Stop! Put aside all the other things cluttering your mind for a moment, and follow me as we float away from this world into Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood of Make-Believe. You and I appear there amidst a sea of people. Ok, the people aren’t literally a sea...there’s just a whole bunch of them. In fact, it’s every last one of the 6,967,766,637 (and counting) other people who were living with us in the Old World. The only difference is: we can’t remember who we are. We can all recall the details, purposes, and values of our societies and cultures at large in the Old World, but no one can seem to recollect who he or she was individually. That is, memory of your family history, your skills, your social standing, your education, your occupation, your personal wealth, and everything else that makes up your personal identity has mysteriously vanished. Confusion reigns over the neighborhood. Suddenly, on an oversized screen to your right, you watch three people you have never before seen file onto a stage and settle themselves behind three identical podiums. What is going on? Who are they? Who are you?
“You have been gathered here,” one of them announced, “because you have lost control over your own societies. We can no longer idly stand by as you destroy the earth and trample upon one another.” Another picked up, “You have left us no choice but to initiate a ‘reset.’ None of you has any recollection of your identity in the world as you knew it. This is because you will no longer be you. Though you will soon return to your world, you will return with a new identity. Just who you will be…well, that is what we are here to determine. You will have no knowledge of your new identity, your social standing, or any other details until you return to your world.” The only remaining luminary who had yet to speak continued on, “Together, you will decide one another’s fate. Before returning to your world, you must come to a consensus on how resources will be distributed. How will wealth be shared? Who will have the power? Which groups will receive a good education? Whose voices will be heard?” The figure who had spoken first—and who seemed to be the leader of this delegation—concluded the message saying, “As you make these decisions, give careful consideration to the fact that you may be placed anywhere within this new world order. We can assure you that you will have no control.”
I don’t know about you, but for me, this fairytale narrative is a pretty powerful demonstration of our deeply inculturated sense of justice as fairness and equality. It would be expected that if we were charged with reordering civilization without any knowledge whatsoever of who we would be in that new world, we would devise a world with remarkable equality. Why? Well, would you want to create a world in which there was a possibility you would be assigned to a position of abject poverty? This story I’ve invented is an adaptation of the late 20th century philosopher John Rawls’ social contract. Rawls proposed that if a veil of ignorance were to shield us from knowledge of our own identity, we would arrive at an original position from which we would be able to make perfectly selfless and moral decisions in the interest of the common good. Essentially, if we did not know enough to favor ourselves over others, then we would be compelled to advocate for equality—maybe not communistic equality, but nevertheless, a society vastly more equal than the one in which we currently live.
I happen to find Rawls’ line of thinking both intuitive and insightful. Yet, the more time I spend considering it, what strikes me is that, as a Christian, I shouldn’t need a veil of ignorance to understand the way things should be. As a Christian, I should (theoretically) be fully aware of my identity and still understand that I am called to spend my entire life advocating for distributive justice—even if that redistribution happens to mean taking money out of my own pocket. In a thousand different ways, Jesus communicates that caring for others is our responsibility. In this sense, ‘sin’ is a violation of our relationality. When we do not treat one another—or the earth for that matter—with the utmost respect and dignity, then we have committed a sin. And when we put our own needs and desires above those which contribute to the common good, we have sinned.
The widespread ‘occupy’ protests and the ‘We are the 99 percent’ campaigns have undoubtedly been politically and socially divisive. But if we can manage to put aside the partisan political issues for a moment, what we can see is a group of people committed to protecting the common good. You may disagree with these movements’ positions on certain policy matters or the tactics they use to convey their points, but I implore you to recognize and respect their dedication to seeking justice for all people. But whatever your reaction may be, the reality is that we are living amidst the greatest economic inequality in the history of our country. To put it another way, we are living in the sort of society that no one in the original position would ever choose. In fact, a recent study backed up this idea that we are drawn towards fairness and equality by revealing that: 1) Americans believe that our wealth is distributed much more equally than it really is—for example, we believe that the top 20% holds only 59% of the wealth when in fact it’s closer to 84%, and 2) The average American’s ideal distribution of wealth is even more equitable—we give only 32% of wealth to the top 20% in our ideal distribution. And all this while still knowing where we personally stand in the hierarchy of wealth!
But since I don’t foresee a trip to a make-believe neighborhood where we can reorder the social structures of the world anytime soon, the question we must consider is: What can we do today to make things more just tomorrow? As humans, I believe we have a deeply ingrained sense that relative equality is just and fair. As Americans, we have voiced our dream of a more equitable economic system. And as Christians, I am convinced that we are called by God to bring justice to every corner of our world, including our economic systems. Simply put, we are charged with reforming that which does not serve the common good.
Now after spending all this time trying to persuade you to advocate for economic equality, I’d like to finish by making a succinct case that it should not be our end goal. Instead, we should view equality as but one outcome of a far greater end. If we aim above all for the love, respect, and dignity of all people, then economic justice will surely follow. If you learn to truly love your neighbors, I am quite confident that you will not let them go hungry, and neither will you cease to ask the question, “Why is there not enough for everyone?”