Biblical hope and international poverty, Part 2
Poverty | An opportunity to bring real help to a broken world
by Marvin Olasky
Posted 9/07/19, 11:56 am
What precisely do the poor of Brazil and Bangladesh, or the reporters at The Milwaukee Journal who write about them—see my previous Saturday Series essay—need to be taught? I learned a lot at our Villars conference three decades ago, particularly from Udo Middelmann, president of the Francis A. Schaeffer Foundation. A number of understandings have remained with me all these years.
First, Middelmann explained how the Bible shows the nature of God in relation to His creation. We gain hope for relief and development work by seeing God as the intelligent Creator of the universe, above nature and not part of it. Pagan gods generally are in nature. Their messages come through nature’s fertility or failure. Attempts to take dominion over nature may make them angry. God’s transcendence, though, means that nature itself is not a god to be feared or worshipped, but a work of God to be admired and managed.
Second, Middelmann noted that the Bible shows us the nature of man in relation to God. We have hope when we see man created after God’s image and therefore also above nature, capable of giving nature a human shape rather than waiting to see how it shapes us. We can be active in world development, not gawking onlookers or people who fear angering various gods of nature.
Third, man does not have to live passively at the edge of disaster but can do more than is necessary to survive without fear of offending Baals or other gods within nature. Without fear we can develop the surplus that helps us provide for widows and orphans and keeps us going through unfruitful seasons and lean years. Without fear of retribution by gods of nature we can dig wells, as Abraham and Isaac did. (Jealous and fearful Philistines later covered up the wells.) Without fear we can follow God’s injunctions and look under the earth for iron and copper, rather than just settling for what is immediately visible (Deuteronomy 8:9).
Fourth, the Bible shows us how God is the Lord of history, standing above it and therefore able to intervene in it. History, moving toward both deliverance for individuals and the final redemption of the world, has a linear pattern. On an individual level we are created in God’s image and can stand apart from our past. Following repentance we can head in a radically different direction. The whole world will finally be redeemed, freed from endless cycles of repetition. For both individuals and societies, Christianity is a religion of change: Under grace we can strive and see positive results, “for God did not give us a spirit of timidity, but a spirit of power, of love and of self-discipline” (2 Timothy 1:7).
Fifth, Middelmann showed how the Bible gives us hope through providing a theology of individual freedom. The Protestant Reformation principle of sola scriptura, the Bible only, indicates that we must seek the face of the Lord as we read the Bible, whether or not our neighbors go along with us. In most societies, the group, clan, or community is king, and the individual must not strive too hard or be too different, lest he upset the solidarity of the group.
Sixth, we can challenge even an entire cultural consensus when it stumbles into apostasy. The pagan fear of stepping out alone holds back societies spiritually and economically, since exceptional individuals hide their lights under bushels. The Bible, though, shows how Elijah stood alone, unaware—until revealed to him—that others also asserted their independence under God. When Peter faltered under community pressure, Paul challenged him. The Bible frees individuals from slavery to society as it enables us to truly serve others.
Seventh, the Bible, through its emphasis on the importance of justice, gives us hope that we will be able to lead peaceful lives. Law’s special function is not to restrict honest initiative but to limit arbitrary power and class-based law, whether it benefits rich or poor (Exodus 12:49; Deuteronomy 16:19). Many specific Biblical legal applications indicate that law is intended to free, not enslave. We are not to gain personal advantage through the hard times of others (Deuteronomy 19:4; 22:1). Witnesses must back up accusations, for truth is more important than the word of the generalissimo (Deuteronomy 19:15). Fixed punishments for transgressors keep arbitrary justice from bringing back favoritism and unpredictability.
At the Villars consultation we recognized that a Biblical understanding of God, man, history, freedom, and law, can help us develop new ways of dealing with international relief and development questions. We have hope when we see that deprivation is not natural and is instead the result of the unnatural entry of sin into the world. Other religions urge acceptance of the problems of the world. Buddha shut his eyes to the pain of human life, but Jesus wept over Jerusalem and then died to break the power of sin. Thus, we have the opportunity to bring real help to a broken world, in anticipation of the final victory over sin and death when Christ returns in power and glory.
