the nature of justice

There is a fascinating post about inequality in the U.S. at the The Altantic by Megan McArdle. (It is a response to an earlier post on the same topic, making this post the post of a post of a post, and this post the post of a post of a post of a post...). Anyways, like most things, the essay is full of thoughts you like, and those you don't. I am dumbstruck that the author can state:
"I also disagree with the notion that the concentration of wealth is a large political problem."
Really? Well, if wealth lets O.J. search for the killer it must be all right...

Likewise, some of the assertions seem dubious and could use some references. But that’s the web for you, and in all seriousness, there are some provocative and helpful ideas about money and politics here.

The basic premise of the discussion is that inequality in America is due, not so much to a disparity in wealth, but to a disparity of opportunity. Wealth affords access to things like unpaid internships, educational opportunities, connections, etc., that create inequality, though not purchased, per se. She explains that these opportunities, "may be more worrisome' than wealthy concentrations," because they create an elite culture of success available only to the wealthy.

As a Christian I just can’t agree that wealth itself isn’t a central part of the problem. To deflect blame for inequality in our country from wealth and gross capital appreciation seems just the kind of ivory-tower thinking that wealth affords. But I do agree that the problem is more than just financial. She muses that:

“…if the rich start passing on, not money, but the habits, skills, and social capital to make your own money, the result could be an aristocracy more deeply entrenched than any ever seen in America.”

What I like about this sentiment is that it recognizes the problem is greater than raw dollars. I do believe there is a culture of despair, that “hope deferred makes the heart sick,” but what I don’t like is how precisely her conclusion ignores the material nature of the inequality and impossibility for some to challenge it regardless of "...habits, skills, and social capital."

Broke is broke. Sick is sick. Dead is dead.

So I find that I am in agreement with her conclusion that more than just dollars are needed but I think that the Gospel is the answer she is unwittingly seeking, not simply civic improvement. And here is the challenge to all of us who would minister to the victims of inequality: How will we pass on habits, skills and social capital to ease the yoke upon them, without suggesting that becoming the next billionaire is exactly what God wants?


  1. The biggest lesson I learned in Sunday school was that the Gospel means little to a starving homeless man. I don't know how we would pass on the skills of wealth without wealth being the goal. For someone who cannot think past their immediate physical & psychological needs, it would be hard to get through to them that money with all its securities, isn't the point. Maybe I'm too cynical. All I can think of is to intertwine lessons of empathy with each lesson about "habits, skills, and social capital." But then again how do you teach empathy?

  2. very cool that your Sunday School would give voice to that!

    I think that the answeris that we learn to make wealth/material sustenance an intermediate goal. Instead of teaching people to fish, we might need to teach people to be fishing instructors, to abuse the metaphor. Having material provision is different from being a western democratic capitalist.

    Perhaps more importantly, I fear assuming that "someone cannot think past their immediate physical & psychological needs" runs the risk of the worst kind of western imperialism. It is not, for instance, what the indigenous peoples have always wanted. In other words, I think we have to be careful to teach people how to be self sufficient in our culture, but not ask them to assume our culture, or assume we know exactly what the problems and desires are. Often what we teach suffering peoples about money says more about our own oppression by mammon.

    As for empathy, I agree that it is very key indeed. two books immediately come to mind, Nouwen's Compassion and the "raising Cain," one christian, one more sociology.
    they are at

    They were helpful to me just to begin thinking about it! Empathy, I increasingly think is a cardinal virtue and there is an increasing body of psycho-socio literature dealing with it. I hope that it will eventually be one of the things we are known for:)


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