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 8:37 AM EDT, Tue October 28, 2014
Errol Louis says forced to choose between narrow political advantage and the public good, the governors showed they are willing to take the easy way out over Ebola.
updated 2:03 PM EDT, Mon October 27, 2014
Eric Liu says with our family and friends and neighbors, each one of us must decide what kind of civilization we expect in the United States. It's our responsibility to set tone and standards, with our laws and norms
updated 7:45 AM EDT, Mon October 27, 2014
Sally Kohn says the UNC report highlights how some colleges exploit student athletes while offering little in return
updated 3:04 PM EDT, Sun October 26, 2014
Terrorists don't represent Islam, but Muslims must step up efforts to counter some of the bigotry within the world of Islam, says Fareed Zakaria
updated 9:02 AM EDT, Fri October 24, 2014
Scott Yates says extending Daylight Saving Time could save energy, reduce heart attacks and get you more sleep
updated 8:32 PM EDT, Sun October 26, 2014
Reza Aslan says the interplay between beliefs and actions is a lot more complicated than critics of Islam portray
updated 7:19 AM EDT, Mon October 27, 2014
Julian Zelizer says control of the Senate will be decided by a few close contests
updated 8:12 AM EDT, Fri October 24, 2014
The response of some U.S. institutions that should know better to Ebola has been anything but inspiring, writes Idris Ayodeji Bello.
updated 5:01 PM EDT, Wed October 22, 2014
Paul Callan says the grand jury is the right process to use to decide if charges should be brought against the police officer
updated 12:19 PM EDT, Thu October 23, 2014
Theresa Brown says the Ebola crisis brought nurses into the national conversation on health care. They need to stay there.
updated 6:35 PM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Patrick Hornbeck says don't buy the hype: The arguments the Vatican used in its interim report would have virtually guaranteed that same-sex couples remained second class citizens
updated 12:30 PM EDT, Fri October 24, 2014
The Swedes will find sitting on the fence to be increasingly uncomfortable with Putin as next door neighbor, writes Gary Schmitt
updated 12:32 PM EDT, Fri October 24, 2014
The Ottawa shooting pre-empted Malala's appearances in Canada, but her message to young people needs to be spread, writes Frida Ghitis
updated 9:48 PM EDT, Sat October 25, 2014
Paul Begala says Iowa's U.S. Senate candidate, Joni Ernst, told NRA she has right to use gun to defend herself--even from the government. But shooting at officials is not what the Founders had in mind
updated 6:08 PM EDT, Thu October 23, 2014
John Sutter: Why are we so surprised the head of a major international corporation learned another language?
updated 5:54 PM EDT, Thu October 23, 2014
Jason Johnson says Ferguson isn't a downtrodden community rising up against the white oppressor, but it is looking for justice
updated 12:21 PM EDT, Fri October 24, 2014
Sally Kohn says a video of little girls dressed as princesses using the F-word very loudly to condemn sexism is provocative. But is it exploitative?
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 10:14 AM EDT, Thu October 23, 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
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT