Poverty and Wealth Inequality: Where is God in All of It?

In the previous article, I argued in favour of vilifying Forbes list. I discussed how wealth inequality that we so thoughtlessly celebrate is a consequence of everything that needs correction in humanity and how it is also a precursor for social chaos. I dismissed motivational speaking and every ambition to appear on the Forbes list because extreme wealth is something that can never happen to everybody and besides, it needs to be eradicated totally. Moments after publishing that article, it occurred to me that I had left out the theological aspects of the discussion.

How can I miss that in a country where 96% of the people profess that God plays the most significant role in their lives? In other words, 96% of my people believe that God sees to their waking up in the morning, hats not falling off their heads, and successful digestion of their food. How can I forget that God could have a role to play in wealth and poverty? I was talking about motivational speakers most of whom actually quote God in their talks. It is important that I examine the theological aspects of this discussion. There are many Gods being worshipped by human beings all across the world but I will keep to Jehovah and Allah, the two most worshipped Gods in my country. Do they have anything to do with poverty and wealth?

I ended that article by talking about the principles of reducing wealth gap. Common to both religions are similar principles. Both religions condemn amassing wealth through illegal means. Islam discourages excessive wealth just for the sake of pride. In fact, wealth is seen as something that is bestowed on anyone to care for the needy with. There are certain traces of the concept of voluntary poverty in Islam: you amass wealth and then disperse everything to the poor. In particular, the principle of Zakah, in both its obligatory and optional forms, is something that takes from the rich and gives to the poor. It has even been touted to possess the potential to eradicate wealth inequality globally. Excessive wealth is condemned in the Bible too. The proverbial camel and the eye of the needle saying (Matthew 19:24) readily comes to mind. In the same vein, the parable of the rich man and the poor Lazarus (Luke 16:19 – 31) seems to vilify wealth inequality.

However it doesn’t appear like the message from either version of God concerning this matter is internally consistent. The concept of destiny counters everything positive. Some people are destined to be poor while others are destined to be rich. In other words, wealth inequality is part of God’s plan for mankind. It was packaged into creation. Allah says He’s all-seeing and all-knowing concerning his creatures and thus he knows who to make rich or poor based on his will:

Indeed, your Lord extends provision for whom He wills and restricts [it]. Indeed He is ever, concerning His servants, Acquainted and Seeing.

(Qur’an 17:30, Sahih International)

With this, we are sure that Allah has destined that there will always be poor people around. Can we then say that all poverty eradication efforts are vain since wealth inequality has already been immutably destined by the Creator? This is echoed by Jehovah when he said ‘There will always be poor people…’ (Deuteronomy 15:11 GW). Jehovah also said he is the one that gives to people the potential to become rich (Deuteronomy 8:18) meaning, no matter what you do, you will appear on Forbes list only if Jehovah empowers you to do so. In other words, wealth inequality is God’s making. It is clearly stated that ‘…nor food comes to the wise or wealth to the brilliant…’ (Ecclesiastes 9:11 NIV) but it is Jehovah that gives riches (Ecclesiastes 5:19 and 6:2). This means that so many hungry people who can’t come out of poverty might actually be part of God’s immutable plan. ‘The Lord sends poverty and wealth’ (I Samuel 2:7 NIV).

Let’s stay with Jehovah for some minutes more. In ancient times, land was the most important economic resource. The wealth of nations and individuals was measured by how much land they had. God somehow managed to make some people take other people’s lands and render them poor forever. There was abundant land all across the earth then but because he loved the Israelites, his children, he instructed them go to the Canaanites’ land to take their land and enslave them. These guys’ land was ‘flowing with milk and honey’. Instead of God to find another land that similarly flowed with milk and honey for his own children, he chose that particular land for them. That is exactly how you create the greatest wealth inequality one can ever imagine!

In God-ordained and God-aided conquests, other people’s lands were also taken. God also ordained that these people would be slaves to Israelites forever. As we know that slaves can never be rich, it follows that God decided to create a wealth inequality that was meant to last for all time. So Israelites were meant to be financially superior to other people. That was God’s purpose.

You may also buy some of the temporary residents living among you and members of their clans born in your country, and they will become your property. You can bequeath them to your children as inherited property and can make them slaves for life, but you must not rule over your fellow Israelites ruthlessly.

(Leviticus 25:45 – 46 NIV)

This slavery theme litters the whole Old Testament. Everywhere you look, there is a story of a group of people losing all their possessions and freedom to become slaves to some other people. If you worshipped a different God, you were going into slavery. If you annoyed him, all your riches were going to someone else. The story is so much ubiquitous that one is tempted to think whether Jehovah was actually determined to intentionally create wealth inequality all across the ancient world.

Apart from slavery, there were systemic declarations that placed some persons beneath others. Even within the Israelite nation, the tribes were not equal. For reasons best known to God, he chose a particular clan (Judah) to be the ruling family. They were the only ones that could be kings and thus be rich. They were the ‘high-born’. Others were meant to serve them. The caste system which is one of the most terrible things that have ever happened to humanity was actually established by God. Wealth inequality was part of Jehovah’s plan.

Remember I spoke about gender inequality and how it also shows up in wealth inequality. This seems to be part of God’s grand design too. The only time God allowed a woman (Deborah) to lead was when there was no man he considered suitable. In other words, when it comes to holding political positions that could place you on a high financial pedestal, women could only be second-class citizens. In fact God would rather make an 8 year-old boy (Josiah) the king than pick a woman as ruler. Women were seen only as properties that didn’t amount to much. God ordained polygyny but condemned polyandry. In other words, men were supposed to be rich enough to take care of several women while women must never be equally financially self-sufficient. Is there any worse way of being gender-biased economically?

