Economic inequality refers to the disparity of wealth or income between individuals or between the different groups in a society. According to Di Matteo (2014), economic inequality occurs primarily as a result of individual differences in access to and utilization of economic resources, and it is a function of public policy, institutions, education, globalization, and differences in resource endowments. Di Matteo (2014) argues that since religion is important in individual’s personal lives, it must have an important role to play as far as economic justice is concerned. Different religions shape the values and attitudes that people hold towards wealth accumulation, which affects how members of a certain religious group view fairness and act towards members of society (Di Matteo, 2014).
In recent years, attitudes and legislation have made life more difficult for oppressed peoples, including refugees, around the world. Many people believe their countries should accept fewer refugees. People believe that refugees are nothing but a burden to their countries, and that they will take away jobs and reduce the standards of living (Wike, Stokes, and Simmons, 2016). Tougher laws against refugees and asylum seekers have been passed in countries like Austria; these laws restrict access to protection for refugees. The law also restricts the rights of the asylum seekers, allowing authorities to turn away migrants at the border (Hume, 2016). Increased security concerns such as the belief that refugees will increase the likelihood of terrorist attacks and increase the crime rate in a country have been used to turn away these oppressed groups (Wike, Stokes, and Simmons, 2016).
Cases of increased racial discrimination towards members of other religions and races, as well as towards immigrants, asylum seekers, and refugees, have increased where they are deprived of access to the most fundamental of human rights and protection. In such instances, minorities are left exposed to and unprotected from xenophobic attacks and discrimination. In such climates, media often plays a role in building a hostile environment of mistrust and misinformation.
Since the days of the famous economist Max Weber, religion has been viewed as both a cause and outcome of economic development, with the adoption of religious principles being a contributor to economic progress (Michalopoulos, Naghavi & Prarolo, 2014). For instance, the adoption of Muslim economic principles has a long term effect on the economic development of Muslim lands; the adoption of Christian principles, mainly Protestantism, had a significant effect on the economic prosperity of many individuals in the West; and a change in the Judaic religious doctrine in the second century improved Jewish human capital by increasing literacy (Michalopoulos et al., 2014).
Different religions have different values and perspectives on how the issues of economic inequality, racial discrimination, and intolerance should be addressed. An understanding of Islamic, Christian, and Jewish values will lead to a deeper knowledge of the three Abrahamic faiths and an understanding of how to improve the common good.
The three religions agree that caring for others is essential and obedience to one’s faith will reduce negative attitudes towards vulnerable groups. People practicing the three Abrahamic religions can work together and condemn the individuals targeting minorities and newcomers, reducing the effects of intolerance and racism while also combatting economic inequality.
In Islam, economic inequality is considered as human condition only in the proportion of skill, initiative, and effort. Islam also teaches against extreme economic inequality, and it emphasizes that all resources are a gift from God, with Qur’an 2:29 stating that “It is He who created for you all of that which is on the earth…” People are entrusted with these gifts for a short time (Qur’an 57:7) (Christopher & Hayat, 2012).
The Islamic economic system is based on three divine principles which establish a “falahi” or an Islamic welfare economic system. The first principle is that man is not the absolute owner of resources because they are God’s and man is just a trustee. Second, economic activities should not be guided by self-interest only. And third, the religious aspect of earning and spending are as important as Islam’s other worship obligations and practices (Haq, 2013).
Haq (2013) identifies the systems of Ushr and Zakat, elements of the Islamic economic system which has significant implications on the distribution of income and wealth. Ushr is an obligatory payment from agricultural output, while Zakat is paid for accumulated wealth; Haq (2013) identifies the latter as a major instrument of restricting the excessive accumulation of wealth, as Zakat helps the poor and vulnerable members of society. The wealthy and the elite are warned that they will be hold accountable for disregarding vulnerable groups (Sahih Al-Bukhari, Volume 2, Book 24, Number 486).
Muslims are expected to value the poor, and they should spend from their wealth to help the poor: “God said, 'O son of Adam! Spend, and I shall spend on you’” (Sahih-Al-Bukhari Volume 7, Book 64, Number 264). Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him, reformed the value of taking care of the poor and treating everybody with respect as a way of addressing economic inequality.
