Religion

The Bible, Social Justice and the Poor

“Social justice” was traditionally the rallying cry of the politically Left and the theologically liberal. But in recent years it has been increasingly taken up by evangelical, conservative and Bible-believing Christians; and it is increasingly drawing these Christians into the folds of left-wing politics and liberal theology.

The popularity of social justice among Christians has soared in the past few decades largely because the political parties of the Left have sought to use it to counter the concerns and influence of conservative Christians on “moral” issues such as abortion, pornography, prostitution and homosexuality. Indeed, some evangelicals were persuaded to switch allegiance to the Labor Party in the 2007 federal election primarily on the grounds of Kevin Rudd’s arguments that social justice ought to be more important to Christians than personal morality.

Two quotations from two champions of social justice will help to focus our understanding of what the social justice position involves. The first is from Jim Wallis, a social justice campaigner and author in the United States. The second is from Kevin Rudd, the former Prime Minister of Australia.

In an interview about his book God’s Politics: Why the Right Gets It Wrong and the Left Doesn’t Get It, Jim Wallis commented:

The Right is comfortable with the language of religion, values, God talk. So much so that they sometimes claim to own that territory. Or own God. But then they narrow everything down to one or two issues: abortion and gay marriage.

I am an evangelical Christian, and I can’t ignore thousands of verses in the Bible on [another] subject, which is poverty. I say at every stop, “Fighting poverty’s a moral value, too.”

Kevin Rudd made similar statements in his essay “Faith and Politics” (2006). Midway through the essay he mentions and mocks four ways that modern Christians supposedly engage in politics. The second is:

Vote for me because I’m Christian, and because I have a defined set of views on a narrowly defined set of questions concerning sexual morality. Regrettably, this model has an increasing number of supporters within the broader Christian community. Such supporters tend to read down, rather than read up, the ethical teachings of the New Testament, producing a narrow tick-the-box approach to passing a so-called Christian morals test. These tests tend to emphasise questions of sexuality and sexual behaviour. I see very little evidence that this pre-occupation with sexual morality is consistent with the spirit and content of the Gospels.

Wallis and Rudd share a “social justice” or “social gospel” or “Christian socialist” worldview. From their comments quoted above, it is evident that both men consider “social” issues such as poverty to be far more important than “personal” issues such as abortion and homosexuality. Indeed, they seem quite reluctant to credit matters of sexual morality with any importance at all. And they are peeved by Christians who do attribute importance to such issues. These narrow- and feeble-minded Christians of “the religious Right”, they would have us believe, are gagging at gnats while scoffing down camels.

I do not propose to deal here with the false notions that poverty can be separated from sexual morality, or that moral issues are relatively unimportant, or that a concern for them precludes a concern for poverty and the poor. My focus is on those aspects of the biblical teaching about poverty that Christian advocates of social justice ignore, aspects that balance the biblical view and counterbalance, if not countermand, the social justice view.

While advocates of social justice claim to be aware of “thousands of verses” in the Bible on poverty, they are selective about the verses they quote. They make no mention, for example, of the many Bible verses that lay the blame for poverty at the feet of the poor.

And yes, the Bible does indeed teach that, in some circumstances, the poor are responsible for their own poverty. In this essay, I want to draw attention to this neglected biblical teaching about poverty and the poor.

But note at the outset that I have said “in some circumstances” the poor, according to the Bible, are to blame for their plight. I am well aware that the Bible envisages other circumstances in which the poor are poor through no fault of their own. And I am well aware that the Bible defends—and exhorts the righteous to defend—such people. There is no need for thousands of verses to establish this fact. One will do: “Whoever oppresses a poor man insults his Maker, but he who is generous to the needy honours him” (Proverbs 14:31).

I do not claim that the passages I am about to quote represent the sum total of the Bible’s teaching about poverty and the poor. I merely claim that they represent an important aspect of the Bible’s teaching, an aspect that social justice advocates gloss over. And by evading this teaching, they distort the biblical position on the origin of poverty, the solution to poverty, and the nature of the poor.

