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Friday, 11 May 2018

The Great Leveller - a book review

A fascinating book
Pastors try to read widely. As well as great books of doctrine, Christian biography, and most of all Scripture itself, we must try to understand the world we live in, and so we read beyond what would be regarded as our traditional remit.

That's why I read "The Great Leveller."

The author is an expert in economic history and has a passion for economic equality around the world. So he traces the history of inequality from  ancient times to present times. The curve of global inequality over time looks something like this:

What becomes clear is that inequality is the normal for human societies, and it is only reduced during periods of severe violence.

A tragic tale
Scheidel likens the four violent events that reduce inequality to the four horsemen of the apocalypse:
  • Mass warfare
  • Revolutions
  • State failure
  • Global diseases
These four events - and these alone - have been responsible for bringing down inequality and making society more equal - for a while. All of them involve violence and death. And then after they have levelled incomes, inequality creeps back up again.

No human hope
The saddest verdict of the book is that there are no peaceful ways of bringing down inequality. Tax reform, social policies, democracy - none of these human efforts make any real difference!

The author admits that his conclusions are indeed bleak!

Gospel Hope
Three thoughts kept on recurring in  my mind as I read this book:

(i) The tragedy of spiritual blindness. The author does not see the deep issues though he is so clever: nowhere does he see the real cause of inequality in the world - the greed of our human hearts. It is nothing but astounding that the word or the idea "greed" does not appear anywhere on the pages of the book! And so, since the principal cause of the world's woes, the fallen human heart, is not diagnosed, no cure can be found.

(ii) Only in the Gospel is there hope for the world, because only in the Gospel is the heart changed. We read that in the early church, "there were no needy persons among them" because God had transformed the hearts of men and women through the Gospel of Jesus Christ; then they loosed their hands on their wealth and freely gave to the poor.

(iii) One failure of the Reformation.  For me, the saddest observation of this book, was the failure of the Reformation to bring about equality in Europe. I thought for sure I would see a drop in inequality during the period 1500-1600, but alas no, look at the curve above! In Augsburg, for example, inequality rose from 0.66 in around 1500 to 0.89 in around 1600. A very sobering statistic for the Reformed city of Augsburg!

Why don't we have a massive dip in the curve above during the Reformation years? Very sobering!

And for me and you?

How has the Gospel really influenced our own attitudes to money and wealth?

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