Two prominent ministers make a Christian case for government intervention in economic inequality.
By Rev. Dr. William J. Barber II and Rev. Dr. Liz Theoharis
July 26, 2017
As President Donald Trump attempts to repeal the Affordable Care Act, proposes a budget that is the largest transfer of wealth from the poor to the rich since the end of the Civil War, and denies the rights of immigrants and religious minorities, a group of evangelical leaders was photographed laying hands on him. When the Rev. Barber wrote an open letter to the clergy involved, his critique of “praying” for someone who is “preying” on the poor struck a nerve. One response reads:
I totally reject the idea that some of the folks have promoted that unless you believe in big government redistribution of money from one group of people to another that somehow you are not following the Gospel of Jesus Christ. That is just absurd. There is no teaching in Christ’s ministry in which He advocates for government to care for the poor. Every message in His ministry is a call to individual Christians and, by implication, churches, to do that.
We want to refute the statement that there are not clear teachings on the responsibility of society to pass policies that end poverty. As preachers and biblical scholars, it is imperative that we lean on the Bible and teach and preach to all what it really says about the poor, economic justice, and what believers are required to do to obey God. As people committed to justice and love, we must stand on the shoulders of those who have come before us in the struggle for equality and freedom to learn and affirm that ending poverty and systemic racism is possible.
Indeed, the Bible does not offer individual responses or solutions to society’s problems, but instead offers social responses and solutions. The books of Deuteronomy and Leviticus, written for leaders in society, discuss the policies and programs they are commanded to put in place to follow the will of God on caring for the stranger, on releasing captives, on providing for the poor. In fact, the whole of the Bible—starting with Genesis and ending in Revelation—has the arc of justice. Anti-poverty programs run through it.
This arc starts with the exodus and manna, which is most likely a response to Joseph and the Pharaoh’s setting up a system where a few religious and political leaders amassed great wealth at the expense of the people, as God’s plan is for society to be organized around meeting the needs of the people. It runs through Deuteronomy and the legal codes, which describe how society and our political and religious leaders are supposed to release slaves, forgive debts, pay people what they deserve, and distribute funds to the needy. It then continues through the prophets who insist that the way to love and honor God is to promote programs that uplift the poor and marginalized, and who decry those with religious and political power who cloak oppression in religious terms and heretical theology.
Finally, through the life and ministry of our Lord Jesus Christ, we follow a Savior who travels across the land preaching liberation, setting up free health clinics and compelling society to live out the jubilee codes and sabbath prescriptions. Even the Apostle Paul, in four of his letters, sets up the collection for the poor of Jerusalem and insists that the role of society isn’t to impoverish the poor with taxes while the rich get tax breaks, but that community prosperity rests on a radical redistribution of wealth from the top to the bottom. Indeed, there is nothing more theologically significant in the epistles than the exhortation to care for the poor, to resist taxes that impoverish the poor, and to promote programs that uplift the poor. The Bible teaches us that releasing slaves, forgiving debts, paying people a living wage, and offering funds to those who need it—knowing that they will never pay those debts back—is how we create a prosperous society for all.
Therefore, in a time when 32 million Americans are being cut off of health care, it is important to decry the hypocrisy of our religious and political authorities, and to remind ourselves that God requires justice and denounces those who oppress the poor. We can turn to Matthew 23 for further instruction on this; Jesus exhorts that there were so-called moral leaders in his day who, instead of standing for justice and inclusion, acted as opponents of the poor, opponents of Jesus, and opponents of early Christianity. Jesus accused the political and religious authorities of his day, who in fact practiced the same religion as he did, for tying up heavy burdens for others to carry, for worshiping power and wealth, and for crossing land and sea to convert one person while ignoring the demands of justice, mercy, and faithfulness at home. Jesus condemned the hypocritical religious leaders of his day for holding gold and religious temples sacred rather than God, who made gold and those religious sites sacred and valuable in the first place.
The critique resonates with a comment from a mom organizing against the effects of the BP oil spill in the Gulf Coast: “You can’t eat gold, you can’t eat oil. Why then do we worship it and try to get so much of it?” It resonates with the ongoing water crisis in Flint, Michigan, as well. The families of Flint are still struggling with the poisoning of their water and their whole bodies and their children’s bodies: their whole community. They were poisoned for years, while the General Motors plant got switched back to clean water after just months, complaining that the Flint water was corroding their engine parts. Poor moms there are saying: “What good is it if you can go to a store and get lead-free paint, and go to a gas station and buy lead-free gas, but you can’t go home and get lead-free water?” We must stop worshiping gold and profit and power, and start worshiping—and therefore practicing—the justice, mercy, and faithfulness of God.
It is important to conclude with a lesson from history: that poverty isn’t eternal or inevitable, and that programs to reduce poverty have been and still are effective. The Russell Sage Foundation has published Legacies of the War on Poverty, which demonstrates that poverty and racial discrimination would likely have been much greater today if the War on Poverty had not been launched. It documents how the War on Poverty reduced the school-funding gap between poorer and richer states, prompted Southern school districts to desegregate, contributed to a decline in elderly and childhood poverty, reduced infant mortality, and uplifted the lives of many. The solutions to the crisis of poverty exist. They resonate with what the Bible teaches us about the moral necessity to fight poverty.
We must do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with God. We must help bring in God’s reign of economic justice and prosperity for all. We must start by ending poverty and systemic racism for everyone. It can be done, it has been done already, and we must do it now. The lives of millions of God’s children depend on it.
Read in The Nation