Islam also teaches that there should be respect for people of other religions. Prophet Muhammad said, “Beware! Whoever is cruel and hard on a non-Muslim minority, or curtails their rights, or burdens them with more than they can bear, or takes anything from them against their free will; I (Prophet Muhammad) will complain against the person on the Day of Judgment.” Islam teaches that caring for others is not optional but a religious duty.
Islam is against any form of discrimination towards any one, and it teaches that differences in color, tribe, race, or tradition should not be taken as an excuse for unfair treatment. The Qur’an is against any form of racial discrimination, and it states, “O Mankind, we created you from a single pair of a male and a female, and made you into tribes and nations so that you may know each other (not that you despise each other). Verily, the most honored of you in the sight of God is he who is most righteous of you” (Al-Quran 49:13). Islam advocates for equality among all people as members of one human race.
The Qur’an teaches that all people were created by God, and it states in Surah 30:22 that, “of His Signs is the creation of the heavens and the earth, and the diversity of your tongues and colors.” Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him, also taught that all people are to be treated equally; in his last sermon, he stated that, “All mankind is descended from Adam and Eve, an Arab is not better than a non-Arab and a non-Arab is not better than an Arab; a white person is not better than a black person, nor is a black person better than a white person except by piety and good actions. Learn that every Muslim is the brother of every other Muslim and that Muslims form one brotherhood.” Muslims are encouraged to stand up and challenge racism and intolerance whenever they see the laws of God being broken.
Christianity teaches that all wealth comes from God, and He is in complete ownership and control of all things. Deuteronomy 10:14 (New International Version) states, “Behold, to the Lord your God belong heaven and the heaven of heavens, the earth with all that is in it.” Christianity holds the view that all the riches and wealth that man possess are a gift from God: “Moreover, when God gives someone wealth and possessions, and the ability to enjoy them, to accept their lot and be happy in their toil-this is a gift of God” (Ecclesiastes 5:19, New International version). Christianity acknowledges the fact that some people will be more economically able compared to others, but this should not make such individuals reject the most vulnerable members of society.
Christianity also teaches that people should care for the oppressed and the poor. Deuteronomy 15:7-8 (New International Version) states that, “If anyone is poor among your fellow Israelites in any of the towns of the land the Lord your God is giving you, do not be hardhearted or tightfisted toward them. Rather, be openhanded and freely lend them whatever they need.”
The apostle Paul teaches the Corinthians that there should be a fair balance so that a person does not have too much or too little. Christianity emphasizes that the immigrant and refugee crisis experienced so far could be solved by reducing economic inequality in the world.
“Our desire is not that others might be relieved while you are hard pressed, but that there might be equality. At present your plenty will supply what they need so that in turn their plenty will supply what you need. The goal is equality, as it is written: ‘The one who gathered much did not have too much, and the one who gathered little did not have too little’” (2 Corinthians 8:13-15, New International version).
Christianity calls for its followers to show “agape” love, where individuals care for those in need. Agape love would reduce the negative attitudes towards members of other religions and races, and people would not practice discrimination or attack vulnerable groups.
The gap between the rich and the poor is increasing drastically in the world we live in. Jesus Christ discouraged the accumulation of wealth, and He gave the parable of the rich man and Lazarus (Luke 19:16-31, New International Version) to warn people against accumulating wealth without caring for those in need. Jesus also gave the parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37, New International Version) who helped a stranger. Christianity extols individuals to care and welcome the vulnerable people in society.
Therefore, Christianity instills the values of love for one another and having compassion for another person. If individuals followed such values, practices like racism, intolerance, and violence against other people would end.
According to Sauer & Sauer (2016), Judaism puts forward two axioms of the Jewish economic theory which have a significant effect on the matter of economic inequality. The first axiom is that God is the creator of the world (Genesis 1:1, New International Version) and man was created in God’s image. Man was then given the world and complete dominion over it, and he should help perfect it through the utilization of resources, work, and innovation (Sauer & Sauer 2016). The second axiom is that man is required and obligated to care for the needy, and the Torah has moral principles which should guide how a man treats others. The Torah, in Leviticus 25:10 (New International Version), states, “proclaim liberty throughout all the land unto all the inhabitants thereof,” and this means that foreigners, newcomers, and minorities were to be set free (Sacks, 2015).
