Two years after leaving the jail cell where he spent 27 years, Nelson Mandela shrewdly decided to give up on communism. Seizing wealth and property, he realized, would not eradicate the poverty of black South Africans, so he embraced a market economy. Yet two decades later, South Africa's black majority remains mired in poverty and hopelessness, with the average white family earning six times what a black family does. Capitalism is wonderfully effective at generating wealth, but it often falls short in spreading it around. This same conundrum haunts the U.S., where globalization, technology, and other modern economic forces have opened a widening chasm between the wealthy and everyone else. Labor itself has been devalued; a willingness to work hard no longer guarantees a place in the middle class, or even a job.

In a system that produces big winners and lots of losers, what becomes of the losers? Now that capitalism has won even in China, that question will define the coming decades not just in the U.S. but also throughout the world. There is no simple political solution to inequality; it cannot be taxed or legislated away. But nothing will change without a real recognition that the suffering of "the losers" matters. Pope Francis has caused a stir by emphasizing that point, scoffing at trickle-down theory as a cruel fiction, and decrying "the idolatry of money" and "the globalization of indifference." Francis insists that we honor the dignity and worth of every individual, as Mandela did before him. "Overcoming poverty is not a task of charity," Mandela once said. "It is an act of justice." That's a radical message, and has been for 2,000 years.