The Bible plainly and emphatically teaches that some instances of poverty are caused by the behaviour of the impoverished people concerned. For example:

People can bring poverty on themselves by being lazy: “A slack hand causes poverty, but the hand of the diligent makes rich” (Proverbs 10:4). This statement is notable for its identification of the cause not only of poverty, but also of wealth. Social justice advocates would have us believe that, in the main, the poor are poor because they are exploited by the rich and the rich are rich because they exploit the poor. Sometimes, no doubt, this is true. But the Bible will not allow that it is the whole truth.

There are repeated warnings in Proverbs about the link between laziness and poverty. Here are a few: “The sluggard does not plough in the autumn; he will seek at harvest and have nothing” (Proverbs 20:4). “Love not sleep, lest you come to poverty; open your eyes, and you will have plenty of bread” (Proverbs 20:13). “The desire of the sluggard kills him, for his hands refuse to labour” (Proverbs 21:25). “A little sleep, a little slumber, a little folding of the hands to rest, and poverty will come upon you like a robber, and want like an armed man” (Proverbs 24:33–34; cf 6:6–11 and 19:15).

People can bring poverty on themselves by pursuing a life of pleasure: “Whoever loves pleasure will be a poor man; he who loves wine and oil will not be rich” (Proverbs 21:17).

People can bring poverty on themselves through poor stewardship of their resources, through extravagance and wastefulness: “Precious treasure and oil are in a wise man’s dwelling, but a foolish man devours it” (Proverbs 21:20).

People can bring poverty on themselves by unwise generosity and misguided goodwill: “Be not one of those who give pledges, who put up security for debts. If you have nothing with which to pay, why should your bed be taken from under you?” (Proverbs 22:26–27; cf 6:1–5)

People can bring poverty on themselves by refusing to follow wise counsel, but instead defiantly doing as they please: “Poverty and disgrace come to him who ignores instruction, but whoever heeds reproof is honoured” (Proverbs 13:18).

People can bring poverty on themselves through greed, devising or joining rash schemes to get rich: “A faithful man will abound with blessings, but whoever hastens to be rich will not go unpunished” (Proverbs 28:20; cf 28:22). “The plans of the diligent lead surely to abundance, but everyone who is hasty comes only to poverty” (Proverbs 21:5).

People can bring poverty on themselves by spending their time on useless pastimes: “Whoever works his land will have plenty of bread, but he who follows worthless pursuits will have plenty of poverty” (Proverbs 28:19; cf 12:11).

People can bring poverty on themselves by keeping bad company: “Be not among drunkards or among gluttonous eaters of meat, for the drunkard and the glutton will come to poverty, and slumber will clothe them with rags” (Proverbs 23:20–21).

People can bring poverty on themselves by engaging in sexual immorality: “these commands are a lamp … keeping you from the immoral woman … Do not lust in your heart after her beauty or let her captivate you with her eyes, for the prostitute reduces you to a loaf of bread, and the adulteress preys upon your very life” (Proverbs 6:20–26; cf 5:4–14).

According to the Bible, then, the poor are sometimes poor because of their own wrong choices and actions. Hedonism, extravagance, foolishness, drunkenness, gluttony, sexual immorality, laziness, bad company—these are causes of poverty that the advocates of social justice never mention. And these are causes of poverty that, in the first instance, no one but the poor themselves can do anything about. For if it is true that poverty is sometimes caused by the moral failings of the poor, then it is also true that the solution to those instances of poverty is not primarily institutional and social but personal and moral. The solution has to do with the poor taking personal responsibility for their actions and embarking upon personal reform. This is something that advocates of social justice are either unable to understand or unwilling to acknowledge.

