The Redistribution QuestionWith our economy in a shambles, the nation is looking to President-elect Barack Obama and his team of financial advisers to reverse the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression. Obama has proposed an $800-billion stimulus package that is unprecedented in scope. And while many experts agree that the solution to our economic woes will require something that radical, others worry that the “big government” nature of Obama’s plan might land us too close to a socialist system. It brings to mind some of the heated rhetoric of last year’s long presidential campaign.

During the closing weeks of the presidential contest, one of Senator John McCain’s most effective shots against Barack Obama was the insinuation that Obama was a socialist because of his promise of tax cuts for the middle class and tax hikes for the wealthy. McCain especially criticized Obama for telling “Joe the Plumber” that the reason he believes in taxing the well-to-do at higher rates is to “spread the wealth around,” providing opportunities for others.

“That is what ‘change’ means for Barack the redistributor,” McCain told a Dayton, Ohio, crowd in late October. “It means taking your money and giving it to someone else. He believes in redistributing wealth, not in policies that grow our economy and create jobs.”

For many millions of Americans, such a statement and view is anti-American. Obama’s critics charge that redistribution of wealth could lead to an even more depressed economy, encourage more free-loading, and punish the hardworking and successful by taking away their individual freedom. For many Christians, these effects are not only anti-American, they are also anti-Christian, since they would appear to undermine individual freedom and responsibility. Some critics even connect Obama’s policies to those of Karl Marx, whose social theories questioned the value of religion in society, promoted a materialist view of the world, and inspired 20th-century communism.

But is redistribution of wealth really a communist and anti-Christian concept?

John M. Perkins, the influential evangelist and civil rights activist, has argued for decades that to empower people and communities, ministries must engage in the three Rs: relocation, reconciliation, and redistribution. He and others demonstrate through biblical texts why this method is authentically Christian and necessary.

To holistically minister to people, it is never enough to get them to assent that Jesus is Savior and Lord. Rather, one must be in their midst (Jesus’ example), working for reconciliation with each other and with Christ, and they must work to redistribute resources–material and nonmaterial. Only then is there empowerment, equity, and true reconciliation. This is, in fact, argued to be exactly what the early Christian church did.

From this perspective, Barack Obama is quite in line with Christianity when he says he hopes to spread the wealth around. The difference, of course, is that one is achieved either voluntarily or as a requirement for membership in the faith, while the other is viewed as simply imposed on people, and particularly on people of high incomes.

We can solve some dilemmas when we realize the Bible does not call for equality (we are not all the same) but equity. Equity means people get what they should, without resources being unfairly taken from them or unfairly given to them. The slavery and Jim Crow systems were highly inequitable and grossly unchristian because they continually violated the biblical principle of equity.

If I work hard, in an equitable society, I should not go hungry; I should not be without shelter; I should not be without social respect. And this applies whether I collect garbage or I am a brain surgeon. Each performs an important, necessary function for all of us. Indeed, the garbage collector performs a good for the most people, given that very few people ever need brain surgery.

But for several reasons, society values brain surgeons much more, in terms of pay, esteem, and privilege. I have a friend who is a garbage collector. He currently makes $32,000 a year. I also have a friend who is a brain surgeon. His starting salary was $550,000, and he currently makes in the $800,000 range.

It takes more education and training to become a brain surgeon. So brain surgeons are rewarded with vastly more income and perks than a garbage collector. Equality of pay here would not make sense.

But is the vast discrepancy—$32,000 compared to $800,000—just and equitable? Let’s give it some thought.

My brain surgeon friend works many hours, not only doing surgeries, but continually studying up on new research, meets with patients, and other tasks. He works hard and gets immense respect from the community. He also gets to set his own schedule, take days off for to play golf or rest, lives in the finest of neighborhoods, and can afford to send his children to elite private schools.

My garbage collector friend works many hours too, doing hard physical labor under all conditions–extreme heat and cold, rain, snow, sleet, and consistently rotten smells. He gets almost no respect at all, and is often sheepish to tell others what he does for a living. He lives in a working-class neighborhood of small homes, can only take off a few days a year if given permission, and must send his children to the local public schools, even though they are not the highest-ranked schools in the area.

Our society says it is fair and equitable that these two hard-working people receive such discrepant pay, respect, and other goodies.

Somehow I don’t think Christ would agree, not using His equity standard.

Perhaps for the brain surgeon, for all the income, plumb retirement accounts, and high standing in the community, it would be OK, perhaps even “Christian,” to have to pay a higher percentage of one’s salary in tax, if that tax is then used to help my garbage collector friend to have a better life for him and his family, as a way to acknowledge his hard, sacrificial work for the community.

In an ideal Christian world, we would share with each other, like the first Christians did. We have moved so very far away from that. As my recent book [coauthored with Christian Smith and Patricia Snell], Passing the Plate, finds, American Christians contribute only 2 percent of their after-tax income to any charity. And a full 20 percent of American Christians give absolutely nothing. Interestingly, the wealthier people become, the smaller the percentage of their income they tend to give to the church and other charities.

As Christians, we undoubtedly should spread the wealth around. If we did as God asks of us–tithing our first fruits to do so–we would not need to have government involved. But we don’t do what we are supposed to do, and in such a case, it may be equitable and just to create a tax system that does that for us.

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