Kingdom Ethics: Equality of Outcomes versus Equality of Opportunities

by John Ellis

A good friend of mine texted me a YouTube video containing a clip from a recent (year old) Real Time with Bill Maher episode. The title itself, “New Rule: Equality of Outcomes,” combined with knowing what I know about Bill Maher, was enough to generate an eyeroll from me. The clip itself? Well, you’re reading this article, ain’t you?

Unbeknownst to my friend (I think), I have been contemplating writing an article about equality of outcomes versus equality of opportunities … or something like that. Two main problems have kept me from writing it: Lack of a focused thesis and a helpful entry point. The Maher clip removed both of those obstacles for me.

The clip opens with Maher, with his trademark smirking tone, scolding, “If you believe in the equality of outcomes, then you really shouldn’t have watched the Grammys last Sunday.” With the clip, Maher’s objective/thesis is a defense of meritocracy. Using the music industry as the dialectical playground to scoff at “trophy syndrome,” Maher intones, “a world created back in the nineties when every kid gets a trophy, no matter how good or how bad they are at something.” He then cackles, “Well, the result of that kind of thinking is that American kids now have a totally deluded and unearned belief in their charm, brains, and talent. It’s not only that the entire generation wants to be famous; it’s they think not being famous isn’t fair.” To prove his point, Maher quotes from a Rolling Stone article bemoaning the fact that, and using Maher’s description of the article, “streaming has not given us equality of outcomes in the music industry.” Pushing back on the article’s complaints that the majority of success in the music industry is dominated by a minority of artists, Maher, leaning into the camera, deadpans, “Yes, these are called the good ones.” The studio audience roared their approval.   

Transitioning into his overall defense of meritocracy, a graphic appears containing the quote from the RS article, “In a perfect world, the bottom one percent of artists would get one percent of [streaming/monetary compensation] activity.” Predictably, Maher dismisses the quote’s sentiment (and the quote itself) as “stupid.”

The thing is, in a vacuum, I agree with Maher’s dismissal of the quote. It is a stupid sentiment, but that doesn’t justify a belief in meritocracy (I’m going to circle back to the stupidity of the quote, which also undermines Maher’s thesis, towards the end of the article). The quote itself contains the key to my overall thesis – a perfect world.

The dismissal of the concept of equality of outcomes while pushing equality of opportunities is, at best, a failure to account for the Fall and sin’s Curse. We don’t live in a perfect world, far from it. We should desire (and work) for the day when every child has the outcome of going to bed with a well-fed stomach. The best of health care being accessible to all Image bearers is a laudable goal. Erasing housing inequities is a good thing. And, frankly, prior to the eschaton, we’re far more likely to come closer to achieving equality of outcomes than we are equality of opportunity.

One of the highlights of my professional life was the opportunity I had to work in the Kennedy Center’s Arts Integration Program for Title 1 Schools back in the mid-2000s. I was part of the pilot program located in Greenville, SC, and facilitated by the city’s Metropolitan Arts Council. For part of my training, I took classes in things like the effects of poverty on education. Working hand-in-hand with talented, dedicated public school teachers, I was counseled on how to speak and move around children suffering from PTSD brought on by the violent world of poverty they inhabited through no choice of their own, among other things. While the work itself was rewarding, my time in the program, including my training, was eye-opening and heartbreaking.

To put boots on the ground, so to speak, I offer my children as a counterexample to many of the students I worked with in the Arts Integration Program.[1] Both of my kids are straight A students, curious, imaginative, well-behaved, and have goals and objectives that place them on a trajectory into the upper reaches of the upper-middle class (and likely upper class) well before they reach middle age. For sure, they work hard and are diligent at their studies. Truth be told, though, much of their success is owed to variables they have no control over. For example, my wife and I make sure that they eat plenty of fresh fruit and vegetables. We construct their diet in ways that maximizes their physical and cognitive development. Owing, in large part, to the lack of money, many of the students living in poverty not only do not have access to a healthy diet but they’re part of the vicious cycle of poverty that tilts the odds greatly in the wrong way towards them becoming parents that don’t understand the importance of a healthy diet for the physical and cognitive development of their children (not to mention the lack of financial resources needed to provide a healthy diet). My kids aren’t surrounded by brain altering violence that largely determines for them how they negatively and poorly interact with the world around them. Another example is that success is compounded throughout generations. My wife and I enjoy the benefits of having been raised by parents who understood the importance of a healthy diet, reading, education in general, and were able to equip us with safety nets that allowed us to avoid paying the full price of our mistakes. Because of that, our kids have inherited opportunities that place them far in front of the majority of kids as they grow and enter adulthood. That’s one type of opportunity that scoffs at the notion of meritocracy.