One of the unforeseen results of the gospel revivals in England and Wales in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries was a general increase in prosperity and wellbeing in the lives of those who were converted. For spiritual conversion resulted in moral reformation, which in turn resulted in the abandonment of behaviours that produce poverty. For example, the men who became Christians gave up drinking alcohol and that alone meant more money was available for the needs of their families. But other benefits flowed from their abstinence. The end of drinking meant an end to drunkenness, which in turn put an end to brawling and to hangovers, which in turn put an end to injury and days missed at work, which in turn put more money into the pockets of the men and their families. And so on.

The Bible has other things to say about poverty and the poor that are in conflict with much socialist and social justice thinking. For example, it instructs us not to show favouritism to the poor in matters of justice: “You shall not fall in with the many to do evil … nor shall you be partial to a poor man in his lawsuit” (Exodus 23:2–3). Thanks to the influence of the social justice movement, many people in the West are highly prejudiced in favour of the poor (and those deemed to be poor), and will make any excuse for them and express any demand on their behalf. But fair-minded people should not “fall in with the many” in this regard. Again, the Bible instructs: “You shall not be partial in judgment. You shall hear the small and the great alike. You shall not be intimidated by anyone, for the judgment is God’s” (Deuteronomy 1:17). And yet again: “You shall do no injustice in court. You shall not be partial to the poor or defer to the great, but in righteousness shall you judge your neighbour” (Leviticus 19:15). Thankfully, most people in our society believe it is wrong to favour the rich; but, sadly, few people believe it is wrong to favour the poor. However, the Bible insists that it is unjust to side with a man simply because he is poor or to side against a man simply because he is rich.

The Bible also notes that the poor can themselves be oppressors of the poor: “A poor man who oppresses the poor is a beating rain that leaves no food” (Proverbs 28:3).

Albeit tangentially, Jesus affirms this truth in his parable about forgiveness, in which he compares the kingdom of heaven “to a king who wished to settle accounts with his servants”. The king forgave the debt of a servant who owed the enormous sum of 10,000 talents. “But when that same servant went out, he found one of his fellow servants who owed him a hundred denarii, and seizing him, he began to choke him, saying, ‘Pay what you owe.’” When this second servant could not pay, the first servant “put him in prison until he should pay the debt” (Matthew 18:23–35). Given the chance, the poor sometimes oppress their fellow poor. Such is the fallen nature of man—not the fallen nature of rich men only, but of poor men, too.

Jesus’s parable in Matthew 18 alerts us to several important truths about the rich, the poor and the payment of debts.

First, wealth and exploitation are not necessarily linked. The rich are not, simply because they are rich, automatically wicked and oppressive. Wealth and power can be, and often are, justly obtained and justly exercised. Certainly, Jesus thinks highly enough of the rich and powerful king to liken him and his actions to “the kingdom of heaven”.

Second, the rich have a right to receive back the money that they lend, as do the poor. The king did no wrong when he decided to settle his accounts with the servant. The servant had borrowed the king’s money and he was required to pay it back. The repayment of debt is a matter of justice—justice for the one who owns the money and has lent it on agreed terms.

Third, when the rich forgive debt, it is not an example of social justice. It is, in fact, an example of social mercy. When the king forgave the servant his debt, he was not being just, he was being merciful. For mercy’s sake, he gave up his just claim and freed the servant of his debt. The servant who was unable to repay his debt was the recipient not of justice but of mercy. Justice is about getting what we deserve. Mercy, on the other hand, is about not getting what we deserve.

Fourth, the behaviour of the first servant towards the second servant reveals that the poor are at heart no different from the rich. The poor are not nobler than the rich. In the main, the poor want the same thing as the rich—riches! They are as likely (or unlikely) to oppress someone beneath them as they are likely (or unlikely) to be oppressed by someone above them. Essentially, they do not have less inclination but less opportunity to engage in certain types of evil.

The passages of scripture cited above present a very different picture of poverty and the poor from the one advocates of social justice present. In conjunction with other teachings on the subject, the Bible teaches us that sometimes the blame for poverty rests with the poor themselves. Sometimes people are responsible for their own poverty because of their hedonism or imprudence or foolishness or drunkenness or gluttony or bad company or sexual immorality or laziness. And sometimes the poor are poor because of their unjust or unmerciful behaviour towards one another. The poor should not be viewed always and only as innocent victims of circumstance and oppression.

