Every year, in advance of the World Economic Forum’s meeting at Davos, Oxfam publishes a review of facts and figures relating to wealth distribution across the globe. We are told that the gap between rich and poor is widening. A mere 1% of the world’s population last year held 82% of the world’s wealth. That is shocking enough in itself. Another statistic being much quoted is that 42 people together held as much wealth as half the world’s poorest people. For a Catholic, these statistics and Oxfam’s commentary merely echo the concerns raised by Pope Francis and his predecessors. However, not everyone is happy with the kind of solutions proposed by the pope or by Catholic social teaching. The statistics make us uncomfortable, but doing something about them is another matter. We are too small, too insignificant, we say; or we indulge in a curious kind of self-righteous envy, condemning those who have more than we do, but not always examining our own attitudes carefully. It is not unknown for anger about inequality to turn from envy (meaning, I wish I or others had what you have) to jealousy (meaning, I wish you didn’t have what you have). When envy turns to jealousy, dreadful things can happen: the anger gets out of control and becomes destructive, and though revolutionaries tend to assume that their anger is justifiable, it rarely proves to be as justifiable as they think. Many an innocent person has been killed because of the assumptions made by others.
So, what are we to do? Do we just accept that that is how things are, ‘the poor you have always with you,’ or do we try to find ways of improving the lot of those who have least? Many rich people and rich institutions will say that they try to be charitable, and I think we should acknowledge the immense good that has been done over the years by charitable benefactors. However, as anyone who has ever administerd a Charity will be aware, some gifts come with lots of conditions attached. They end up being a not-so-covert way of exerting power. And that, I think, is the rub. It is not the unequal distribution of wealth itself that worries us so much as the inequality of power that results.
Wealth and power mean choices; lack of wealth or power means fewer or no choices. The rich Westerner (and that includes most of us, no matter what the state of our bank balance) has infinitely more choices open to them than, say, the poor African or Asian. We live better, and we live longer. I don’t think we should pretend that it is not so, nor do I think we should waste time feeling guilty about it. What I do think we should do, however, is think about ways in which we can change the status quo. Sometimes we need to challenge the policies of the government of the day (and for British readers, let me say that no political party has a monopoly of good or bad) or the practices of our workplace or of our family/community. Here at the monastery, for example, we have a regular assessment of how we live, the goods and services that we use, the way in which we try to be of service to others and how we share the many blessings God has poured out on us. It can be uncomfortable at times — it is often said that the besetting sin of monasticism is a tendency to complacency and mediocrity — but it can also lead to real change. I know it’s a corny analogy, but a single match lit in darkness can illumine a large area around it. Just think what 66 million+ matches (the current estimated population of the UK based on UN estimates) could do.