- English: Jesus Christ – detail from Deesis mosaic, Hagia Sophia, Istanbul (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Commentators, economic analysts, and even some pastors are using a term lately that has sent me scrambling for understanding. The term is “income disparity.” I recently undertook some research on that term and l learned that it refers to the gap between the individuals who are statistically identified as the highest income earners and those identified as the lowest income earners. Apparently, the amount earned at these different levels in the USA has been widening for several years, and the trend has roused panicked concern in some circles. What led me to do the research was a growing trend in public discourse to speak of “the rich” as if they were evil because of their ability to earn so much. The scorn usually morphs into allegations that rich people ought to pay more in taxes simply because they are rich. The rhetoric hinges on a concept labeled their “fair share” in taxes.
In all the discussions I have read and heard, few people seem to take note that history shows that income gaps have widened and narrowed over and over throughout history. In the material I was able to find, there was no credible evidence that the disparity was due to selfish or wicked behavior by people with high income. To say that is not to say that all rich people are good, but there is no evidence they are all bad, either. I concluded long ago that you could not assume anything about the moral character of an individual by knowing his income.
What baffles me is to hear pastors talk about income disparity as if God wanted the government to fix it. It baffles me to hear pastors suggest that the government ought to fix anything. It baffles me profoundly to hear pastors say that, just like the politicians, they think rich people ought to pay an even higher tax rate than they pay now. Pastors are entitled to their own political views, of course, but they are not entitled to appropriate the gospel of Jesus Christ to serve their political agendas. It baffles me still more to try to figure out how taxing rich people at a high rate will result in higher income for the poor. I don’t see any theological justification for the idea, and I don’t see any logical justification for the idea. History records that something similar was the basis for life in the former Soviet Union. If that experiment is any evidence, the idea of income redistribution by a government will do nothing but impoverish a whole nation.
Christ did not teach anything remotely like income redistribution by the government. If he had believed in that idea, he lived under the perfect government for it. The Roman government was a model of administrative genius. In an age without electricity, telephones, or the internet, Rome ruled a huge empire, and it did that job so well that Roman law is still a model for all of us to learn from. If Christ wanted a government with the will and the power to take the wealth of the richest people and divide it up among all the other people, he could hardly have found a better choice. But Christ did not suggest any such thing. Not then. Not now.
Christ taught that people should give thanks to God for what they had and live in grateful stewardship of their possessions. Christ did not teach that people should camp out on the estates of the wealthy and call the property owners vulgar names and express their vile envy of those who happen to have more of the world’s goods. Christ taught that his followers should put the kingdom of God ahead of self-aggrandizement, in fact, they should deny self altogether, and be like him. Being like him means to love God above all and to love people. Being like him means to spend your time and energy doing what God created you to do, not envying and maligning other people who happen to have more money.
Christ taught that everyone is valuable to God. He did tell his followers to be givers, not takers, which pretty much undercuts participation in a movement to besmirch the character of people who are wealthy and steal their wealth from them. Being Christ-like means that his followers will not support an autocratic and tyrannical attempt by the government to take half or more of the income of some citizens simply because they have large incomes. This is an outrage and an insult to the gospel.
Christ did teach loving charity. He taught his followers to be servants. But he also taught his followers to be wise as serpents and harmless as doves. Serpentine wisdom informs me that government is a devious manipulator of all the money it receives. The more money the government receives from the people, the more money simply disappears from any accounting. The government is not a good steward of the people’s money, which is why people who are wise as serpents will give the government the least amount of money it needs to do its legitimate jobs. The task of stealing from the rich to give to the poor, or the task of attempting to make us all believe that is what it is doing, is not a legitimate job of government. Christians who take Christ’s teachings seriously are already busy about helping the poor and the hungry and the sick. The more the government takes, the less is available for those charitable endeavors. As a matter of fact, the government has recently intruded into those institutions with the consequence of first taking from them money that should serve their charitable endeavors and second forcing them to use that money to do things inimical to their faith. This is only one example of the reason government must be kept within the boundaries of its legitimate roles.
Christians always want to do what Jesus would do. Jesus would not give to Caesar anything that did not belong to him. The income of the citizens does not belong to the government, and the government has never been awarded by God or by the Constitution with the authority to tell any citizen how much income is “enough” for him. Christians must beware of false prophets who try to look like cute little lambs when under that innocent mask they are ravening wolves who will take everything all citizens have, not just the rich, and then bite off the hand that gives it.