Let’s say a few things about Allah some more. We’ve spoken about destiny above, how Allah destines people to wealth or poverty, thus establishing wealth inequality. Slavery was Allah’s commandment too. His most holy prophet conquered people and took slaves for himself. He also plundered and took properties from people. Allah didn’t let these activities continue unregulated though. He provided laws on how to take slaves and handle them even though he didn’t outright condemn any of these in the final analysis.

Of particular interest is the jizyah that was expressly sanctioned in the Quran. If you were not a Muslim, you were mandated to pay a tax similar to the discriminatory and oppressive taxation for strangers in other parts of the world in those days. This was something that definitely established wealth inequality in other regions but the region under Allah’s guidance wouldn’t do any differently.

Fight those who believe not in Allah and in the Last Day, and who do not forbid what Allah and His Messenger have forbidden, and who follow not the Religion of Truth among those who were given the Book, till they pay the jizyah with a willing hand, being humbled.

(Qur’an 9:29)

Gender inequality which has pervaded all human cultures hasn’t been helped by Allah’s instructions (or what people call Allah’s instructions) either. Khadijat was a great woman of political and economic influence who inherited lots of wealth from her family. She had a huge business (she would actually appear on Forbes list today) that had many employees one of whom was Mohammad that would later start the Islam movement. However the origin of Islam changed her fortunes as she had to abandon her opulent lifestyle to support her missionary husband. The subsequent doctrines of Islam didn’t seem to favour women’s rise to political and economic prominence thenceforth. If men are meant to be in charge of women, then women can never be as rich as men.

Men are in charge of women by [right of] what Allah has given one over the other and what they spend [for maintenance] from their wealth. So righteous women are devoutly obedient, guarding in [the husband’s] absence what Allah would have them guard. 

(Qur’an 4:34, Sahih International)

We can list many things that are misogynistic but notable among them is the concept of inheritance. According to instructions ascribed to Allah, a woman is entitled to only half as much inheritance as a man. If wealth does come from inheritance as established previously, how do you eradicate wealth inequality when some people have only half as much inheritance as others? The same thing goes for injunctions that prevent women from heading organizations that include men. Allowing polygyny without polyandry is also an issue here. I don’t want to go outside normative Islam and talk about serious Wahhabi nations like Saudi Arabia where women wouldn’t own a business or drive. How do we eradicate wealth inequality when some people are already prevented, on the basis of gender, from squaring with others?

Just like in any other religion, there are as many interpretations as there are human beings on earth. This is exactly one of the problems with discussing religion. However most Muslim women profess that a woman must wear a hijab while so many more add veils and flowing gowns to the components of obligatory dressing. Automatically, this position limits job opportunities. That means such women can’t do sports, work in factories especially those that involve machinery, or serve in the military. I’ve even seen some women who told me that they couldn’t choose the nursing profession in Nigeria because the nurses’ uniform is traditionally white and even though hijabs can be worn with the nurses’ uniform, hijabs are meant to be in dull, less noisy colours. So according to them, hijabs can’t be in white and thus, they can not be nurses.

Some other literal interpreters even prohibit women from being broadcasters. They derive their position from a combination of 3 injunctions — the injunction that says women shouldn’t talk loud in the presence of men, the one that says women’s faces mustn’t be seen publicly, and the one that says women shouldn’t mix with men who aren’t their families. Any belief that discriminates at the level of job opportunities is automatically fostering wealth inequality.

Of course, the deleterious effects of religious beliefs are inversely proportional to the amount of education and economic empowerment in a society. Even though it is difficult to know which one is the cause or the effect between both, the relationship is very obvious globally. Less conservative societies which tend to hold more liberal interpretations of religious texts also tend to have less of wealth inequality that emanates from gender inequality and other causes.

In summary, looking at both religions, God’s message seems to be mixed concerning wealth inequality. The same God that seems to discourage wealth inequality also seems to be saying some other things that foster it. Notwithstanding it is our duty to stamp out all retrogressive ideas no matter how convinced we are that they came from God’s own mouth. The bulk of humanity will not drop religious beliefs, at least in the nearest future, but it is ignorant to underestimate man’s immense capacity to reinterpret his own scriptures. Since God doesn’t argue with anybody’s interpretation of his word, human beings are at liberty to interpret, reinterpret, and even re-reinterpret as they deem fit.

We have finally eliminated slavery, courtesy of our ability to reinterpret our scriptures. Theocratic monarchy has given way to democracy almost all across the world despite the scriptural foundations of the former: we did that by reinterpreting the scriptures. In all fairness, gender inequality too is reducing gradually. The days of divinely ordained patriarchy are gone in Christian societies and even some churches are now appointing female bishops. Some Muslim countries like Albania and Indonesia are improving on the indices of equality of opportunities to both genders. In a subsequent article, I will look at the relationship between feminism and religion but suffice to say that there is now a movement called ‘Islamic feminism’ in which Muslim women (and men) identify as (evangelical) feminists.

I believe in humanity and its ability to conquer all of its problems. Wealth inequality is a problem and I believe in our immense ability to do anything to conquer it. Even if what any particular God says and its interpretation try to stand in our way, some of us will fling it out of the window and the people who wouldn’t do the same won’t have a choice but to reinterpret their stuff to align with modernity. In the final analysis, whatever God says about poverty, wealth, and wealth inequality doesn’t matter: it is what we human beings ourselves say that matters.

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  1. Felix July 31, 2017

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