My 2015 Wish for the Progressive Christian Internet: More Conversation About Justice

Over at Slate Jordan Weissmann nominates the graph above as the "Best Graph of 2014" documenting "The Rise and Rise of the Top 0.1 Percent."

This graph from economist Pavlina Tcherneva has also gotten "best graph of the year" attention:

This graph shows income growth for the bottom 90% compared to the top 10% as each group bounced back after great US recessions. Note how since the 1980s recoveries from recessions (bouncing back) have been disproportionately experienced by the top 10% with the bottom 90% bouncing back from recessions less and less, falling further and further behind.

I never got around last year to blogging about Thomas Piketty's book Capital in the Twenty-First Century. The book is a long and detailed historical analysis of capitalism, but the overarching conclusion and implication of the book are easy to summarize.

The overarching conclusion is this: wealth grows faster than income. Phrased more precisely, capital grows faster than wages.

What this means is that over time capitalism creates increasing inequality between those who possess wealth versus those who earn wages. This is the mechanism--the different growth rates of capital versus income--that creates the "Main Street" (wages/income) and "Wall Street" (wealth/capital) divide.

The implication of this is also simple to summarize: these different growth rates create democratic instability. That is, the inequalities produced by capitalism put pressure and stress upon democracy. By creating economic inequality capitalism fuels class resentment placing increasing strain upon the social contract.

Now, perhaps the mechanisms described by Piketty are at work in the graphs above. Perhaps not. Piketty and his book have received a great deal of pushback and criticism. Regardless, and following the argument of Piketty, I think it safe to say that the graphs above do point to pressure and stress that our current economic arrangement is placing upon the democratic social contract. As wealth grows and grows at an ever accelerating rate wages continue to remain stagnant. That divergence, if it continues, is not sustainable and will fray to the breaking point the social fabric of America. The middle-class is rapidly evaporating in America. And when the middle-class evaporates the democratic and social infrastructure that holds us together evaporates. 

What to do? Again taking a cue from Piketty, democracy has to reassert itself to reduce the gap between wages and wealth. This can happen in a variety of ways, all of them controversial and political quagmires. But all have the same goal: democratic redress of the inequalities produced by capitalism. Throughout its history America has had to do this work. And if Piketty is right that work never ends. It's time to do some more of it.

Now I'm sure politically conservative readers will have a range of negative reactions to everything I've just written. We'll just have to agree to disagree. What I'd like to do is end this post with some comments for my more liberal and progressive Christian readers looking forward to 2015.

The year that was 2014 for the progressive Christian Internet was a year that focused a great deal upon the oppressions related to race, gender and sexuality. Conversations about "checking privilege" abounded. Great effort was spent upon "centering," especially centering those for whom various oppressions "intersect" and stack up to create extremes of marginalization.

I applaud and have contributed to all those conversations. And yet, often missing from the progressive Christian Twitter and blogosphere in 2014 was a similarly robust, broad, sustained and energized conversation about class, labor, economic inequality and poverty.

For example, in discussions about racial reconciliation, centering and checking privilege many progressive Christians fail to attend to the issue of class and how it affects race relations. The issues in places like Ferguson have as much to do with economics as they have to do about race. I think it's vital that we check privilege and center voices at the intersections of oppression, but unless we deal with the structural economic issues our social media activism can devolve into to moral signaling and posturing.

I believe in and participate in all sorts of efforts aimed at reconciliation within my faith tradition (we have the same racial segregation on Sundays as many traditions do). And a pressing concern in these conversations is justice. And justice, as was pointed out to me recently by a group of African-American church planters, is fundamentally an economic issue.

To give a concrete example. I think it is critical and important to note how many women or persons of color are included as speakers at Christian events and conferences. We should take note and criticize when the speaking slate is full of white men. But let's not miss the forest for the trees. We can create an inclusive, diverse and multicultural event that de-centers and checks white privilege. But unless those de-centering and privilege checking efforts are leveraged toward addressing economic inequality we remain a far cry from justice.

Symptomatic of this is how progressive Christian activism can become a largely linguistic activity, focused upon policing, correcting and calling out how and when people speak and write (or don't speak and write) on social media. Progressive Christian activism is often strangely decoupled from the concrete particulars of economic policy. Which is to say that progressive Christian activism is often failing to have a conversation about justice biblically conceived. 

