musing on opportunity

This piece, by John Millbank in the Guardian is interesting, on the way the church can (or Christianity can, therefore the church should – because let’s be honest, the two don’t always go hand in hand…)  can offer a holistic solution to child poverty.

In particular, this passage struck me (with my emphases):

The Christian attitude stands against this by holding that all people matter equally in the community. This entails that all matter equally in the economy too. We just as much need people to sweep the floors and man the tills as we do to be professors and business managers. All these people need to be treated in terms of dignity of labour. The Christian priority cannot therefore be equality of opportunity.

It is not even equality of outcome, except in terms of equality of human flourishing.

There is never going to be absolute equality: even Marx denounced such a goal as a liberal delusion. Instead, we should all be flourishing and contributing and receiving rewards in terms of our ability, capacity and virtue.

I think I simultaneously agree and disagree – and that’s partly around the way Millbank’s phrased it, I think.

So, yes, I think that Christianity does offer a fuller understanding of poverty, and the possibility of developing and providing some  solutions pretty broadly, especially around rethinking economics and what human flourishing looks like – I like this short booklet as a starting place.  And I absolutely agree with Millbank when he says:

Simply giving more money to the poor – even if this is indeed often required – won’t resolve the issues facing our communities

Money matters – but you do have to invest the money in the right things.

However, I don’t like the idea that the, ‘Christian priority cannot therefore be equality of opportunity’ and I worry that the phrase, ‘Receiving rewards in terms of our ability, capacity and virtue’ has the potential to create an unpleasant hierarchy in which some people are thought of as ‘more valuable’ or better because they have ‘more ability’ or ‘more capacity’ or ‘more virtue’ (which is a rhetorical area the current government likes to hang around in when it’s talking about people on benefits).

I tend to think that the Christian priority should absolutely be equality of opportunity – to a full and flourishing life.  I just don’t think that a full and flourishing life is marked by shiny triumphal bells and tangible prizes as rewards for ‘doing well’, but more probably by the opportunity to fulfil your own potential – in terms of your talents and passions – without being limited by the various factors that may come into play in creating poverty (relational *and* material).

And I think that we need to think harder/better about how we talk about the fulfilling of that potential and the human rewards that it brings – how we explain human flourishing, basically – because otherwise we will think that the people who ‘do better’ in the world’s little ladder of success ‘are better’. Which is pretty much what the mass-we tends to think right now, and why a lot of people just want to be famous.


Leave a Reply