While in a conversation last week about the sermon I wrote about a couple weeks ago my conversation partner quoted the words of Jesus in Matthew 26:11—“The poor you will always have with you.” These words upset me because they were quoted in such a way as to excuse us from making serious efforts to reduce or eliminate poverty. They were a cop out and I don't think that Jesus meant them to be used as such. (In fact, I would argue exegetically that the issue of the poor being with us or not isn't really the focus in the passage, but that's another discussion.)
Our conversation that day centered on the Christian response to poverty and economic inequality. The man with whom I was speaking—a brother in Christ—sees the issue much differently than I do. He said that the playing field will always been uneven and that we need to accept that fact. Going further, he argued that our efforts to level the playing field are in fact sinful, because in making such attempts we presume to take the place of God. While I am quite sure that this brother and his wife do a lot to help people in need in various ways, I was astounded to hear him argue that we just need to accept economic inequality as an unavoidable part of human life, that in fact to work to counteract this constitutes sin. To quote Jesus' words in defense of this simply went over the top.
When I read the Bible, I find a lot of verses telling us as God's children to care for one another; to look out for the poor, the widows and the orphans and those who have been trampled by the powerful and wealthy in the world. I read the words of Isaiah in chapter 58 and hear a call to action, to work for change, not a statement that only God can level the playing field.
Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen:
to loose the chains of injustice
and untie the cords of the yoke,
to set the oppressed free
and break every yoke?
Is it not the share your food with the hungry
and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter--
when you see the naked, to clothe them,
and not to turn away from your own flesh and blood?
Elsewhere in Isaiah (chapter 1) we read a similar exhortation:
Learn to do right; seek justice.
Defend the oppressed.
Take up the cause of the fatherless;
plead the case of the widow.
I read the words of Jesus recorded in Matthew 25 and hear that the way I respond to those in need indicates clearly the condition of my faith.
Truly I tell you, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.
I don't see how anyone who chooses to follow after Jesus Christ can argue that we have no right or responsibility to work to reduce or eliminate the inequalities and injustices in our society and globally. To not do so goes against the very exhortations of Scripture.
I imagine that my conversation partner that day would acknowledge at least some personal obligation to respond, and as I said I believe that he and his family do what they are able. But I believe that this obligation goes beyond us as individuals and even beyond God's people as the Church. I do not accept that it is sinful to seek to remedy injustice and inequality through government action. I acknowledge that this will never fully resolve or eliminate the problems, but we can certainly do something. Ellen Painter Dollar presents some strong examples for the role of government in addressing poverty and injustice in this blog post.
We can drive a sick, uninsured child to a hospital, but if a long hospitalization or surgery is required, that child’s parents will have to either scrape together thousands or dollars (and perhaps eventually lose their home or declare bankruptcy as a result) or hope that the hospital has charity funds available. We can help an immigrant learn English and a marketable skill, but if the law doesn’t offer him a reasonable avenue toward legal work status, we can’t help him get a job that will support a family. We can provide pregnancy counseling and baby supplies to a young unwed mother, but if that mother is unable to afford groceries, decent housing, quality daycare, and additional education for herself , she and her child will likely end up in unsafe housing, poorly nourished, un- or underemployed, and stuck in a cycle of poverty that isn’t just a problem for that family, but (in God’s economy) for all of us. Without government safety nets such as subsidized housing and daycare, food stamps, education grants, health insurance, and support for immigrants, private charity can only do so much to ease the burden of poverty.
She acknowledges, as do I, that our government is far from perfect. No government is perfect (neither would a more socially conservative one be closer to perfect). But we are better to undertake some effort to level the playing field and reduce poverty where we can than to say that it's just a reality we have to live with. I don't think that's how Jesus saw it when he walked the earth and I don't think that's how he sees it today. Yes, the poor will always be with us, but we don't have to accept that a statement that we can't and shouldn't do anything to improve this.
Finally, my conversation partner last week made an appeal to the right of people to not have their wealth “stolen” from them by the government. This argument struck me as more American than Christian, although he tried to base it on the ten commandments. The underlying issue seems to be whether it is “fair” to surrender part of your hard-earned (or not-so-hard-earned) wealth to care for others. To me this isn't even an issue, because we should gladly do so for the sake of caring for others. But even if one doesn't accept that, one must consider whether “fairness” is a concern for God. As Dollar points out elsewhere in her article:
God is not about fairness. God is about justice. God is about all people being treated with dignity as those made in God's image, about extravagant generosity regardless of merit.... It may be unfair for the wealthy to be taxed at a higher rate than the middle class, but in God's economy, it is just.
Christians may take different views on how we can address poverty, injustice and inequality in our society and globally, but we cannot take an attitude of indifference, reasoning that the poor will always be with us so we might as well just accept that fact. My conscience certainly will not allow me to do so.