The idea that the universe is a vast moral mechanism, mechanically rewarding virtue and punishing vice, has often felt appealing. According to the mechanically moral universe theory, if virtue goes in, reward comes out; wickedness in, punishment out; as if the universe were a great moral machine, a cosmic meritocracy.

We humans have, throughout our history, and probably before, been very attracted to this idea that if something bad happens to us, we must have done something to deserve it. And if something good happens to us, we must have done something to deserve that, too. Well, sometimes we have. Many times, it’s just dumb luck – good luck or bad.

Wisdom from the Hebrew Bible has for thousands of years reminded readers that life is not all about getting what one deserves. First, from the book of Ecclesiastes, chapter 9, verse 11:
“Again I saw that under the sun the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, nor bread to the wise, nor riches to the intelligent, nor favor to the skillful; but time and chance happen to them all.”
Second, the Book of Job. Here is Michael Sandel’s exposition.
“A just and righteous man, Job is subjected to unspeakable pain and suffering, including the death of his sons and daughters in a storm. Ever faithful to God, Job cannot fathom why such suffering has been visited upon him.... As Job mourns the loss of his family, his friends (if one can call them friends) insist that he must have committed some egregious sin, and they press Job to imagine what that sin might be. This is an early example of the tyranny of merit. Armed with the assumption that suffering signifies sin, Job’s friends cruelly compound his pain by claiming that, in virtue of some transgression or other, Job must be to blame for the death of his sons and daughters. Although he knows he is innocent, Job shares his companions’ theology of merit, and so cries out to God asking why he, a righteous man, is being made to suffer. When God finally speaks to Job, he rejects the cruel logic of blaming the victim. He does so by renouncing the meritocratic assumption that Job and his companions share. Not everything that happens is a reward or a punishment for human behavior, God proclaims from the whirlwind. Not all rain is for the sake of watering the crops of the righteous, nor is every drought for the sake of punishing the wicked.... God confirms Job’s righteousness but chastises him for presuming to grasp the moral logic of God’s rule. This represents a radical departure from the theology of merit.... In renouncing the idea that he presides over a cosmic meritocracy, God asserts his unbounded power and teaches Job a lesson in humility. Faith in God means accepting the grandeur and the mystery of creation, not expecting God to dispense rewards and punishments based on what each person merits or deserves.” (The Tyranny of Merit 36)
SERMON, part 1

I submit to you that two words name a large part of the richness and goodness of life: grace and solidarity.

Grace: the freely given, unmerited gifts you did not earn and do not deserve. Like being alive. Like being more or less healthy – healthy enough and pain-free enough to be able to be here – or listening online right now. Like air, and the feel of breath in your lungs. Like sunlight, rain, trees, the beauty of the seasons: autumn leaves, winter snow, spring, summer. You didn’t earn those things. You’ve done nothing to deserve them. They are free gifts – grace. You might not notice them. But a life of richness and depth is one that is constantly seeing grace everywhere – the beauty all around us.

And: solidarity. We’re not in it just for ourselves. We’re in this together. We are here for each other – what else? Comradery, companionship, neighborliness, friendship – all the different ways we are in relationship, all the different forms that love takes – this is the goodness of life.

If grace and solidarity name a large part of what makes life good, then it behooves us to attend to whatever undermines the place in our lives of grace and solidarity. These days, the growing overemphasis on merit, on deservingness, undermines the place in our lives of grace and solidarity.

Merit is generally conceived as the product of two factors, called (1) ability or talent or capability, and (2) hard work or effort or motivation. We use merit, as best we can assess it, to determine who gets into the top schools, and who gets the high-paying, high-status jobs. There’s a lot of competition for school admissions and for jobs.

Now: there will always be a place for competition. I’m not going to stand here on Super Bowl Sunday and say we should, or ever could, abolish competition and the rewards of victory.

But the winners have been over-rewarded, and the losers way over-deprived, and we need to lower the stakes for that part of life that is a meritocratic contest. We just need to lower the stakes of the merit contests because as those stakes have been growing, they’ve been crowding out grace from our lives -- crowding out solidarity.

