Ten Mangled Words – “Equality”
Equality is one of those ideas whose basic meaning is understood, but whose presence is demanded where it cannot possibly be expected. After all, equality is a fairly simply concept: when two amounts are equal, neither is greater or lesser than the other. But while equality in mathematics is a simple matter, equality in human affairs is vastly more complex.
Understanding the difference between equal opportunity and equal ability is what gets lost in modern discussions. Equal treatment does not mean equal outcomes.
When two people are equal before the law, neither has an advantage or disadvantage in the court before the case has been heard. That does not mean both are equally innocent, equally guilty, or will receive equally capable legal representation. It just means neither is prejudiced by the court because of ethnicity, sex, or economic state.
When it is said that men and women are equal, those words can be taken as a loose generalization of the statement that husbands and wives are “co-heirs of the grace of life”. Both equally receive salvation, the promises of God, and His enablement for life. It does not mean that both are equally capable of defending the home or nurturing infants. It does not mean that the roles in the house must be exactly shared in equal halves. It does not mean that husbands and wives should do exactly what the other one does.
Unfortunately, equality has come to mean something very different from equality before the law, or equality of worth before God. It has come to mean that social planners must eliminate God-given differences, manipulate providential circumstances, and meticulously tinker with the scale of fairness, until they are sure that their idea of equality has been achieved.
Their idea of equality might be imagined thus. Imagine some top sprinters lining up for a race. Previously, equality meant that all start behind the same line, all begin at exactly the same moment, and all run exactly 100 meters. In its mangled form, equality would mean determining if one of the sprinters were previously advantaged by being wealthy enough to afford good training, and if so, putting his starting blocks back by a meter or so. If it turns out that another sprinter experienced poverty at some point in his life with a corresponding period of malnutrition, his starting blocks should be put ahead by a few meters. We then find out that one of the sprinters is unusually tall and powerful, and this seems to confer an unfair genetic advantage, so he is forced to run without shoes. One turns out to have had almost no coaching at all, so he is positioned a quarter of the way up the track. When another is discovered to be the grandson of a famous sprinter, and the recipient of inherited wealth, his starting blocks are removed, and he is given ear-muffs to slow his reaction to the gun. The starting line-up seems over-represented with people of African descent, and a truly representative running race should have some Asians and Caucasians. Four faster African athletes are removed, and replaced with four slower Asian and Caucasian sprinters.
When we now look at this ridiculous result, what do we see? An eclectic mix of men spread all over the track, in all kinds of states, and not even the fastest men on earth. The very last thing we would now conclude is that matters are now equal, and that now the race will be “a fair fight”. But our social planners would ignore the evidence of their eyes, and happily conclude that they have now “leveled the playing field”, “redressed the inequalities of the past”, and “assisted the previously disadvantaged”. Instead, all they have done is create a ludicrous situation that no longer even resembles a race. They have confused equality with Cosmic Justice, and the result is not equality. In fact, they have removed the very thing that makes a race interesting: how the abilities of one will triumph over the others, if all run an equal distance at the same moment. It is as if the social planners actually wish life to always result in a tie, where there are no winners or losers.
The problem with pursuing Cosmic Justice is its refusal to accept that some inequalities are not morally necessary to correct. Some are quite tolerable. Some actually stimulate great feats of competitive effort. Some are in the nature of things. Some are brought about by history and providence. Some have been developed through hard work. Some exist because of laziness, and self-destructive behavior. Some appear accidental. Some are unfortunate results of living in a fallen world. Inequality has an innumerable number of reasons for its presence, and only someone with omniscience and omnipotence would be able to know when, why and how to perfectly “re-balance the scales”. In fact, Christians believe He does, and will.
But attempting to tinker with life to bring about Cosmic Justice in this way reveals a massive misunderstanding of what equality is, and what kind of equality can be, or should be, reasonably pursued.
About David de Bruyn
David de Bruyn pastors New Covenant Baptist Church in Johannesburg, South Africa. He is a graduate of Central Baptist Theological Seminary in Minnesota and the University of South Africa (D.Th.). Since 1999, he has presented a weekly radio program that is heard throughout much of central South Africa. He also blogs at Churches Without Chests.