Skip to main content

What Jesus knew about income inequality

By Jay Parini
updated 11:38 AM EDT, Thu August 21, 2014
Pope Francis waves to crowds from inside a vehicle near Seoul Air Base in Seongnam on Monday, August 18. The Pope's trip to South Korea marks the first papal visit to the country since Pope John Paul II went there 25 years ago. Pope Francis waves to crowds from inside a vehicle near Seoul Air Base in Seongnam on Monday, August 18. The Pope's trip to South Korea marks the first papal visit to the country since Pope John Paul II went there 25 years ago.
HIDE CAPTION
Pope Francis visits South Korea
Pope Francis visits South Korea
Pope Francis visits South Korea
Pope Francis visits South Korea
Pope Francis visits South Korea
Pope Francis visits South Korea
Pope Francis visits South Korea
Pope Francis visits South Korea
Pope Francis visits South Korea
Pope Francis visits South Korea
Pope Francis visits South Korea
Pope Francis visits South Korea
Pope Francis visits South Korea
Pope Francis visits South Korea
Pope Francis visits South Korea
Pope Francis visits South Korea
Pope Francis visits South Korea
Pope Francis visits South Korea
Pope Francis visits South Korea
Pope Francis visits South Korea
Pope Francis visits South Korea
Pope Francis visits South Korea
Pope Francis visits South Korea
Pope Francis visits South Korea
Pope Francis visits South Korea
Pope Francis visits South Korea
Pope Francis visits South Korea
<<
<
1
2
3
4
5
6
7
8
9
10
11
12
13
14
15
16
17
18
19
20
21
22
23
24
25
26
27
>
>>
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Jay Parini: Jesus, Pope Francis, scientists address question: Does money make you happy?
  • New study says wealth, power bad for your mental health -- as Jesus knew
  • He says the Pope, in his South Korea trip, said we must redress inequality
  • Parini: Study finds too much wealth suppresses part of brain that causes empathy

Editor's note: Jay Parini, a poet and novelist, teaches at Middlebury College in Vermont. He has just published "Jesus: The Human Face of God," a biography of Jesus. Follow him on Twitter@JayParini. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.

(CNN) -- Does money make you happy? Does being rich contribute to your spiritual life and its possibilities?

Is the gap between the rich and poor a religious problem as well as a social problem in desperate need of solutions?

Jesus, Pope Francis, and brain scientists have asked these questions, and the answers are clear if unnerving. Wealth and power are dangerous for your mental health, your spiritual condition, and for society in general -- especially when they contribute to the neglect of the poor. New research explains how this works (more on this in a minute).

Jay Parini
Jay Parini

Ridding the world of poverty is, of course, a fantasy. Jesus knew this: "You will always have the poor among you," he said (Matthew 26:11). He also said, "God blesses you who are poor, for the kingdom of God is yours." (Luke 6:20). Only a few verses before this moment in Luke, he cries (echoing the Old Testament): "The spirit of the Lord is upon me, for he has anointed me to bring the good news to the poor." (Luke 4:18).

Jesus also noted, famously and controversially, that it is easier "for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven." (Matthew 19:23-24).

Let's just hope that we've got some very skinny camels.

Jesus discouraged the accumulation of wealth, worried about its effects on those who had it, and took special pleasure in helping the poor, dedicating his efforts to them. He must have shaken his head at the large gaps between rich and poor throughout ancient Palestine in the first century.

Pope Francis has taken up Jesus' call on this. On his recent visit to South Korea, he repeated a cry that has become a central theme of his papacy, telling hundreds of thousands of listeners in Seoul that the gap between the rich and poor in Korea was a problem, and they should think back to early Christian martyrs in Korea.

He said: "Their example has much to say to us who live in societies where, alongside immense wealth, dire poverty is silently growing; where the cry of the poor is seldom heeded and where Christ continues to call out to us, asking us to love and serve him by tending to our brothers and sisters in need."

Everyone knows that the wealth gap in the U.S. has increased dramatically. "The top 10 percent took more than half of the country's overall income in 2012, the highest proportion recorded in a century of government record keeping," The New York Times reported in April.

It's a problem that makes you dizzy, and one that will never be easily solved. Indeed, the concentration of wealth at the very top of American society recalls the early 20th century, before the income-leveling measures of the New Deal kicked in.

