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What Does The Bible Say About Income Inequality?

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incomeinequalityIs unequal distribution of income inherently un-Christians or unjust? That was a question The Christian Post recently posed to several Christian scholars, including Acton research fellow Jordan Ballor. Ballor points out that income inequality is not inherently unbiblical:

“The challenge is distinguishing natural inequalities, which arise out of the variety of human gifts and talents, from unrighteous and unjust inequality,” Ballor explained.

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“You don’t see envy talked about very much in this discussion — you hear greed,” the Acton scholar explained. “The Bible warns about greed, but it also warns about envy — when you grieve at something someone else has been blessed with.”

Envy can have two results, Ballor argued. It can drive someone to take the good away from the person they envy, making everyone worse off, or it can drive them to work harder to become more productive and achieve the same thing as the person they envy. Envy drives the idea that wealth is a fixed pie, where if the rich get more, it is because they stole it from the poor. But that is not how the economy works, Ballor said.

“We need to get out of that envying, fixed-pie mindset and get into a serving, other-directed mindset that improves the quality of life for everyone,” the Acton scholar argued. In a free market economy, he explained, people become rich by serving others, by producing something they would willingly buy. Jesus’ commandment that we love one another will make us more productive, and therefore richer.

Ballor has a paper on inequality in a forthcoming issue of Philosophia Reformata. From the abstract of his paper, The Moral Challenges of Economic Equality and Diversity:

Attention to economic inequality has increased in the wake of the global financial crisis, and along with this increased attention has come the need for reconsideration of the dynamics of moral reflection on inequality. Inequality is often viewed as a negative in terms of economic and social costs. But there are also moral challenges that arise from inequality. The Christian tradition emphasizes the diversity, and therefore the inequality, of the created order, and as such inequality is not simply a result of sin. After the fall into sin, there are new dynamics which consist of sinful kinds of inequality as well as sinful attitudes towards the gifts and endowments of others. This “grief” at the good of others has been classically understood as the vice of envy (invidia). This article argues for the ongoing relevance of envy as a particularly important moral category for evaluation of economic inequality.

Ballor also recently co-authored a paper with Victor Claar for a forthcoming issue of Faith & Economics. From the abstract of their paper, Envy in the Market Economy: Sin, Fairness, and Spontaneous (Dis)Order:

This paper explores the problem of envy (“sadness at another’s good”) from both theological and economic perspectives. The theological analysis helps show why envy is a perennial feature of human existence and an ongoing problem for ordered and flourishing social life. The economic analysis examines various attempts to come to grips with envy and its implications, showing the complexity of envy’s tractability (or lack thereof), and the resulting complications for attempts to minimize or eliminate envy through public policy initiatives aimed at inequalities resulting from market outcomes. The authors conclude that there are two variables at play in the calculus of envy: our sadness and another’s good. Envy could theoretically be reduced via the destruction of some goods, which often is the unintended result of policy solutions. But a more socially beneficial and morally responsible course of action is to focus on the economic, spiritual, and cultural causes of envy and their corresponding remedies

At the next Acton University, Dr. Claar will give a lecture on envy while Dr. Anne Bradley will give a talk on income inequality.

Joe Carter Joe Carter is a Senior Editor at the Acton Institute. Joe also serves as an editor at the The Gospel Coalition, a communications specialist for the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, and as an adjunct professor of journalism at Patrick Henry College. He is the editor of the NIV Lifehacks Bible and co-author of How to Argue like Jesus: Learning Persuasion from History's Greatest Communicator (Crossway).

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