- The Ethics of Wealth in a World of Economic Inequality: A Christian Perspective in a Buddhist-Christian Dialogue
There is common agreement that we find ourselves in a world of economic inequality. More precisely, we are living in a world where economic inequality continues to grow by leaps and bounds. Income inequality in the United States is greater than it has ever been, greater than that of most other wealthy countries,1 and it is even greater than the income inequality known in the Roman Empire. In Ancient Rome, the top 1 percent controlled 16 percent of society’s wealth, compared to 40 percent in the contemporary United States.2 Nevertheless, although there is broad agreement on the existence of economic inequality, there are different perspectives on what it all means.
While many lament the existence of economic inequality, others welcome it. Christians who follow the teachings of the so-called gospel of prosperity, for instance, are rarely bothered by economic inequality because they see economic success as a result of faithfulness to God, while stagnation or even poverty is the result of lack of faith. Among economists, one of the dominant perspectives on economic inequality is that it is necessary and beneficial. More specifically, one current economic theory that is widely agreed upon holds that cutting taxes for the wealthy and providing subsidies for large corporations is the only way to maintain economic growth as well as job growth. This theory is maintained despite mounting empirical evidence to the contrary. As a recent study by the nonpartisan Congressional Research Service notes, “there is little evidence over the past 65 years that tax cuts for the highest earners are associated with savings, investment or productivity growth.”3
Other prominent perspectives on economic inequality take more critical approaches, although some of the most common stereotypes also fail the reality test. One common assumption, for instance, is that the wealth gap is a matter of the so-called First World versus the so-called Third World. In the Americas, for instance, many believe that wealth resides north of the US-Mexico border, and that poverty resides to the south of it. Nevertheless, the world’s wealthiest individual is currently a Mexican citizen, business magnate Carlos Slim Helú. The case of Slim is, of course, [End Page 153] only the tip of the iceberg, as a tremendous amount of wealth resides in many places “south of the border.” Whenever I take seminary students on immersion trips into countries of the so-called Third World, I make it a point to take them not only into the poor neighborhoods but also into the wealthy ones.
Observing wealth in Third World contexts never fails to create substantial cognitive dissonance, as most US residents do not expect to see so many expensive cars and expansive villas in São Paulo, Brazil; Lima, Peru; or Harare, Zimbabwe. By the same token, even most US residents do not expect to see so much dire poverty in the United States, although it often resides only a few miles from where they live. According to the National Center for Children in Poverty, 21 percent of all children in the United States live in families with incomes below the poverty level.4 Without ignoring the economic differences between North and South, substantial economic inequality exists in both so-called Third World and First World settings.
One crucial insight emerges from our reflections so far: when we talk about an ethics of wealth in a world of economic inequality, we need to ask whose wealth we are discussing. When we are talking about wealth in many Christian communities, we tend to talk about ourselves and about the perceived wealth of the so-called middle class. What we are rarely discussing, however, is the tremendous wealth that is amassed at the upper levels of society, with the proverbial 1 percent or the 0.1 percent. I have observed similar discourses for many years, all around the world. There are several problems with this discourse.
One problem is that by talking about members of the middle class as representatives of wealth, we fail to investigate the full scale of economic...