Biblical Theology, Poverty, and Social Justice, Part 7

Posted By on March 30, 2013

Time to get back to this series!

Review of Earlier Part 6

It’s been a while since I posted Part 6 of this study/discussion. Hopefully by now many of you have read the two items I linked to in Part 6:

Poverty and Poor: New Testament” from Anchor Bible Dictionary

Rich and Poor” from the dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels

In Part 6 I had summarized the findings of Parts 1-5 (our look at OT words and teaching about the poor, poverty, and a “welfare state”). Here were the conclusions we reached for the OT mindset:

(1) The poor can be described as poor because of their own laziness, lack of wisdom, or other self-induced circumstance.

(2) Some passages do involve both private wealthy individuals and wealthy state officials exploiting the poor.

(3) There is no scriptural justification for presuming that wealth is some sort of inherent corrupter of persons that invariably prompts them to oppress the poor or that always peripherally leads to the oppression of the poor.

(4) Biblical thoughts on poverty and economics were linked to the covenant relationship between Yahweh and each Israelite. Each Israelite is responsible for the poor individually. Consequently, a biblical theology of poverty is focused on the individual being compassionate to the poor. There is no sense of handing this responsibility off to an impersonal state. Also consequently, this responsibility should not be usurped by the state for its own manipulation and power, such as creating dependency on itself.

(5) A welfare state should (for the Bible-believer) be viewed as a sign of the failure of the Church, not as a clever and useful creation of the human state so the Church can move on to more “spiritual” pursuits.

(6) The question therefore becomes, What should Christians strive for and support when it comes to alleviating poverty? What is “biblical social justice”? The answer is not the act of blessing the operation and growth of the welfare state as a solution to poverty. Rather, it is the a response of individuals, motivated by compassion and a desire to obey the commands of God to take care of the poor.

(7) If the question is what is a biblical theology of the care for poor, the answer is the individual, or individuals operating as a like-minded group, under the guidance of biblical revelation from a God who hates poverty and injustice. The answer is not the empowerment of a corruptible state. That is the secular God-less answer. We ought not baptize the secular answer to make it appear biblical; that is a deceit.

(8) Lastly, it is quite inconsistent for activists, politicians, or anyone else to proof-text biblical material to prop up any view of social justice or of a welfare state and then simultaneously reject biblical statements (which have the same theopolitical context) on other points of morality and social responsibility. That’s just hermeneutical hypocrisy.

Shifting to the New Testament

So what about the NT Mindset? I had asked you to read through the two items noted above with a goal toward evaluating the content — Was what the writer said consistent with the above conclusions and the OT data on which those conclusions are based?

In what follows, I’ll be pointing to some parts of the readings that I think are a bit misguided. As so often happens in scholarly (and generally religious) discussion about poverty and “social justice,” there is often a propensity to having passages say too much (i.e., overstating the case) and to make what is said sound like a political system or statement.I think you’ll understand what I mean here as we proceed.

First, I think the articles do a godo job surveying the relevant NT Greek terms: ptōchós (“poor, oppressed,” lit. “beggar”; the most common NT term); pénēs (used once in the NT: 2 Cor 8:9); penichrós (“poor”); endeḗs (“needy”); and chreia (“need”). The author summarized the word usage by concluding that the terms “generally designate persons and groups lacking (totally or in some degree) the necessities of life: food, drink, clothing, shelter, health, land/employment, freedom, dignity and honor.” That seems a fair and defensible summary.

I was less satisfied with some of the overstatements and theologizing that extended from the summary. For example:

The author writers that “James is the NT writing that stands closest to the OT prophets in its perspective on poverty and oppression ” and then follows with “James never blames the victims (for sloth, vice, genetic inferiority, etc.); rather he focuses on oppression as the basic cause of poverty.” As we’ve seen in surveying the OT material, that isn’t true. Proverbs, for example, does blame poverty on laziness or sloth. It’s more accurate to say that most of the OT commentary doesn’t say anything about how a person became poor. This is not to exclude the idea that other people (the wealthy, foreign armies) cause poverty and engage in victimization. It’s just to point out an overstatement, and one that can be used for political-speak via the material.

I have a bigger problem with the connection of help for the poor to the gospel. This is typical of modern social justice talk. For instance, the author writes that (apparently) articulating the gospel in terms of doctrine “may fail to recognize that the prophetic denunciation of oppression is an essential part of evangelism, conceived as the proclamation of good news—preferentially—to the poor.” This is followed by “[James'] understanding of justification (cf. “condemnation,” 2:12–13; 3:8–9; 4:11–12; 5:6) dignifies the poor, focusing on the paired examples of Abraham, an immigrant (like James’ recipients), and Rahab, the woman who showed hospitality to Israel’s migrant ancestors.”

It takes little thought to show the miguided nature of this sort of analysis, which unfortunately infects the data in places. The gospel is not preferentially presented to the poor in the NT. It is clearly for all who will believe (John 3:16) and the book of Acts has Paul and others taking the gospel — a theological message about the work of Jesus on the cross — to the rich and powerful as well as the poor (e.g., Cornelius, Festus, Agrippa, synagogue leaders, etc.). God is not more positively predisposed to the poor, as though he has more compassion for them, or that there is less of a spiritual gulf between Him and them. In Acts 16 when the Philippian jailor asks Paul and Silas “What must I do to be saved?” the answer is not “feed the poor” or “alleviate poverty.” It is the clear “believe on the Lord Jesus Christ.” Likewise, this is Paul’s clear understanding in many instances in his letters (e.g., Rom 10:9-10). The example of Abraham is an awkwardly edited one — Abraham was an immigrant (let’s set aside the modern connotation of that term) but he was exceedingly wealthy. Rahab is also a poor example, as her faith statement wasn’t “I’m protecting you because you’re members of an oppressed class” but “For we have heard how the Lord dried up the water of the Red Sea before you when you came out of Egypt, and what you did to the two kings of the Amorites who were beyond the Jordan, to Sihon and Og, whom you devoted to destruction. And as soon as we heard it, our hearts melted, and there was no spirit left in any man because of you, for the Lord your God, he is God in the heavens above and on the earth beneath” (Josh 2:10-11).

Overlooked in the connection between bringing the truth of the OT God or of Jesus to the poor is a more obvious rationale (at least to me). The point of the deliberate inclusion and even focus on the poor with respect to the good news is not some sort of notion that the poor are special objects of salvation — but that they are included. Ancient Near Eastern religions were elite-focused. The gods installed the kings and priests; “theology” was dispensed through the elite classes to the masses to manipulative ends. That the poor were explicitly stated to also be in covenant relationship to Yahweh (OT thinking) and genuine targets of God’s love through the cross (NT thinking) would have been startling concepts. The point was not that God loved the poor more, or that the poor were somehow on the road to heaven because they were poor, or that Jesus died more for the poor than the rich — it is that the salvation plan of God is no respecter of persons. The focus on the non-elite audiences of the gospels is also a mode designed to highlight the unbelief of the priestly class — the very people who should have understood, but valued their power and prestige more than truth — to the point of plotting the death of the messiah. This emphasis is a “focus alert” not a definition of what humanity must do to be saved or what the gospel is.

More generally, it ought to be obvious that the NT shows deep concern for the poor, as the OT focus on that concern is transparent. I think the articles do a good job of showing that consistency, despite the sort of thinking noted above. But just as wealth did nothing when it came to salvation, so a poverty status does nothing with respect to salvation. OT and NT salvation are very consistent. There is no human merit. It’s about where one’s faith/loyalty is: the God of Israel and Jesus Christ.

Anyway, to cut the length here, these are my initial thoughts. I’ll return to the articles in the next installment. Hope several of you weigh in.

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11 Responses to “Biblical Theology, Poverty, and Social Justice, Part 7”

  1. Stephen says:

    Do you consider the current attempts to say homosexuality isn’t spoken against to be part of the hermeneutical hypocrisy? That’s one area I don’t recall seeing you speak about. Is there an article on one of your sites?

    I’ve read through your series and the relevant articles but forgive me if I’ve forgotten if it was already mentioned but what do we make of the story of Jesus and the rich young man? I’ve always had the feeling that story is abused. I’ve seen swipes at even things like capitalism based on that story! And of course the fact that most (nearly all?) moderns are “rich” by an ancient reckoning (food, medicine, toilet paper…).

    This series has been a breath of fresh air on this subject. So thank you!