The growing income gap is perhaps the most pressing issue before the world, not just the United States, as the level of misery rises among the poor. Even those formerly known as the middle class, who have struggled mightily to make ends meet for decades now, face an array of problems that create mental and physical pain on a vast scale.

So let's go back to Jesus and Pope Francis and their concerns. Do people on the other end of this inequality equation really fare better? Does wealth make you happy? Jesus certainly didn't think so, as the Baptist thinker Alan Bean has recently noted. He writes: "The American marriage between market capitalism and American evangelical piety makes Jesus impossible. His words are inconvenient at best and heretical at worst." Wow. Bean has spoken frankly and bravely here.

He points to a fascinating new study from the Journal of Experimental Psychology. Three Canadian neuroscientists have suggested that being rich and powerful actually makes you less happy and, even worse, unable to sympathize with the poor. They find that the rich and powerful among us show less brain activity in that region of the brain where human sympathy is excited.

"Power diminishes all varieties of sympathy," explains Dacher Keltner, a social psychologist at the University of California, Berkeley, in a recent interview on NPR. Conversely, those who feel poor and marginalized in society show a great deal of sympathetic activity.

The ability to sympathize with those around us seems crucial to our survival, and it's connected to the mirroring functions of the brain. As the research now suggests, the richer and more powerful we feel, the deader will be that area of our brain where this crucial activity, which generates empathy, occurs. In fact, power fundamentally changes the way we respond to those around us.

Is it any wonder that when a rich young man came to Jesus asking for spiritual guidance, Jesus said: "If you wish to feel complete, go and sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven." (Matthew 19:21). The young man "went away grieving," as he had so much property and didn't want to let go of anything.

But letting go is essential to our own happiness as well as the world's economic equilibrium. Jesus, Pope Francis and brain scientists would agree on this. It's a hard teaching, but it's important.

