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Fairness is one thing, equality quite another.

Prime Minister David Cameron has talked about fairness, describing it as “giving people what they deserve – and what people deserve depends on how they behave.”

This cannot, of course, be a complete definition as it does not contain a definition of “deserve.” And the second assertion is questionable, to say the least: people arguably deserve certain things because they are people – and not because they are people who behave in a particular way.

Equality, on the other hand, appears to be more about outcomes than input, and the major report by the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) contains both good news and bad for British citizens. “How Fair is Britain?” puts a particular spin on the word “fair” and comes up with various statistics.

Progress on equalizing the pay of men and women has stalled, with women in full-time employment earning 16.4 percent less than men. Half of all Muslim men and three-quarters of Muslim women are unemployed. The gap between rich and poor is huge, with the top 10 percent of earners taking home 100 times as much as the lowest 10 percent.

The findings of the EHRC report are thrown into even sharper relief by proposed reforms to the benefits system, also widely reported as The Baptist Times was going to press. As part of the government’s drive to save billions from the welfare bill, it is hoping to be able to move around half a million people presently receiving incapacity benefit into work.

Is this fair? It all depends on whether the right people are going to be moved. Certainly some people are receiving it who shouldn’t be; on the other hand, we have few grounds for confidence that those from whom it is withdrawn – sometimes after many years off work – will easily waltz into the sort of job that will provide them with a decent living wage.

In that case both fairness and equality will be in question, and the Department for Work and Pensions will have an awkward time coming up with answers.

And at least some of the findings of the EHRC regarding unequal outcomes surely have some connection with fairness. It cannot be the case that only half of Muslim men “deserve” to be employed, or that white working class men and boys deserve to do badly compared with other ethnic groups. We would do better to speak of unfairness, in opportunity or education or socially conditioned aspiration, and to be accordingly outraged.

Christian ethics are deeply concerned with fairness, or justice as the prophets called it; much less so with equality. Equality represents a different strand of social thinking entirely, and it is not to be uncritically accepted as a desirable goal. It goes with envy, frustration and resentment.

In all too many areas, equality is impossible. If I am ill, I am not as able as my neighbor; if I am less intelligent or talented or motivated, I am not as able either. The outcomes will inevitably be different for each of us.

Christians are called to a different kind of striving and to measure themselves in entirely different ways. If, for instance, they are obliged to care for children and elderly parents at the same time – another theme of the EHRC report, leading to a Telegraph headline, “Coping classes at breaking point” – it may be that they accept this burden as a cost of discipleship, borne as gladly as they may as part of their Christian service.

It does not make for equality, certainly; it is not even particularly fair, but arguing that “therefore the state should do something about it” lacks a certain theological connection with the Christian tradition of ages past.

Previous Christian generations knew that burdens – age, infirmity, family responsibilities – sometimes simply had to be borne, and they looked for the lessons that life could teach them.

We should try, as hard as we possibly can, to work for a fairer society, so that no one’s God-given right to human flourishing is taken from them through human wickedness, folly or apathy.

But we should not so lose touch with the foundation of our faith in the suffering of a crucified Savior that we expect fairness to lead to a happy equality.

Mark Woods is editor of The Baptist Times, where this column first appeared.

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