Reflections on Sane Spirituality

Income inequality and spirituality

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Many in the spiritual world connect spirituality with compassion, and effectively say, if you are compassionate, of course you will want to see greater income equality. My colleague Jeff Utter writes,"my religion teaches me that human beings have a responsibility for all the members of a society, that wealth is a great temptation, that our standing obligation is to guard against the greed which can take hold imperceptibly more and more and blind people to how selfish they have become." Andy James writes in his blog that "some of humanity’s greatest spiritual teachers, pre-dating the concepts of Left and Right, have advocated caring and compassion for all" and that points to militating against financial inequality.

Funny, this seems like such a no brainer. Spirituality points to compassion for one another, and compassion suggests that we should work towards economic equality. But I'm not at all sure of the link here. Beware though, I'm about to say something for which I will probably be pilloried by my spiritual colleagues. After all, we hold our political views with much greater energy than our spiritual views. So I offer this in the spirit of thinking aloud, not accusation.

As I say, somehow this connection doesn't seem quite that easy for me. Spirituality points to compassion, yes, but the compassion I feel is not quite that simple. somehow it seems too easy to say that the compassion I feel towards my fellow man should have equal income as its result. Seems to me that I can be compassionate towards a rich man and a poor one equally. So really, what do I care from the spiritual point of view? My rich friend is human, my poor friend is human, what more's to be said?

The spiritual life I know about can be enjoyed and profited from from any class. So how does class/wealth come into it?

The one thing I can say is that the rich people with whom I grew up were not particularly happy. Nor were the poor people I knew and know. There seems to be a kind of middle in the whole thing, enough money but not too much, where one faces the struggle to self transcend more naturally, more effectively. Most of the folks in the Guild are, for example, in that middle ground. If folks are very very rich, they tend to be worried some spiritual teacher is after their money. If folks are very very poor, they are struggling with lower issues in Maslow's hierarchy of needs. So the middle may be the natural place to find self transcendence.

I can say the one thing that money has to do with spirit is that you need some extra wealth to afford the luxury of looking for depth in life. Retreats and even routine meditation requires some leisure time and money. So its better, more spiritually enhancing, to have some excess money. In that sense, to have the very very rich taking more of the wealth might leave more of their fellow men poorer, if trickle down economics doesn't actually work. But the connection is just not to me that strong.

I'd be more concerned with being sure that my compassion for the poor wasn't leading me to mistrust the rich. Frankly, I see a very strong overriding narrative in the left: its that if you are poor you are noble, if you are rich you are dangerous and not trustworthy. I hear story after story on NPR about the virtuous poor, and nearly NEVER a story about someone who worked hard and created a sturdy business and eventually hired 40 people. It's hard, damn hard, to run a business, as I know too well, and the success of such an endeavor should be celebrated, as much as we should celebrate someone who is poor but noble

So no, I don't see the natural connection between income equality and the spirit. Rather I fear that the connection that seems so obvious is a political assumption hiding behind a spiritual patina.

Sorry. I told you this would be tendentious.


  1. Andy James -
    Andy James's Avatar
    Dear Bob
    In my blog, I write about excessive income inequality, not about achieving income equality. These are vastly different propositions. In addition, I do not write from a stereotypical left/ right position, so I don't ever think that the poor are inherently virtuous nor the rich evil.
    The present no-regulation Free Market system, which we support thru voting, buying etc, has shown itself to consistently generate widening poverty gaps though successive booms and busts within countries and between countries. In the USA in 2007, the top 1% brought in 23% of national income. Think about that carefully...not much left to go around! And what benefit has America received economically in return for lavishing riches on corporate leaders? - recession, outsourcing, trade deficits, becoming increasingly indebted to China and more. So the "connection" here is what we see around us is what we have elected and selected...the greed, the street people, the violence, the consumer excesses etc.
    The (book) Spirit Level presents evidence that excessive inequality damages the well being of societies across the board, rich and poor alike. In addition to the above, from a "hard-headed" point of view, dysfunctional/failed societies are apt to be volatile and violent because they have been cut out altogether from the (neo-American) Pie. Witness Afghanistan, Africa and even parts of the USA - remember the Ghetto riots...Watts etc? The latest predictions are that if mass migrations keep increasing at the rate they have the last few decades, about 25% of the world's population could be on the move by 2050. Climate change is likely to push this even higher thru rising ocean levels, water shortages, decreased food capacity etc. If you think these are the ravings of "lefties", this climate change/ mass migration scenario was part of a Pentagon security report.
    Another part of the "connection" is that in the USA, no-regulation Free Market economics has become an ideology, linked with the Right, the Religious Right and America itself. I see how this has come about, but it is not logical (I am not an "expert", but I do have a degree in Economics and worked as a Chartered Accountant for many years). I have written about the need to rethink our infatuation with Free Market economics for some time..and in doing so I'm not advocating Communism! Economics Professor, John Quiggin, has just written a book called "Zombie Economics: How Dead Ideas still walk among us". Sounds Promising.
    Warmest, Andy


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