Last week I talked about Distributive Justice – how, since 1980, we’ve been distributing more and more of the wealth to fewer and fewer of the richer and richer, and that’s unjust. A more just distribution, a greater income equality, is essential to social health, for our flourishing as a people. Today I want to add to the picture Contributive Justice – the justice of everyone being able to meaningfully contribute to our city, our state, our nation, our world. Those who have been deemed not to have the merit to get into the good schools – or, indeed, those who maybe don’t want to go to college – need jobs they can feel contribute to something more meaningful than a paycheck. Michael Sandel, in The Tyranny of Merit, says of the meritocratic ethic:
“Among the winners, it generates hubris; among the losers, humiliation and resentment. These moral sentiments are at the heart of the populist uprising against elites. More than a protest against immigrants and outsourcing, the populist complaint is about the tyranny of merit. And the complaint is justified. The relentless emphasis on creating a fair meritocracy, in which social positions reflect effort and talent, has a corrosive effect on the way we interpret our success (or the lack of it).”
The meritocratic ethic produces a
“smug conviction of those who land on top that they deserve their fate, and that those on the bottom deserve theirs, too.” (25)
For those on the bottom, the meritocratic ethic means either frustration or humiliation and despair. Either they believe that the system fails to recognize their merit and denies them opportunities to use it – or, perhaps worse, they accept that meritocratic sorting has been more-or-less fair, and they just aren’t good enough to have earned any better than they got.

The grip of the meritocratic ethic has been growing through the post-World War II era.

The word “meritocracy” was coined by British sociologist Michael Young in this 1958 book, The Rise of the Meritocracy. Young described meritocracy as a dystopia. When he wrote in 1958, the British class system had been breaking down for some time. The old aristocracy had been giving way to a system of educational and professional advancement based on merit. In many ways, this was a good thing. Gifted children of the working class could develop their talents and escape from a life of manual labor. But the old system at least had the weird advantage that everybody knew it was unfair. Neither the Lords nor the working class believed they deserved their status – which tempered the arrogance of the upper-class and precluded despair for the laborers. The working class knew their situation wasn’t their own fault.

Michael Young wrote his book from an imagined position in the year 2033 -- projecting out 75 years, 3 generations -- into the future from 1958. That’s how long he figured it would take for meritocracy to lead to a mass revolt. He wrote, describing conditions in the 2033 of his imagination:
“Now that people are classified by ability, the gap between the classes has inevitably become wider. The upper classes are no longer weakened by self-doubt and self-criticism. Today the eminent know that success is just reward for their own capacity, for their own efforts, and for their own undeniable achievement. They deserve to belong to a superior class. They know, too, that not only are they of higher caliber to start with, but that a first-class education has been built upon their native gifts.” (The Rise of the Meritocracy 106)
Meanwhile the losers in the meritocracy are resentful at the arrogance of the winners while also humiliated with the knowledge that they have no one to blame but themselves.
“Today, all persons, however humble, know they have had every chance.... Are they not bound to recognize that they have an inferior status – not as in the past because they were denied opportunity; but because they ARE inferior? For the first time in human history, the inferior man has no ready buttress for his self-regard.” (108-9)
Michael Young’s tale from 1958 predicted that the less-educated classes would then rise up in a populist revolt against the meritocratic elites. We can now say that the revolt that Young predicted came 17 years ahead of schedule, in 2016, when Britain voted for Brexit and America voted for Trump.

While Democratic candidates, and many Republicans were intoning that everybody ought to be able to go as far as their talent and hard work could take them, and therefore we must level the playing field, Trump has never said that. His fans know that the meritocratic game casts them as the losers, that their work no longer has much dignity, or even affords much of a living any longer. Their feelings of both humiliation and resentment have proven potent.

If the game being played on the field is one that inherently has winners and losers, then leveling the playing field does nothing to revitalize civic life, does nothing to foster a sense that we’re all in this together, does nothing to shore up solidarity. Indeed, the more level the playing feeling, the more the winners may feel justified in their arrogance, and the greater the humiliation of the losers.

