Culture  Stratification Nation

Inequality, from the Bible to now

Everyone and their grandmother knows that the United States is economically stratified (or, at least my grandmother does). I might hope that we’ve progressed past visions of the wretched poor cavorting about with face sores, like in Les Misérables. It is not terribly uncontroversial to say poverty means something is out of order, but what? Claiming, as the U.S. would, that all are created equal, why do bad economic circumstances happen to theoretically equal people?

I have no economic answer, so everyone pop your monocles back in. It’s just that this question of inequality has been posed in a thousand different spheres, including back in ancient Israel. The Wisdom Literature of the Bible – and here I will only be presenting Proverbs, Job, and Ecclesiastes – is more than anything a series of speculations on cosmic order and disorder, seeking to understand and live in harmony with the underlying principles of the universe. I find it curious that the metaphorical lenses they offer on why the universe is out of sync tally very well with some of the louder sectors of American politics on the issue of poverty.

The Book of Proverbs is essentially a collection of pithy rules for leading a moderate life in accordance with the cosmic order – be righteous, humble, upright, honest, hard-working, prudent; don’t mouth off to your father, you dumb kid, and so on. It’s often written with an if/then structure – if you are righteous, then you will prosper. It follows that if you are not prosperous, you are not righteous. Proverbs is infamous for implying the poor deserve their lot in life (19:7 and 22:7 are pretty egregious), because if you follow the wise exhortations of Proverbs, how could you not be rich and doing great? God has created such a synchronous universe that so long as you live in accordance with its laws, you will be the top of the tops.

But if you’re not swimming in pools of honey and milk, that’s really your own problem. The modern school of prosperity theology, which implies that the rewards of God are primarily financial, owes much to Proverbs in this respect. If this rhetoric sounds familiar, it should. The assumption underlying American free-market ideology is that the market rewards innovation, hard work, and perseverance, and is absolutely impartial. There are a million rags to riches stories embedding this narrative in our consciousness, and to “work your way up” is as American as a white-picket fence. Thus, the elite super-rich are there because they worked hard, because they lived in accordance with the laws of the invisible hand, because they are the wisest. Questioning the invisible hand would be tantamount to questioning the cosmic order governing Israel.

And yet, in Israel, people did question it. The Book of Job deals with a poor guy who was really just in the wrong place at the wrong time. God allows one of his henchmen to make Job’s life miserable in order to test Job’s righteousness. Job laments his lot in life, while his so-called friends patiently explain to him that he is obviously wicked, and that he really should stop whining, because he deserves it. At the end, God comes in and tells Job that it’s really none of his business, and that He knows lots of great and terrible things that Job will never know. Then, He gives him a lot of sheep, and the now-redeemed Job lives on.

But not everyone is so happy to cede this power to a being that is great, but not necessarily good. Another school of American political thought maintains that it is the duty of the government to recognize that the social order is out of whack. Calling itself “liberal” or “progressive” government, it seeks to find and correct systemic inequalities, to prevent against there being an entire class of Jobs running about, being punished through no fault of their own.

Both liberal and conservative views hold that something is fundamentally unfair. The variation is whether those who are suffering trust the system to fix itself. Finally, Ecclesiastes instructs us to forget it. It thinks the notion of cosmic order is idiotic, and that time and chance happens to everyone. The world is crooked, God is unknowable, so we might as well just live out our days chasing pleasure and drinking an awful lot. Similarly, with artists like Ke$ha announcing we’re all going to die young and we might as well get drunk, Drake reminding us you only live once (and kindly suggesting we party hard), and Lana Del Rey announcing we were born to die, it seems like American youth don’t care much whether things are fair or right. So there is a culture for which the cosmic order – the classic American narrative – holds no promise. It’s not even that the if/then statements implied in these structures are unfair, but that they’re irrelevant. This is not a narrative of decline; America is not morally bankrupt. This voice has been speaking for at least two and a half millennia.