live in a world where everyone is the same. But this confuses equality with being identical. Just because people are equal doesn't mean they are all the same. Equality recognizes and affirms distinctions in people, in their characters and personalities and in their gifts and abilities. But equality denies that those differences should allow one person to have authority or privilege over another simply because of a particular characteristic. For example, why should I have the right to utilize an excessive amount of the world's resources simply because I happen to have been born in the United States? Why should the fact that I happened to be born with an X and a Y chromosome make me acceptable for certain roles, while my wife and other friends who have two X chromosomes are not, by virtue of that fact? Obviously there are real differences between a person who lives in the United States and one who is raised in a poor country in the world, just as there are biological differences between men and women. But these differences do not justify inequality.

The fact that inequality does exist in the world doesn't mean we should be content with it or accept it as an unchangeable condition. We can choose how we will respond to the advantages and benefits given to us by virtue of our background. We can determine that, because we happened to be born in the United States and therefore had access to great opportunities and privileges not currently available ot the larger portion of the world's population, that we therefore have the right to take full advantage of that position, whether we consciously choose to exploit the rest of the world or not. We can say that we have a right to keep all our money and resources and use them for our own benefit (perhaps, if we feel generous, doling out a small portion to the needs of the world's masses). After all, inequality is just a fact of life and while we may feel sorry for the poor of the world, well, in the end that's just the way the world is.

I can choose as a white man that my biological sex and my skin color entitle me to privileged treatment. I can fight vigorously against any attempts to encroach on my power and privilege and complain vociferously whenever any portion of it is taken away from me. I can insist on my right to keep my hard-earned money and use it for the benefit of my children and those who are like me, preserving the privilege that I received for the next generation. I can maintain a wall between men and women that designates certain, limited environments as the acceptable spheres for women to conduct their lives. Sure, I affirm them as equal, as long as they don't try to actually live that out too fully. After all, inequality is just the way the world is.

Or maybe I could recognize that inequality reflects the fallen nature of this world. I could acknowledge that the power, privileges and benefits I have do not come to me so that I can keep them for myself, but so that I can surrender them. I can give away power and privilege. I can affirm the dignity and worth of others. I can invest the resources God has given me (however great or small they may be) so that others might have more opportunities and choices and over time experience greater equality.

I've been reading Richard Stearns' book The Hole in Our Gospel, which is a bit of a biography but even more a call for the church of Christ to embrace God's call to act on behalf of the poor, marginalized and oppressed of this world. In the book Stearns points to Paul's words to the Corinthian church in his second letter as a reminder (among many others in Scripture) that God cares deeply about equality—that in fact equality is “a justice issue or, stated more bluntly, a moral issue in which those of us who have plenty seem willing to allow others to have nothing.” In his letter Paul writes:

“Our desire is not that others might be relieved while you are hard pressed, but that there may be equality. At the present time your plenty will supply what they need, so that in turn their plenty will supply what you need.”

God calls us to work to eliminate inequality, using any benefit we may have to serve those who are in some manner disadvantaged. Stearns and Paul both address the issue of economic equality, but the issue of equality goes far beyond economic equality. If those of us who have privilege and power cling to it when we could and should be giving it away, we may some day find that the tables have turned on us despite our efforts and our own unwillingness to treat others as equals now will in that day come back to haunt us.

I acknowledge with great sadness that inequality does exist in our world. One would have to be blind not to see this. But I refuse to accept that this is simply the way things are, much less to affirm that somehow inequality is a good thing. Equality is, as Stearns states, a moral issue and as a disciple of Jesus Christ, who affirmed the dignity, worth and equality of all people, I want to work and speak for equality in the name of Christ. To do otherwise would be to deny the very name of the God I claim to serve.

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