[Please note that many helps came via Ron Sider's excellent but aging book Just Generosity: A new vision for overcoming poverty in America. This page is also saved as a post, under the title A Bible Argument for Government Aid to the Poor. The text is about the same there, but the comments of others—and my responses to them—are different. Thanks for thinking along!]
Evangelicals often struggle with the idea of a government role in addressing poverty. Often, I hear questions like these, from an honest blogger called RenaissanceGuy:
- “I want to hear a reasoned biblical argument for government-run health care.”
- “… if people are coerced, though the income tax code, to support the poor, then are they actually pleasing our Lord?”
Others put it like this:
- “Is it government’s job to care for the poor, or should the church and their families do it?”
While sectarian government is antithetical to American democracy, people of faith in the USA do have the privilege of holding and sharing political values consistent with what they understand to be good. Those values may not well fit in either conservative or liberal camps, but there will be common ground that can be shared with both.
In order to do that, people of faith have to be deeply aware of their own faith, and not just the arguments of right or left. So here’s an attempt to think aloud on one of those issues.
Especially for evangelicals:
a Bible argument for government aid to the poor:
First, some assumptions on which I think all can agree:
1. Jesus, as described in the gospels, is much more focused on the poor than our evangelical theologies have been.
I’ve been astonished by this while preaching through Luke. Recently, I asked my congregation to count the number of times Jesus interacts with someone poor or culturally rejected, or tells a story in which a poor or rejected person is the hero, in the 15 chapters of Luke between 4 and 19. They called out, on the spot, 26—almost two per chapter. “If we wrote the history of our church,” I asked them, “would we be so like Jesus that esteeming the poor would take center stage twice in each of fifteen chapters?”
Will and Lisa Samson, authors of Justice in the Burbs: Being the hands of Jesus wherever you live, admit:
We both grew up in good Christian homes. … We figure, between the two of us, that we’ve heard about 4,000 sermons. … We went to Christian schools, Christian college, Christian camps. We were involved in Scripture memory programs. And when did we memorize a verse about God’s concern for the poor?[…]
How ironic! For the poor, sick, and rejected are easily Jesus’ main preoccupation, getting more space than prayer or the new birth or the end times or evangelism or Bible exposition or worship or family or immorality or any of those things men and women in my position have so frequently preached about. Jesus goes so far as to suggest that caring for the poor—or neglecting to do so—is caring for or neglecting him. He plainly suggests that merely ignoring the poor is cause for eternal loss (see stories of sheep and goats and Lazarus and the rich man). And brother, that doesn’t fit our theologies!
In fact, his example is much more than merely helping poor people. Paul writes “though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor…” And poor in every sense! Henri Nouwen writes majestically of Jesus’ downward mobility in an upwardly mobile world:
In the center of our faith as Christians stands the mystery that God chose to reveal his divinity to us by submitting himself unreservedly to the downward pull. … the one who was from the beginning with God and who was God revealed himself as a small, impotent child; as a refugee in Egypt; as an obedient adolescent and inconspicuous adult; as a penitent disciple of the Baptizer; as a preacher from Galilee followed by some simple fishermen; as a man who ate with sinners and talked with strangers; as an outcast, a criminal, a threat to his people. He moved from power to powerlessness, from greatness to smallness, from success to failure, from strength to weakness, from glory to ignominy. The whole life of Jesus of Nazareth was a life in which all upward mobility was resisted.
Oh, man, he is so magnetic to me! Wow. Do those words put a buzz in your heart like they do in mine?
Christianity starts and ends with the example of Jesus. Yet his example often takes a back seat to those isolated verses said to justify positions of Christian conservatism. Consider how the Bible itself points to him, though, as the pinnacle of Christian revelation:
“This Son perfectly mirrors God, and is stamped with God’s nature.” (Heb. 1:3)
“We look at this Son and see the God who cannot be seen.” (Col. 1:15)
“It’s in Christ that we find out who we are and what we live for.” (Eph. 1:11)
“Keep your eyes on Jesus … Study how he did it.” (Heb. 12:2)
“I have set you an example that you should do as I have done …” (Jesus, in John 13:15)
Clearly, it is Jesus whom we are to be like. Surely we can agree that yielding to Jesus’ example, not only in our care for the poor, but also our esteem of the poor is a spiritual correction long overdue among us.
2. But isn’t that just about the behavior of individual Christians? Does the Bible expect anything like that from governments? Since the Hebrew Scriptures speak more of government than the New Testament does, take a quick tour with me there:
In the Psalms: In Psalm 72, King Solomon reflects on his role as a head of state, and asks God to help him rule:
1 Endow the king with your justice, O God,
the royal son with your righteousness.