  2. Steve Hurt says:

    I have enjoyed this discussion, it has helped tremendously to focus on some important and necessary issues.

    If I may add to number 5 of your summary through part 6. [No expert just a thought.]
    ((5) A welfare state should (for the Bible-believer) be viewed as a sign of the failure of the Church, not as a clever and useful creation of the human state so the Church can move on to more “spiritual” pursuits)

    I can’t help wondering how much of today’s thinking may of evolved from the 30′s depression era. A case were even the Church was devastated, or overwhelmed, to help all the poor and needy.

    The Government has its place as the Church has, sometimes together sometimes not.
    With that, could we place the “failure of the Church” on becoming dependent (reliant) over the years on the Government stepping in during such a crisis.

    If we abolish the “welfare state” (some say) we are in I don’t think it is a problem of can the Church handle the issues but will the Church handle the issues. Diffidently not, I think, without a closer look and understanding of what the Bible says as this discussion has given me and, I hope, others.

    I have more thought on this but I hope I have shared enough wondering on how “the Church has failed” in this study. Will we, in America, truly help our neighbor by faith or always be reliant on God’s institute of Government to do the work. Perhaps it will always be in some form of joint effort. After all, we (the Church) carry the Gospel of Christ to all without respect of person – not the Government.

    • MSH says:

      I’d agree with your thoughts here. A lot of this has a direct lineage back to the depression and New Deal. I also believe the church (and even those non-churched) *could* do a much better job of alleviating poverty on a one-on-one level / private, individual charity than the government. (Despite the heavy taxation — and I’m not talking about only federal income taxes – Americans still give to charitable causes at a generous clip). The current govt system isn’t aimed at solving the problem; it perpetuates it (we’ve had nearly 50 years of the “Great Society” and “war on poverty and the problem has only grown worse; the solution isn’t more of the same – that’s the definition of insanity at work). However, I have nagging doubts that Christians would make such sacrifices. The church is very worldly, plain and simple, and has grown accustomed to letting the government take up what should be part of the Christian mission (without redefining the gospel).

  3. Bobby says:

    Hey Dr. Mike!

    I was just thinking about this topic because of a facebook post i read about predatory lending practices and pending legislation in Texas, my home state. I’m glad i checked your site because i hadn’t seen this series (only a newcomer here @ NakedBible). I’m not a scholar, but i enjoy the bible and i do want to understand the heart of the scriptures.

    “(4) Biblical thoughts on poverty and economics were linked to the covenant relationship between Yahweh and each Israelite. Each Israelite is responsible for the poor individually. Consequently, a biblical theology of poverty is focused on the individual being compassionate to the poor. ”

    I really liked this statement and i think it sums up my view on the topic very well. Just looking around in the OT there seems to be plenty of encouragement/commands for people to treat their kinsman with selfless love. I think Jesus clears this up for Christians with the story of the good Samaritan, the golden rule, and there are verses like Philippians 2:3-4. All of which relate to the individual as you stated.

    “There is no sense of handing this responsibility off to an impersonal state. Also consequently, this responsibility should not be usurped by the state for its own manipulation and power, such as creating dependency on itself.
    (5) A welfare state should (for the Bible-believer) be viewed as a sign of the failure of the Church, not as a clever and useful creation of the human state so the Church can move on to more “spiritual” pursuits.”

    I like what you say here about Churches taking the blame for relinquishing this responsibility when it is arguably our greatest means of joy and laying up treasures this side of heaven.

    ————–

    What do you think about this?

    “In God We Trust”, “One Nation Under God”, “Therefore render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.”

    1. If the government is established to protect the rights of man as endowed by his creator, does it follow that this same government would have an interest in “charity” as a method of counteracting the “Love of Money” which causes injustice to “the least of these”?

    2. Does the government have a right to collect taxes, and if so, once that money is property of the state do the citizens have the right to petition that those funds not be spent in charity? Does the structure of a democratic republic complicate the issue as such a government is supposed to represent the will of the people, as opposed to a Monarchical rule where the taxes are the possession of the kingdom which is supposed to represent the will of the crown?

    ————-

    And this?

    Eze 16:49 Behold, this was the guilt of your sister Sodom: she and her daughters had pride, excess of food, and prosperous ease, but did not aid the poor and needy.