Read CNNOpinion's new Flipboard magazine.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook.com/CNNOpinion.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 4:06 PM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Timothy Stanley says Lewinsky is shamelessly playing the victim in her affair with Bill Clinton, humiliating Hillary Clinton again and aiding her critics
updated 9:02 PM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
Imagine being rescued from modern slavery, only to be charged with a crime, writes John Sutter
updated 12:00 PM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Tidal flooding used to be a relatively rare occurrence along the East Coast. Not anymore, write Melanie Fitzpatrick and Erika Spanger-Siegfried.
updated 7:35 AM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Carol Costello says activists, writers, politicians have begun discussing their abortions. But will that new approach make a difference on an old battleground?
updated 9:12 AM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Sigrid Fry-Revere says the National Organ Transplant Act has caused more Americans to die waiting for an organ than died in both World Wars, Korea, Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq
updated 2:51 PM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Crystal Wright says racist remarks like those made by black Republican actress Stacey Dash do nothing to get blacks to join the GOP
updated 6:07 PM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Mel Robbins says by telling her story, Monica Lewinsky offers a lesson in confronting humiliating mistakes while keeping her head held high
updated 9:29 AM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
Cornell Belcher says the story of the "tea party wave" in 2010 was bogus; it was an election determined by ebbing Democratic turnout
updated 4:12 PM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
Les Abend says pilots want protocols, preparation and checklists for all contingencies; at the moment, controlling a deadly disease is out of their comfort zone
updated 11:36 PM EDT, Sun October 19, 2014
David Weinberger says an online controversy that snowballed from a misogynist attack by gamers into a culture war is a preview of the way news is handled in a world of hashtag-fueled scandal
updated 8:23 AM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
Julian Zelizer says Paul Krugman makes some good points in his defense of President Obama but is premature in calling him one of the most successful presidents.
updated 10:21 PM EDT, Sun October 19, 2014
Conservatives can't bash and slash government and then suddenly act surprised if government isn't there when we need it, writes Sally Kohn
updated 8:05 AM EDT, Wed October 22, 2014
ISIS is looking to take over a good chunk of the Middle East -- if not the entire Muslim world, write Peter Bergen and Emily Schneider.
updated 9:00 AM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
The world's response to Ebola is its own sort of tragedy, writes John Sutter
updated 4:33 PM EDT, Fri October 17, 2014
Hidden away in Russian orphanages are thousands of children with disabilities who aren't orphans, whose harmful treatment has long been hidden from public view, writes Andrea Mazzarino
updated 1:22 PM EDT, Sat October 18, 2014
When you hear "trick or treat" this year, think "nudge," writes John Bare
updated 12:42 AM EDT, Sat October 18, 2014
The more than 200 kidnapped Nigerian schoolgirls have become pawns in a larger drama, writes Richard Joseph.
updated 9:45 AM EDT, Fri October 17, 2014
Peggy Drexler said Amal Alamuddin was accused of buying into the patriarchy when she changed her name to Clooney. But that was her choice.
updated 4:43 PM EDT, Thu October 16, 2014
Ford Vox says the CDC's Thomas Frieden is a good man with a stellar resume who has shown he lacks the unique talents and vision needed to confront the Ebola crisis
updated 4:58 AM EDT, Sat October 18, 2014
How can such a numerically small force as ISIS take control of vast swathes of Syria and Iraq?
updated 9:42 AM EDT, Fri October 17, 2014
How big a threat do foreign fighters in Syria and Iraq pose to the West? It's a question that has been much on the mind of policymakers and commentators.
updated 8:21 AM EDT, Fri October 17, 2014
More than a quarter-million American women served honorably in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. Now they are home, we have an obligation to help them transition back to civilian life.
updated 4:27 PM EDT, Thu October 16, 2014
Paul Begala says Rick Scott's deeply weird refusal to begin a debate because rival Charlie Crist had a fan under his podium spells disaster for the Florida governor--delighting Crist
updated 12:07 AM EDT, Thu October 16, 2014
The longer we wait to engage on Ebola, the more limited our options will become, says Marco Rubio.
updated 7:53 AM EDT, Wed October 15, 2014
Democratic candidates who run from President Obama in red states where he is unpopular are making a big mistake, says Donna Brazile
updated 12:29 AM EDT, Thu October 16, 2014
At some 7 billion people, the world can sometimes seem like a crowded place. But if the latest estimates are to be believed, then in less than a century it is going to feel even more so -- about 50% more crowded, says Evan Fraser
updated 12:53 PM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
Paul Callan says the Ebola situation is pointing up the need for better leadership
updated 6:45 PM EDT, Wed October 15, 2014
Nurses are the unsung heroes of the Ebola outbreak. Yet, there are troubling signs we're failing them, says John Sutter
updated 1:00 PM EDT, Wed October 15, 2014
Dean Obeidallah says it's a mistake to give up a business name you've invested energy in, just because of a new terrorist group
updated 7:01 PM EDT, Wed October 15, 2014
Fear of Ebola is contagious, writes Mel Robbins; but it's time to put the disease in perspective
updated 1:44 PM EDT, Tue October 14, 2014
Oliver Kershaw says that if Big Tobacco is given monopoly of e-cigarette products, public health will suffer.
updated 9:35 AM EDT, Sat October 18, 2014
Stop thinking your job will make you happy.
updated 10:08 PM EDT, Tue October 14, 2014
Ruben Navarrette says it's time to deal with another scandal involving the Secret Service — one that leads directly into the White House.
updated 7:25 AM EDT, Tue October 14, 2014
Americans who choose to fight for militant groups or support them are young and likely to be active in jihadist social media, says Peter Bergen
updated 9:03 AM EDT, Mon October 13, 2014
Stephanie Coontz says 11 years ago only one state allowed same sex marriage. Soon, some 60% of Americans will live where gays can marry. How did attitudes change so quickly?
updated 4:04 PM EDT, Tue October 14, 2014
Legalizing assisted suicide seems acceptable when focusing on individuals. But such laws would put many at risk of immense harm, writes Marilyn Golden.
updated 9:07 AM EDT, Mon October 13, 2014
Julian Zelizer says the issues are huge, but both parties are wrestling with problems that alienate voters
updated 6:50 PM EDT, Mon October 13, 2014
Mel Robbins says the town's school chief was right to cancel the season, but that's just the beginning of what needs to be done
updated 11:43 AM EDT, Sat October 11, 2014
He didn't discover that the world was round, David Perry writes. So what did he do?
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT