Christian Ethics Free Course: LESSON TEN: THE POOR
We live in a divided world. It is the world of the haves and the have nots, of the stark division between rich and poor, of the economic oppressors and the oppressed.
At a time when the techno-nations enjoy a wealth unparalleled in human history, over five hundred million people are starving to death and another one billion are suffering chronic malnutrition. Untold millions more struggle against the daily deprivation wrought by unending poverty – they are powerless, in poor health, lacking education, constantly weary and dying prematurely.
Earn £100 a week and your poor two-thirds-world counterpart will earn only £10. – Or even less. But things are not ten times cheaper for him. Your poor neighbour is in real terms often ten times worse off than you.
Or look at it this way. The USA uses only seventeen per cent of its disposable income on food. The other eighty-three per cent is spent on medicine, education, comfortable living and defence. But a nation like India has to spend no less than sixty-seven per cent of its disposable income on food, leaving only a third of what is a much less valuable sum anyway, available for everything else.
The problem is exacerbated in many developing countries because small elites often hold the majority of the nation’s wealth. For example, in Brazil some five per cent of the population holds thirty-eight per cent of the wealth. In these countries a global process known as evisceration takes place with particular fierceness. (Emisseration is that process where the rich become both fewer and richer while the poor become poorer and more numerous. Disaster is inevitable if the process is not reversed.)
The International Monetary Fund was set up ostensibly to assist the funding of developing countries. However, because of the high interest rates, these countries have often been unable to pay off the loans.
As a result they have had to borrow, at a rate of interest, in order to pay the interest on the first loan. Soon they can’t pay this either and have to borrow again – at a rate of interest.
It is becoming impossible for some third-world countries ever to pay their debts. And what they can pay demands high taxation on the very people who should have received the benefit of the original loan.
A fluctuation in the interest rates can mean death by taxation for those at the bottom of the social scale.
Nor is it simply possible for loan repayments to be waived. Such is the magnitude of the debt that this would have serious repercussions for Western economies. And indeed for our pensioners, as many pension schemes depend on overseas investment. We live increasingly in a global village.
Tackling the problem of world poverty is a major item for the agenda as we enter the 21st century. But it has only recently become part of the evangelical agenda. Why?
(i) Reaction of Evangelicals
For most of this century evangelicals have taken very little interest in the plight of the poor. Part of the reason has been a sinful middle- class complacency, itself made possible by the acquisition of wealth gleaned from the poor of the world. Such an attitude would have earned the indignation of the prophets. Read what Amos has to saw about it: “They trample on the heads of the poor as upon the dust of the ground and deny justice to the oppressed. Father and son use the same girl and so profane My holy name.” (Amos 2:7)
There is also a theological reason. Towards the end of the last century there developed what became known as the ‘social gospel.’ This was a theologically liberal response to the view, born of ‘education’, that traditional biblical Christianity was no longer tenable. What was left for the church to do? Why, justify its existence by ministering to the needs of society.
Evangelicals, who had always done this as an expression of their faith, now reacted by putting the emphasis on holding to ‘the truth once for all delivered to the saints’. They retreated en masse into their church services and began to decline.
The development of Christian Socialism further compounded this by bringing in a political element that many of the middle classes found unacceptable. This presents itself in a modern, more extreme form in many third world countries with what is known as liberation theology – ‘Christianised’ revolutionary Marxism – as we have seen in an earlier lesson.
Liberation theology redefines the gospel in sociopolitical terms. It seeks biblical support in the liberation of the Israelites from Egypt and the heroic death of the revolutionary, Jesus.
‘Salvation’ is thus redefined, being worked out in the struggle for economic justice against the exploitation of people by people; in the struggle for human dignity against political oppression of men and women by their fellow human beings; in the struggle for solidarity against the alienation of person from person; in the struggle of hope against despair in personal life.
Mere charitable action is viewed as an actual hindrance to the need for fundamental change in the political structures which create poverty. If necessary, violent means may be used to bring this about.
Needless to say, evangelicals have been extremely guarded about these developments, though a younger generation is less patient.
