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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.

[. . .]

“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).


  • Seems to me that much would have to do with whether the income is earned or unearned. A phrase few of us know today is the “unearned increment” — that is, the increase in value of Land. The landholder doesn’t earn that income by any action on his part; it is gifted to him by his community, by the community’s failure to tax the annual value of the Land. I encourage you to read Henry George’s landmark 1879 book, Progress and Poverty, which inspired several generations of Americans; it was the #2 bestseller of the last 20 years of the 19th century, and its ideas were familiar to everyone. He proposed a way we could adjust our economic structures to create a level playing field, on which all could prosper. The book is online.

    • I have read George’s book and it’s nonsense. Only envious people make the distinction between earned and unearned income. Do lottery winners have no right to their money because they don’t earn it? Do people have no right to leave an inheritance to their children who didn’t earn it? And who defines what is earned and unearned? Do pro athletes work hard enough to justify their incomes as earned? Should be abolish interest because it isn’t “earned?” The real issue is property rights and not “earned” vs “unearned” income.

      • So when some of us claim the socially-created “surplus” as our own, the rest have no right to object? Lottery winners took their chances, knowing the odds and having the choice not to play. Leaving an inheritance of slaves to one’s widow or heirs was once considered a sacred right; now we recognize it as something else. Pro athletes are trading on their own skills, and likely receive only a small portion of what their skills create for the “charity” that pays their contract wages. Interest is earned. But rent (that is, economic rent, the rental value of land and non-renewable natural resources) cannot be “earned” by any individual or corporation; it is rightly the community’s. Some day, we’ll recognize it as “natural public revenue” instead of private treasure. Doing so will allow us to get rid of burdensome taxes on wages, buildings, sales and other things we say are rightly private.

        • There is no such thing as “socially-created surplus.” There is only privately created and owned profits.

          Of course society has the right to change the rules any time it wants to. It can do away with all private property as some societies have done. They can define black as white and good as evil. They have done so many times in the past.

          But Christians are constrained by the truth and the Bible. Private property comes from the Bible, from the “image of God” and dominion verses through the many prohibitions of theft. Without the Bible private property does not exist.

          So Christians can’t define things the way they want. They have to submit to what the Bible says. The Bible sanctifies private property whether it is earned or not. In fact, the Bible often states that great wealth is a gift of God totally unearned by the receiver.

          There is no such thing as “natural public revenue”, and you can get rid of taxes on wages, buildings and sales by simply reducing the size of scope of government.

          • Obviously you are entitled to your opinion. But you might explore a few of Henry George’s speeches, and see whether some of his ideas resonate with your understanding of truth. See “Thou Shalt Not Steal,” “Thy Kingdom Come,” “The Crime of Poverty” and “Moses.”

          • isaac

            Cool what do you think of homelessness? Or poverty, racist housing policies,or state-sanctioned economic violence?

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  • Micha_Elyi

    Acton research fellow Jordan Ballor’s characterization of envy as “when you grieve at something someone else has been blessed with” is spot on. I agree that envy tempts one to take away or sabotage the resented blessing enjoyed by another. In this respect, envy is closely linked to jealousy. However, I disagree that envy might be a motivation to earn for oneself a similar blessing. Such a motivation would emerge from admiration or love of the good, not from resentment which is at the core of envy.

  • The best resource on envy is Helmut Schoeck’s “Envy: A Theory of Social Behavior.” Schoeck shows that historically envy desires the destruction of the envied person, or at least the destruction of his advantage. It is purely a destructive impulse. Most societies have organized around a fear of envy that creates institutions that hinder economic growth. He argues that Christianity managed to suppress envy enough to allow growth around 1600.

  • isaac

    This entire argument is based on the assertion that it is ENVY that is the root of any and all critiques made of economic inequality. Envy being the grief over someone else having some blessing. It is so much more than that. Those who are least respected and shown the least love by our society are as full of grief because they are hungry, unable to see loved ones who have been thrown in jail due to a horrendous “war on drugs,” or upset that their application has been rejected again (studies consistently demonstrate that a resume with a black-sounding name is significantly less likely to receive responses than an identical resume with a white-sounding name). These things exist and of anyone I would hope those who claim to identify with Jesus’ teachings and represent these teachings would not ignore the plight of those most impacted by the violence and injustice still existing in our world.