Saturday, March 14, 2009

Redistributing Income

He has brought down the powerful from their thrones
and lifted up the lowly;
he has filled the hungry with good things,
and sent the rich away empty.
Luke 1:52-3

Even before Jesus is born, Mary tells us that the Kingdom of God is about economic justice. And part of that is the redistribution of wealth.

Years later, when a rich young many comes to Jesus and asks what he must do to inherit eternal life, Jesus eventually gives him the bottom line: he will have to give away everything to the poor. He goes away sadly, because he has great wealth. And then Jesus tells his disciples that it will be easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the Kingdom of Heaven. Over the centuries Christians have invested enormous energy and creativity looking for interpretations that get around the plain meaning of that text.

All of this is particularly interesting when we look at the current debate over policies that some claim are really aimed at the redistribution of income. Raising taxes on the wealthiest people, and giving rebates to the poorest people, does redistribute income. A little. But it’s nothing like what Jesus was talking about.

Right now there are people hard at work to redistribute income. Their goal is to take it from the many and redistribute it to the few. And they are succeeding. Over the past decades more and more of the nation’s wealth has been concentrated among the wealthiest Americans.

If we are serious about the New Testament vision of the Kingdom of God, then we need to begin with the assumption that lifting up the poor is a good thing, and that large gaps between the wealthiest and the poorest people is a bad thing. Then we can have an honest debate about how we achieve that end.

How can we most effectively lift up the poor? How can we manage the growing gap between rich and poor? Can we redevelop a real sense of “commonwealth”?

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