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Democrats must not get into the business of throwing stones, but neither should we allow Republicans to continue to portray us as moral relativists. We must approach moral conversations with humility “for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Rom. 3:23), but we should not shy away from naming an action sinful when the Bible unambiguously declares it to be so. Nowhere is this biblical pronouncement clearer than on the issue of materialism and seeking material gain at the expense of the poor.
God’s command to his people that might have special relevance to the various Republican governors who in their attempt to position themselves to run for President in 2012 are turning down federal aid for the unemployed in their states: “If one of your countrymen becomes poor and is unable to support himself among you, help him as you would an alien or a temporary resident so he can continue to live among you…you must not lend him money at interest or sell him food at a profit” (Leviticus 25: 35-38). This is also an example of why it is always important to understand the historical context of the text…they treated aliens a lot better a few thousand years ago than we do today in this country…God would be forced to use a different example to make this point today.
Or perhaps Isaiah’s condemnation of the government leaders of his day might be more easily understood and more directly relevant to our current debates about safety nets and social service programs. It is almost as if this prophet had been reading the Republican budget amendments: “Ah, you who make iniquitous decrees, who write oppressive statutes, to turn aside the needy from justice and to rob the poor of their right, that widows may be your spoil, and that you may make the orphans your prey!” (Isaiah 10:1)
When the early Church started favoring the rich over the poor, they were firmly rebuked: “My brothers, as believers in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ, don’t show favoritism. 2Suppose a man comes into your meeting wearing a gold ring and fine clothes, and a poor man in shabby clothes also comes in. 3If you show special attention to the man wearing fine clothes and say, “Here’s a good seat for you,” but say to the poor man, “You stand there” or “Sit on the floor by my feet,” 4have you not discriminated among yourselves and become judges with evil thoughts? 5Listen, my dear brothers: Has not God chosen those who are poor in the eyes of the world to be rich in faith and to inherit the kingdom he promised those who love him? 6But you have insulted the poor” (James 2:1-6).
“As surely as I live, declares the Sovereign Lord, your sister Sodom [Genesis 19] and her daughters never did what you and your daughters have done. 49 ‘Now this was the sin of your sister Sodom: She and her daughters were arrogant, overfed and unconcerned; they did not help the poor and needy [notice that this isn’t the sin we normally hear the religious right cite as the reason God destroyed Sodom and Gomorrah, even though this is the only place in the Bible where Sodom’s sin is explicitly defined–on this topic, see also the context for Isaiah’s identifying the acts of Israel with those of Sodom (Is 1:9-17; 3:9-15)]. 50They were haughty and did detestable things before me. Therefore I did away with them as you have seen” (the prophet Ezekiel speaking to the nation of Israel, Ezekiel 16:48-50).
As we unearth more and more information about shady deals and patronage in the federal government’s response to Hurricane Katrina, the words of Amos ring especially true: “For I know how many are your transgressions, and how great are your sins-you who afflict the righteous, who take a bribe, and push aside the needy in the gate” (Amos 5:12-13).
The debate on budget cuts, minimum wage, Medicaid, tax cuts, and most recently, unemployment insurance might benefit from the lesson Nathan tried to teach King David with the following story (2 Sam 12:1-7): “There were two men in a certain town, one rich and the other poor. The rich man had a very large number of sheep and cattle, but the poor man had nothing except one little ewe lamb. Now a traveler came to the rich man, but the rich man refrained from taking one of his own sheep to prepare a meal for the traveler who had come to him. Instead, he took the ewe lamb that belonged to the poor man and prepared it for the one who had come to him.” When David heard this story, he burned with anger against the rich man and said to Nathan, “As surely as the LORD lives, the man who did this deserves to die! He must pay for that lamb four times over, because he did such a thing and had no pity.” And Nathan said…YOU are that man.” Nathan was in fact using this story as a parable to indict David who, already having several wives, committed adultery with the wife of his general Uriah and then arranged to have Uriah killed in battle. I have heard folks on the Right argue that this story is about sexual purity and has no application to economic justice. But the reason Nathan could make the point about adultery was that the economic justice point was a complete given and never would have been argued! Thus, the judgment David pronounces against the rich man is still a valid example of how the wealthy should treat the poor. Note that Nathan is addressing David in his role as king; thus what he did to the “poor man” is applicable to the behavior of leaders in their public capacity, not merely their private charity…and complete accepted by David as being the case before he comes to understand this is also a deeper indictment against his sexual behavior.
“Thus says the Lord: For three transgressions of Israel and for four, I will not revoke the punishment; because they sell the righteous for silver, and the needy for a pair of sandals-they who trample the head of the poor into the dust of the earth and push the afflicted out of the way” (Amos 2:6-8).
“Should you not know justice?-you who hate the good and love the evil, who tear the skin off my people, and the flesh off their bones; who eat the flesh of my people, flay their skin off, break their bones in pieces, and chop them up like meat in a kettle, like flesh in a cauldron” (Micah 3:1-4). Lest readers dismiss this passage for lack of modern relevance, the leaders of Israel did not cook their poor either. But both then and now, those in power preyed upon the poor, amassing vast profits by denying such things as a living wage and appropriate housing to the poor who are their brothers and sisters and are children of God.
Although, some will argue that if we give more wealth to individual Christians, they will do more charity work, clearly that is not the approach called for in the Bible. But that aside, we should respond to those arguments by asking how many people gave all of their tax refund check to a charity. Honestly? And particularly the wealthy? Indeed, the Republican rhetoric to support tax cuts completely undermines any idea that the money will be freed up to help the poor–for Republicans, the tax cuts boost the economy by being reinvested (usually as capital), not by being bestowed upon the poor as private charity. Simply put, starving the social services is starving the poor. Cutting social services is the policy option railed against by all the prophets, and it is thoroughly unbiblical.
Other Passages:; Isaiah 3:15, 14:30-32, 26:6; Jeremiah 2:34, 20:13, 22:16, 39:10; Proverbs 31:20, 14:20; Ezekiel 18:12, 22:29; Amos 4:1, 8:4-6; Job 29:16, 31:19; Luke 6:24-26. Specifically exploiting the poor through the legal system: Isaiah 10:2, 11:4, 32:7; Jeremiah 5:28, 22:26; Amos 5:11-12; Proverbs 31:9.
The “Primer on Scripture and the Budget for 2009” sections are titled:
Wealth, Materialism, and the Bible’s View of an “Ownership Society”
Countering the Right’s Pharisaical Approach to Moral Legalism
Concluding Thoughts: Applying Scripture in a Pluralistic Society