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The Magazine of The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America

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Economic and income inequality

Our beliefs matter

I’m wearing a pair of brown corduroy jeans. I sew, so I realize the labor it took to make them. Purchased four years ago, these jeans were a “good” buy. But good for whom? Me? The woman in Bangladesh who made them? I give thanks for her labor. For her. What was her labor worth? What is she worth? We are connected, she and I, through this brown pair of jeans.

The gap between the world’s wealthy and poor nations is huge. People in the U.S. also experience great inequality of economic opportunities and income. 

Commenting on the seventh commandment, “You shall not steal,” Martin Luther says God wants our temporal property protected, but we also shouldn’t take advantage of our neighbor (Large Catechism).

“If we look at humankind in all its conditions, it is nothing but a vast, wide stable full of great thieves,” Luther wrote. “These people are called gentleman swindlers or big operators. Far from being picklocks and sneak-thieves who loot a cash box, they sit in office chairs and are called great lords and honorable, good citizens, and yet with a great show of legality they rob and steal. ... Daily the poor are defrauded. New burdens and high prices are imposed. ...

“Beware how you deal with the poor of whom there are many now. If, when you meet the poor who must live from hand to mouth, you arrogantly turn them away ... they will cry to heaven. Such people’s cries will be no joking matter.”

This was written some 500 years ago, but the issues continue through the centuries, no less so today.

As Christians we care and together give to help “the poor.” Income inequality is about vocation, our calling as Christians in the world. Those who are poor don’t need pity, our guilt and certainly not disdain or blame. They need respect and job opportunities. This is really about our belief systems, about how we regard our neighbor. What is our theology of “worth”? Our theology of greed? Our theology of fear? Through reading Scripture together we are freed from greed and fear to hear what Christ is calling us to do.

Each time we say the Nicene and Apostles’ creeds, we confess to God and to one another our beliefs:

 First article: Creation. “We believe in one God ....”

People created in God’s image can’t be named — or forgotten or dismissed — as “worthless.” Yet we hear today about the “makers” and the “takers,” a belief system that a small class of people is worth more than all the rest. 

For example, the rhetoric goes that people of wealth work harder than the poor. But God creates all people for vocation, and in ELCA congregations in wealthy and poor communities people are working hard, whatever their station in life. 

The rhetoric goes that some children are worth more than others. Millions of children globally have no opportunity for education. But education for all would benefit their futures and the global economy. In the U.S. some say children from poor families ought to clean their school buildings to earn their lunch. All children need to be free from hunger in order to learn. We need to strengthen community schools as places for all children to learn together whatever their abilities, disabilities, and social-economic, racial or ethnic backgrounds.

As economic inequality grows, instead of loving our neighbor, we become more isolated, more armed and more in fear of our neighbor.

Yet we believe God created the world and its people for interdependence. “And God saw everything that God had made and indeed it was very good” (Genesis 1). 

 Second article: Cross and resurrection. 
“We believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ ....” 

It’s tempting to pass by and not notice people in need, thereby denying deep and growing economic inequality. We so often feel overwhelmed. But the greed that sustains income inequality won’t cure itself. When we are assured we are loved unconditionally by Christ, we are free to open our eyes and really look at the issues.

Without Christ we continually return to living legalistically and judgmentally, as if it was our job to decide who is deserving or not — to, in other words, play God. We hear the term “the deserving poor,” which assumes some people don’t deserve respect, economic opportunity, health care or housing. Yet we confess in the creeds that none of us are deserving.

As Lutherans, we have a “cross and resurrection theology,” which means we are no longer measured nor do we measure others by their economic worth. Christ became truly human for us, suffered death and rose again. We are liberated to love, respect, support and serve all people.


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