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Archbishop's speech at 'Creating the Common Good' conference in New York

Friday 23rd January 2015

Read the Archbishop's speech this morning at Trinity Institute's 'Creating the Common Good' conference in New York, in which he asks: 'Is inequality sinful?'

I’m extremely grateful to be offered the opportunity to speak to you today. This conference is one that I’ve followed for many years, invariably with admiration of the efforts of this church, Trinity Wall Street, in compelling attention to some of the most difficult and demanding aspects of life. I want to congratulate you particularly on the remarkable timing of the theme of this year. Almost every article I’ve seen over the last few weeks appears to have been about inequality. What an extraordinary thing you’ve managed to do: you are on trend!

There is a great temptation to deal with the issues of inequality either in terms of economics alone or in a polemical style in which one simply raves on about the bad effects of inequality as if that were to solve the question. I want to start, however, by trying to address this issue more theologically, with the question, ‘Does inequality really matter?’ 

Read the Archbishop's homily at Trinity Church Wall Street, NYC

So what if there’s inequality? There has always been inequality and there most certainly always will be inequality. This is not just a quick lapse into an approach much influenced by Darwin, that affirms the solutions for our society are about survival of the fittest and devil take the hindmost, if you’ll excuse the mix of disciplines in that sentence, but a genuine question in terms of a world deeply caught up in diversity, to the world’s great benefit. 

To put it another way: are the extremely wealthy merely the latest or possibly the last minority, persecuted group to be identified, whom we need to defend, not attack? Should there be marches, or possibly processions of limos or Rolls Royces, down Wall Street or Lombard Street, necessarily chauffeur driven, with elegantly crafted placards produced by top-end designers saying, ‘Justice to the ultra-rich’, ‘Billionaires are people too’? Why does inequality matter? 

I’m going to go back to two originating stories. First, we have the Genesis story and the development of diversity within humanity in its earliest forms. 

In the great west window of Canterbury Cathedral, in the bottom row of stained glass, and at the centre of that row there is an image of Adam digging in the Garden of Eden. The cathedral, for those who do not know it, progresses from west to east upwards, like this church. As you go further east you go further up, accept in Canterbury it’s pretty steep, it goes up about 35 ft. At the east end, just near where the shrine of St Thomas of Canterbury would have been until the Reformation, there is the throne of St Augustine, into which one is rather firmly put when you start this job. Archbishop Robert Runcie used to say that he was constantly reminded that when he sat on the throne of St Augustine, he was level with Adam digging at the other end of the cathedral. Underlying that comment is a wealth of thoughtfulness about the relative importance of offices to which others ascribe importance, but also the significance of Adam digging in the garden. One can meditate for days on those particular stories in the early chapters of Genesis. But one of those things that we draw out is that at the beginning we are all equal. In the days of the English revolution in the seventeenth century, the gentry who were overthrowing the tyrannical rule, as they saw it, of Charles I were not in the slightest bit interested in equality with the peasantry. They wanted a decent hierarchy, only with those who were slightly more important taken down a peg or two, or taken off a head or two. Cromwell took strongly against the levellers and the diggers, quasi-communist groups who went back to Adam and Eve and proclaimed there should be no social distinctions. Hierarchy is deeply embedded, but the Adam and Eve story, the story of the Garden, has constantly come back to capture the imagination of those who see that in the creation of God there is equality.

And at the heart of the Genesis story of the creation of human beings is the essential nature of the human being, both male and female, existing to know God intimately and to walk intimately with God. There is an equality of worship, in adoration of the presence of God; there is an equality of revelling and feasting in fellowship with God in the Garden. Equality is a gift in creation, it is the foundation of equality before the law, equality of voice in the public square, equality in righteousness. Walter Brueggemann makes a similar point in his commentary on Isaiah 59. The post exilic community in Israel is deeply flawed not by its lack of worship, of which there is plenty, but by its inequalities in justice, in voice, in inclusion of all who accept Torah, regardless of wealth and status.

The first point to make is thus that inequality contrasts with the basic equality that exists before God. That may well not make it wrong, but as I will come back to when looking at the issues of the use of power, it raises a significant question mark. Is it possible, where there is gross inequality, for equality in worship and fellowship to be maintained? 

Moving on in the Old Testament, the patriarchs develop great wealth but it is seen as a sign of God’s blessing on them, not as a way of distinguishing their importance from one another. In fact when there is a dispute over relative areas of prosperity, Abram lets Lot choose the more prosperous and goes his own way into the less prosperous, therefore finding afresh the blessing of God while Lot gets caught up by Sodom and eventually in disaster.