    I have heard people talk about judgement of nations, so do you think that this has some bearing on the concepts mentioned above? I still agree that ideally the poor should always be cared for by their loving neighbors, regardless of how they got to be poor.

    ————

    “But just as wealth did nothing when it came to salvation, so a poverty status does nothing with respect to salvation.”

    Exodus 23:3 caught my eye here.

    ————

    My journey with the scriptures seems to have been to a large part characterized by periods of “same ol same ol” followed with instances of revelation. It also seems like these revelations almost always have an element of micro/micro to them, where when i see the truth of the scripture in a particular instance, i seem to immediately find an example of this principle in both smaller and larger spheres of influence. (physics, nature, family relationships, practical cause/effect, etc.) Do you think that the condition of the poor and God’s attitude toward stewardship of the materially impoverished offers some metaphorical connection to the poor in spirit? And while we’re at it, i would love if you could tell me exactly what “Blessed are the poor in spirit” means from a hermeneutical standpoint. Are the poor blessed in spirit, or are the poor in spirit blessed?

    ———

    Hope you have time to look at some of this, if not, i understand your very busy.

    Thanks,

    Bobby

    • MSH says:

      In regard to the first two listed questions:

      1. In theory one would think it would, but this depends on the people holding elected office — is that where their hearts are at, or is it about growing government? Today’s govt finds it difficult to even give small businesses tax incentives toward donating more money and goods to charitable causes. Add to that the stark reality of our unpayable debt – which cannot go unpaid without catastrophic effects – and the govt needs all the money it can get (hence hiring 2000 more IRS agents in the last couple of years). While the theory makes sense, I think it more likely that we’ll see our govt do what Cyprus has done over the last two weeks than seeing it make a real effort at allowing people to keep more of their money and motivate them to give it to charities.

      2. Monarchical rule would be far worse than what we have; we wouldn’t be having this discussion for one (or it would be utterly pointless). Biblically, the government is not forbidden to levy taxes. In terms of our own legal system, since we are (still, despite slides) a democratic republic, laws could be passed to direct more funds to certain areas (or not). But I wouldn’t look for that any time soon, either. The president hasn’t submitted a budget to both houses on Congress since 2008. You can’t do much if you aren’t even willing to pass a budget. For Christians, we simply cannot depend on the state to do what’s right.

      The text has “blessed are the poor in spirit”; the “poor in spirit” are not (but may be, of course) financially poor. It refers (regardless of social class) to an internal spirit/attitude of utter dependence (on God and his grace).

  4. Mark C says:

    Mike,

    Thanks for pointing out that – Ancient Near Eastern religions were elite-focused.

    Religion was and is entangled with a cultural context. I don’t want to be long-winded,

    so I’ll just say that what we see as rich-poor distinctions are mostly facade and once

    you scratch the surface, people are similar. Social mechanisms are geared in a way

    to maintain the existing facade. That means that the ‘poor’ usually have no leverage.

    In contrast, the Church is not supposed to be a charade. I think Jesus had some fun

    poking holes in the social/religious facades of his day. As did the prophets.

    Mark

  5. Ken says:

    Regarding point 3 in which you state

    “There is no scriptural justification for presuming that wealth is some sort of inherent corrupter of persons that invariably prompts them to oppress the poor or that always peripherally leads to the oppression of the poor.”

    do you think that we can conclude that although wealth may not invariably lead to oppression of the poor that it may do so very often? I’m thinking that “money equals power” and that “power corrupts” as shown in the Standford Prison Experiment and the Stanley Milgram Experiment. Of course these experiments don’t show that money corrupts but that power corrupts. Also 1 Timothy 6:10 comes to mind which states “for the love of money is the root (or a root) of all evil.”

    I have the impression that many of our wealthy politicians and wealthy leaders of industry with their revolving door policies between government and industry are essentially corrupt.

    If my impressions are correct, what would be the cause if not wealth? While not invariably leading to oppression, couldn’t it be a major player?

    Ken

    • MSH says:

      I think that it would be fair to say that wealth brings with it a propensity to use it for power over others. It’s just not axiomatic. The root cause in my view is plain old selfishness – considering ourselves more important than others (the opposite of the golden rule). Money just makes that more possible – presents more opportunities to behave that way.

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