structural inequality

Posted on January 8, 2011


What are the “structures”, embedded beliefs, values, and assumptions that cause human inequality? As I step back and ponder this, it appears to me that much of them come from how we deal with differences, with diversity. This may be at the heart of inequality. If we embrace diversity, appreciating the various strengths and weaknesses, learning from differing perspectives on life, then equality is possible. But if we view differences in the sense of right and wrong, judgment and condemnation, superiority and inferiority,  domination and oppression, then inequality becomes a part of how we live a life of judgment and condemnation, superiority and domination.

This is how we participate, consciously or unconsciously, in privilege; and hence cause, consciously or unconsciously, oppression.

The most obvious illustration of this is when we look at differences that are largely external. Slavery, for example, is an example of structural inequality that drove our nation. Our economic system depended on this form of workforce in order to survive. Some of this dependency is still residual in our society. Migrant work is an example of this. Slavery is an easy one to recognize looking back on history. I am appalled at our lack of awareness at that time of something that was seen daily and that dehumanized people moment by moment. But things that bring us what we want and need, comfort and security, are often left unquestioned, and thus unchanged. It had become a part of the structure of society and of the economic engine that brought us success and riches, hopes and dreams, comfort and security.

My question is this: if, back then, we could so easily turn away with blind eyes to something so blatantly obvious and inhumane, based on assumptions of inferiority and superiority,  privilege and oppression, then what about now, are we any better today? What are those structural inequalities that exist below our radar today??? Do we see our idolatrous values of consumption and materialism and recognize the structure of inequality behind them . . . like the sweat shops and child labor in other countries that brings us our goodies cheaper? Can we see the structures of inequality that make up our idolatrous values of comfort and security?

Slavery, apartheid, and women’s rights are all past inequalities that were so embedded in societies that they could not be seen . . . or refused to be seen, whatever the case may have been. But what about today, right now in our communities, what are our blind spots? What are we dependent on to maintain our gods of consumption and materialism, comfort and security? It is difficult to recognize our blind spots because of the fact that recognizing means “seeing”. It is a sort of contradiction in terms. Seeing what we are blind to takes discipline and an extremely open mind and heart.

My opening up (the breaking open of my heart) has revealed to me some blind spots. One of them is that whenever I judge another person as wrong, I must assume myself to be right. When I think I KNOW something, then I can no longer learn ANYTHING more about it. This applies to how other people believe and how they choose to live. God has not died and made me Judge. If there is judgment to be done, I must leave that in the hands of someone much wiser than me. Our role as humans is not to spend our lives deciding what is right and wrong for others. I have enough to be concerned about right here under my scalp and above my arches.

My opening up (the breaking open of my heart) has revealed to me that I have spent a life time of looking down on others, thinking and believing with my whole heart that I KNOW, that I have MY act together, that my values and beliefs are better than those around me. My eyes are beginning to open to the blindness, to the structural inequality (the privilege) that I have lived by, that my culture and religion have taught me. As I examine the many gods of our culture and religion, I see the gods of comfort, security, and certainty rising to the top. If I am to be comfortable in life, then I need to be secure in my beliefs and values. If I am to be secure, then I need certainty. This is human nature.

Unfortunately this is not divine nature. The Divine has not built certainty into life. Life was created in such a way that it is beyond our understanding.  Human nature demands security through permanence, divine nature leaves us with everything temporal. Nothing lasts. It is all dust in the wind . . . a chasing after the wind. So what are we left with? Security? Unfortunately, the universe doesn’t give us that either. Tomorrow is not ours. Certainty is not ours. Our stuff is not ours.

So how is it that our religions have become full of comfort, security, and certainty; since this is contradictory to divine nature??? How is it? Could it be that we have fashioned our religions after human nature, the longings in our hearts driven by our need? Our false beliefs in what might satisfy those longings and fill the hole? Could it be that our culture and the structural inequalities embedded in our culture have recreated God and religion in OUR image?

It is good exercise to stretch our own perspectives by standing in the shoes of others and looking at life through their shoes. But if we do that with religion, we will find that:

If we are Baptist, Jesus was Baptist, and we are right, and they (everyone else) is wrong.

If we are Methodist, Jesus was Methodist, and we are right, and they (everyone else) is wrong.

If we are Lutheran, Jesus was Lutheran, and we are right, and they (everyone else) is wrong.

If we are Catholic, Jesus was Catholic, and we are right, and they (everyone else) is wrong.

If we are Christian Reformed, Jesus was Christian Reformed, and we are right, and they (everyone else) is wrong.

What if we are Islam or Buddhist or Hindu or atheist or agnostic, then does that make us right and they (everyone else) wrong?

To me this sounds like human nature to an extreme.

Could it be that religion is simply a human construct that has become so embedded in our society that it is no longer questioned?

Is it possible that spirituality is something completely different?

Could there be a spirituality that breeds equality where at its core all human beings are equal?

Could there be a spirituality that embraces diversity and learns from the divergent views of others?

Could there be a spirituality based on gentleness, love, and humility before others and God; not the violence and dominion of judgment?

Could there be a spirituality that reflects at its core the nature of the divine; standing in stark contrast to the embedded inequalities of religion constructed by the human mind?

Could there be . . .?