In the rest of the Old Testament the tensions of inequality run through it from beginning to end. Let me mention just a few. In the Exodus story, there is a commonality of status, and the absence of great riches which speaks to a deep sense of the divine imperative towards equality. In the wilderness the people of Israel are equal. The people do, it is true, essentially loot the Egyptians on their way out [3:22] but the goods they take with them are held together. They all have gold and silver, incidentally with which to contribute to the making of the golden calf, but that’s a separate talk. They are prosperous as a people, but there is no huge social distinction. They are a wandering people living in tents. 

And once they've settled, the whole structure of the Levitical code prevented the indefinite accumulation of land and slaves within the people of Israel, through the laws of Jubilee. Wealth was fine, but not forever and not so as to create such inequality of power that the theocratic, Yahweh centred life of worship and fellowship should be corrupted. Indeed, the menaces of inequality and injustice that result from the indefinite accumulation of wealth are seen utterly vitiating worship that was filled with delight and joy in Isaiah 58.

The prophets hark back to the idealised beginning, and challenge the inequalities of both Israel and Judah. Isaiah condemns those who add house to house, Nehemiah condemns those who allow other Jews to sell themselves into slavery to pay their debts. 

And yet there is an ambivalence. The wealth of Solomon is triumphantly celebrated, as is that of Abraham, of Jacob, of Hezekiah, of the restored Israel in Isaiah 60:17. There is an ambivalence, an acceptance of wealth as blessing, yet a hesitation about, a fear about its consequences.

The second originating story is that of the early part of  the Acts of the Apostles, the foundation of the church at and after Pentecost, a story consciously echoing the Exodus narrative.

We are all aware of the two 'communist' passages, as some people call them, (falsely, by the way): the last verses of Acts 2 and Acts 4. Here we have a community on a journey, in which all is held in common. Contrary to the oppressive power structures of Rome and of the Jewish leaders of the time, in which the people are contrasted with the Temple authorities, the new people of God’s church are one. There is prophetic and charismatic authority, but no right to be rich. 

Echoes of that moment are found in Paul's epistles, and in the Epistle of James. In I Corinthians the criticism of the rich at worship, who eat their own food at the Eucharist, that criticism is excoriating. The common meal must be shared in common. The Eucharist in its thanksgiving includes thanksgiving for the new community in which needs are met, poverty ended and the just rule of God is seen. And James hits hard at the wealthy who don’t share their wealth and at the business people who don’t depend on God.

These passages must be tied into the gospel passages on the incarnation, written at a similar point. The Magnificat, the song of Mary, is so revolutionary that I am surprised McCarthy didn’t ban it as unAmerican. The British, under the East India Company, before 1857 in India certainly did ban the Magnificat from being sung at Evensong. You do not want the subordinated natives getting ideas about the hungry being fed, the poor lifted up and the rich and powerful overthrown and sent away empty. 

It is absolutely clear that the origins of Christian prophetic life from the moment of the incarnation forward carried a challenge to inequality. 

Yet in Acts even Ananias and Sapphira are told they could have kept their wealth, common ownership was a move of the Spirit not a compulsion of the community. The household codes of the New Testament in the letters of Peter and Paul clearly accept social distinction, inequality defined not only by wealth but by hierarchy, and thus we see again pragmatic ambivalence when faced with the inevitable realities of economic and social differentiation.

The ambivalence about wealth is both in scripture and liturgy. While at one side we see it as an evil and a sign of a society turning away from God, a danger which plays on the weakness of human sinfulness, on the other, we are equally likely to regard those who possess it as uniquely blessed and even to pray for their prosperity. In the Book of Common Prayer of 1662, in the collect for the monarch is a prayer for their prosperity.

Both at this point and later in Christian history whenever there is spiritual renewal extremes of wealth are challenged by the prophetic words and actions of those caught up in the renewal. It’s complacent, lazy churches that accept inequality without question. The development of monastic life in the deserts of Egypt is one example. In the Rule of St Benedict private property is forbidden for all whatever their background. Monks sit in order of their seniority since taking vows, not by social rank, and that was revolutionary. As usual, of course, human pressure cuts in and by the 18th century most of the major French monasteries had lay titular Abbots who got the income and the scions of the nobility always got the best places.     