I take my cue here from Martin Luther King, Jr.. In the wake of the historic Civil Rights legislation passed in 1964 and 1965 the plights of most black Americans remained largely unchanged. Thus the disillusionment post-1965 that grew among the black population and civil rights activists, fueling race riots and the rise of the Black Power movement. So much had changed with the demise of Jim Crow but in so many important ways nothing had changed at all. And King saw economic inequality as the root problem. Thus, after 1965 King increasingly focused upon economics as the key factor in race relations. King was assassinated in the midst of organizing the Poor People's Campaign.

As King saw more and more clearly, there can be no "racial reconciliation" without (economic) justice.

I fear many progressive Christians are forgetting King's message and hard-won insight. Let us be students of history. Let us listen to what Dr. King was teaching in 1968. Let us remember the role of the charkha in the teachings of Gandhi. Let us go back to the socioeconomic origins of South American liberation theology. Thousands of words have been shared on progressive Christian social media about privilege, centering, diversity and reconciliation with very little associated conversation about economic justice.

Calls to "check privilege" and "center the margins" become ciphers for tolerance rather than clarion calls for justice when they are disconnected from the economic forces driving income and wealth inequality. Issues of race and class need to be intimately and repeatedly connected in these conversations. They rarely are.

So that is my wish for the progressive Christian Internet in 2015. Alongside and informing conversations about centering, privilege, diversity and reconciliation let us have more conversation about class. More conversation about wages. More conversation about labor. More conversation about economic inequality. More conversation about poverty.

More conversation about justice.

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12 thoughts on “My 2015 Wish for the Progressive Christian Internet: More Conversation About Justice”

  1. Larry James: someone who is in present day society in your neighborhood who holds conversations about economic inequality and has been putting words into actions regularly. I have seen him try to carry on 'the conversation' with folks in your area several times when we've visited including just June 2014. Have those conversations been on-going amongst those in your church community? His messages are always so compelling we take them home with us! Every blessing...

  2. If progressive Christians are going to have conversations about economic equality, it ought to be an economically informed discussion. Unfortunately, much of the conversation about income inequality outside of the world of academic economists is wholly misinformed and does more harm than good. Here are three economic ideas I think everyone needs to keep in mind in the discussion:

    1) If we're going to make assertions such as "democracy has to reassert itself to reduce the gap between wages and wealth," we need to keep in mind that using democratic means to address any problem in society has limits and can do more harm than good. Democratically elected officials are not angels who will simply do the good will of the people, they are self-interested, flawed humans like everyone else who will often act against the public interest. When we keep this in mind, we might be far more hesitant to assert that democracy is the solution to inequality; rich people can use lobbying to buy off the democratic process, which is both a potential harm that comes out of inequality and a potential cause of more inequality. Economists have an entire field dedicated to studying how the self-interest of political actors can harm the public interest in democracies (, the lessons from that line of inquiry need to be part of the conversation.

    2) As you allude to in this post, it is far more contentious that inequality is a result of anything inherent about capitalism (as Piketty would argue) than most of the rhetoric surrounding the issue makes it seem. One has to do more than just blame capitalism for the ills caused by inequality, one also has to look at the various institutional, governmental causes that influence the distribution of income inequality ( When a more nuanced understanding of the various causes of inequality is taken into account, the conclusions about what ought to be done about it are far more unclear and varied than most people make it sound.

    3) Though I agree that progressives are correct in asserting that the extent of and growth in inequality today is a sign of injustice, we must keep in mind that inequality is not an injustice in and of itself and nobody is able to fully control it. As economists such as Hayek would argue (http://bleedingheartlibertaria..., we cannot plan out what a "just" income distribution would look like. Unequal income distributions are also the result of a spontaneous order--though it is the result of human action, cannot be the result of human design. When income inequality is simply the result of entrepreneurial innovations causing some to be better off than others, we shouldn't wholly condemn it. We need to remember that income inequality is not an evil in and of itself (even someone like John Rawls would agree that some amount of income inequality is good insofar as it helps out the worst-off), and we will not be able to plan out or control the economy such that we wind up with our conception of a "just" income distribution. This point does not excuse income inequality as it exists today (it is largely not the result of the benevolent forces of entrepreneurship), nor does it mean we should not fight it. It simply serves to remind us that our ability to fight it is far more limited than we might hope.

