Justice and the Christian: Justice and Poverty
Smith Hopkins | February 26, 2018
This is part in an ongoing series on justice. You can access the previous posts here. The posts are based on a teaching series on Wednesday nights at Oliver Creek. Join us! In this post we will glimpse the complexity of poverty today, and how we can respond as Christians who seek justice for the poor. Much of this post is drawn from the writings of Timothy Keller in Generous Justice and Ministries of Mercy.
What do you think are the main contributing factors to poverty around the world and in our country? In what ways should we seek justice for the poor?
Have you noticed that our country is a bit divided over such questions? For many Christians in America today, our answers to these questions fall into existing partisan political lines. There seems to be a clear left / right spectrum in our thinking about justice. I am not convinced that either side is doing justice to the issues of justice at stake.
At the risk of being too simplistic, I’d like to look generally at how this plays out. On the left, many argue that the contributing factors to poverty are mainly social. Liberals tend to point to social inequality, as well as poorly performing social morality (systems such as education, healthcare, justice, etc.). On the right, many argue that the contributing factors to poverty are mainly personal. Conservatives tend to point to personal character, as well as poorly performing personal morality (such as high rates of divorce, fatherlessness, etc.). For example, look at how the left and right approach healthcare mandates and abortion rights. The left often want the government to enforce a social morality (pro universal healthcare), and many resist government interference in personal morality laws (anti-abortion). Meanwhile, the right often want the government to enforce a personal morality (pro life), and many resist government interference in social morality programs (anti universal healthcare).
Is one more biblical than the other? Probably so. But I want to argue that neither is biblical enough.
Here’s an example to illustrate the issue: redistribution. (I know the word alone is enough to make some readers nervous. Please keep reading.) It may surprise many to learn that this is a very biblical concept. In Israel, for instance, there were many laws which redistributed wealth from those who had plenty to those in poverty or other economic disadvantages. The tithing laws took from the nation at large to redistribute among the Levites, immigrants, orphans, widows, and the poor (Deut 14:29). The Sabbath year practices also redistributed property and resources to the poor (see Deut 15). The year of Jubilee was a remarkable picture of the redistribution of wealth, including purchased lands and property (Lev 25). The NT also has instances of redistribution. For example, the church shared their resources, selling their land and giving it to the church to redistribute as any had need (see Acts 2, 4). This is the rationale Paul gives in his fundraising efforts for the poor in Judea—those with plenty should give to those without “that there may be equality” (2 Cor 8:13-15).
Christians should agree, at the very least, that the Bible calls us to share—to redistribute—what we have with those who do not have. The concept of redistribution of wealth is biblical, God-given, and God-honoring in Israel and the church. Our disagreements should not be about whether or not to share with the poor, but how can we best practice sharing with the poor. On this we should absolutely expect disagreement. Here’s why I think that is: the Bible is always written in and to a context. It’s our job as readers and doers of the word to discern it’s meaning for our context. Don’t pass over that word “discern.” As long as it’s a matter of discernment and judgement, we should expect disagreement. And that’s ok. That’s expected. May God use us to sharpen one another, rather than divide one another.
How should we redistribute? That’s where the Bible doesn’t answer specifically for our context. But what I think we must recognize is our tendency to allow partisan political categories to narrow our thinking too much. Timothy Keller makes the point well, “Should it be the way political conservatives prescribe, almost exclusively through voluntary, private giving? Or should it be the way that political liberals desire, through progressive taxation and redistribution by the state? Thoughtful people have and will argue about which is the most effective way to help the poor. Both sides looking for support in the Bible can find some, and yet in the end what the Bible says about social justice cannot be tied to any one political system or economic policy. If it is possible, we need to take politics out of this equation as we look deeper into the Bible’s call for justice.”
What causes poverty?
If we are to work for justice for the poor, perhaps it will be of benefit to examine the causes of poverty. As it turns out, they are much more complicated than any single political category allows for (and certainly more complicated than my simplistic summary above). It seems that the contributing factors to poverty, both in Scripture and now in our culture, can fall into three broad categories of brokenness—1) natural, 2) personal, and 3) social.
There are often natural factors which contribute to poverty. Consider famines, floods, fires, and other natural disasters which wreak havoc on families and farms, then and now. Or death, disease, accidents, and other natural ailments which disable many people from earning a living wage. Scripture is filled with examples of people who are impoverished because, at least in part, of natural outcomes beyond their control or choice. This is likely why the biblical quartet of the vulnerable includes widows, orphans, and immigrants--many of the circumstances contributing to their vulnerability are beyond their control or choice. Consider the famine which forced Naomi and her family to Moab (Ruth 1). Or what about the man who was blind from birth, begging near the pool of Siloam (John 9). The people assumed that this man’s disability was because of his wicked choices or his parents. But they were wrong. There are obviously many examples from our own day of natural disaster or disability contributing to poverty. Some of these natural factors are nearly unseen but still enormously powerful. One such example is the widespread prevalence and the lasting impact of alcohol exposure during pregnancy. Through no fault or choice of their own, up to 1 in 20 school age children in our country may have FASD (see the CDC's fact sheet). This one natural factor can cause developmental complications from birth, which often give way to learning disabilities and impaired executive functioning on into adulthood. These children will likely become adults who struggle to live independently, to keep a job, and to avoid trouble with the law (children on the fetal alcohol spectrum, on average, are in trouble with the law before 13 years old).
