Economic inequality is not going away. Nor is the intensifying debate about what the Church should do about it. Widening opportunity gaps between rich and poor have convinced Church leaders and public intellectuals that the faithful have a role to play in making sure everyone can flourish without their economic destinies being sealed at birth. To ignore systemic disparities and their consequences would be to neglect a mounting moral responsibility.

But leading thinkers differ on the pivotal question of how to help those who have fallen behind. And unlike Washington debates, this one does not hinge entirely on finding the right role for government.

At issue is whether people of faith should seek a new solidarity across classes, or join with low-income segments for a long, hard fight to wrest power from the wealthy. If the Church has influence to wield, should it focus on wealth redistribution? Or confront factors associated with stubborn poverty, including substance abuse and broken families?

Rusty Reno, editor of First Things, drew a few nods of support and many scowls of disapproval for his analysis of the roots of inequality. As an example, he cited sharply declining life expectancy among poor, undereducated whites in America.

“Their life expectancy is not collapsing because of the fact that 80 people have as much wealth as half the world,” Reno said at a January conference at Trinity Wall Street in New York. “It’s collapsing because their lives are in disarray, they have Type 2 diabetes, they’re using drugs.”

He cited more social problems, including how children are frequently growing up without a mother and father in the home, as indicators of an urgent need for family-strengthening initiatives and renewed solidarity among rich, poor, and everyone in between.

Moments later, author Rachel Held Evans pushed back. She called for well-off people to examine their consumeristic and self-absorbed lives, which she faulted for being intentionally disconnected from the poor.

“That’s immoral,” she said. “We can’t pin it all on women having children out of wedlock,” she said, generating applause from a crowd of mostly Episcopalians who had bristled, in tweets and later questioning, at Reno’s angle.

These fault lines, as well as much common ground, came to light at the 44th Trinity Institute, which convenes once a year for theological reflection on social issues. The location, just steps from Wall Street brokerages and the origins of the Occupy Wall Street movement, made the topic of inequality all the more resonant. Participation levels suggested organizers had indeed struck a chord. More than 330 participants filled the nave for lectures and panel discussions, while another 105 sites convened viewers via video link in the United States and abroad.

“Among younger people, there’s definitely an interest in this issue,” said Nick Deere, pastoral resident at First Baptist Church of Richmond, Virginia, where he’s preparing for a vocation in ministry.

Statistics on inequality have helped tweak the Church’s conscience. With one in three children living in relative poverty, the United States has the sixth-highest child poverty rate in the developed world, according to UNICEF. Meanwhile, the top 10 percent of earners brought in 46 percent of the nation’s income in 2010, up from about 32 percent in 1970. Inequality is seen as “a very big problem” in the eyes of 46 percent of Americans, according to a 2014 Pew Research Center survey.

The Church’s emerging response is not built on a premise that wealth is evil, or that full income equity across society is somehow a desirable ideal. Reno warned that equality-centered ideologies are dangerous as they lead too easily to totalitarian regimes. The Archbishop of Canterbury shared that concern.

Archbishop Justin Welby also cautioned against stereotyping the top “one percent” of earners as heartless or disinterested in others’ struggles. He said the faithful can even find petitions for continued prosperity in the Book of Common Prayer. He urged the well-off to be inspired by the philanthropy of Bill Gates and Warren Buffet.

“The biblical injunction is not against all personal wealth,” Welby said. “In the Bible, there is a respect for those who create wealth for the common good.” But systems that allow wealth to corrupt and allow for abuse do run afoul of the biblical injunction, he said.

That’s a point where consensus seems to be gelling: the Church should challenge systems that keep the rich wealthy for generations and keep the poor impoverished. The body of Christ cannot stand by in such a situation for reasons that go to the core of the faith.

Christian philosopher Cornel West put some of those reasons into words. He said the Church sees the world through the lens of the cross, which means caring first and foremost for “the least of these,” a reference to Matthew 25:40. Because the faithful are redeemed through the cross, they are empowered to face the truth about themselves — sinful in disturbing particulars, yet redeemed in Christ. Thus they are able to call attention to injustices that others might find too unnerving or too disruptive to bring to light.

