Economic Inequality: Exploring our shared commitment to pursuing shalom
As a global communion of Anabaptist-related churches, we share a common commitment to pursuing shalom. In this pursuit, we believe in seeking justice and sharing our resources, be they material, financial or spiritual. Yet our tremendous diversity means that we carry out this commitment in very different ways. In the April 2014 issue of Courier/Correo/Courrier, leaders from across our fellowship write about different ways in which Anabaptists approach issues of economic inequality – and the ways we, as shalom-seeking followers of Christ, address the wealth gaps in our communities.
A Mission Modeled on Christ
The encyclopedia at my desk defines “economic inequality” as the difference between individuals and populations in the distribution of their assets, wealth or income. The term typically refers to inequality between individuals and groups within a society. More controversially, one could assert that economic inequality exists in a given society not by accident. In fact, at a certain level, such inequality is the result of human forces like greed and selfishness.
Regardless of its sources, economic inequality is real. In India, such inequality is deeply rooted within society, and effects a major portion of that society. And that portion of society suffers because of it.
There is no easy answer for the question of why the majority of a society often suffers from economic inequality. We have only a few theories in response. Of course, the factors vary from place to place, time to time, society to society. A driving factor in one place and situation may not be the same in another.
Nevertheless, the reality is this: Economic inequality today has left many in dire straits – in situations of homelessness, hunger and poverty, barred from access to adequate education and healthcare. Those who suffer in these situations do not have the same privileges of those in the upper echelons of society. Often, those who suffer are hardly noticed by society’s elites. The rich become richer, the poor become poorer. As a result, the gap between these two groups grows rapidly and alarmingly.
The Bible has much to say about economic inequality and the gap between the rich and poor in society. In the Old Testament, for instance, God creates the world perfectly and tells people to maintain a balanced and just society in that world (Genesis 1:10, 12, 18, 21, 25). Yet humanity rebels against God and God’s will, and sin enters the world (Genesis 3:13-19). Cain’s attitude in Genesis 4 is a prime example of how sin adds misery and injustice to human history – misery and injustice that has been passed on from generation to generation to this day.
Poverty rears its ugly head in the Old Testament, too. Because the poor will always be a part of human society (Deuteronomy 5:11), God commands his people to be open-handed and generous with them. The Old Testament reminds us of God’s deep concern for the plight of the impoverished. Failing to follow his commands concerning the poor, brings the wrath of God upon us (Ezekiel 16:48-50; Isaiah 1:16-25).
The New Testament focuses God’s concern with inequality and commands to care for the poor and oppressed. For instance, Jesus identified himself as one among the poor when He said, “The Son of Man has no place to lay his head” (Matthew 8:20). He chose the common people – the poor, the oppressed, the suffering – as the focus of His ministry (Luke 4:18-19). He taught the young man how he could follow him by forsaking earthly treasures and caring for the poor (Matthew 19:21). He drove the moneychangers out of the temple and condemned their greed and hypocrisy (Mark 11:15-17). Other examples abound. Clearly, Christ’s earthly ministry focused in part on challenging society’s norms and exposing its injustices.
In its vision of the early church, the New Testament also provides perhaps the clearest example of the kind of practical, dedicated living that brings justice and equality among people. In Acts 2:42-47, the early church is described as a place where possessions and resources were shared equally, where meals were focused on fellowship and caring, and where spiritual growth was matched by physical sufficiency.
As Brethren in Christ and Mennonites, our Anabaptist heritage also offers insight on our responsibility to help the poor and needy people. In the early Anabaptist movement, believers practiced obedience in financial affairs. Nineteenth-century Brethren in Christ leader H. B. Musser said, “I think it is the duty of the church to mutually aid each other in the losses sustained. . . . I think it is the duty that belongs to us, because the Scripture says, ‘Bear ye one another’s burden.’” Our Anabaptist background clearly teaches us – in keeping with the Scripture – that the church has a vital role to play in bridging the gap between the rich and the poor and working for justice and equality in society.
What is the nature of that role? The Bible tells us that the church should be the salt of the earth and the light of the world (Matthew 5:13-16). The church must care for widows and orphans (James 1:27; Acts 6:1-7). The church should seek transformation – not only of individual hearts, but of the unjust and oppressive structures within society itself. In fact, as the church nurtures believers in the faith, believers in turn will seek justice in their own lives, in their families and the larger society. Though it may face challenges, the church still must be that voice that reminds society of God’s concern for justice and righteousness.
The Brethren in Christ Church in Odisha, India, attempts to bring justice and equality in two ways. First, we teach the Word of God. Second, we undertake projects in areas such as education, income generation, health and hygiene, agricultural improvement and relief and rehabilitation. Our long-term goal is to improve the socio-economic condition in our local regions.
One specific way we do this is through work among the Scheduled Castes (SC) and Scheduled Tribes (ST) in the eight districts of the Odisha state. These groups are two of the most impoverished groups within Indian society, and have historically been recognized as disadvantaged people. Many SC and ST people live hand-to-mouth lives. They have low incomes; sometimes, they have only one meal a day. We encourage our community members to share the burdens of these individuals. Of course, it is not an easy task to bring balance, equality and justice – it is a long and ongoing process. Yet we persevere, trusting in the Spirit for strength and empowerment.
We see our mission as reflecting that of our Lord Jesus Christ: the poor may be economically impoverished, but they are rich in spirit, in faith, in work and in deed (James 2:5). This opportunity to seek equality and justice has been provided by Christ himself, who in spite of his riches became poor in order to make us rich (2 Corinthians 8:9).
Bijoy K. Roul is chairman for the Brethren in Christ Church in Odisha, India.