WE HAVE NEW HOPE when we develop a changed attitude toward work. Biblically, work is valuable, not just suffering born of necessity. The Fall makes work harder and often less productive, but nowhere does the Bible state that the only reason for work is survival. After all, Adam before the Fall had the vital work and high calling of naming and gardening. The fourth commandment is not only the Sabbath commandment but also the work commandment: It emphasizes working six days a week, regardless of economic necessity, because work is our major activity in life, our chief opportunity to use creativity.
As Middelmann pointed out, the Biblical view of work sharply contrasts those of pagan religions. Many of the latter often see work as something done by many to support the priesthood of the few, which is the only truly significant activity in society. The Bible, however, gives greatest praise not to those who contemplate but to all who work to take godly dominion over the world. For example, the positive aspects of Solomon’s reign included the planting of cedar trees in the foothills so they became as plentiful as sycamores (1 Kings 10:27). Spiritual leaders did not consider themselves above hard material work: Amos also “took care of sycamore trees” (Amos 7:14), and Paul made tents.
The Bible gives us new hope to escape poverty because its stress on individual responsibility includes economic as well as spiritual components. The goal is freedom from communal dependence, including freedom from market controls. Chapters such as Leviticus 15 and Genesis 13 stress individual responsibility in choosing how to use resources of time and land. Choices have consequences—for example, failure to help the poor results in God’s condemnation—but freedom is vital. Dishonesty is disallowed—for example, use of just measures and weights is essential (Leviticus 19:35)—but the Bible never proposes governmental or ecclesiastical establishment of wages or prices.
The Biblical emphasis on work, and on honoring the fruits of work, leads to protection of private property. What we gain through our own rightful efforts is ours to use for God’s glory. Those who gain wealth unjustly and do not repent are condemned, but the Bible often views wealth as a blessing for the righteous, and poverty as a deprivation not to be romanticized (Genesis 13:2, 14:23; 1 Kings 3:13; 1 Chronicles 29:12; Proverbs 3:16; 8:18; 22:4).
At the same time, the Bible gives us hope that those who prosper also will be charitable, not out of coercion but because individuals made after the image of a merciful God should also be merciful. Individuals who gain property should help support widows, orphans, and others impoverished through no fault of their own. Individuals financially blessed by God who do not use riches to rescue others from suffering are slaves to sin (Luke 16:19-31).
Biblical wisdom gives us the opportunity to avoid economic warfare. Biblically, there are no superior and inferior classes. Wealth can become a snare, but the real question is not just money but power. The Bible, in its emphasis on the individual, does not draw class generalizations. Some who are poor in material may be poor in spirit, but not all. Some who are rich may love their wealth, but not all. It could be said that there is class warfare in the Bible, but it is a war of spiritual classes, not material classes, and if we mix up the two we are mixing Christianity with paganism.
The Bible gives us the opportunity to use our freedom well by not leaving us to wander among a variety of conflicting social principles. Instead, God throughout the Bible explains to us what our human nature is and gives us institutions that conform to it. Chief among these, since God created us male and female, is the institution of marriage and family as basic order for society, to be sustained by all our economic and developmental policies. We are supposed to leave father and mother and form new families. Any ideological and political system that tries to do away with man’s God-given nature is unacceptable in theory and folly in practice.
The greatest hope comes because God has made us members of His family, as adopted sons. That returns us to the idea of covenant. We are sons—and what father, when his son asks for sustenance, will not provide it? As Jesus said, “I am the bread of life. He who comes to me will never go hungry, and he who believes in me will never be thirsty” (John 6:35).
SOCIALISTS ATTEMPT TO TURN THE BIBLE into a document of class warfare rather than hope for all. They speak of Jesus’ “class solidarity” with the poor because of His birth in a manger, His parents’ poverty, His choosing as disciples some economically marginal individuals from the despised region of Galilee, His refusal to accumulate property or wealth, and so on (Luke 2; Matthew 4).
A Villars conference talk by theologian Otto de Bruijne instructed me. He noted that in behavior, claims, acts, and teachings, Jesus chose to appear as He did not out of sheer solidarity with the poor (although He clearly had compassion for all those in distress) but out of a desire to be independent of powerful interests. It was important that Jesus walk freely, without economic or political strings attached. His symbolic poverty revealed the rejection of worldly attachment—“The Son of Man has no place to lay his head” (Matthew 8:20)—so as to point man to issues of lie and truth, life and death. Jesus opposed the power-hungry of the religious “wolves” and political “foxes” of His time (Matthew 7:15; Luke 13:32) and demanded of Himself and His disciples complete trust in God (Matthew 10:10, 14).