Sandel brings us back to grace and solidarity. He writes:
“a perfect meritocracy banishes all sense of gift or grace. It diminishes our capacity to see ourselves as sharing a common fate. It leaves little room for the solidarity that can arise when we reflect on the contingency of our talents and fortunes. This is what makes merit a kind of tyranny, or unjust rule.” (The Tyranny of Merit 25)
We’ll always have some competitions, and we’ll want to make those playing fields level and fair, but when we make the levelness of the playing field the only concern, we forget that public life isn’t entirely about the competition. It’s also about recognizing that we’re in this together. It's about contributive as well as distributive justice. It’s about standing as equals with each other as neighbors, engaged in the work of citizenship (whether we are legal citizens or not). It’s not all about standing as competitors.

SERMON, part 2

As meritocracy has grown increasingly emphasized, the greater our inequalities of income and wealth have grown. Or maybe it’s the other way around: as our inequality has shot up since 1980, we’ve responded by rationalizing it with an increasingly dominant rhetoric of merit. Either way, the rise of emphasis on merit and the rise of inequality correlate.

Earlier, I mentioned contributive justice. Distributive justice is needed for fairer, fuller access to the fruits of economic growth and a reduction in inequality. Contributive justice is also needed: the opportunity to contribute meaningfully to others. It’s contributive justice that fosters the sense that we’re in this together. Human beings require the social recognition and esteem that goes with producing what others need and value. An adequate wage is part of that. It’s hard to feel your society really values your work if they won’t pay you much for it. But the point isn’t just distributing income and wealth. It’s that people should get a good income because they’re doing work that really matters to other people. The distributive justice and the contributive justice need to go hand in hand. As Sandel writes,
“The fundamental human need is to be needed by those with whom we share a common life. The dignity of work consists in exercising our abilities to answer such needs.” (The Tyranny of Merit 212)
Robert F. Kennedy understood this. Campaigning in 1968, he said,
“Fellowship, community, shared patriotism – these essential values of our civilization do not come from just buying and consuming goods together.”
They come from
“dignified employment at decent pay, the kind of employment that lets a man say to his community, to his family, to his country, and most important, to himself, ‘I helped to build this country. I am a participant in its great public ventures.’” (RFK: Collected Speeches 385-86)
Politicians don't much talk that way anymore.

Meritocracy puts competition at the center of public life, instead of putting our shared civic enterprises at the center. Meritocracy also puts that competition at the center of our individual sense of who we are. Meritocracy defines us – to each other and to ourselves -- by what we deserve, what we earn. It teaches us relative disregard for all the range of life that isn’t marketable.

It may help to look more closely at the two factors that make up merit, or deservingness: talent, ability, natural gifts on the one hand and effort, hard work, training on the other.

First, let us ask: from where did the talent come? Some of it came from genes – that’s luck. Some of it came from childhood experiences. But growing up in the right sort of environment to bring out a given ability is not something the individual made happen. That’s also luck.

The other factor – effort, hard work, motivation, training -- isn’t always possible to separate from native talent. But whether you have the opportunities for training, have good coaches available, and training facilities, have encouraging people around you, and an environment that yields enough reward for hard work early on so that it develops as a habit – that’s all luck. There may also be a genetic component in predisposing some people to focused work and delayed gratification, and, if so, that would also be luck.

If you’re lucky enough to find yourself motivated, and lucky enough to find yourself talented, then you’ll be said to have merit. The supposed distinction between unearned luck and earned deservingness collapses under scrutiny – so merit is always a pretense.

There are certain spheres of life where the pretense is necessary. When it’s time to ask the boss for a raise, you go in and make the case for how you deserve it. But later, when you're back home, in a moment of calm reflection where you can step back from your work life and can view it in your spiritual, holistic capacity, then you can appreciate that, really, there is no deserving. It’s all grace. You just happened to have some skills – including the skill called “motivation” – and you just happened to live in a world with market demand for your particular skills – and just happened to have the boss and the company that you do. All luck. All grace.

Now: Can you hold on to that spiritual truth even as you return again to the sphere of markets and work? It’s like the capacity to play a game -- parcheesi or gin rummy or chess -- while at the same time knowing that you’re just playing a game. Or like the capacity to watch an engrossing movie, while a part of you retains the consciousness that what you’re looking at is just lights on a screen. In the case of games and movies, it's pretty easy. In the case of merit, it takes a special spiritual maturity to resist the tendency to convince ourselves that we somehow deserve our luck. As Max Weber observed back in 1915:
“the fortunate person is seldom satisfied with the fact of being fortunate. Beyond this, he needs to know that he has a right to his good fortune. He wants to be convinced that he ‘deserves’ it, and above all, that he deserves it in comparison with others. He wishes to be allowed the belief that the less fortunate also merely experience their due. Good fortune thus wants to be 'legitimate' fortune.” ("The Social Psychology of the World Religions" [1915])
To be able to hold before you unwaveringly the insight that your good fortune really is just good fortune -- really is utterly undeserved -- to never forget that for a moment -- even when you’re in the middle of an intense round of the game called, “demanding what you deserve,” – that is a difficult spiritual challenge. I regularly bring myself back to this awareness that it’s all grace, that none of it is deserved or earned, but that bit about “never forget for a moment” is beyond me. I do regularly bring myself back to remembering, but that’s because I do regularly forget.

This might be your first glimpse of seeing through the illusion of merit – the first time it came to your notice that the distinction between deserving and lucky is illusory. If so, I urge you to hold on to that. Don’t let it slip away. Rest in that new way of seeing, and imagine what it might be like to live that way – with awareness that merit is a fiction, a game you are sometimes called upon to play, but which you recognize isn’t real.

If you imagine holding that awareness in your mind, what difference would that make for your life? For one thing, if you’re sharply aware that it’s all luck, then you’ll be less caught by surprise when the luck changes. Market shifts can make your particular skills no longer in demand. A sudden accident or disease can make your body no longer able to play the violin, or hold a scalpel steady – or can make your mind less able to concentrate. In the vagaries of fortune, if you’ve thoroughly grasped that your success is not deserved, then you’ll be prepared to see your failure, when it comes, isn’t deserved either.

And something else. Not only do you not deserve your failure, but you’ll more clearly see that other people don’t deserve theirs. Under the meritocratic ethic, my success is my own doing, so other people’s failure must be their fault. Meritocracy thus corrodes commonality. It traps me within the delusion that we aren’t in the same boat. Meritocracy says that I built my boat, and you built your boat, so there’s no particular reason I need to be concerned if yours is sinking. But if I see my situation as wholly an undeserved grace, then I can imagine a new and harsher grace that might put me in someone else’s shoes. (Ram Dass, after the stroke that left him wheelchair-bound, called it 'fierce grace.') And if I can have that clarity, then my life turns in a different direction, turns toward a different task. My task is not to out-compete others for the prizes of success and status. Nor is it to facilitate my children in out-competing others. My interest shifts from the prizes available only to the winners to restoring the dignity of all work.

There is a possible world in which everyone, whatever their talents and training, can meaningfully contribute their work to our shared public enterprise, and meaningfully contribute their voice to democratic deliberation that forms that enterprise. It will be no easy thing to get there from here. It will take, at best, several generations to reverse the effects of the last several generations.

Meanwhile, here in the microcosm of a congregation, we practice. Week in and week out, we embody a communal life without meritocracy, where we stand together on ground of equality, where everyone can meaningfully contribute to our shared enterprise, where we learn together an ever-deepening appreciation of grace and our inherent solidarity. Week in and week out, we are demonstrating to the world a better way.


The Spiritual Impact of Inequality

Words of Rev. Mark Morrison-Reed, from the back of our hymnal:
"The central task of the religious community is to unveil the bonds that bind each to all. There is a connectedness, a relationship discovered amid the particulars of our own lives and the lives of others. Once felt, it inspires us to act for justice. It is the church that assures us that we are not struggling for justice on our own, but as members of a larger community. The religious community is essential, for alone our vision is too narrow to see all that must be seen, and our strength too limited to do all that must be done. Together, our vision widens and our strength is renewed."
So let us unveil those bonds that do connect us – and together let our vision widen and our strength be renewed. We live in a time of great polarization – and the political polarization is itself an outcome of the income and wealth inequality.

