Editor’s Introduction: Not an April Fool’s Issue: Growing Income Inequality

[1] This issue of the Journal of Lutheran Ethics (JLE) may seem like an April Fool’s prank.  Yes, regular readers will note this was supposed to be the March/April issue, not an April/May.  What happened to March?  An April Fool’s prank? And again, isn’t Carmelo Santos the JLE editor?  Is he masquerading as some “fake editor” Roger Willer? No, this issue is not a prank and the focused theme of growing income and wealth inequality is certainly no joking matter.  So, what’s going on?

[2] This issue marks transitions.  There is a transition to a new publication schedule, each of the six bimonthly JLE issues will now be posted on or near the 1st of the even numbered months rather than on the odd numbered ones.  I will not weary readers explaining the “back-end” reasons for this switch but will draw your attention to the more important transition, that of editorship.

[3] Rev. Dr. Carmelo Santos has served JLE faithfully the past several years while figuratively cooking away as full-time pastor, adjunct professor at Georgetown University, community activist, prophetic goad to this church, thinker and writer on brain and theology, parent, husband, karate practitioner and…well it should be evident why he has needed to step down.

[4] Rev. Dr. Santos cares deeply for JLE and its mission on behalf of the ELCA and the church catholic.  Like a dedicated and skilled chef working at breakneck speed he has kept all his roles simmering while improving the JLE menu of moral reflection.  He has cooked up greater diversity of writers and topics and a more international zing to enrich this church’s moral deliberation.  JLE and its readers owe this head chef a debt of gratitude for his work during these volatile years.  I know I join many, many others in wishing him well and a bit more sanity as he steps aside.

[5] As interim editor, a role I have stepped into on occasion in the past,  I am happy to report that the search for a new editor is now well underway with a strong repository of applicants.  As publisher on behalf of the Theological Discernment Team, I expect to be able to announce the new editor in June’s issue.

[6] Besides a common interim editor, JLE’s April and June issues share a common theme that receives far too little social, moral and theological attention given its significance: growing income and wealth inequality in contemporary society. The top .1% of income earners exceed by almost 200 times the income of the bottom 90%.1  Moreover, the trendlines are moving towards greater inequality. The share of income taken by the top 1% has doubled—from 10% to 22%–during the past thirty-five years, all while one-quarter of American workers make less than the minimum wage.2  The import is vexing; it is clear that widening economic inequality destabilizes the basic egalitarian presuppositions of a democracy, for it embeds and reinforces other dimensions of social inequality.

[7] What should Lutherans do and say? How do we confront the Lutheran tradition, which from the 16th century has its own ambiguous history about such matters? While Luther denounced the greed of merchants and abuses by nobles, he himself asserted the necessity of social inequality (Luther’s Works 51:348, 26:97-98, 356). For Luther, social hierarchy and attendant inequality were desirable in earthly affairs, even while he asserted the radical egalitarianism of the Kingdom of God (24:155-6; see also his discussion of Galatians 2:6 for how he embraces this paradox [26:92-98])

[8] What to do with this legacy? How to speak and act today? The Lutheran Ethicist Network faced these matters at its annual Gathering January 2019 by inviting presentations from three contributors to the 2016 book The Forgotten Luther: Reclaiming the Social-Economic Dimension of the Reformation. Drs. Jon Pahl, Ryan Cumming, and Cynthia Moe-Lobeda were asked to extend their thinking toward what kind of retrieval of the Lutheran tradition is appropriate to address present trends.  Three responses from young scholars and ample conversation among participants followed. Two sets are posted this issue, while June’s issue will highlight the presentation by Dr. Moe-Lobeda and response by Dr. Willa Lengyel.

[9] In this issue Dr. Jon Pahl and Dr. Ryan Cumming read the tradition with fresh eyes. Dr. Pahl brings together a hefty and impressive array of sources, concepts, historical references, and disciplines to reconsider for our economic perspective the Lutheran heritage’s insistence that matter matters to God.  Dr. Pahl’s essay is unusually long for this journal but is an education in itself and an important reflection at the intersection of inequality and the Lutheran tradition.  Newly minted Dr. Justin Nickel asks pertinent questions about some of Pahl’s claims, questions that invite the reader more deeply into critical reflection.

[10] The 2nd essay by Dr. Cumming is standard length for JLE but as intriguing. He insists, with many other Lutheran theologians, that every structure of life must be examined as to whether it measures up to God’s intention that it serve the common good. He exercises, then, a kind of thought experiment rooted in the Lutheran insistence on grace, applying that theological tool to the very economic theory that has fostered economic inequality. PhD. candidate Donna Matteis responds with a challenge that pushes the conversation about economics to issues of power and marginalization.

[11] Growing income equality, an editor search, a shift in publication schedule, none of these are April 1st pranks, and each demonstrate the vitality of the Journal of Lutheran Ethics in its mission.  As evident in the writings this month, that mission is to further the Lutheran tradition of addressing social issues theologically.  On this April 1st that means engaging resources from history, the Lutheran tradition, scripture, economics and ethics.


1 https://inequality.org/facts/income-inequality/.

2 https://www.thebalance.com/income-inequality-in-america-3306190

Roger Willer

Rev. Dr. Roger Willer serves as Director for Theological Ethics on the Theological Discernment Team in the Office of the Presiding Bishop. He also serves as Publisher for the Journal of Lutheran Ethics.