And what will justice and righteousness look like in a monarch? We more commonly use “justice” to mean “punishment,” as in “bring Saddam to justice.” And “righteousness,” in 21st-century English, describes a person who doesn’t do the sins we find most objectionable. But justice and righteousness are much more actively positive in Bible-talk. Here’s how Solomon describes their impact on a king:
4 He will defend the afflicted among the people
and save the children of the needy;
he will crush the oppressor. …
They’re active! And they affect the monarch’s foreign policy:
11 All kings will bow down to him
and all nations will serve him.
12 For he will deliver the needy who cry out,
the afflicted who have no one to help.
13 He will take pity on the weak and the needy
and save the needy from death.
14 He will rescue them from oppression and violence,
for precious is their blood in his sight.
Like Jesus, Solomon sees the “weak and the needy” as “precious.” Solomon sees special care for the needy—even special affection for the needy—as a characteristic of government blessed by God. Like Jesus, Solomon does not care for the needy because he fears for punishment if he doesn’t. He does it because they are precious to him!
In the Prophets, examples abound. Taking just one, here’s how Isaiah confronts his own generation (Is. 1):
Your hands are full of blood; wash and make yourselves clean. Take your evil deeds out of my sight! Stop doing wrong, learn to do right!
Again, we most commonly think of repentance as quitting the bad stuff. But that’s only half of the Bible’s view. See both in “Stop doing wrong, learn to do right”? And what will “do right” look like to Isaiah? You’ll recognize it:
Seek justice, encourage the oppressed. Defend the cause of the fatherless, plead the case of the widow.
Standing up for those who have two strikes against them is Moral Values 101 to Isaiah. We could choose dozens of similar quotes from the prophets. And where will these causes be defended and pled, if not before those with governmental authority to correct them?
In the Law: What if God himself designed an economy? According to Leviticus, he did. An agrarian society, the Jews in the Promised Land divided land equally among families. Land, of course, was the means of providing for oneself and one’s family. There was ownership, inheritance, private property. Some gained much wealth; some lost what they had.
But there was a remarkable (even radical, to modern minds) twist: every 50 years the land returned to its original owners. Every 50 years, every family had equal access to the means of producing wealth. Those who had gained much knew it was only for a time. Those who lost everything knew they’d get another try. No family would get too rich; none would get too poor. No dynasties; no underclass.
It is neither socialism nor capitalism (both modern distinctions), but a mix of the benefits of ownership with limits for safety. Those limits prevent people from becoming either too rich or too poor (un-American, isn’t it!) But this will seem more familiar: it’s result would be a thriving middle class. Few would become rich and powerful; few would pass poverty through generations. For each family would have a relatively equal access to the means of producing wealth every fifty years.
Perhaps the Bible’s wisdom here is exactly what partisan politics tends to forget: both individual character (which the right sees as the root cause of poverty and wealth) and cultural inequality (seen similarly by the left) have to be addressed for poverty to be defeated. I believe a truly Christian view is neither right nor left (modern distinctions, again) but a third way that combines the best of both. One’s hard work would bring rewards, yet not to the extent of oppression of others. One’s tragedy or laziness would bring loss, yet not a loss to one’s children’s innocent children. Both require both: character and justice. Character, of course, was developed in family and synagogue. Government’s role was to make certain justice reached the least. [By the way, I understand American law regulating corporate behavior was originally this way, and that the Founding Fathers saw the roles of government and corporation as adversarial: Government's role was to limit corporate power, and to advocate for the rights of individuals. How different from modern practice!]
3. But those are principles for a theocracy. Does the Bible say anything about governments that weren’t Jewish? Yup; it speaks of:
- All governments: Apparently, God intends to judge all governments on quality of their care for the poor. Here’s an example from Psalm 9:
7 The LORD reigns forever;
he has established his throne for judgment.
He will judge the world in righteousness;
he will govern the peoples with justice.
The LORD is a refuge for the oppressed,
a stronghold in times of trouble.
Those same positive qualities that Solomon sought, justice and righteousness, become the yardsticks by which God will judge governments of “the world.”
- Babylon: Daniel lays the same responsibilities on the government of the king of Babylon (certainly no Jahweh-follower!), in Daniel 4:
27 Therefore, O king, be pleased to accept my advice: Renounce your sins by doing what is right, and your wickedness by being kind to the oppressed. It may be that then your prosperity will continue.”
