Friday, January 22, 2016

Sixty–Two People, Half the World, What a Stunning Statistic!

I first heard the statistics concerning wealth distribution released by Oxfam the other day with horror. According to their study, the richest 62 people in the world have the same combined wealth as the poorest 50% of people in our world ($1.76 trillion USD)—that is 1,760,000,000,000,000,000, or 1.76 million million million dollars! In percentage terms, only 8.382375298816469e-7% (0.000000083%) of the people of the world hold the same as ‘the other’ 50%.

Aside from statistics related to problems of death through violence (genocide, abortion, war, the Holocaust, etc), I can’t think of a statistic that has shaken me more. It is horrific. How has this come to pass?

I did a bit of digging on the 62 and some—like Charles and David Koch from Koch Industries, the Waltons of Wal-Mart, the Mars who make Candy (mars bars, yummy)—are from the same families, so it is a little worse; it is actually 57 people or groups who hold this wealth (see http://www.forbes.com/billionaires/list/#version:realtime_show:1). Most are from the USA (30) and Europe (16), with ten from Asia, and the others from South or Latin America (3), Russia (1), and the Middle East (1). So, the vast majority of this wealth is held by 46 people in the western world. Unsurprisingly, 54 are men—it’s a man’s world, or should I say, a ‘rich man’s world.’ Many are in the computer technology and media world, some in beauty, fashion, clothes and accessories, some in supermarkets, some in industry, and a number in investment and real estate.

This is a deterioration of an already bad state of affairs disparity; in 2010, the 388 richest people owned the same wealth as the poorest 50%. Then, by 2014 this had dropped to 80, and now 62. What will the next five years bring? The richest few are buying up the world, and the world is being enslaved to their wealth accumulation. The wealth is not trickling down far enough, only to those who serve the uber-rich. Between 2010 and 2050, the wealth of the poorest 50% dropped by 41%, while the richest 62 gained $500 billion—nice.

Now, as I said in my last blog, I have just been thinking about Jesus feeding the 5000 (John 6). In truth, the 5000 fed was more like 10 to 20,000, as there were women and children present (like the boy with the fish), who were not counted (ancient patriarchy, sigh).

When this occurred, those present were poor and desperate, under severe economic oppression and wealth disparity. The nation, indeed the whole Mediterranean, was held captive to Rome. In Rome, life was good for the elite—with the Empire and most of the population serving them (half were slaves). In Israel, Rome had its lackeys; the Herodians, who were big on building projects and an excessive lavish lifestyle, the chief priests and others who made up the Sanhedrin (council of seventy–one), some other priests, and Rome’s tax-collectors who also took their own cut (e.g. Zacchaeus). There was also the problem of land acquisition, with the wealthy buying up land into huge holdings, while the people of land worked the land on a basic wage at best with the money going into the coffers of the rich (sound familiar). There was no real middle class with the rest of society poor struggling to varying degrees, from the wealthier artisans through to the slaves, peasants, and those who languished in squalor—the lepers, beggars, blind, lame, mentally ill, and physical disabled (such were the people at the feeding). If Oxfam are right, then our world is not that different.

We see the heart of Jesus in the feeding. He heals the sick. He feeds the poor. He welcomes sinners. He doesn’t hang out with the wealthy and elite, he avoids them. In fact, there is no record of him going to the seats of Galilean power, Tiberius, Sepphoris, or Hippos. In fact, he performs this miracle, and most of his work, in the wilderness, with the poor coming in crowds to him. He repudiated the rich, challenging one rich fool to stop building up his huge assets more and more but to be generous to God and the poor. He told a story of a rich man in hell, while the poor beggar he ignored is in heaven—a complete reversal of popular theology. He urged another to sell everything, give to the poor, and follow him. He urged his followers to follow that same pattern—live light and give generously. When Zacchaeus the reformed tax-collector gave half he had to the poor, and refunded fourfold those he had ripped off as a tax-collector, Jesus cried out that salvation had come to him and his household. Jesus venerated a poor widow who gave everything she had to the Temple Treasury. He honoured Mary who poured perfume over his feet, despite the protestations of Judas, who himself was a thief. He repudiated the Pharisees who were obsessed with wealth acquisition. Jesus would not be impressed with this statistic I am sure.

How to respond? There is a temptation to think there should be a revolution when we hear things like this. And indeed, there might be—such situations can often lead to outcry and violent overthrows of regimes (take Communism for example). The problem is that these don’t work, inevitably a fresh regime comes in that falls into the same trap—greed and oppression to fulfil the agenda! Jesus advocated something much cleverer and subversive. We see the desire for revolution at the conclusion of feeding account (John 6:14-15). After their great feed, the well-fed 5000 recognised that with the sort of power Jesus had, surely the time was ripe to storm the Romans, Herodians, Sanhedrin and anyone else who got in their way, and bring Shalom (peace). They declared Jesus the long awaited Prophet (Deut 18:15-18), sought to seize him and make him king by violent force, and then no doubt head for the Herodian and Roman bases in Israel and take back their world. Jesus took off—he wasn’t interested in a violent revolution or being that type of king. He knows that this will not work.

The kingdom he advocated is from the bottom up. This is where people recognise that the inequality of the world must be addressed, but now with violent revolution. Rather, it begins with ‘me’ and making a change from greed and consumption to generosity and giving. Such a kingdom is found where people see a person in need and respond by healing, feeding, and caring—like the Good Samaritan who stopped at real expense (money, time, and danger) to tend to a man robbed and left for dead on the side of the road. Jesus himself repeatedly stopped to heal, feed, and care for people as he want about his days. In this story, he healed the sick and fed the crowds. Amazing miracles happen when people get generous.

Surely, what is now needed is for there to be an outcry against the economic oppression of our time. Globalization has enabled the smaller and smaller group of people to control more and more. The response is to become cleverer at avoiding their control. We need to become more generous. We need to redistribute our wealth, responding to need. We need to resist the empire, recognising who these people are and buying in other ways, growing our own stuff, repairing things, sharing things, and resisting. As we go to vote in forthcoming elections, we need to consider what will see the wealth of the world distributed to its workers more evenly. More importantly, we need to live out the politics of the Kingdom—heal the sick, feed the poor, care for the needy, and so on.

There is no easy answer, but it starts with us recognising what the Kingdom is about and letting that affect everything we do. Otherwise, in another five years 30 people will own the world. Then 10. Then 1. That doesn’t bear thinking about.

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