If we read Jesus’ words in context, they emphasize freedom in a far more profound way than liberation theologians do. De Bruijne pointed out that Jesus’ proclamation in Nazareth (Luke 4:18, 19), His blessings of the poor and woes to the rich (Luke 6:20-26), His warning against the deceitfulness of wealth (Matthew 13:22), and His exhortation that the rich cannot easily enter the kingdom (Matthew 19:23) all stand in the great tradition of the Scriptures: Wealth is a blessing for the righteous but a trap for those who put their trust in it, since wealth cannot save.
The real issue, in the New Testament as well as in the Old, is not accumulation of money but use of power. How do those entrusted by God with riches or influence use those gifts to rescue their neighbors from spiritual and economic enslavement? Those who use power to gain more wealth through injustice, and do not repent, stand condemned (Ezekiel. 22:27; Job 24; Amos 2:6, 7; 5:12; Mark 12:40; Luke 16:19-31). The real goal in the New Testament as in the Old is not destructive revolution but renewal and conversion. (Jesus’ approach to Zacchaeus in Luke 19 is one example of the pattern.)
Always, as de Bruijne pointed out, Jesus taught His disciples to give of their time, their money, and their love (Luke 6:30-38; Acts 20:35). Giving presumes having, and giving freely assumes that the owner is using his discretion. In the New Testament, the greatest need for stewardly use of God’s gifts came after Pentecost, when thousands of new believers, many of them probably elderly, were in desperate need. The Holy Spirit urged wealthy members to sell some of their property so the new Christians could see in physical terms the spiritual changes that Christ’s sacrifice had wrought (Acts 4:34, 35). There was no coercion. When Ananias and Sapphira approached an opportunity for self-sacrifice in a legalistic way and were then punished by God for their hypocrisy, Peter explicitly noted that Ananias had owned the property and could have done what he wanted with the proceeds (Acts 5:3,4).
The New Testament church cared for the physical needs of its members, but those needs did not expand to the point where the diaconal structure was overwhelmed and the state came in with bread and circuses. The reason, apparently, was an emphasis on working and giving. Paul warned the Thessalonians not to be idle and used his own work of tent-making to set an example of self-reliance: “If a man will not work, he shall not eat” (2 Thessalonians 3:6-14). That economic strategy was so successful that when legitimate needs did arrive in the poor Jerusalem church, believers at other churches were wealthy enough to give freely of the bounty God had given them, after having already set aside enough to take care of their familial obligations.
In that situation, as in others, Paul’s model of self-reliance took after Jesus’ independent way of caring for His needs. We show that we are made after God’s image by using liberty and creativity to provide for ourselves and our families, including aged parents (Mark 7:9-15; 1 Timothy 5:8). Sometimes tragedies can happen, but to be a long-term dependent beggar is to go against the identity of man created in the image of God. Jesus’ disciples were not to stand around begging but to leave a town when inhabitants did not immediately recognize the importance of their work by supporting it spiritually and physically.
As de Bruijne noted, over and over again the Bible shows that there is no genuine giving without self-reliance, based upon private property, at the disposal of the giver, earned by work, investment, or inheritance (a recognition of the work of forefathers).
APPLYING THIS THINKING to international relief and development activities is crucial. The New Testament does not propose redistribution of wealth and forced “equality” for all. Instead, the emphasis is on independence from enslaving powers, spiritual or physical. God gives human beings, organized in families, the commission to “till the earth” and to subdue it. When we follow that command, we generally have the plenty that allows us to tide over our neighbors next door or around the world until they can get back on their feet. But those who are poor have to want to get on their feet, and those who are blessed have to be willing to go throughout the world to make disciples of all nations.
Marvin is editor in chief of WORLD and dean of World Journalism Institute. He joined WORLD in 1992 and has also been a university professor and provost. He has written more than 20 books, including Reforming Journalism. Marvin resides with his wife, Susan, in Austin, Texas. Follow him on Twitter @MarvinOlasky.