Reflections on Sane Spirituality
Income inequality and spirituality
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.
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