On November 2, 1980, my daughter Morgen was born. She was born into a country that certainly had poverty, but did not see the sort of wealth disparities we have now. Two days after she was born there was the 1980 presidential election, and Ronald Reagan won it. Morgen turned 43 last November, and over the course of her life so far there’s been a massive transfer of wealth to the wealthy.

In 1979, the poorer half earned 20% of the nation’s pre-tax income. By 2014, just 13%. If the US had the same income distribution it had in 1979, each family in the bottom 80% of the income distribution would have $11,000 more per year in income.

From 1947 to 1979, we all grew. In those 32 years:
  • For the bottom 20%, income rose 116%.
  • For the second quintile, income rose 100%.
  • For the middle quintile, income rose 111%
  • For the fourth quintile, income rose 114%.
  • For the top 20%, income rose 99%.
So: all quintiles rose a comparable amount – but the bottom 20%, by a small margin, grew most of all. And the top top 20%, by a small margin, grew least of all. That was during the 32 years from 1947 to 1979. But from 1979 to 2007, it was a completely different story. In those 28 years:
  • For the bottom 20%, income rose 15%.
  • For the second quintile, income rose 22%.
  • For the middle quintile, income rose 23%.
  • For the fourth quintile, income rose 33%.
  • For the top 20%, income rose 95%.
In 1980, the richest one percent of people got eight percent of the income -- which means they were getting eight times the mean income. Eight times the mean income would seem to be plenty. Who could want more than that? Surely that’s more than enough. But in 2011, the richest one percent brought home 20 percent of all income -- 20 times the mean.
"During the 1950s and 60s, CEOs of major American companies took home about 25 to 30 times the wages of the typical worker. In 1980, the big-company CEO took home roughly 40 times. By 1990 it was 100 times. By 2007, CEO pay packages had ballooned to about 350 times what the typical worker earned.” (Robert Reich, Forward to Wilkinson and Pickett, The Spirit Level: Why Greater Equality Makes Societies Stronger.)
Modern life is tough. Living the way we do is hard on people: anxiety, depression, unsure friendship, consumerism, lack of community. Not all of that would go away if suddenly, magically tomorrow all income and wealth distribution were at 1979 proportions again. Now, I need to say that I’m always suspicious of any scenario invoked with “if suddenly, magically tomorrow” – because there are no magic wands, and HOW we get somewhere is always going to be a huge part of what it means to be there. So what would it take? It would take some massive programs to create more jobs, bills to ensure that they paid well, lots of aid and assistance, like what we saw during the pandemic, only more – and to pay for it all, a progressive income tax of the likes we had in this country in the 1950s.

The top marginal tax rate is now 37% It’s been in the 30s – or even briefly as low as 28% -- ever since the Reagan administration. But back during the top marginal tax rate was 92% -- then in came down to 91% and stayed there through 1963. In 1963, for a single filer, any income above $200,000 was taxed at a 91% rate. That was 60 years ago, and general cost of living then was about a tenth of what it is today, so $200,000 then was about equivalent to $2 million now. Imagine taxing all income above $2 million at 91%. What’s actually much harder to imagine is our congress approving such a change. It would take a huge and drastic popular movement that voted into office very different representatives than we have now. The building of that movement would involve substantial attitude shifts in a lot of people. It would take a moral awakening of mass numbers of people to really care about the well-being of everyone. And if THAT happened, we’d already be in a very different world, quite apart from the effects of the legislation we would then be able to pass. Just living in a world where most people really cared about the well-being of all people would itself go a long way to easing the anomies of modern life: anxiety, depression, unsure friendship, consumerism, lack of community.

The state of huge disparities of income – and the even huger disparities of wealth – make everything that’s tough about modern life is worse. What may be an even bigger factor is the practical political reality that we live in a country that allowed this to happen, that has been voting into office the leaders that made it happen ever since my daughter was born. We live in a country that is largely unmotivated to rectify it. I, for one, veer between anger and sadness at this reality.

