Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Rising wealth inequality and the fate of global Methodism

A report on wealth inequality released by Oxfam yesterday included a startling statistic: the world's richest 85 individuals have as much wealth as the poorest half of the world's population.  This stat and the rest of the findings of the report have been getting a lot of play in the press in the last day and a half, but let me include some of the highlights for those of you who missed them.  The gap between the wealthy and the poor has grown in recent years in all but two countries around the globe, even in traditionally low-wealth inequality countries like the Scandinavian nations.  In the United States, the top 1% collected almost all of the benefits of the financial recovery since 2009, while the poor have gotten poorer in the same time.

This report raises two questions for me about how this rising wealth inequality impacts The United Methodist Church.  The first is this: One of the church's current Four Areas of Focus is "Ministry With the Poor."  What does it mean for us to be in ministry with the poor in a world in which the poor have an ever-decreasing portion of the world's resources?  How does that affect the types of ministry of which the poor are capable, and how does it affect the types of ministry that they poor need?  Does rising global wealth inequality make ministry with the poor more challenging, and if so, how should we as United Methodists respond?

The second question is this: Methodism has historically grown best among a rising middle class and the aspiring working class.  If, as the Oxfam report suggests, the world economic system is becoming increasingly a "winner-takes-all" system separated into the ultra-rich and the struggling masses, where does that leave Methodism's socio-ecclesiastical "niche."  Other have already pointed out the correlation between the decline of the middle class in the US and the decline of United Methodism in the US.  Currently, the middle class is still rising in Africa and other developing nations, but if increased wealth inequality puts a halt to the growth of the middle class there, will it halt United Methodist growth as well?

Please note that I'm not just calling for the government redistribution of wealth as a solution to this problem.  Wealth inequality is a complex problem, and government redistribution a simplistic solution for those who see it as such and a straw man opponent for those who don't see it as a problem.  As the Oxfam report makes clear, government policies do make a difference, especially those that set the rules of the financial playing field.  Yet so do corporate and individual choices in boardrooms and buying centers around the world.  In order to arrive at a set of communal and individual solutions, however, we must first recognize wealth inequality as a problem.

Also, while I've cast this article in terms of how wealth inequality might affect The United Methodist Church, there are plenty of other religious reasons to be leery of wealth inequality.  One can think of the many biblical statements about wealth, including those by Jesus, the prophets such as Amos and Micah, and even some of the Levitical laws, that recognize the spiritual and moral hazards of wealth and wealth inequality.  One can also make arguments based on such religious values as caring for others, the value of persons, and justice.  In my mind, these biblical and other religious reasons for questioning wealth inequality should be our primary reasons for doing so.  Ways in which wealth inequality may affect the UMC should be of interest to Methodists, but of secondary importance to our general call as Christians to live out the gospel of Christ.

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