Of course, people can be poor—and many are poor—through no fault of their own. There are many implicit and explicit acknowledgments of this in the Bible. People can be poor because they are born into poor circumstances and lack the opportunity to change those circumstances. They can be poor because of natural disasters or ill health or injury. They can be poor because they do not have and cannot get employment or because they have never had the opportunity to obtain an education. And, of course, they can be poor because they have been robbed or defrauded or suffered some injustice. Some of these causes of poverty are nobody’s fault, while some of them are other people’s fault.

However, advocates of social justice tend to gloss over the causes of poverty that are nobody’s fault, and they likewise tend to gloss over the causes of poverty that are the poor person’s fault. Instead, they focus on the causes of poverty that are (or that they believe are) the fault of the rich and powerful. In the process, they give the impression that the poor are poor always and only because they have been exploited and oppressed. (And the rich, powerful exploiters are generally supposed to be white, Western persons, corporations and nations. Even when a black dictator impoverishes and terrorises his own black people in Africa, advocates of social justice will manage to find a white capitalist imperialist under the bed somewhere.) Furthermore, they manage to imply that anyone in the West (apart from themselves) who is not living in poverty is somehow implicated in the plight of those who are. The Bible does not support such notions of collective guilt and class warfare.

None of this is an argument against helping the poor—even the poor who are poor by their own foolishness or wickedness. It is an argument against making the well-off feel that they have somehow wronged the poor simply by being well-off. It is an argument against making guilt the basis for helping the poor. It is an argument against encouraging the poor to have a sense of entitlement to the wealth of those who are not poor. It is an argument against encouraging the poor to feel that when they are helped they have merely got what they are owed. It is an argument against encouraging ingratitude and envy in the poor and guilt and shame in the not-poor. It is an argument against the condescending self-righteous notion that those in the West who do help the poor do so only because they have grudgingly faced up to their collective guilt and belatedly acquiesced to the demands of “social justice”. It is an argument against confusing justice with mercy and thereby demanding as a right what should be entreated as a favour.

People who are well off (which means most people in the West) should help the poor. But they should do so from generosity, not guilt. They should do so not because justice demands it but because mercy implores it. In short, they should do so not because of, but in spite of, the spurious dogmas and demands of “social justice”.

Andrew Lansdown’s latest poetry collection, Abundance: New and Selected Poems, has been shortlisted for the 2021 Australian Christian Book of the Year Award. “Vikings”, his tribute to the late Hal Colebatch, appears on page 49 of this issue

13 comments
  • davyddwilliams

    Nowhere does the Bible refer to “social justice”; what Jesus said is that “You always have the poor with you” (Mark 14:7). Social justice is an Orwellian term that is used to conceal the true intentions of those hungry for power and influence. It is little wonder that such a person as Kevin Rudd could parrot the jargon to create for himself – and a fawning media – the impression that he was a humanitarian concerned for the less fortunate.
    Recalling the egregious Rudd calls to mind another Orwellianism; “As with the Christian religion, the worst advertisement for Socialism is its adherents”.
    Kevin fits the bill on both counts!

  • Gary Furnell

    Great piece, Andrew. The social justice agenda has distracted and enervated the Church, and at the same time turned Christ’s teaching upside down: now, we supposedly free truth and fairness (via our activism) as if truth and justice were poor powerless beggars that need our august help if they are to survive. The less palatable reality is that we are the poor ragged beggars who need truth and justice purifying our own hearts to strengthen us and set us free from our own selfishness, sloth and sense of entitlement. Kierkegaard saw this in the 1840s in Purity of Heart is to Will One Thing, and Works of Love.
    Kierkegaard also saw that the vice of envy was lurking unnoticed behind many of the calls for social equality.
    The book of Proverbs: the breakfast of champions!