But, you may think, alcohol exposure is not exactly a natural factor; it's a personal choice. That’s right, depending on the perspective. A fetus can't choose to be impaired by alcohol exposure, but the parent does choose to drink alcohol. What is a natural factor from the child's perspective is a personal choice from the parent's perspective. That’s often how cycles of poverty work.
There are indeed many personal factors which contribute to poverty. Drugs and alcohol are obviously on the list. As Proverbs 23:21 says, “the drunkard and the glutton will come to poverty.” So are other moral failings such as laziness and a lack of discipline. “Love not sleep,” Proverbs 20:13 warns, “lest you come to poverty; open your eyes, and you will have plenty of bread.” A lack of self-control can contribute to poverty (Prov 21:5); so can stinginess (Prov 22:16; 28:22). Today, as in Scripture, many contribute to their own poverty through sin and personal brokenness. According to the Census Bureau, one of the leading factors in predicting poverty today is the breakdown of the family, especially father-absent homes. About half of children in father-absent homes live in poverty, compared to ten percent of married-parent homes. If a child lives in a home with no father present, they are at least four times more likely to experience poverty.
But, you may think, an absent-father home is not exactly a personal factor; it's a natural factor. That’s right too, depending on the perspective. A father (in most cases) can choose to be absent, but the child (in most cases) has no choice in the matter. Once again, what is a natural factor from the child's perspective is a personal choice from the parent's perspective. That's how cycles of poverty work. They can then have a compounding and reinforcing effect on one another. Once the cycle begins to spin, it’s difficult for it to avoid picking up momentum.
This is where social systems become major contributing factors in poverty. Once someone experiences one or more factors, the momentum of poverty can make it difficult to move ahead. Poverty has a gravitational force, as it were, keeping people in their plight. Even neutral social systems would make it difficult to "pull yourself up out of poverty." In most cases, however, social systems are not neutral. They tend to gravitate toward benefiting the people creating them. Then and now, the poor and vulnerable are disproportionately victims of social brokenness. For example, what hope did Israel have to "pull themselves up" when they worked under taskmasters in Egypt (Exod 1)? The social systems of the evil Egyptian empire were weighted against them. But God cares for the vulnerable. When God gave Israel the law, he gave specific commands to guard them from perpetrating the same sins against the vulnerable. Their justice system was to be guarded to ensure justice for the poor and vulnerable, not just the powerful, the wealthy, or the majority race (Cf. Lev 19:15). Their economic system was to be just as well, with no excessive interest and living wages paid to the poor (Exod 22:25-27). Their agricultural system was to provide for the poor (gleaning), and even return their real estate to them at Jubliee. However, on the whole, Israel and Judah failed to create just social systems. Israel's leaders became oppressors of the poor themselves. They were condemned for their unjust systems by God’s prophets (Jer 22:13; Amos 5:11-12; Ezek 22:29; Mic 2:2; Isa 5:8). These social systems are still obviously skewed away from justice in our culture today. A similar story can be told of African slavery in the United States. The social systems were so stacked against those enslaved that equality was out of reach. Even after emancipation, the systems of our society have continued to add weight on top of the gravitational force of poverty, benefiting those creating them.
What begins in natural or personal brokenness can easily be further entrenched by social disadvantages. If one factor leads to a second, many times the third is close at hand. It can become difficult to see where one begins and another ends. The cycle begins to spin. Momentum picks up as each reinforces the others. Often it is then passed on--inherited--by a new generation, as the cycle continues. At some point, these three broad factors—natural, personal, and social—weave into one another and into the complex problem of poverty.
What can we do?
The problem of poverty is significant and complex. It can feel debilitating, paralyzing. What can we do? What can I do? I’d like to suggest three broad categories to begin considering—1) relief, 2) transformation, and 3) reform.
First, Christians can work for the relief for the poor. Relief is especially crucial in responding to natural factors which can contribute to poverty. The Good Samaritan gives us a glimpse of relief to the vulnerable (Luke 10). He provides things like healthcare, transportation, clothing, food, and housing. He relieves the need as he sees it for the one he sees.
Second, Christians can work for the transformation of the poor. Transformation is especially crucial in responding to personal factors which can contribute to poverty. Justice does not merely provide for the needs of today, but it plans and prepares for the needs of tomorrow. For example, when a slave was released in Israel, they were commanded, “do not send him away empty-handed. Supply him liberally…” so that he can establish himself (Deut 15:13-14). Today this often takes the form of training, education, and counseling in specific areas of need (money, job, housing, budget, language, GED, etc.). At some point, handouts may actually do more long-term harm than good, so we must help in ways that actually help.
Third, Christians can work for reform on behalf of the poor. Reform is especially crucial in responding to social and systemic factors which can contribute to poverty. Christians have at times done remarkable work in speaking for those without a voice. When the African slave trade was ended in England, many of the voices clamoring for reform were Christian. The same is true when Apartheid was dissolved in South Africa. I am very grateful for the Christian leaders today who continue to speak with their voice and their vote for the poor and the vulnerable around the world. For example, hundreds of Christian leaders recently wrote to our government officials to advocate for immigrants and refugees. In many cases, arguing for justice for the poor on social and systemic levels will mean that you are offering to disadvantage yourself for the good of the disadvantaged. When you think about it, that is precisely what biblical justice is all about.
With a problem so large as poverty, the problem isn’t finding something we can do. There is much we can do. There is much we must do. What will you do?