Another type is the reality that not all humans are created equal. For sure, as Image bearers we are created equal in dignity and worth, but we don’t all possess the same level of talents and abilities. As the previous paragraph laid bare, sometimes the inequities of talents and abilities are environmental. Other times, though, it’s genetic. Genetic inequalities refute the notion of meritocracy.  

For a variety of reasons, many of them beyond their control, Image bearers do not have the same starting gate into life nor into adulthood. The concept of equality of opportunity is a self-serving myth. It allows for us to enjoy our privilege and ease while we wash our hands of obeying King Jesus’ commands to push back on the Fall and sin’s Curse by preferring others to ourselves through seeking to honor Image bearers by aiding in their material flourishing in the here and now. It allows us to turn our nose up at those we’ve been tasked by our King with helping and smugly dismiss them by snorting, “They’ve had every opportunity and they failed to make the most of those opportunities. I thank God I’m not like them but that I am industrious, thrifty, and forward thinking.”

The right desire to strive for equitable outcomes for the oppressed, underprivileged, and underrepresented is more than just a pragmatic concern for flourishing in the here and now, though. We know that until King Jesus returns, sin and sin’s Curse will continue to wreak havoc. We do so – act with justice in seeking to feed the hungry, heal the sick, house the homeless, etc.  – because we’re commanded to do so, as well as out of the desire to ease the suffering and oppression of as many as possible. But there is another reason, a deeply theological reason.

Jesus’ words recorded in Matthew 25: 31-40 reveal a doxological aspect to mercy ministries/social justice. Speaking to his disciples, Jesus said, “When the Son of Man comes in his glory … [he] will say to those on his right … ‘For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to see me.’ Then the righteous will answer him saying, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you drink? And when did we see you a stranger and welcome you, or naked and clothe you? And when did we see you sick or in prison and visit you?’ And the King will answer them, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me.’”

Kingdom ethics derive from God’s character – who He is. God is love. God is justice. Etc. As followers of King Jesus, the main driver of our ethics is (should be) to communicate who God is to an unbelieving world. So, for example, we refrain from adultery because it lies about who God is; it communicates that God is unfaithful. Parents should not disown their children because it lies and communicates that God turns His back on His children. Ethical examples abound.

Living ethically – being a faithful witness, through the Spirit’s power, to who God is – gives God glory; it praises God (is doxological). This is echoed in Jesus’ words quoted above. Obviously, in the literal sense, when we feed the hungry, we’re not feeding Jesus. But when we do it in his name, we do it for him and, in a sense, to him. Speaking of the passage, D.A. Carson writes that acts of justice, “reflect where people stand in relation to the kingdom and to Jesus himself. Jesus identifies himself with the fate of his followers and makes compassion for them equivalent to compassion for himself.[2]

Astute “theologians” will point out, as referenced in the Carson quote I consciously included, that Jesus is speaking specifically about deeds of mercy to his followers. True, but the point still stands. For one thing, the Bible is chock full of commands to feed the hungry, heal the sick, clothe the naked, and be an overall instrument of social justice to those who are oppressed and suffering. One of the reasons I rejected God was because I was very aware of the number of verses commanding social justice but heard (and saw) how dismissive many, if not most, of the Christians I knew were towards social justice issues. I assumed (rebelliously) that if God’s supposed people were so willing to blatantly ignore Him, the whole program was suspect. I say that to highlight that it takes rebellious, willful ignorance to claim that the Kingdom ethics don’t include the pursuit of social justice. Back to the point at hand, though, and for another thing, who are we to determine who among the starving, naked, sick, imprisoned, etc. are God’s people and who are not?

Circling back to the Maher video, his use of the music industry is a red herring (as is the “trophy syndrome”). Are people entitled today? Yes. More so than past generations? In some ways, probably, in other ways not, though. My parent’s generation believed that white people were entitled to their own restaurants, schools, churches, etc. Prideful entitlement is one of the continued scourges of sin, and it’s not a reason to dismiss trying to achieve equality of outcomes. The music industry is a red herring because achieving success as a rock star is not what the pursuit of the equity of outcomes is about. Maher knows this, but it makes for good “gotcha” TV, that works his intended audience into a self-congratulatory frenzy, to highlight the stupidity of a Rolling Stone article in the service of defending meritocracy. Bill Maher is a showman. Unfortunately, his antics feed rebellion. The clip my friend sent me encourages viewers to compare children who are going to be hungry through no fault of their own to entitled white kids who are all up in their feels because their Instagram account doesn’t have as many followers as they believe they’re owed. If the difference can’t be spotted between those two things, then meritocracy is definitely a myth.

Soli Deo Gloria  


[1] There are plenty of “success” stories found among kids growing up in poverty. Those are the proverbial exceptions that prove the rule, though. Expecting everyone to overcome severe obstacles because the exceptional few are able is patently unjust.

[2] D.A. Carson, “Matthew” The Expositor’s Bible Commentary ed. Frank E. Gaebelein (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1984), 520.

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