The Torah imposed certain infringements on personal property which were designed to ensure that the gap between the economic classes was reduced, avoiding instances of extreme wealth or poverty (Sicker, 2001). There was the law of the sabbatical year, which required that the land should rest and lay fallow in the seventh year, letting the poor people eat (Exodus 23:10-11, New International Version). The law also required that all debts in the seventh year should be forgiven, and every creditor should release that which the neighbor owes. Such laws had a significant effect on reducing the economic inequalities between people.
Judaism removes the system of human and economic freedom from the hands of human legislators. The Torah states that, “Because the Israelites are my servants, whom I brought out of Egypt, they must not be sold as slaves” (Leviticus 25:42, New International Version), and this means that personal liberty is not opened up for any political negotiations. Contemporary political and media discourses have made it difficult to integrate oppressed people, but Judaism promotes the values that will see such violence and intolerance reduced.
Judaism takes a positive approach towards all people and teaches that everyone is equal in the eyes of the Creator, and, therefore, all individuals should be treated well. Strangers, refugees, and foreigners are supposed to be treated fairly, as recorded in Leviticus 19:33-34 (New International Version) which states that, “When an alien lives with you in your land, do not ill-treat him. The alien living with you must be treated as one of your native-born. Love him as yourself, for you were aliens in Egypt. I am the Lord your God.”
The three Abrahamic religions promote values that seek to address the issue of economic inequality and the effects of it, such as discrimination and rejection of vulnerable groups. The core values of the three Abrahamic religions are equality among all member of human family, because God is the creator of all; care for those in need; and the need to show love to vulnerable groups. Therefore, religion has a significant role to play at reducing economic inequality in society, and it is crucial that people take their religious values with more seriousness.
- Al-Quran 2:29, 57:7, 49:13,30:22
- Christopher, C. & Hayat, A. (2012). Equitable Distribution of Wealth: The Economic System of Islam. Inside Islam. Retrieved 14 September 2016, from http://insideislam.wisc.edu/2012/05/equitable-distribution-of-wealth-the-economic-system-of-islam/
- Deuteronomy (10:14, 15:7-8), Ecclesiastes 5:19, Leviticus (19:33-34, 25:10, 25:42), Genesis 1:1, Luke (10:25-37, Luke 19:16-31), 2 Corinthians 8:13-15 (New International Version).
- Di Matteo, L. (2014). All Equal in the Sight of God: Economic Inequality and Religion in the Early Twentieth Century. Lakehead University.
- Haq, G. (2013). Distribution of wealth and Income in Islam. South East Journal of Contemporary Business, Economics and Law, 2(2).
- Hume, T. (2016). “Austria passes tough new asylum laws.” CNN. Retrieved 18 September 2016, from http://edition.cnn.com/2016/04/28/europe/austria-tough-migrant-laws/
- Michalopoulos, S., Naghavi, A., & Prarolo, G. (2014). Islam, Inequality, and Pre-Industrial Comparative Development. Harvard Business School.
- Sacks, J. (2015). Judaism Was First in Fight Against Income Inequality. Algemeiner.com. Retrieved 14 September 2016, from http://www.algemeiner.com/2015/05/07/judaism-was-first-in-fight-against-income-inequality/#
- Sahih Al-Bukhari (Volume 2 Book 24 Number 486, Volume 7 Book 54 Number 264).
- Sauer, C. & Sauer, R. (2016). Jewish Theology and Economic Theory. Journal Of Markets And Morality, 17(1). Retrieved from http://www.acton.org/pub/religion-liberty/volume-17-number-1/jewish-theology-and-economic-theory
- Sicker, M. (2001). The Political Culture of Judaism (p. 99). Praeger Publishers.
- Wike, R., Stokes, B., & Simmons, K. (2016). Europeans Fear Wave of Refugees Will Mean More Terrorism, Fewer Jobs. Pew Research Center's Global Attitudes Project. Retrieved 18 September 2016, from http://www.pewglobal.org/2016/07/11/europeans-fear-wave-of-refugees-will-mean-more-terrorism-fewer-jobs/