There are a lot of different ways to measure inequality: the top X percent versus the bottom Y percent. But any X or Y we might choose reveals about the same trends, and about the same differences between nations. One common metric, which I will highlight because the UN uses it, is the ratio of the income at the 80th percentile to the income that’s at the 20th percentile. This 80th to 20th ratio is, in the US, as of 2022, at 8.6. It’s been running at about that for over a decade, though during the pandemic we had a temporary drop down to 7.1. Canada, Japan, and most of Europe are below 5. When this 80th percentile to 20th percentile ratio is less than 5, then we find a society generally maintaining some shared assumptions about wealth and about each other. Roughly, when that ratio is about 5 or less, the attitude of the populace will resemble something like this:
“If there are somewhat wealthier folks among us, that’s OK. I can accept that some people are luckier, or more skillful at work that society prizes, or they’re more driven to work hard, and they end up wealthier. That’s fine – and as it should be. The relatively wealthy serve as a reminder to me of what good schooling and hard work and a little luck might make available to my children. If the town doctor has a big house on a hill, that’s OK – ze’s smart and had a lot of training, and ze’s using that to help us when we get sick, so more power to zir. Maybe my kid can get a scholarship and be a doctor.”
That kind of thinking was still pretty much the largely-unspoken norm on the day 43 years ago when I first held my newborn daughter in my arms. But that attitude loses purchase, begins to slip away, if the rich-poor gap grows too large. That outlook that prevailed through my growing up and my parents lives up until 1980, has now come to seem quaint -- an echo of a bygone time. Few, it seems, think like that anymore.

Things changed during the time of my daughter’s growing up. The two key features of the old outlook were:
  1. the higher levels of wealth were attainable by those who weren't already rich; and
  2. those who had wealth deserved it.
These two features are connected, for when upper-class wealth seems attainable – when the perception of most people is that anyone with the right combination of talent, drive, and luck can become upper-class – then those who do make it to society’s top wealth echelons are presumed to deserve it. But when the gap becomes as enormous as it has in the US, the folks at the bottom and middle can no longer see the wealth of the ones at the top as either attainable or deserved.

By the time my little girl was graduating from college in 2002, the world she was commencing into had become profoundly different from the one she was born into. The country had become a place where we could no longer feel we were all in this together.

Now, I know that the idea that there once was, up until 1980, a halcyon time of general social solidarity overlooks the deep racism that has divided our country throughout its history. I know that, given the horrors of Jim Crow segregation, gauzy nostalgic impressions of togetherness are delusional. Even so, whites could see rich whites as attainable, and blacks could see wealthier blacks as attainable. But in this century, even that has fallen apart.

There is an argument that we should be concerned with poverty, but not with inequality. It’s our business as a society to make sure that everybody has enough, this argument goes, but not our business how much more than enough the rich have. Here’s the thing, though. What we want is to care and be cared for. We want, and need, to be in relations of mutual care. And when that need is not met, it makes anxiety, depression, and social alienation more likely. Societally, when inequality becomes great, we lose the sense of community, lose the sense that we’re all in this together.

Researchers into “social health” typically measure it as an amalgam of ten factors. The lower the rates of:
  • homicides
  • obesity
  • teenage births
  • infant mortality
  • imprisonment rates
  • mental illness (including drug and alcohol addiction),
and the higher the:
  • life expectancy
  • children’s educational performance
  • social mobility
  • level of trust
then the higher a nation's social health.

Using this definition of social health, researchers have then found that a country’s wealth does not correlate with its social health. A country may be rich, medium, poor, or extremely poor (less than $10,000 per person per year). Except in extremely poor nations, more wealth has no effect on social health. Equality, however, does correlate with social health. Countries with high inequality, whether rich or poor, have low social health. Countries with low inequality, whether rich or poor, have high social health. The US is quite wealthy, but on the measure of social health we’re doing worse than most countries that have only half that much per-person income. After meeting a certain minimum, more wealth doesn’t do us any good. Equality does. In statisticians' terms, the mean income, as long as it’s above $10,000, doesn’t matter. It’s the standard deviation that matters.

