What is Economic Egalitarianism?
The idea of “equality” is one of the most widespread moral commitments in the modern world. Movements for equality have shaped the history of dozens of countries, and you’d be hard pressed to find someone who didn’t at least claim to believe in some sort of equality. But what does equality and egalitarianism mean, especially when it comes to how societies design their economies? And more importantly still, how should Christians think about economic equality and inequality?
Christians ought to begin with the Bible’s understanding of human beings and how God intended for them to interact with the material world. In the first pages of the Bible, we’re told that the first human beings were God’s images given the task of ruling over creation. In ancient societies, kings were known as the images of the gods, and would set up literal “images” (statues) of themselves to represent their rule over a territory. This idea is radically transformed in the Bible to apply not just to special royal individuals or families but to all humanity by design. We were meant to be co-creators and co-rulers over creation with God—all of us, not just a special few.
But we’ve rarely ever seen people live to our God-designed vocation: for nearly all of human history, some people have ruled and lived luxuriously while nearly everyone else suffered hard labor just to survive. This is exploitation that results in fundamental inequality contrary to God’s plan for human beings, and the Bible tells us this is the result of the human desire to seize rule over the world on their own terms. This sin devours the beautiful thing God intended to make of humanity and distorts his good will for human rule into a cruel hierarchy.
God’s rescue plan for humanity, then, is filled with great reversals of our twisted way of ordering power. God called an enslaved people to be the example for how to live in God’s way of ruling on earth—their property distributed equally, the poor and the immigrant given the means to survive, and their kings not accumulating wealth. Of course, God’s people did not succeed in living the God-shaped way he called them to. They chose to imitate all the societies around them and hoarded gold and chariots for the wealthy and neglected justice to the poor—crimes against which God sent prophet after prophet. He promised that if they returned to God’s way of modeling the kind of human life he designed us for, they would be blessed by God and a blessing to the whole world—but if they continued their ways of oppression, God would not leave their sin unpunished.
So in the midst of God’s exiled and desperate people, God came in the flesh of a poor man who preached the upside-down way that God wants to rule the world through human beings, inverting our inequalities and raising up the lowly. Jesus fulfilled the human vocation, becoming our example for how to live like images of God and showing us the hope for the ultimate future in his resurrection.
Our economic inequalities today—societies in which a tiny fraction own nearly all of the wealth while everyone else must sell their bodies and minds as labor in order to just get by—are reflective of the sin nature we see from the first page of the Bible to the last. More and more Christians today are recognizing contemporary racial inequality as one of these evil ways of distorting God’s vision for human life. God’s judgment on these kinds of societies is clear from the Tower of Babel to the injustice of Israel to Babylon in Revelation.
Not all forms of egalitarianism come from the same soil as the Christian idea of the image of God. Many who draw from the tradition of philosophical liberalism claim that it is enough that everyone is technically equal in the sight of the law—even if some languish in poverty while others exploit their labor. The Christian idea of image-bearing equality, however, entails a much richer portrait of economic equality: since we are all made to co-rule creation with one another and with God, everyone ought to have the means of not only survival but flourishing. Providing for the needs of others such that everyone can exercise their God-given task of co-creating, co-ruling, and worship is the full, robust Christian meaning of economic egalitarianism.
So what do we do with this? As representatives of God’s coming, already-but-not-yet kingdom, we are to be a sign, an instrument, and a foretaste. Each of these roles is crucial to how we represent God’s kind of economic egalitarianism to a world in desperate need of it. First, we are a sign: we point crooked social orders in the direction of God’s will for a world in which human beings co-create and co-rule with him. As an instrument, we become God’s body in the world to carry out his will in real, material action, collaborating with others and pressing on toward the goal. And finally, as a foretaste, we ought to be embodying in our communities a preview of what’s to come when God finally sets everything right.
For Christians, economic egalitarianism is deeply rooted in our identity and calling. We can never expect a human society to become perfect according to God’s will, but we should not neglect our duty to call the world to account and to ensure that the least of these can fulfill their purpose as images of God living flourishing lives.