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Free and equal?

Hope and anger clash in the debate over equality and inequality

Free and equal?

People pray for calm in Milwaukee on Aug. 14. (Associated Press/Photo by Jeffrey Phelps)

Back in the bad old days of the 1960s, Americans watched big-city neighborhoods burn in a series of race riots. The Gandhi phase of the civil rights movement led by Martin Luther King Jr. was passing, the race war was heating up, and tension exploded in places like Los Angeles, Cleveland, and Detroit, typically sparked by some sort of police action. The destruction in Detroit was especially violent. Most of the grown-ups I knew (all of them white) shook their heads and moaned about what the world was coming to, but the most memorable comment I heard that summer came from the 11-year-old brother of my best friend. I was having dinner at his family’s house while we watched store windows being smashed on live TV. “Shoot,” said the boy, “if I was there, I’d be downtown lootin’ with the blacks.”

African-Americans of that era had obvious grievances, and many were fed up with peaceful protests. I understood that even as a teenager, but I also understood something about the sharp taste of envy and the ache of what, for lack of a better term, most people called inequality.

This year has seen a new wave of urban riots, such as the one in Milwaukee last month. Against a background of flashing headlights and idling police cars, one man gave his version of why this was happening: “The rich people, they got all this money, and they not, like, tryin’ to give us none.” White supporters of Bernie Sanders have used different terms to say the same thing: in a word, inequality.

The Bible speaks of justice: equality under law, not of income, opportunity, or talent.

It’s a universal problem, recognized for centuries. Rousseau titled one of his influential treatises “On the Origin of Inequality” way back in 1755. His thoughts and prescriptions would eventually contribute to the French Revolution, an orgy of rage that left citizens equally terrified. Across the ocean, a few decades later, Tocqueville observed another side of the leveling trend: “Democratic nations are at all times fond of equality, but there are certain epochs at which the passion they entertain for it swells to the height of fury.” In 1830s America, Tocqueville witnessed a “furious” scramble for upward mobility among democrats who insisted each one of them was as good as the other.

Equality and inequality sound like complementary opposites, but they’re driven by noncomplementary impulses. Equality is about climbing up—a political principle written into our founding documents. It’s the theme when people feel empowered, or find empowerment within their grasp. Its primary emotion is hope.

Few if any political figures today are calling for more equality. Instead, they rail against inequality. This kind of rhetoric emerges when people feel trapped—in a financial pinch, in a health-insurance nightmare, in violent neighborhoods, in a despised race, in debt. The prevailing emotion is anger.

“I’m as good as you” backs up demands for equality: It may reveal a chip on the shoulder, but could also indicate a healthy desire to improve one’s condition. The complementary statement “You’re no better than me” hints at smoldering resentment. Inequality is about tearing down.

Have you noticed the Bible says nothing about either? There’s a lot of “humble yourselves,” and “count others more significant than yourselves,” and “the last shall be first,” but no clear nods to the prevailing moral cause of our time. Instead, the Bible speaks of justice: equality under law, not of income, opportunity, or talent.

When the passion for equality sours, it becomes bitterness over inequality, with indiscriminate looting and murder (actual or metaphorical) thrown in. Jesus offers something else: “For freedom Christ has set us free” (Galatians 5:1)—free, among other things, from obsessing over who has what and wondering why Joe can do what Jim can’t.

Equality is man’s business, and a worthy goal. But even if it could be achieved to everyone’s satisfaction, it wouldn’t last. Some always end up “more equal than others.” Freedom is God’s gift, insured forever, and in that we can stand fast.

Email jcheaney@wng.org

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  •  Brendan Bossard's picture
    Brendan Bossard
    Posted: Mon, 09/05/2016 01:27 pm

    Even beyond equality under the Biblical Law, human beings are all equally made in God's image.  We must treat each other with reverence for that trait.  Our nation suffers because we do not.

  • KeithT
    Posted: Mon, 09/05/2016 08:27 pm

    Brendan, sublimely stated.

  • Wilebo's picture
    Wilebo
    Posted: Sat, 09/24/2016 08:05 pm

    Where would the gift of charity be without poverty? Where would the gift of healing be without hurt or sickness? Good cannot exist without the shadow of the other. Love does not parade itself. I Corinthians 13:4-8