Social health means a better quality of life for all of us. Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett write in their book: The Spirit Level: Why Greater Equality Makes Societies Stronger
“The evidence shows that reducing inequality is the best way of improving the quality of the social environment, and so the real quality of life, for all of us . . . this includes the better off.”
A relatively equal society – where the ratio of the 80th percentile to the 20th percentile is less than 5 -- can sustain a shared understanding among its members. But if, as in the U.S., that ratio is close to 9, there’s a disconnect. We lose the shared understanding of the legitimacy of things. The wealthy are beyond attainability, and beyond any credible story of deservingness. We lose the sense that we’re in this together. The wealthy become “them.” And "they" don’t care about "us" -- so we don’t care about them. Anomie and division set in; anger and alienation become the social mood. Sensing the resentment of most of society, the wealthy, in turn, retreat behind gated communities, which further increases the disconnect.

We begin to believe the game is rigged; we don’t have a chance. When we believe that, we become more likely to behave in ways that make that a self-fulfilling prophecy. Rich and poor alike feel the division, the disconnect. The result is that phenomenon I mentioned: everything that’s tough about modern life is exacerbated. Higher levels of depression, higher levels of consuming things that aren’t good for us: from drugs to alcohol to junk food to mindless TV shows to mindless consumer products. As I wrote in my column in this month’s issue of Connecting: When you compare nation to nation, there’s no correlation between wealth and life expectancy or mortality. No correlation. Rich countries have about the same life expectancies and mortality rates as relatively poor countries, until you get into the really poor end of the spectrum. As long as a nation has per-person income above about $10,000 a year, further increases do nothing to increase life expectancy. That’s the nation-to-nation comparison.

But when we do a zip-code-to-zip-code comparison, we get a different picture. The poorer zip codes have higher mortality than the richer zip codes. If you took several of the poorest zip codes, created a new island in the Pacific, put them all there, maintained their per-person incomes as they were, made a new island nation of them, they’d have decreased mortality. They’d be fine. But because they live near the wealthier areas, they perceive that difference. They see all around them the inescapable fact that they live in a society that is set up to work for others, but not for them. They are reminded daily that they are not in a society of mutual care. And THAT wears them down much more than relative material deprivation.

Wilkinson and Pickett write:
“At the pinnacle of human material and technical achievement, we find ourselves anxiety-ridden, prone to depression, worried about how others see us, unsure of our friendships, driven to consume, and with little or no community life.”
Wilkinson and Pickett go on to note:
“The unease we feel about the loss of social values and the way we are drawn into the pursuit of material gain is often experienced as if it were a purely private ambivalence which cuts us off from others....As voters, we have lost sight of any collective belief that society could be different. Instead of a better society, the only thing almost everyone strives for is to better their own position – as individuals – within the existing society.”
A complex web of interrelated factors has brought us to this pass, and growing income inequality is a key node within that web. It fosters the sense of divide. If we’re going to get back to a sense of common good – where political differences are differences of strategy for promoting general welfare rather than the drawing of enemy lines to delineate who must be defeated – then it will be necessary to reduce income inequality.

Equality has benefits that show up all over. They show up, for example, on baseball teams. “A well-controlled study of over 1,600 players in 29 teams over a nine-year period found that major league baseball teams with smaller income differences among players do significantly better than the more unequal teams.” (Wilkinson and Picket, The Spirit Level: Why Greater Equality Makes Societies Stronger, 237). When people feel like they stand on equal footing with their neighbors or teammates, there’s a cohesion that lifts spirits, heals wounds, and improves performance.

Unitarian Universalists care about our world. And it’s clear now that
“further improvements in the quality of life no longer depend on further economic growth. The issue is now community and how we relate to each other.” (Wilkinson, Pickett)
The issue is building a world in which most of us care about the well-being of all of us. The issue is not only at the economic level but at the spirit level. The wound is to our spirits, yet, wounded as they are, the resolve to heal must also come from our spirits.

“The religious community is essential,” as Rev. Mark Morrison-Reed said, “for alone our vision is too narrow to see all that must be seen, and our strength too limited to do all that must be done. Together, our vision widens and our strength is renewed."

May it be so. Amen.