I think it's an interesting phenomenon that as the Republican party grows increasingly fringe in its appeals, it loses its ability to cast a large umbrella under which to accommodate several, sometimes disparate views. Increasingly, moderates will find themselves falling toward the Democratic. For others, progressivism seems to be a natural bent their faith would take them. While no man needs a religion to establish morality, the religious faithful obviously have slants their morality will take as they reconcile internal impulses with the commands of their religious texts. Without getting into the details of why Christians distinguish the commands of Old and New Testament, which is derived from the forms of covenant established in the Old Testament versus New Testament as well as distinctions made in hygiene versus moral commands, my hope is to illustrate the spirit of the commands of Jesus Christ and the church he established. Today I want to deal with the issues of poverty and economics and draw parallels to the current American debate.
Perhaps the largest debate in America today is the economy and wealth disparity. Republicans seem to have co-opted the Religious Right (which is not a representative of all Christians) and yet they seem at odds with basic Biblical principles.
The dignity of the impoverished first should be established. Perhaps one of the most widespread stories is that of Luke 21, The Widow's Offering.
21 As Jesus looked up, he saw the rich putting their gifts into the temple treasury. 2 He also saw a poor widow put in two very small copper coins. 3 “Truly I tell you,” he said, “this poor widow has put in more than all the others. 4 All these people gave their gifts out of their wealth; but she out of her poverty put in all she had to live on.” .
There are two ways to interpret this, but the most commonly acceptable is the worth of the woman's efforts. She is sacrificing of her possessions, while those with money are giving without truly sacrificing much of themselves. This verse alone should make anyone pause whenever they listen to a wealthy individual talk about the money they give to their churches or charity. In the context of their wealth, how much of a sacrifice are they giving of themselves? Biblically, there is a concept of not only what a person does, but why they do it. While in the final analysis action takes precedent, Christ more than once questions the motives of what people do. Take for instance the verses immediately before Luke 21.
When Luke 21 is paired with the preceding verse, an interesting phenomenon emerges.
Luke 20: 45-47
45 While all the people were listening, Jesus said to his disciples, 46 “Beware of the teachers of the law. They like to walk around in flowing robes and love to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces and have the most important seats in the synagogues and the places of honor at banquets. 47 They devour widows’ houses and for a show make lengthy prayers. These men will be punished most severely.”
The Pharisees here made big shows of how much they gave and were socially and politically powerful, commanding respect from their contemporaries. They weren't truly sacrificing, though. Jesus' final condemnation of their actions, though, has to do with their thievery. Christ here refers to the Pharisees devouring widows' houses. Why? Because the Pharisees were involved in a scheme by which they coerced the less fortunate to pay high or fixed taxes in order to participate at the temple. People who had little were forced to give up what they had just to participate in an important part of their social and spiritual structure.
So to review, Christ is saying that there are people in this world who put on big shows of how much they give and sacrifice, when they're not truly sacrificing much. They bring attention to themselves and use it as a way of commanding respect. And worst of all? At the same time that they're so charitable, they're actually robbing less fortunate people of what they own through their social and economic policies. Do you know anyone in politics today that's doing this? Does this seem like the conduct Christ was trying to instill in his followers?
Christ here was not acting in a vacuum. Historically, even dating into the Old Testament, the concept of extorting the impoverished was condemned even into ancient times. Without examining every moment of economic history in the Bible, let's take a look at the issues of taxes, and its effect on the less fortunate. Let's look at the book of Nehemiah.
Nehemiah was a governor sent by the King of Persia to rebuild Israel. Economically and militarily, it was in disarray. The cities were in rubble. Nehemiah went about trying to discover what was causing Israel to continue existing with such great struggle, and one of the first problems he identified had to do with the economic exploitation of the poor.
From Nehemiah 5, Nehemiah helps the poor:
5 Now the men and their wives raised a great outcry against their fellow Jews. 2 Some were saying, “We and our sons and daughters are numerous; in order for us to eat and stay alive, we must get grain.”
3 Others were saying, “We are mortgaging our fields, our vineyards and our homes to get grain during the famine.”
4 Still others were saying, “We have had to borrow money to pay the king’s tax on our fields and vineyards. 5 Although we are of the same flesh and blood as our fellow Jews and though our children are as good as theirs, yet we have to subject our sons and daughters to slavery. Some of our daughters have already been enslaved, but we are powerless, because our fields and our vineyards belong to others.”
6 When I heard their outcry and these charges, I was very angry. 7 I pondered them in my mind and then accused the nobles and officials. I told them, “You are charging your own people interest!” So I called together a large meeting to deal with them 8 and said: “As far as possible, we have bought back our fellow Jews who were sold to the Gentiles. Now you are selling your own people, only for them to be sold back to us!” They kept quiet, because they could find nothing to say.
9 So I continued, “What you are doing is not right. Shouldn’t you walk in the fear of our God to avoid the reproach of our Gentile enemies? 10 I and my brothers and my men are also lending the people money and grain. But let us stop charging interest! 11 Give back to them immediately their fields, vineyards, olive groves and houses, and also the interest you are charging them—one percent of the money, grain, new wine and olive oil.”
12 “We will give it back,” they said. “And we will not demand anything more from them. We will do as you say.”
Then I summoned the priests and made the nobles and officials take an oath to do what they had promised. 13 I also shook out the folds of my robe and said, “In this way may God shake out of their house and possessions anyone who does not keep this promise. So may such a person be shaken out and emptied!”
At this the whole assembly said, “Amen,” and praised the Lord. And the people did as they had promised.
14 Moreover, from the twentieth year of King Artaxerxes, when I was appointed to be their governor in the land of Judah, until his thirty-second year—twelve years—neither I nor my brothers ate the food allotted to the governor. 15 But the earlier governors—those preceding me—placed a heavy burden on the people and took forty shekels[a] of silver from them in addition to food and wine. Their assistants also lorded it over the people. But out of reverence for God I did not act like that. 16 Instead, I devoted myself to the work on this wall. All my men were assembled there for the work; we[b] did not acquire any land.
17 Furthermore, a hundred and fifty Jews and officials ate at my table, as well as those who came to us from the surrounding nations. 18 Each day one ox, six choice sheep and some poultry were prepared for me, and every ten days an abundant supply of wine of all kinds. In spite of all this, I never demanded the food allotted to the governor, because the demands were heavy on these people.
19 Remember me with favor, my God, for all I have done for these people.
These people were suffering. They had taxes to pay that were so high, that they needed to take out money loans to pay them, furthering their debt. Others, just to get food, had to mortgage all their land and homes. Nehemiah's answer was to demand that government officials and money lenders (the ancient banking system) stop placing such high interest rates on the loans. He went further, though. He demanded that the government not only stop repossessing people's homes and property, but give those possessions back to the people that they had been taken from.
As a government official, Nehemiah refused the food allotment he would have rightfully received in his position, because it would have placed an undue economic burden on the people. He even went so far as to give of the food prepared for him to those beneath him that were less fortunate. He also refused what had become a standard compensation fee for the governor, because it would create a tax policy too burdensome for the people.
So, we see here a social and political leader making all the right moves. He already has wealth, so he demands little in terms of compensation for his office. He demands taxes and interest rates be driven down on the less fortunate. And he demands that people's homes stop being repossessed by money lenders and government officials, instead insisting that these things be given back to the people they were taken from. Do you know any movement currently supporting those whose homes are being threatened by banks and government? Likewise, who in politics is supporting low taxes on the least fortunate, and assistance for those who are swimming in debt?
This falls in line with a Judaic custom called the Year of Jubilee. On the 50th year, a massive form of debt forgiveness was enabled. This was an evolution of a previous form of forgiveness. Slavery, formerly an acceptable practice under different conditions in the Middle East, was a form of compensation for various economic debts. However, on the 7th year, all slaves had to be freed. Whether they wanted to return to serve in their masters homes was up to them, but the code insisted that no one be enslaved for their lifetime. Jubilee evolved from this form of forgiveness. Every 50 years, all property taken under various conditions was to be returned to the original owners, or their heirs. Can you imagine if America, today, went about trying to give back property to all those who have lost it over the last 100 years?
Jesus perhaps summed all of this best in Matthew 25 when he said 37 “Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? 38 When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? 39 When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’
40 “The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’
Christ obviously emphasized the importance of taking care of the least fortunate in our society. Through the course of the quoted verses above, we see that helping the poor is both an act of personal charity as well as an act of policy. We can help the less fortunate in many way. We can do that through the government policies we approve of, that don't punish the poor for being poor. We can do that by giving our money to good causes, or being willing to have a slight tax increase if it means reducing the burden for all. What I do not believe a Christian can do, in keeping with the spirit of Christ's words, is approve of punitive or exploitative policies that put increasing burden on the least fortunate in our society.
My purpose in these writings is, of course, NOT to attempt to reconcile all views on all things. People will forever find things about the Bible they do not like, and Christians will always find things about other societies or customs they can't agree to. However, I think it's important to find the common threads between these views, because I can't imagine Christ wanted to establish a church whose reputation was one of greed or hatred. It is likewise unfortunate that the loudest are the most visible, and the loudest are often the most angry or dissatisfied. This does not mean there are not, likewise, a large number of Christians who are uncomfortable with exploitative and discriminating policies. At any rate, this was written with a positive outlook and a hope to bridge some gaps. Thanks.