  • STD

    Yes most certainly, the very thing that lays at the heart of the Bible and the mission of Jesus specifically, is opening people’s eyes to their spiritual poverty – Bartimaeus and Doubting Thomas and the story of the Good Samaritan bring this to life.

    The likes of Kevin Rudd and the rest of the self serving evangelists should keep in mind that the average person in the West ,at least ,live materially wealthier lives than the likes of King Solomon and for that matter the Pharaohs of Egypt ever did. All having access to running water, motor vehicles, washing machines and dryers , reverse cycle air conditioning as well , as comfortable beds and can avail themselves of almost everything, to the point of which the human body can be consumed by consumption itself.
    The classic example being Aboriginal rates of obesity for example- by another name ,known as welfare gluttony ,socialists.

  • Daffy

    A couple of comments: Rudd seems to confuse (as do many) Christian faith with some sort of cute moralism. A ‘high’ morality might be an outworking of Christian faith, but the ‘cute moralists’ seem to forget the words of scripture: ‘all your righteousness is as filthy rags’. No cute moralism there!
    .
    Social justice is a phrase that obliterates the individual, the only locus of justice, in favour of the group, usually defined tendentiously to suit a political agenda, or for political posturing.
    .
    Once the group is favoured qua the group, the individual is oppressed. Thanks Karl (Marx, of course).
    Thomas Sowell has written and spoken much on the perverse outcomes of ‘social justice’ programs that confine the poor to their poverty. That is the politically expedient perverse outcome….or maybe not perverse. It sacrifices the individual for the political purposes of the oligarchs promoting it.

  • andrew2

    I do think you are misusing Jesus’ parables about wealth. His teachings must be always seen the the context of his Kingdom ie. Jesus is not trying to say anything about earthly wealth because you can’t take that with you to Heaven. Likewise, forgiveness of debts is well understood in the spiritual context of hatred of others and holding grudges.
    I agree that the Jesuits and other social justice fanatics get it wrong, because they frame the solutions as systematic ones and take the responsibility off the individual to help others. If you don’t help the poor directly, then who is going to? The Church? The Government? It’s passing the buck while trying to convince yourself that you have actually done something to help others. I’m not sure God will see it like that. Using social media to virtue signal may not be God’s idea of helping. That should make us all tremble. Not just the rich.

  • lroyjh

    I know nothing of art and little more of religion other than people have a right to their religious view. Having said that, for me the author has made his point. But I’m struggling with the image of the ‘regents’ and one hand in particular. It seems to be telling me something not necessarily contradictory to this theme.

  • padraic

    Thanks Andrew for pointing out from the Bible that we are not responsible for the poverty of others and need to self-loathe. The Bible, as you indicate, gives a balanced view of the situation, that in most cases boils down to personal responsibility and self-confidence. Such self-confidence is not generated, let alone maintained by the elements identified in the Bible and outlined in your statement – “Hedonism, extravagance, foolishness, drunkenness, gluttony, sexual immorality, laziness, bad company—these are causes of poverty that the advocates of social justice never mention.” A new one, illicit drug dependency, is a big factor today. How often do you see a “beggar” seated on the cement outside a supermarket seeking donations to support his/her habit, despite the fact that they utilise and have access to funding and social services from Centrelink and charities like the Smith Family or St Vincent de Paul. When my wife sees them she wonders how it came to this, presumably with their growing up in a loving family (but not always) with a mother and father who paid for their education etc. Both our families have always worked on the motto “God helps those who help themselves”, but that only works if you are not wallowing in a self-imposed gutter like the Prodigal Son was, until he saw the light. There is a definite need for giving to charity to help people in strife, but most people give money in the expectation that the recipients will eventually get off charity and join the rest of us. But the concept of “charity” as we knew it is being abused by the Government registering as charities political activist groups and others that have nothing to do with traditional charity. There is a charity for every illness known to man and for every Green political cause doing the rounds, such as the one that purports to save whales and has its own ships and a world-wide organisation whose members apply pressure to governments – hardly a charity in my books. The modern social justice warriors are big on creating “victims” so they can feel superior. In a sense, all those well paid staff on these new non-traditional charities are successful beggars. Some such “charities” do a good job but It would be better if they were registered as businesses.

