Was the War on Poverty Too Ambitious (Part II) A caution with how we apply the Bible to America’s War on Poverty
“There need be no poor among you.” (Duet. 15:4 ) God gave ancient Israel this ideal goal when it came to addressing the problem of poverty. At first glance it might seem as if God expected his people to eventually make poverty history through their faithful obedience. But a few verses later, there lies a transition from the future ideal to the present reality. “If anyone is poor among your fellow Israelites…..Do not be hardhearted or tight-fisted towards them.” (Duet. 15:7) Later, in the same passage, an even greater assertion: “There will always be poor people in the land. Therefore I command you to be openhanded toward your fellow Israelites who are poor and needy in the land.” (Duet.15:11) Interestingly, within the tiny theocratic state of ancient Israel where its leaders could levy control through the several hundreds of rules and regulations from the Mosaic law, there remained a realism that poverty was never going to be history. Rather, the realism that poverty will always exist became the occasion for the people of Israel to embrace a generous lifestyle towards the poor and needy.
The question arises, How do these scriptures apply to us today? Especially since these commands were given to ancient Israel—-a theocratic state, whereas America is completely different as a republic of represented democracy. Therefore, It would be wise to heed Biblical scholar Craig Blomberg’s reminder that “the closer the situation in any given portion of our contemporary world corresponds to the features—in this case the socio-economic features—of the world behind any given biblical instructions, the more straightforward one can transfer the principles of those texts in our modern age. The less the correspondence, the higher one has to move up the ladder of abstraction to look for broader principles that may transcend the uniqueness of specific situations.”
Sadly, many Christians and non-Christians alike do the exact opposite. Instead of looking for broader principles, they twist the Bible to reinforce their personal, social, and political agendas and narrow their interpretation of Bible verses on the issue of poverty. If I had a dollar for every conservative Christian that I’ve heard carelessly exploit Jesus’ comment “that the poor you will have always” (which is a paraphrase from Duet. 15:11) to justify their lack of compassion and responsibility towards the poor, I’d have enough money to buy a iPad. Ironically, these Christians seem to have more in common with “the survival of the fittest” mentality of social Darwinists than Jesus. At the same time, I’ve seen several progressives project their liberal ideology onto the Bible, believing, for instance, that the Sheep and the Goats parable describing the last judgement (Matt. 25:31-46) is an indictment against conservatives because they don’t embrace a large-scale government intervention strategy to help the poor. Not acknowledging that many conservatives, in their involvement and sacrificial giving through churches and non-profits, are actually compassionate people towards the poor and needy, but rather don’t possess faith in the government as do many progressives to make things better for the poor.
Since the poor and oppressed will always be among us, God’s people must always remain generous and compassionate people towards the poor and oppressed. That is the broader principle from Duet. 15. and should not surprise us, especially since our world is fallen and that we worship a God who has a special concern for the poor. So maybe we should change our poverty language from “eradication” and “making poverty history” to “alleviation” and “reduction.” Alleviating and reducing poverty is a much more realistic goal because it takes account of the complex, multi-faceted nature of poverty that comes from the truth that we live in a fallen, sin-filled world. A world that will never experience the complete utopian society that we all yearn for until Jesus comes back to this earth, cleanses it of all injustice and unrighteousness and sets everything right as a new earth (Rev. 21) In the meantime, as a follower of Jesus, I am to proclaim the gospel to everyone (Mark 16:15), and love God and love my neighbor as myself (Luke 10:25-37), part of which is to understand and live out what it means to care about justice for the poor (Prov. 29:7).