Closing the Gap

This week someone pointed me to an interesting book written by Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett called ‘The Spirit Level’. The title isn’t actually a pun, but has a more literal meaning as the content of the book documents the study conducted by the authors looking at statistics from around the world to see if there is any correlation between ‘Societal Health’ and ‘Economic Inequality’.

This is a graph showing a summary of what they found:

Interestingly this doesn’t apply to the ‘Average Income per Household’ for a country, but specifically to ‘Economic Inequality’. In other words it isn’t about how rich or poor a country is, it’s about how big the gulf between the richest and the poorest is. Our assumption might be that if a country has a higher income per household then they would generally have better literacy rates, lower crime, less mental illness etc. But these studies found no such correlation. What they did discover is that the wider the gap between the rich and poor in a given country, the lower the quality of life.

If you have 15 minutes here is a TED talk by Richard Wilkinson given a week ago:

When I moved to Cape Town a few years ago, I was told ‘not to get a place too close to the train tracks, because crime was high there’.

Why?

Well it’s simple: the train tracks here in Cape Town were one of the old Apartheid dividing lines of the last century, and they still serve as a rough marker between those with little, and those with a lot. These are the zones of greatest proximal inequality, and if Richard Wilkinson’s research is correct then we shouldn’t be too surprised that crime is highest here.

I have said this for a while: the worst crime is not to be found in the poorest communities, but rather in those poorer areas close to relative wealth. Perhaps the poorest communities on our globe, monetarily speaking, are to be found deep in the Amazon, or in the sands of the Sahara, and yet crime is very low in these communities. The highest levels of crime are always to be found where the rich and poor live together in close proximity.

This is all stuff we know intuitively.

Inequality breeds unhealthy human society.

If everyone around you has about the same as you, you’re more likely to be content; but the moment you are presented with people who have so much more than you you become dissatisfied and begin making plans, wholesome or unwholesome, to count yourself among the wealthy ones. Very few people seem to be able to live outside of this base motivation, but we’re going to need more of them to help us find a way forwards.

It seems we’re waking up to this problem across the globe. People are less and less content to sit back as a few rich squander the world’s resources because of some inflated sense of entitlement. From ‘Arab Spring’ to ‘Occupy Wall Street’ people are demanding a new society which serves the people, and not just the elite… and the movement shows no sign of slowing.

This is a short description of the motivation for the protests from the Occupy Wall Street website:

“(OWS) is fighting back against the corrosive power of major banks and multinational corporations over the democratic process, and the role of Wall Street in creating an economic collapse that has caused the greatest recession in generations. The movement is inspired by popular uprisings in Egypt and Tunisia, and aims to expose how the richest 1% of people are writing the rules of an unfair global economy that is foreclosing on our future.”

The break point is here, and it’s picking up a head of steam. People are becoming more and more aware of the injustice and inequality which taints our modern world, and they’re finally fed up enough to do something about it.

I hope they succeed.

I hope we succeed.

So how are you involved?

Well I suppose you have to chose.

Will you be one of the ones hiding behind the tenets of Capitalism decrying the lunacy of these ‘hippies’?

Or do you see the change that’s coming and see it as good and necessary?

I know we’re all scared of words like ‘Communism’ and ‘Socialism’, and everyone will tell you these ideas didn’t work, but at some point we have to admit that Capitalism isn’t working either. The cracks are showing. Capitalism has lasted a little longer than Communism, but it will favour no better in the long run. Human beings are too greedy for this system to work well for the collective good. It will always work well for a few, but not for the majority.

Capitalism.

Communism.

Socialism.

Surely these aren’t our only options.

Surely there is a way forward.

I think we’re living in exciting times because we will be a part of finding that new way. It will doubtless be a bumpy road, but 80% of the world’s population would agree that anything is better than this (you may struggle to agree because like me you find yourself in the top 20%, but it’s no less true).

We won’t throw the baby out with the bath water though. Hopefully we will keep the best of what we have. For example, one of the tenets of Capitalism which I would never want us to lose is freedom. In fact I believe this is where the answer lies.

Rampant Capitalism encourages greed and inequality.

But enforced equality was shown seriously flawed in the communist system.

The third way, and the way forward, seems to be for mankind to grow a collective conscience and begin to exercise their freedom through generosity.

What if the richest amongst us chose to forgo their wealth and instead pay themselves a smaller salary, living a relatively modest existence, and giving the balance away to redress some of the inequality? Madness I know, but what if? What if we had more Bill Gates and Warren Buffets who were willing to part with their millions for the health of the planet? (They have actually challenged other members of the wealthy elite to follow suite as part of ‘The Giving Pledge’ and so far close to 80 have signed up. Check out www.givingpledge.org)

But that means it is left to each of us to chose to give away our excess and live below what our greedy minds see as possible… for the sake of whole.

I know this just seems like wishful thinking, but I believe in a God who is trying to restore all things. I believe He is intent on reminding us of our humanity, and getting us to live from our goodness and forcing our greed to submit. I personally don’t hold to an eschatology that assumes things will just get worse and worse until God comes in vengeance to destroy everything. I believe He asks us to be a part of restoring things now.

Today.

And today, in our newly connected global society, we need to learn a universal sense of responsibility and community which transcends our own selfish wants.

And what about the church?

Well, let’s be honest, we should be leading the charge. It’s no longer acceptable (it probably never was) that we create little empires on every street corner where we horde our resources in buildings designed to entertain us well on a Sunday. It is no longer ‘ok’ to be giving our wealth back to ourselves to create institutions which can match the social standing of the suburb. It’s no longer fine to run our churches like capitalist businesses bent on ‘growth’.

We have to be on the forefront of finding a way forward.

We have to be modeling generosity, sacrifice, and a global conscience.

And maybe we should be ‘occupying’ something too.

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3 Responses to “Closing the Gap”

  1. Ruth E 31. Oct, 2011 at 10:51 am #

    perhaps libertarian municipalism is part of the answer…?

    on a separate note you may be interested in the Live under the line challenge that is challenging Common Grounders and other Cape Town churches to live on R10 per person per day – to get a better feel for the 13 million South Africans for whom this is a daily reality, and as a result hopefully spur people on towards more compassion, social development, transformation and ultimately justice.

  2. Sean Tucker 31. Oct, 2011 at 11:26 am #

    That’s cool, but I’d more impressed if your church challenged their structure (budgets, building funds, etc) to live like that alongside their ‘congregants’.

  3. Chris Luyt 01. Nov, 2011 at 7:47 am #

    I agree with everything you say about both Communism and Capitalism. I think your thoughts concerning the future ‘way’ (new collective global governance through an evolved and evolving human consciousness) are naive, although they certainly reflect the growing global trend. I think what you say about the church is also true, but I think where you’re at, yourself, at the moment, also makes this too easy for you.

    My eschatology is exactly what you have rebutted in this post. It isn’t an easy eschatology to hold, much less ‘market’, but I do believe it’s more honest. I don’t for a minute believe that the way most churches have applied it has been honest, but that is another issue altogether. So the ‘getting better’ eschatology will always be more readily embraced.

    We can never remedy the shortcomings of humankind (much less religious humankind), by downplaying the awesome purity of God, and His demand that we, by grace, realign ourselves with that purity or face the consequences. For this to be accomplished, love and justice must work together… they are the two faces of divine perfection/purity.

    As the future unfolds, Sean, never forget the day you affirmed publically that the world would (despite the ‘bumps’) only get better… Ez. 13:10-16.

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