  • Katzenjammer

    Not sure if this is in any way significant. Apart from the extract from Matthew, all the quotes are from the Old Testament with only two not from the Proverbs. Could this be part of the reason this factor has gone under the radar of many Christian social justice proponents?

  • DENNIS BOOTHBY

    My favourite [living] philosopher, the economist Thomas Sowell summed it up brilliantly when he said in effect – “When it was called envy it was regarded as one of the seven sins, but when it morphed into ‘social justice’ it somehow became a virtue’.

  • lbloveday

    Indeed Katzenjammer.
    When I quote from the Old Testament as below, I am told that the OT is only anecdotal, not to be taken literally, not the word of God, that Jesus changed that……….
    Unless someone wants to say it is the word of God I guess.
    .
    Deuteronomy 20:10 “When you go to attack a city, you must first offer peace to the people there.
    11 If they accept your offer and open their gates, ALL THE PEOPLE IN THAT CITY WILL BECOME YOUR SLAVES and be forced to work for you.
    12 But if the city refuses to make peace with you and fights against you, you should surround the city.
    13 And when the Lord your God lets you take the city, YOU MUST KILL ALL THE MEN IN IT.
    14 But you may TAKE FOR YOURSELVES THE WOMEN, THE CHILDREN, the cattle, and everything else in the city. You may use all these things. The Lord your God has given these things to you.
    15 That is what you must do to all the cities that are very far from you—the cities that are not in the land where you will live.
    16 “But when you take cities in the land that the Lord your God is giving you, YOU MUST KILL EVERYONE.
    17 YOU MUST COMPLETELY DESTROY ALL THE PEOPLE—the Hittites, Amorites, Canaanites, Perizzites, Hivites, and Jebusites. The Lord your God has commanded you to do this.

  • talldad

    Katzenjammer, the problem is much bigger: Biblical illiteracy among churchgoers and Christians.

    The lefty-Christians of the seventies and eighties loved the book of the Prophet Amos because he spoke/wrote some fiery things about those oppressing the poor. This suited their lefty agenda which had been invading the church from the thirties and forties. It was easy for preachers to skip over stuff that didn’t gel with the lefty message they fed to the new Christians coming in via the seventies “Jesus Movement” – the follow-on and reaction to the radical sixties era. These young and enthusiastic ones had little Biblical knowledge and not many learned good reading disciplines.

    I thank God that I learned some solid Bible reading disciplines very early in my spiritual walk which kept me wary of the political agenda of the time.

    If churchgoers had been regular steady readers of the whole Bible, they would have been in a better position to put all that into a proper context, such as Andrew has shown us here.

  • doconnell

    The emphasis on “community” in both the OT and NT should be mentioned in connection with this issue. A Christian community would never permit any of its members to live in poverty.

  • christopher.coney

    Thank you for this article with which I cannot quibble.
    But one topic that I think is not sufficiently treated these days concerns our attitude to money and wealth generally. The classical position, as stated by Plato and Aristotle, is that it is base to pursue wealth beyond what is actually needed for a decent life. As such, the classical position is contemptuous towards the businessman who simply pursues material success ie money and property, for its own sake.
    There are many saints for whom material poverty is a form of virtue, that is, excellence. Many who choose the religious life take a vow of poverty, although the meaning of poverty seems to differ from order to order, country to country etc.
    And of course there are Bible verses that seem to depict riches as bad, particularly the one saying it is harder for a rich man to enter Heaven that for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle. One big difficulty is that ‘riches’ cannot be defined numerically with precision; one’s relative wealth or poverty is a ‘frog in the kettle’ phenomenon.
    My own take is that we should seek wealth, and what it buys, only to the extent that we really need them, and to pursue more elevated goods for the rest of our time on the earth.

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