The idea of equality has become more and more prominent in discussing public affairs, but it is not always set out just what we mean by it, writes Rev Sydney Maitland. In the bible all are equally created by God, and all equally die, even though the manner and circumstances of birth and death greatly vary. Similarly, ‘All have sinned and come short of the glory of God’. (Romans 3: 23).
Yet the existence of wealth and its distribution is also a theme that the psalmist questions and partly resents. ‘Do not be afraid when one becomes rich, when the glory of his house is increased’ (Psalm 49: 16); ‘The little that a righteous man has is better than the riches of many wicked’ (37: 16); ‘Those who trust in their wealth and boast in the multitude of their riches, none of them can by any means redeem his brother, nor give to God a ransom for him’ (49: 7) and so on.
But that does not mean that the bible is based on sameness and uniformity. The story of creation is itself a study in order, with the universe created before any life comes to be. Even the sun, moon and stars are placed down the list of priorities – mainly I think in order to distinguish them from their creator, so that they are seen as part of creation and not as deities to be worshipped for themselves.
The trinity itself is far more than a gyre of equals and the Athanasian Creed (Quicumque Vult in the Scottish Prayer Book) sets this out. V21-23: ‘The Father is made of none: nor created nor begotten. The Son is of the Father alone: not made nor created, but begotten. The Holy Ghost is of the Father and the Son: not made, nor created, nor begotten but proceeding.’
Then Jesus also spoke of those who would be regarded as great in the kingdom of heaven and those who would not. (Matthew 5: 19). In Luke 9: 48, Jesus spoke of how ‘He who is least among you will be great’. There is a sense of order in Jesus’ teaching while in Paul there is both the sense of order in that he established churches and appointed elders in them, while all the while writing about variety in the nature of the church (1 Cor 12) and the gifts of the Spirit. What we have is variety but not confusion, order but not oppression. This is the nature of a body as opposed to an organisation.
But when looking at the social and political sphere, we understand that all ballots are equal and that we are (supposed to be) equal before the law. On the other hand, nobody disputes that in sport the strongest, fastest, most agile and most skilled should win the competition. Equally nobody wants to be treated by an unqualified doctor or surgeon, or to be driven by an unqualified bus driver, or flown by an unqualified pilot. There is a difference between equality of opportunity – that is the opportunity to be different and to thrive in that difference – and equality of outcome. Even here nobody seems to resent the high salaries collected by sports-folk or by entertainers. For these, you are only as good as your last performance.
More resentment is directed at those who are, if not unknown, then unapproachable and more to the point, unaccountable in their power, wealth and influence. Yet even here, anyone who has savings managed by someone else is entrusting them to a financial institution, a pension fund, or to a market operator. Even here many of us give tacit approval to those who act on our behalf, and who prosper on their skills and abilities, as well as their hard work.
It is easy to generate resentment at the other person who has done better than ourselves, whose career has been more productive, whose family is more accomplished, who lives in a better house, drives a bigger car, has the more exotic holidays, and so on. But we do not have to do this, and we do not have to feed on or be defined by our resentments.
As Christians, we are defined by Jesus Christ – the man who set aside the glories of heaven and ended up pinned to a cross, naked and humiliated, and wracked by the abuse of the comfortable and the complacent. In the eyes of the world, Jesus was definitely a loser. So were the apostles who found death in martyrdom. But God thought differently – raising Jesus from the dead, maintaining the church through 2000 years of both persecution and of institutional establishment.
But God has also been consistent in renewing the church down the centuries and in our day we also look for Him to do a new thing within us and among us. And this will be richness beyond comparison or calculation.