Each Sunday we invite people to submit prayer requests for our prayer network and staff. Increasing numbers of prayers requests have dealt with job loss, income decline and even loss of the house. I’m sure my congregation is not unique in this regard. I am convinced that a major reason for so much of this is the increased gap in income inequality. Of 16 industrialized countries, the United States has by far the worst gap. This is not just an economic problem, but a spiritual and moral one.
Income inequality is a dominant, if not the dominant etiology for obesity, educational attainment, infant mortality, longevity, family unity, divorce, alcohol and drug addiction, trust, incarceration rates and affordable healthcare. For example, the United States spends 40 to 50 percent of all the world’s expenditures on healthcare, yet we comprise less than five percent of the world’s population. We spend, on average $6,000 per person on healthcare annually, compared to Greece which spends $3,000 per person. Yet on average a Greek will live one and a half years longer than a citizen of the United States and their infant mortality rate is much lower (The Spirit Level – Why Greater Equality Makes Societies Stronger by Kate Pickett and Richard Wilkinson).
Income inequality influences crime. The United States has twice as many imprisoned in our country than any other industrialized nation. Even so, we still contend that we feel less safe. The sentences our courts hand out are longer and harsher. Among the industrialized nations the United States places teenagers with adults.
We read of constant complaints about the disintegration of the family in the United States, yet we afford less time away from work for parents of a newborn than any other industrialized nation. If you live in Sweden, parents will receive up to 18 months away for pregnancy leave at 80 percent of their pay. In the United States we permit only twelve weeks unpaid. The divorce rate is much lower, and the educational attainment is higher in Sweden. Sweden made a commitment to care for families at the beginning in order to insure greater social stability at the end.
I am not proposing a redistribution of wealth that soaks the rich. I am simply arguing for a better society that will inevitably arise from a less wide gap in the income inequality that is our present plight. A shrinking middle class does no good for the poor. According to Empty Tombs, the poor and middle class give a larger percentage of their income to the church than do those with higher incomes.
Certainly the biblical text is filled with the primary importance of Christians caring for the poor – Mary’s words in Luke, “He has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts … brought down the powerful … lifted up the lowly … filled the hungry with good things and sent the rich away empty” (Luke 2:52-53). Amos says, “They … trample the head of the poor into the dust of the earth, and push the afflicted out of the way” (Amos 2:7). Micah, “They covet fields, and seize them; houses, and take them away” (2:2).
I am asking that we spend time during our next annual conference session examining the ways The United Methodist Church can work to lessen this gap so we can make disciples of all classes for the transformation of the world. Certainly there is biblical precedent for such a discussion. And save the Kingdom of God, Jesus spent more time talking about how we deal with wealth than anything else. I pray that we will begin to do the same in our annual conference and our congregations.
C. Mac Hamon, Senior Pastor
Castleton UMC, Indianapolis