“Who has the courage to tell the truth?” West asked in his keynote address. “For Christians, and we get this from our Jewish brothers and sisters in Hebrew Scripture, the condition of truth is to allow suffering to speak.”

The suffering is near at hand, speakers said, for those with eyes to see. Barbara Ehrenreich, author of Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America, detailed how expensive and stressful it is to be poor.

She cited examples. Being poor means relying on high-interest credit cards and payday loans to buy essentials. People with scant means are passed over for jobs when employers run their credit. They are charged fees or imprisoned for non-compliance with municipal ordinances, such as when their children skip school. In 40 states, if the poor go to jail, they can be charged for room and board.

Points of tension in the debate, however, keep coming back to the question of what the Church is to do. Ehrenreich, a self-described nonbeliever, proposed the Church undertake a new “moral crusade” to persuade employers to pay higher wages to workers on the lowest rungs. It might help confront the moral deficit she sees in both the private and public sectors.

“What I see is a system of mindless sadism,” Ehrenreich said. “Could we just stop the meanness?”

Ehrenreich said her job is to help develop a sense of class solidarity that transcends racial barriers, empowers poor workers to organize, and enables them to share in more of the wealth they have helped create. It could potentially include people in the professions, including journalists and adjunct professors, who also find their work undervalued and unfairly compensated, she said.

This solidarity “might be an alternative to, or maybe a stronger version of, Christian compassion,” Ehrenreich said. “Solidarity says we are all in this together.”

But she said that all does not include those who cling to power and vie to keep others living in poverty. From them, she said, the rest “have a responsibility to take power.” Ethicist Traci West, author of Disruptive Christian Ethics: When Racism and Women’s Lives Matter, made a similar point.

“No one with power and status gives it away,” she said. “Remember the ways in which we have to seize that power.” The crowd cheered. She explained further.

“It is only through poor people’s movements for social change,” she said, “and seizing power that honors their dignity, their human dignity, the thriving that they are entitled to. It seizes power from those who would want, and who would do everything that they possibly can, to ensure that they are not given basic human rights and a basic opportunity to economically thrive.” More applause followed.

But others said systemic inequality demands a different type of solidarity, one that spans class lines. It provides a personal hand up for those who are less well-off and need advantages passed down to them.

Reno observed that society’s elites know how to read subtle social cues and speak about sensitive subjects in publicly acceptable ways. For them, this ability to navigate complexity is a natural result of their educations and social ties, and it helps them maintain status.

Middle-class and affluent people are not teaching these types of skills across class lines, he said. That’s helping ensure that some never move up. It’s a problem that cries out for a renewed sense of solidarity that recognizes “we’re all in this together,” and must share knowledge and skills across all class divides. He said elites are doing a disservice in our time by refusing to defend traditional moral norms, including family structures, among less affluent and less educated populations.

“Equality is a secondary value,” he said. “The primary value is being responsible for each other.”

Anglicans seem to be taking it all in and pondering their next steps. Many at the conference bristled at Reno’s diagnoses and prescriptions. Reactions in tweets spoke of disbelief at some of his conclusions. They applauded and cheered when other panelists took issue with his points.

But Archbishop Welby appreciated Reno’s concern for rehabilitating family structures. Family-strengthening ministries should be one of many fronts on which the Church works to undo systemic inequality and the structures that propagate it.

“In this country when you start talking about ‘family values,’ it has all kinds of political connotations,” Welby said in an interview. “There’s so much baggage. And this is a real pity because we do need to talk about family.”

He said family should be understood not merely as nuclear units of parents and children. It should include extended families and a fostered, wider community.

“There is a need for the renewal of that sense of mutual commitment and love within households and families,” he said. “But it’s not just about the poor. It’s about every level of society.”

G. Jeffrey MacDonald

Related: R.R. Reno writes about his Trinity Institute experience at First Things.

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