“He will judge the world with righteousness, and the peoples with equity.” – Psalm 98:9
“The one who had much did not have too much, and the one who had little did not have too little.” – 2 Corinthians 8:15
“Equality is a mathematical term.” – R. J. Rushdoony, quoting James Gray.
One of the loud complaints we have heard from the Occupy movement has been about the inequality of incomes, as if this were a matter of fundamental injustice, and as if forced wealth redistribution were part of the answer to the problem. Since the God of the Bible is a God of justice, the church cannot logically avoid the issue.
But while it is clear that God demands justice in how we treat one another, the problem is that God has not defined justice very explicitly. That does not let us off the hook. But it should keep us humble. God has not told us exactly what a fair wage or fair price should be, or what a fair contract should look like, although God expects us to make an educated guess as we seek to practice justice in the marketplace.
Has God truly made us equal? That’s a different question. Psalm 98:9 states that God will judge the peoples with “equity.” The word used here is mesharim, a word related to the term yashar or “upright.” It refers to what is “level” versus what is crooked. It is the best word in the Hebrew Bible to communicate the concept of equality. The word is used 19 times (never in the Torah). Only five of those uses are in reference to God, three of them in the Psalms. Yet the word is almost always used in a context of future judgment, where the assurance is that God will judge people equally. It is not used to speak of economic equality.
Several years ago, Sir Jonathan Sacks, chief rabbi of the British Empire, claimed that the Hebrew word tzedeqah really means “distributive justice that goes beyond equity and compassion.” However, he never offered a shred of lexical evidence to back up his claim. Tzedeqah is too broad a word on which to base a claim that God demands economic equality.
Economically, we don’t need to look far to see that God has not made us equal. Is it fair that God should give J. K. Rowling the talent to write books that have sold millions of copies, talent that God has not given to the rest of us (rich or poor)? Is it fair that God has given Albert Pujols the talent to play baseball well enough to land a contract for hundreds of millions with LA? (I have been a hometown fan of Pujols since the day he began, so I have never begrudged him what he gets paid, even though he has struck out or grounded into double plays numerous times when we needed a hit. I know that a huge chunk of what he gets paid ends up back in God’s pocket.)
Is it fair that God gave Steve Jobs the ability to grow a company? And why does God bestow such brilliance on so many people who hate God with a passion? Let’s face it: God has not distributed wealth-producing abilities equally. God even admits it implicitly in the parable of the talents, and in Luke 12:48: “To whom much is given, of them much will be required.”
It was recently noted that our top 10 entertainers get paid twice as much as our top ten CEO’s. So why haven’t we heard a whimper of protest from the Occupy movement about the entertainers among that evil 1 percent? Why haven’t we heard calls to confiscate the wealth of Oprah Winfrey or Steven Spielberg? Or why not confiscate the $90 million paid to Franklin Raines while he was running Fannie Mae into the ground?
Granted, a lot of the consternation appears to be about the disparity where folks at the top earn 100 times or more than what production workers are paid at the bottom. I share some of that consternation. There are many times where it is questionable whether the high earner contributes proportionately to the value of the company and to the prosperity of the other employees, the existence of whose jobs may depend on whether the high earner is competently doing their job.
There are times where the high earner deserves what they are paid. There are other times, as in cases like Albert Pujols’, where market supply and demand play tricks with the value attached by the crowd to their labor. Instead of trying to fix the market, the Biblical God of justice seeks to call us to account for what we do with that income.
It is eisogesis to baptize a Marxist political agenda as a divine mandate for justice. As Rep. Paul Ryan said in a recent speech, equality of (economic) outcome is actually a form of inequality, one that is based on “political influence and bureaucratic favoritism” – which, I would add, it is crystal clear that God hates. God is no “lifter of faces” (Acts 10:34, Rom 2:11, Eph 6:9, Col 3:25). God doesn’t check your face, or your party membership card.
We are not equal in terms of the talent or income-producing abilities that God has given us. Neither are we equal in terms of the opportunities that God gives us. If you don’t like that, yell at God about it. The question is, How do we live with that disparity without caving in to greed, envy, hatred, or complicity in evil?
Instead of resenting others for abilities and opportunities that God has given unequally to others, we need to focus on our responsibility for what we do with what God entrusts to us. That includes treating others justly in what we pay for goods and services. That includes speaking up when we perceive that others are being treated unjustly. But let us be careful not to jump too quickly to point the finger until we truly understand. And let us be careful not to claim God as our authority where God has not spoken.
TOM HOBSON of Belleville, Ill., a PC(USA) pastor for 28 years, is currently serving at First Church in Herrin, Ill., and as an adjunct professor at Morthland College, West Frankfort, Ill.