In an inaugural parliamentary lecture on 9 May to launch Christian Aid Week, Dr Rowan Williams, the former Archbishop of Canterbury, highlighted the role that inequality plays in provoking violence.
Dr Williams, who is Chair of Christian Aid, told an invited audience at Westminster that redistributing power is crucial if violence, one of the key drivers of global poverty, is to be tackled successfully.
His speech reflected the theme of this year’s Christian Aid Week (Sun May 11 to Sat May 17) whichl focuses on the organisation’s work in countries beset by conflict.
Dr Williams’ address added to a growing chorus of voices, including US President Barack Obama and French economist Thomas Piketty, who are increasingly concerned at the threat of growing inequality on social cohesion, prosperity and democracy.
Dr Williams argued that this threat must be countered not just by redistributing wealth, but by governments and financial institutions having the courage to redistribute power.
He said: ‘Inequalities of power, in the form of radically unequal levels of access to decision-making, process of law, education and civic freedoms, are often described as forms of ‘structural’ violence. And this should help us see why inequalities in these areas are so often generators of other sorts of violence.
"The truth is that poverty and a sense of powerlessness are regularly among the major drivers of violence; while violence in turn is a major driver of poverty. So what we must do is recognise the vicious circle here, and ask where and how we break it."
In his talk, Dr Williams highlighted the role women around the world play in peacebuilding while at the same time suffering disproportionate levels of violence.
One of the most powerful and troubling elements of trying to resolve conflict, he said, is "the prevalence of violence and discrimination against women in so many situations of conflict or deprivation or both, which robs half the human race of its freedom to nurture, educate and develop its own capacity and that of the next generation.
"If – as all experience currently suggests – women are likely to be the key agents in health care, nutritional education, micro-finance operations and the rehabilitation and care of the traumatised wherever they have the chance, gender-based violence clearly becomes not simply a question of unacceptable individual behaviour but a matter of intense social damage.
"The dehumanising treatment of women often reflects attempts by economically or socially disempowered males to assert authority; it signals a contempt towards what women do to sustain social goods; it limits or even destroys an immensely significant capacity for transmitting to a new generation the values and possibilities of human culture
Combatting this, he added, is not simply ‘a matter of rectifying some small malfunctions in a male-dominated system.
" 'Building peace' here too means redistributing power (and yes, I’m aware of how deep a question this poses for the churches); looking for the kinds of forum that genuinely make women’s voices audible worldwide, looking for the ways in which attitudes can be changed and looking too for the ways in which all this can be experienced as good news for men – often, as we have seen, men who are themselves humiliated and disempowered in other settings and whose fear and confusion equally needs addressing along with their behaviour."
Dr Williams also highlighted the risk to peace and security posed by climate change: "The sense of helplessness in the face of environmental danger can lead either to apathy or to savage conflict over limited resources", he said.