2. BIBLICAL VIEWPOINT
What does the Bible have to say on these issues? Quite a lot! The biblical writers have none of our reticence in talking about money, and they certainly don’t duck the issue of poverty.
A. CONCERN FOR THE POOR:
God wants us to be concerned about the plight of the poor.
We have already noted the blunt prophecies of Amos which will not allow us to hide under a cloak of religion. What is true fasting all about? Isaiah gives the answer (see Isaiah 58:6-10): “Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen: to loose the chains of injustice and untie the cords of the yoke, to set the oppressed free and break every yoke? Is it not to share your food with the hungry and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter – when you see the naked, to clothe him, and not to turn away from your own flesh and blood? Then your light will break forth like the dawn, and your healing will quickly appear; then your righteousness will go before you, and the glory of the LORD will be your rear guard. Then you will call, and the LORD will answer; you will cry for help, and he will say: Here am I. If you do away with the yoke of oppression, with the pointing finger and malicious talk, and if you spend yourselves in behalf of the hungry and satisfy the needs of the oppressed, then your light will rise in the darkness, and your night will become like the noonday.”
James defines the essence of practical Christianity to include care for the poor of the day: “Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world.” (Jas 1:27)
And, in a most amazing statement, Jesus assesses the difference between the sheep and the goats, not on the basis of professed faith in
Him, but on the basis of who serves Him by ministering to the needy (Matthew 25:31-46).
A significant part of Paul’s apostolic ministry consisted in raising money in order to provide for famine relief. In 2 Corinthians 8 and 9 he reveals his heart in this. Note his answers to the following questions:
*What is the great motivation to give? (8:9)
*Do you have to be rich to give? (8: 1-3)
*What is the measure of our reaping? (9:6)
*What is a sign of God’s righteousness? (9:9)
*What else happens when we supply the needs of the poor? (9: l 2)
Although Jesus came seeking all people, his ministry had a significant impact among the poor (Matthew 11:5). The feeding of the five thousand and of the four thousand, though by no means famine relief, nonetheless tells us that Jesus was concerned with the whole person and not just the spiritual aspect. There is also a hint in the miraculous nature of his supply that our own care for the poor needs a charismatic dimension.
The parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37) defines our neighbour as anyone who crosses our path, regardless of colour, creed or country of origin. Paul sums it up: “Therefore, as we have opportunity, let us do good to all people, especially to those who belong to the family of believers.” (Gal 6:10)
This keeps us from either doing nothing or trying to do everything.
B. FREEDOM FROM COVETOUSNESS:
Materialistic philosophy dominates both the capitalist and socialist economic systems in our modern world. Jesus challenges the assumption that we should find meaning to life only in what can be seen and touched: “Then He said to them, "Watch out! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; a man’s life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions.” (Luke 12:15)
He went further and declared that it was extremely difficult for a rich person to be saved (see Luke 18: l8-25). So, out of love for him, Jesus told the rich young ruler to sell all he had and to give it to the poor (Luke l8:22).
Covetousness is a curse. It can be the vice of a man with only five pence to his name. It is especially a threat to the affluent. The only way that a person with assets and the ability to make money can be an heir to the kingdom of God is by becoming a generous giver, especially to the poor ( l Timothy 6:l7-19).
Paul gives some specific advice on how to give to the poor in l Cor. l6: 1-2. What is it? And what sort of giver does God like (2 Corinthians 9:7.)
C. RELIGION AND POLITICS CAN MIX TO PROVIDE A REMEDY:
The Scriptures are always realistic, never idealistic. As we saw in a previous lesson, Paul didn’t attack slavery as such but nonetheless made it impossible for any true believer to continue treating his slaves as slaves (see Philemon l5-17).
The implications of this are tremendous. How, on that basis, could we ever cram the working classes into tenement housing, let alone keep anyone in economic, racial or political subjugation, once given the opportunity to do something about it? However, whatever means we use to bring about social and political change, they must be non-violent. This is apparent from Jesus’ words to Pilate in John 18:36. Our warring is in the spiritual realm, the home of the real mowers (Ephesians 6:10-12). Prayer and proclamation can change a policy, or a government.
