“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