    I agree income inequality is likely a problem that needs to be discussed and somehow addressed. But the normative conclusions drawn from such a discussion must be informed by positive economic reality.

  3. Amen! So much needs to be done, yet there are so many complicated pitfalls along the road and so many forces aligned against meaningful change... That said, I think Christianity is at its best as an underdog :)

  4. The problem isn't "inequality" in and of itself. Ability, opportunity, and effort will always lead to some degree of inequality even in the most equitable society. The problem lies in the extreme concentration of wealth and power in the hands of a few. (When you break down the top 1%, there's a massive difference even between the top .1% and .01% and the rest.) That problem is exacerbated when that concentrated power is used to build systems that operate structurally to oppress certain groups and to maintain the divide between those at the top and everyone else. Ironically, in terms of pure wealth, such actions actually harm even the rich who aren't at the very top in the sense that it reduces growth of the entire economy thus reducing gains across the board. But since the rich and well to do at a certain point tend to gauge wealth in relative terms (since at a certain point you can't spend it all) and in terms of power, widening the gap makes them feel richer even if in absolute terms their actions are counterproductive. We saw that dynamic in the late 19th and early 20th century. As society become somewhat more equitable in the wake of reforms flowing from the Great Depression and WWII, the lives of top CEOs and the like became more modest and in line with the rest of America as everyone experienced growth and shared prosperity. As that gap widened again starting in the 80s, ostentatious displays of wealth began to become the norm again.

    There's nothing particularly new about any of this. We've seen the cycle even in our own recent history. We know what causes it and we know how to fix it. (I use that 'we' broadly and collectively since there actually seems to be widespread ignorance and misinformation, in part from effective propaganda campaigns and in part because many people don't actually seem to learn from history and experience.) Laissez-faire or poorly regulated capitalism inevitably (at least from every example we've seen) leads to monopolies and oligopolies, distorted markets, and concentrated wealth and power. Well-regulated market capitalism spreads the gains and the risks across society, tempering both at the extremes.

    Structural systems ranging from wealth, the accumulation of capital, legal and judicial system, access to banking and credit, law enforcement, and many more are also used as tools of oppression against target populations. In the US, minority populations, especially African-Americans, have been so targeted for decades. That's why they are less likely to have access to banking and credit. They are targeted for higher rates on insurance and get less favorable terms on things like mortgages. They are more likely to be stopped and more likely to be arrested and convicted for offenses (especially drug offenses) that occur at the same rate among whites. That systemic oppression also makes it more difficult to acquire wealth (capital vs. income).

    All these things are interrelated and interconnected. But if we don't tackle them, we don't actually end up making a difference.

  5. Ezra Klein pulled together a number of different graphical representation to illustrate the problem back in 2013. I particularly want to note the graph illustrating what most Americans describe as the ideal wealth distribution (which, if I recall, looks remarkably like the actual wealth distribution in Sweden) compared to what they believe the distribution in the US is versus what it actually is. Most Americans don't even know how bad it is in the US today. Anyway, he pulls in a lot of other charts and graphs discussing a video that went viral back in 2013. It's a good resource.

  6. One would never guess that economic injustice was a major theme in the prophets listening to some religious leaders seeking to justify greed. "And I will make justice the measuring line…(Isaiah 28:17).

  7. And yet as Christians we read biblical passages such as those describing Soloman's wealth as if it were a gift from God. Don't you think that he controlled most of the wealth in his day?

  8. My only comment is that seems like a bizarre way to read the story of Solomon. I see his great wealth as one of the contributing factors in his downfall. The jubilee in the law of ancient Israel was actually designed to counter hoarding and concentration of wealth (in the form of land ownership), though it didn't take them very long to design creative ways around it. Surely you aren't suggesting feudalism as the best model for governance?

  9. What you're saying is completely true. I know that everybody must say the same thing, but I just think that you put it in a way that everyone can understand. I'm sure you'll reach so many people with what you've got to say.

  10. This is a great blog from the Marxina/Heterdox side. Here's a good take on the short comings of Mainstream Economics in general:

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