According to a Census Bureau report released last week, nearly 36 million Americans now live in poverty. This figure represents over a 12 percent increase from 2003. In fact, the poverty rate has been growing at a rate over 12 percent for the past three years.
Religious leaders reacted passionately to the news. The evangelical social group “Call to Renewal” called it “a moral outrage that our country cannot do better.”
What would better look like? And what role should people of faith have in making it better?
The Bible is filled with significant and frequent references to God’s concern for the poor. Many of these are concentrated in the Psalms, Proverbs and the prophets, but they are not limited to these portions of Scripture.
The Bible realistically portrays some poverty as having its roots in personal behavior. The writer of Proverbs warns that those who refuse to work, or those who do not lay aside resources for a rainy day, or who indulge various desires can quickly become poor. That these behaviors contribute to our contemporary instances of poverty is obvious.
However, the biblical witness spends considerably more time on other causes of poverty. The frequent use of the expression “widows and orphans” is understood to mean those who are economically disadvantaged and powerless to do anything about it. Often the poor are those who are victimized by the powerful for personal or political gain.
Some become poor, the prophets point out, because the marketplace is not fair. There are many warnings about unfair scales and unfair wages. In all of these instances the preaching is not critical of individuals who happen to be poor, but rather of institutions and systems that take unfair advantage of people who are powerless against them.
So if we wanted to help our country do a better job of dealing with increasing poverty, where should we start? These days there are plenty of folk who are more than willing to blame poverty on the poor themselves. Poverty will end for individuals, this group tells us, when they pull themselves up and go to work.
But this overlooks the side of the problem the Bible does not overlook. There are social, economic and political forces at work that contribute to poverty. There are many places where double-digit unemployment is the norm rather than the exception. This suggests a lack of jobs, not a lack of willing workers.
If the faith community is going to participate in a faithful response to the problem of poverty, we cannot overlook the economic and social forces that are beyond the reach of individual willpower. That means looking at tax codes, educational opportunities and job creation.
Jesus understood the obstacles we would encounter. That’s why “Blessed are the poor” was among the first things he said. Jesus was not saying that poverty is good. He was saying that the poor are not wicked. Jesus’ words serve to undermine the attitude which existed then–and exists now–that the poor are always responsible for their poverty.
From there it gets hard. Taking on the economic and political powers that create and maintain poverty in our world is no small task. But if we are to make a difference on behalf of the poor, that’s exactly what we must do. Besides, if we plan on following Jesus, what else can we do? He made it fairly clear that we would find him among the “least of these” in our midst.
James L. Evans is pastor of Auburn First Baptist Church in Auburn, Ala.