Does the Bible give us any economic clues beyond the charitable? Is there a godly way to arrange the economics of a society and indeed of a world so as to lessen the appalling divide? The answer is ‘yes’.
(i) THE SPIRIT OF TEMPERANCE
The malaise of the West is due in large part to worshipping the false god of mammon (money). Governments as well as individuals need to repent of this and temper their policies by the principle of wisdom found in Agur’s prayer: “Keep falsehood and lies far from me; give me neither poverty nor riches, but give me only my daily bread. Otherwise, I may have too much and disown You and say, ‘Who is the LORD?’ Or I may become poor and steal, and so dishonour thee name of my God.” (Pro 30:9)
This assesses the degree of wealth we should possess by its effect on the soul, not by our place in the league table of world economic growth. As a result, we will temper our growth and therefore our exploitation of the poorer nations. Maybe we will also seek to protect them from others more greedy.
It is this spirit of temperance which undergirded the Mosaic Law and led to legislation to prevent gross extremes of wealth and poverty.
(ii) SABBATH-YEAR EMANCIPATION (DEUTERONOMY 15:12-18)
This prevented ‘class’ from developing in the nation by giving employees, every seven years, the opportunity and the resources to set up on their own if they wished. In effect, it was a profit-sharing scheme on a national scale. The worker was a direct personal beneficiary of the economic growth.
(iii) JUBILEE RESTORATION (LEVITICUS 25:8-17)
The fifty-year lease system not only taught that men and women were but stewards of the Lord’s earth; it also served to control property prices. These were determined by the genuine business potential of the land rather than by what people were willing to pay for it.
Speculation was thus discouraged. “Do not take advantage of each other, but fear your God. I am the LORD your God.” (Lev 25:17)
(iv) INTEREST-FREE LOANS (LEVITICUS 25:35-38)
No money was to be made out of other people’s poverty or misfortune. What a difference this would make to the modern world! An absence of high interest rates would transform society.
Our modern ‘get rich quick on the stock exchange’ mentality would have to go, of course. Maybe recent crashes on the markets are God’s warning shots across the bows of the Bad Ship Enterprise. When enterprise is used to promote the good of the human race, especially of the deprived, God will bless it.
(v) THE RELEASE OF DEBTS BY CREDITORS (DEUTERONOMY 15:1-6)
There must surely come a time when we stop asking for our rightful dues from those who in any case cannot pay. And in many instances those poorer countries have helped make us rich in the first p
lace. “At the end of every seven years you must cancel debts.” (Deut 15:1)
(vi) DIRECT PROVISION FOR THE POOR (LEVITICUS 19:9-10; EXODUS 23:10-11; DEUTERONOMY 10:16-19; 14:28-29)
Foreign aid needs to be increased – and provided with the necessary wisdom and safeguards to see that it reaches the right place and supplies appropriate technology. Great Britain has not reached the recommended minimum and in fact has now reduced its foreign aid.
The implications of economic temperance are worth discussing at personal, national and international levels. Herein lies hope for the future.
D. A NEW AGE
“You will always have the poor among you, but you will not always have Me.” (John 12:8)
This world is sinful and passing away. Today’s economic system can be greatly alleviated by attention to biblical principles, but ultimately it is corrupt and must perish. Greed is deeply in the nature of men and women without God.
We seek to bless all people in our generation, but our hope is in the return of Christ and in the establishment of a new heaven and a new earth in which righteousness dwells. Then the nations will be truly healed. (Revelation 22:1-3).
1. Think of ways in which you could influence your Member of Parliament to promote biblical economic principles.
2. Consider how you would convince a communist that Christian economics are more radical than those of Marx.
3. Research an area of poverty and implement some form of action to help deal with it.
1. Carefully examine your lifestyle with regard to possessions to ensure that you are free from idolatry.
2. Check that you are obeying Paul’s principle of setting some money aside for the poor each pay-day.
3. Read a book about current Christian responses to world poverty.