So let me in my last few minutes bring this theological overview into our contemporary, and especially western, world. I will not rehearse the massive increase in inequality in Europe and the US (especially the UK and the USA) arising more than anything out of the liberalisation of financial markets in the 1980s. Its absurdities can be seen in the fall in bonuses in London so that it was reported last week that the top paying bank in bonuses is down to an average of only £3 million for 2014. [Ironically] May we have a moment of silent sorrow. We may have a retiring collection to help them out. The FT has majored on this recently. Gillian Tett on January 25th set out a survey demonstrating the elites are no longer trusted. And Francis Fukuyama writes powerfully of the return in the USA to what he calls "patrimonialism", a system based on the control by vested interests on the means of Government. In this case the main force at work is that of the ultra-rich, not just individuals but organisations, and especially, as in Europe, of the banking system.

This is perhaps the best modern example of the political and moral danger of the gross inequality that has re-emerged over the last 30 years. I do not intend to get diverted into a lecture on banking, but let us recall that at the heart of the crisis of 2008 was the problem of 'too big to fail', that some banks and financial institutions are so large that their failure would destroy the economy. Thus in October of 2008, the British Chancellor of the Exchequer, Alistair Darling, recounts how one weekend after negotiations with two of the major British banks, that between them represented several times Britain’s GDP, early on the Monday morning, 1 or 2 o’clock in the morning, he was told essentially, either you underwrite a cheque for 250 billion pounds, the thick end of 400 billion dollars, now, or the banks won’t open in the morning, nor the cash machines, nor will there be any way of transferring money, of making payments, of doing anything in the economy at all. And he looked down the barrel of that gun and realised he had no choice. 

Thus in Spain, despite the Government in 2007 running a primary budget surplus, the threatened failure of the banking system almost destroyed the financial viability of the Government's credit.

Despite this catastrophic failure, the banking system is in repair mode not replace mode. It seeks to get back to the enormous levels of leverage and freedom from constraint totally inappropriate to an industry that can destroy an economy overnight, or at least over a few weeks. Again to oversimplify, it reached this position through the growth of inequalities that gave a sense of divine right to wealth, and to national support. 

I have picked this example partly because it illustrates the biblical and theological issues, and does so in a way that we can relate to today. Inequality would be arguably harmless if the resultant power were always to be benevolent. But the theological understanding is that wealth is always in danger of corrupting its holders in most cases, and the corrupted become too powerful.

A response is often that, especially in the USA, there is a remarkable and extraordinary tradition of philanthropy from those who’ve created wealth which demonstrates that the wealthy can very often be trusted with their power. When you look at Warren Buffett or Bill Gates you see a disciplined and extraordinary dedication to the management of wealth for the common good, and we give thanks. The biblical injunction is not against all personal wealth. As I have shown, in the Bible there is a respect for and a sense of God’s blessing for those who create wealth for the common good. But there is a biblical injunction against the systematic and indefinite accumulation of grossly unequal societies. It always leads to the abuse, even if every wealthy person is generous, because the asymmetries of power means that wealth allocation becomes a matter of paternalism, not a basic issue of justice.

And there lies the great challenge for our world in the next 40 years, one of many, of course. But this is one which there are the tools to meet the challenge. In an era in which we will see the growth of technologies like Artificial Intelligence and gene therapies, economists like Lawrence Summers foresee growing inequalities between the small minority who can maximise the benefits of new technology and the large majority who will see only stagnation in income. We face the challenge of a society in which inequality of education or health or opportunity becomes and continues to be a life sentence to poverty. And that is the challenge which is exactly the one that we find the prophets so concerned about. 

Inequality is an issue because it stands against the equality of access to God in worship and fellowship which is found in the great passages of beginnings. It is a problem because it plays on the corruption of the human person, our sinfulness, to create power grabs, patrimonialism by the powerful, self-serving not foot-washing. It is a fundamental theological issue remediable by a human society that manages its limits, constrains its expression and opens the way to its own corrections. We have done it before. 

And we end with hope, because it is an issue which is in the hands of God. And in his hands, with our repentance, it is an issue that is changing; it will change. The God who met us in Jesus, the God who raises Christ from the dead, changes everything. We are today not in a place of menace and danger; but because we are increasingly conscious of inequality, we are in a place of hope and opportunity, and we are in a place where the church, in the grace and the providence of God, holds within its hands the beauty of opportunity that can change our world, liberate the enslaved, create the conditions of human flourishing, bring in the common good.

Thanks be to God.


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