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Inequality, Religion, and the Law
By Patti Ghezzi | Emory Law | Jul 29, 2014 12:07:00 AM

How can it be that it is not a news item when an elderly homeless person dies of exposure, but it is news when the stock market loses two points? This is a case of exclusion. Can we continue to stand by when food is thrown away while people are starving? This is a case of inequality.
                                                              -- Pope Francis



Inequality impacts a growing segment of society. The June 2014 issue of the Journal of Law and Religion includes two articles by leading scholars on the role of inequality, religion, and the law.

“Religion plays an important prophetic role by addressing the failure of society, including the legal system, to meet the demands of justice,” writes Silas Allard, managing editor of JLR and associate director of the Center for the Study of Law and Religion. “Without a mercy code to call the law to account for all people, we cannot overcome a pervasive and seemingly intractable injustice such as we find in the global rise of income inequality.”

Data point to a widening gap between rich and poor. From 1979 to 2007, the wealthiest 1 percent of US households saw average real income rise by 275 percent, while the 20 percent of lowest-income US households recorded a mere 18 percent gain in average real income, according to a 2011 Congressional Budget Office report. The 20 percent of households with the highest incomes receive 51 percent of total household income, with the top 5 percent of households receiving 22 percent of the total, according to a 2012 Congressional Research Service report. Economists Thomas Piketty and Emmanuel Saez have estimated that the 1 percent of wealthiest households in the United States accounts for 17 percent of market income.

Religious traditions have spent millennia grappling with the moral and structural problem of inequality. In an era of secular legality, religion is often discounted as a source of pragmatic policy solutions, even where some space may be made for the prophetic role of religion, Allard writes.

Michael Welker, Senior Professor and Director of the Research Center for International and Interdisciplinary Theology at the University of Heidelberg, exposes in his article, “The Power of Mercy in Biblical Law,” the moral, religious, and legal influence of biblical law, particularly the mercy code, which serves as a call to account of the juridical law to the protection of all people.

Adi Libson, lecturer on the Faculty of Law at Bar-Ilan University, analyzes the institution of the second tithe in the classical sources of Jewish law and makes a connection between the second tithe and welfare policy. The second tithe removes barriers between classes of people. He writes: “The reshaping of the second tithe may provide inspiration for enriching the arsenal of possible relational egalitarian social policy prescriptions.”

Studying income inequality through the lens of law and religion brings fresh ideas to an issue many have dismissed as inevitable. Yet the problem is too pervasive to ignore. “Increasing inequality pushes growing numbers of people, specifically those with the least economic means, to the edges of society,” Allard writes. “It pushes them out of what are, for better or worse, the most important spheres in modern society, namely the political sphere and the market sphere.”

For more information on the latest issue of JLR, visit us atjournals.cambridge.org/action/displayJournal.