True Christians don’t ignore God’s priority for the poor

True Christians don't ignore God's priority for the poor

“It is very hard to read the Bible and ignore God’s heart for the poor and the vulnerable,” an evangelical leader reminded more than fifty prominent evangelicals gathered recently at Wheaton College in Chicago.

The group met to discuss the crisis in evangelicalism, a crisis also seen across the rest of Christianity in the United States: the church has become too tied to the Republican Party and in particular the radical right and its agenda. A colonized Christianity has spread a fake news Gospel that betrays the good news of Jesus Christ. One result is that young people, recognizing hypocrisy, are fleeing the church in droves.

My first post in this series of five discussed some of the reasons for this, and highlighted the analysis given by Mark Labberton, president of Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, California. The other posts highlight his discussion of what he called “the top four arenas in which this violation of spiritual and moral character has shown itself.” While there is much more that can be said about this crisis, Labberton’s talk was remarkable not only for cutting straight to his points, but for essentially reading the riot act in a kind voice. The second post focused on the issue of power; the third on the issue of racism; and the fourth on the issue of nationalism. This final post will focus on the issue of economic justice. Here’s what Labberton said:

It is very hard to read the Bible and ignore God’s heart for the poor and the vulnerable.  Built into the faithfulness to which Israel is called are boundaries on personal wealth, stewardship for the common good, and relief and provision for the poor, the alien, and the widow. Long before free market capitalism had developed, the God of Israel, the God revealed in Jesus Christ, was shown to bend toward mercy, with justice for the poor. It was one of Israel’s most distinctive priorities and practices.

The life of Jesus underscores these themes throughout his public ministry. The dangers of power and greed, stoked by the biases of money and wealth, distort our lives.  The faithfulness of Christians in our economic and social vision and practice are to be reflective of God who reorders all these to the purposes of the kingdom. The social practices of the church are to demonstrate the presence of God as light and salt in an otherwise dark and savorless world.

American evangelicals have often divided over the significance of life this side of eternity, sometimes understanding the eschaton in ways that marginalize the significance of economics or race.  Yet the gracious magnanimity of God’s heart should be visible by the same magnanimity and grace we taste at the shared table and that is demonstrated toward our neighbor.

When white evangelicals in prominent and wealthy places speak about what is fair and beneficial for society, but then pass laws and tax changes that create more national indebtedness and elevate the top 1% even higher—while cutting services and provisions for children, the disabled, and the poor that are castigated as disgusting “entitlements”—one has to ask how this is reconciled with being followers of Jesus.  The complexities of social support for the vulnerable in our society certainly can and should be debated, but when the instigators of change are serving elite interests and disregarding the 99%, it is very hard to recognize the influence of the gospel narrative on compassion, let alone justice.

This is a topic that Pope Francis, like others before him, has repeatedly addressed. Early in The Joy of the Gospel, he states clearly:

Just as the commandment “Thou shalt not kill” sets a clear limit in order to safeguard the value of human life, today we also have to say “thou shalt not” to an economy of exclusion and inequality. Such an economy kills. How can it be that it is not a news item when an elderly homeless person dies of exposure, but it is news when the stock market loses two points? This is a case of exclusion. Can we continue to stand by when food is thrown away while people are starving? This is a case of inequality. Today everything comes under the laws of competition and the survival of the fittest, where the powerful feed upon the powerless. As a consequence, masses of people find themselves excluded and marginalized: without work, without possibilities, without any means of escape.

Human beings are themselves considered consumer goods to be used and then discarded. We have created a “throw away” culture which is now spreading. It is no longer simply about exploitation and oppression, but something new. Exclusion ultimately has to do with what it means to be a part of the society in which we live; those excluded are no longer society’s underside or its fringes or its disenfranchised – they are no longer even a part of it. The excluded are not the “exploited” but the outcast, the “leftovers”.

Francis does not hesitate to take on the prevailing economic system:

In this context, some people continue to defend trickle-down theories which assume that economic growth, encouraged by a free market, will inevitably succeed in bringing about greater justice and inclusiveness in the world. This opinion, which has never been confirmed by the facts, expresses a crude and naïve trust in the goodness of those wielding economic power and in the sacralized workings of the prevailing economic system. Meanwhile, the excluded are still waiting. To sustain a lifestyle which excludes others, or to sustain enthusiasm for that selfish ideal, a globalization of indifference has developed. Almost without being aware of it, we end up being incapable of feeling compassion at the outcry of the poor, weeping for other people’s pain, and feeling a need to help them, as though all this were someone else’s responsibility and not our own. The culture of prosperity deadens us; we are thrilled if the market offers us something new to purchase. In the meantime all those lives stunted for lack of opportunity seem a mere spectacle; they fail to move us.

There is great resistance among Americans, even Christian Americans, to face the difficult truths about our culture of indifference. It is a culture living in denial, and therefore a culture living without hope. Only by returning to the generous spirit of Jesus will Christians be able to contribute to a culture of life. Our current refusal to face the reality of the growing storm of destruction being unleashed by our dominant lifestyle will prove devastating to the grandchildren of today and all living things. It is anti-life and anti-Gospel. It is evil, disguised as the American Dream.

About the author

David Backes

I have always been drawn to where the wild things are: the natural world around me, and the wilderness within. As a writer, speaker, and university professor, I have for decades focused on this combination of nature and the human spirit. In recent years, my spiritual journey has added another lens: social, environmental and intergenerational justice. Put it all together and you’ve got The Earth Keeper, a blog of integral ecology and the prophetic imagination. The Earth Keeper may at times make you feel hopeful or inspired; it may make you feel uncomfortable or defensive or even angry. I hope it often will be challenging, and always interesting.

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