- An Arab government: And in the Proverbs, King Lemuel (whom I understand to be a north Arab monarch), has been taught from childhood (31):
4 “It is not for kings, O Lemuel—
not for kings to drink wine,
not for rulers to crave beer,
5 lest they drink and forget what the law decrees,
and deprive all the oppressed of their rights. …
8 “Speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves,
for the rights of all who are destitute.
9 Speak up and judge fairly;
defend the rights of the poor and needy.”
- All governments (from the N.T.): In the New Testament, notice the similar tone of Romans 13, where Paul writes that all governments are “established by God,” and accountable to him to do good and to punish wrong. Again, the charge to secular government is two-fold. And remember, in Jesus’ eyes, standing-by while the poor suffer is wrong, and he sternly warns the rich that they may be punished for it.
Could God be pleased by voters demanding that their government collect taxes to care for the poor? God views neglect of the poor as evil, worthy of punishment. Further, he holds governments responsible for making sure that the needs of the poor are defended. The Bible assumes that some will ignore the poor or deprive them of rights that the rich enjoy, and God charges government with the responsibility for correction and prevention of such sin.
Taxation seems like a pretty mild way of enforcing a minimal level of shared responsibility for the human family, where people have failed to take it upon themselves. I say “mild” because God enjoins government to defend and support the poor, even to the extent of Solomon’s “crush the oppressor,” and (in Romans), government is “an agent of wrath to bring punishment on the evildoer.”
Perhaps this is where our culture is most at odds with the Bible: Neglect of the poor is sin. Wealth is evil unless it results in sacrifice for others. Once again, how different from modern practice, where gaining wealth is esteemed for its own sake.
4. Doesn’t the Bible teach that families and churches should care for the poor? Indeed, it does. Families and churches are to be the source of character-building and example that often prevent new poverty from arising. And while governments can provide money, people are needed to provide care.
Regarding churches specifically, I’m hoping an ever-greater percentage of my church’s annual budget can go to the poor of my neighborhood and the world. Giving through churches, though, is on the decline, and needs to rise dramatically for churches to be like Jesus to the poor. I’m also hoping that we can become an example of Christ-likeness, not just offering money, but learning friendship and how to show respect, and learning to discover the faces of Jesus and learn from him. We may need the poor more than they need us.
Financially, it’s a big country. Suppose churches were to assume responsibility for a program like Medicaid. Ron Sider wrote:
“Medicaid alone in 1997 cost $172.5 billion. If the 325,000 religious congregations in the United States tried to shoulder that load, each local congregation would have to raise an extra $529,000 per year.”
Surely it’s much more than that by now, and for Medicaid alone.
Families and churches are called by God to be on the front lines. But perhaps the Bible’s view could be said like this: In a just society, every part of the culture has a role in reducing poverty. Perhaps the Bible is saying, “All hands on deck!”
Every few seconds, one of us on this planet dies of hunger. If I were that child’s daddy, I’d be crying for justice. Why should my baby die, just because I was born where food was scarce? Was it my baby’s fault?
In the USA, thousands of people die prematurely each year because they did not have health insurance. If I were the man who’d just seen his beloved wife rendered mute by a stroke because they couldn’t pay for blood-pressure medication, I’d be crying for justice. Why did she have to suffer? She worked hard all her life!
Government is obliged by God to correct and prevent injustice. Those who die needlessly have been coerced. It is immoral for government, church, or family to look the other way. It is a repudiation of the example of Jesus and a major theme of the entire Bible.
Will some abuse government money? Of course! Limiting abuse is challenging and important – even Biblical. But anger toward abuse must not become an excuse for abandonment of those who suffer. We must urge that government fulfill its role.
That people be required to share their wealth through taxation is doubtless not God’s first choice. But that government would decline to act on behalf of the poor where society has failed to do so would be a doubly egregious evil.
I am a Christian. I will pray; I will learn; I will give. I am also a writer and a voter. And I hold in my hands the power to urge my government to become a bit more just and a bit less selfish. May I use it, as Solomon might, to
defend the afflicted among the people
and save the children of the needy;
[and to] crush the oppressor. …
Tags: evangelicalism, religion+poverty, Bible+government+poverty, libertarian, wealth, Christians+poverty, Ron+Sider, government+healthcare, Bible+healthcare, universal+healthcare+Bible, religious right, religious conservatism, Christian+conservative, socialized+medicine, socialism+religion, capitalism+religion, Monte Asbury