In this report, we contend that theology offers a different way of exploring excessive economic inequality, and can open up new avenues of consensus between political and social positions that have typically been at odds. (2021)
Economic inequality is one of the defining issues of our time, both within countries and across the globe, and has gained political salience and public attention in recent years. However, measures to address it are often made difficult by the divisive and partisan nature of the problem, which hinders any consensus on how we ought to go about reducing inequality.
In this report, we contend that theology offers a different way of exploring excessive economic inequality, and can open up new avenues of consensus between political and social positions that have typically been at odds.
With respect to economic inequality, we argue that:
—Inequality is not only an economic problem, but a social and relational one too. Absolute equality of wealth and income is neither achievable nor necessarily desirable, but both the causes and consequences of excessive inequality are concerning and should be tackled.
—Excessive inequality is both a cause and a symptom of societal dysfunction, such as the deeper power imbalance between those with and without resources.
—Inequality is especially concerning when it undermines our capacity to have good relationships with one another and separates us from community. The line at which inequality becomes excessive is as much a feeling as it is an economic or material reality.
—There are ecological as well as economic reasons to be concerned about inequality.
Regarding the role of theology, we then argue that:
—It underlines the importance of human relationships and how they are affected by inequality. Humans are fundamentally dependent on a network of relationships to flourish and make meaning; inequality is harmful where it prevents this flourishing.
—A theological perspective gives us the moral imagination to acknowledge that the world is not the way it should be.
—The practical engagement of faith communities with the symptoms of inequality, through social action, gives them legitimacy in speaking about the harms it causes.
—There are specific theological principles from throughout history that have much to contribute to our contemporary economic understanding, even for those who do not share the Judeo–Christian tradition. For example, the Old Testament idea of Jubilee can shape our approach to debt, accumulation and wealth. Additionally, the theological imperative to love our neighbours provides a helpful framework for understanding our duty to others, both locally, nationally and globally.
We then outline various policy solutions and means of addressing economic inequality that we suggest are most likely to draw consensus across political tribes.
—If inequality is a relational problem, then relational solutions are important. We begin from the position that people are not merely economic equations to be fixed or inequalities to be levelled up, but potential to be developed.
—We propose that improving cohesion between people of different backgrounds is key to addressing the social consequences of inequality, whether through community projects or educational programmes like a national citizen scheme. Shared public spaces and better infrastructure can also engender more equal relationships with communities.
—Policy initiatives that support stable households may reduce economic inequality too, not least because of the improved health and educational outcomes associated with stable relationships.
—There is also a role for business and the market in addressing inequality. We suggest that pay ratios between employees could achieve this, along with reorienting our economy towards co–operative models and worker–led democracy.
—While the size and role of the state in mediating economic inequality is disputed, we argue that greater investment in support services and adult education would address some of the causes of inequality. The model of universal basic services could shape this.
—Taxation can reinforce the social dynamic of the economy, as well as the theological principle that wealth is temporary and should be held lightly. We identify greater openness to previously disputed forms of this, such as a wealth tax, in light of the pandemic.
—Together with specific policy proposals, there is also scope for reimagining our economic models. We suggest that a Christian approach to inequality would mean recalibrating the economy to prioritise wellbeing, without disregarding economic growth completely.
Author Hannah Rich introduces the report in this short video: