Protecting the poor is a biblical imperative. It’s a non-negotiable moral imperative for Christians in the public square.
No better passage provides a proof-text for this moral obligation than Deuteronomy 15:11, where God instructs the people: “For the poor will never cease out of the land; therefore I command you, You shall open wide your hand to your brother, to the needy and to the poor, in the land.”
When Jesus announced his moral agenda, he said he came to bring good news to the poor (Luke 4:18). And the good news to the poor was that Jesus aligned himself with the year of jubilee (4:19), a time of economic transformation when debts were forgiven and slaves were freed.
The Greek word here for poor means the materially poor – not the poor in faith, not the emotionally impoverished, not the spiritually lost. Poor means poor – the dispossessed, the powerless, the vulnerable.
Similarly, the year of jubilee means freedom from the debt and forced labor that enriches others.
Protecting the poor is a biblical imperative, a non-negotiable. Yet Christians too often redirect what Jesus said and ignore what the Bible teaches.
Most churches and pastors advocate charity. Charitable giving to the poor is a pittance of most church budgets. Such tight-fisted charity is a far cry from the biblical imperative to protect the poor, and it’s light years away from the biblical imperative to do justice.
We decline to practice openhanded charity and generous justice in no small measure because we – ordinary Christians with neither financial nor political power – are far more comfortable protecting the rich than protecting the poor.
If Christians in the United States were in the process of deciding what books to include in the Bible, we would dump the Letter of James quicker than a hiccup. We would exclude James if for no other reason than his withering critique of the church for showing partiality to the rich and against the poor.
James wrote what most of us do not want to hear: “[Y]ou have dishonored the poor. Is it not the rich who oppress you? Is it not they who drag you into court?”
He continued: “You do well if you really fulfill the royal law according to the scripture, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’…What good is it…if you say you have faith but do not have works…If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food, and one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill,’ and yet you do not supply their bodily needs, what good is that?'” (James 2:6-16).
The biblical testimony has a clear word in favor of the poor. But today in the United States, too many people of faith negotiate away the biblical imperative to protect the poor in favor of the materialistic imperative to protect the rich.
Protecting the rich is not a biblical imperative. It is a materialistic imperative. Nonetheless, we conflate the two, even though materialism is antithetical to the Bible.
After all, one can’t serve both God and money (Matthew 6:24). One has to make a choice. The wrong choice, the craving for money, is “root of all evils” and causes some to wander away from faith (1 Timothy 6:10).
It is this craving for money that contributes to people of faith negotiating or wandering away from the biblical imperative to protect the poor. This craving causes good people to believe harmful fables.
One harmful fable is that our society must protect the rich – the very rich.
Most Republican and too many Democrat politicians of faith claim that we must extend the Bush tax cuts for the richest Americans because they will look after the rest of us. Those who adhere to this fable are following the materialistic imperative, not the biblical imperative.
Never mind that tax cuts for the rich drive up the deficit, which in turn drives many political leaders to favor deficit reduction on the backs of the poor, the working poor and on the lower-middle-class by cutting social programs that benefit them.
We seem to prefer fables over facts, financial market myths over biblical moral imperatives.
As Washington debates extending the Bush tax cuts, state legislatures consider balanced budgets, and everyone thinks about the recommendations of the bipartisan National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform, what will leaders of faith contribute to these deliberations?
Goodwill faith leaders ought to be speaking up for the biblical imperative to protect the poor and those at risk to poverty, joblessness, ill health, economic exploitation.
We need to tell political leaders that it’s a non-negotiable. If we don’t, who will?
Robert Parham is executive editor of EthicsDaily.com and executive director of its parent organization, the Baptist Center for Ethics.
Editor’s Note: Explore what the Abrahamic faith traditions say about faith and taxes. Order EthicsDaily.com’s newest documentary, “Sacred Texts, Social Duty,” by clicking here.