Paul was asking the Corinthian believers [in 2 Corinthians 8:13-15] to give to the impoverished saints in Jerusalem, the goal being that no one would have too much or too little. This idea is pretty far-fetched in modern-day culture, where we are taught to look out for ourselves and are thus rewarded.
The gap is so extreme in our world that we have to take lightly passages such as Luke 12:33: “Sell your possessions and give to the poor.” How else can I walk out of a mud shack and back into my two-thousand-square-foot house without doing anything? The concept of downsizing so that others might upgrade is biblical, beautiful,…and nearly unheard of. We either close the gap or don’t take the words of the Bible literally.
– Francis Chan, Crazy Love1
We should probably all retreat to the nearest corner in order to contemplate our lives after reading that passage from Francis Chan. He has struck a distinctive biblical nerve. The clarion ethical call for Christians is to care for the poor and disenfranchised. If we do not do that, then the Bible is not our ethical compass. I want to build on that point and suggest that if we have a political voice, we cannot ignore politics in addressing the gap between the rich and poor.
It does not take much to establish that the Bible is serious about caring for the poor. James 1:27: “Religion that is pure and untainted before the Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, to keep oneself unstained from the world.” This passage alludes to Isaiah 1:17; therefore, it is an Old and New Testament idea. Particularly in the ancient world, orphans and widows were the most vulnerable members of the community. They had no advocate. Christians are to take care of the least in society.
Jesus says as much in Matthew 25. When he describes the final judgement, the criteria is how one treated the least in society. Jesus teaches that as you treat the least, that is how you treat him. If you feed and cloth the poor, you are feeding and clothing Jesus himself! If you feed and cloth the poor, there is room for you in the Kingdom. If you fail to address the poor and needy, you are consigned to the flames. It is a startling passage and seemingly contradicts some of our Protestant values and ideas. This is not the place to reconcile that dissonance. It is enough to know that taking care of the poor is extremely important to Jesus.
In the modern world, there is a staggering and rapidly expanding gap between the haves and the have-nots. What is the Christian to do so that the poor are not left behind or completely marginalized? Charitable giving and service is the primary answer. Is there a political answer as well? I say yes. Our politics should be informed by our religion.2 Therefore, our Christian conviction for the poor should drive a search for political solutions to poverty.
If you are living in America, you might be tempted to think that I am suggesting that Christians should vote for Democrats and others on the American political left. The popular conception is that they are the party that cares for the poor. This is not what I am arguing. Different people will come to different conclusions.3 I am only arguing that it is imperative that the Christian consider the poor in their political actions and opinions.
The Church should obviously be in the forefront of charitable giving and service. It should never abdicate that responsibility to the government. However, you might think that the government has a power to address the systemic problems that perpetuate poverty in a way the Church cannot. You might then support a bigger central government that taxes citizens at a higher rate in order to provide more social services for everyone. This is typically the impulse of the American political left.
However, if you are tempted to support the idea of a bigger government that addresses systemic issues in poverty, you have to ask yourself if the government you live under is capable of addressing those issues effectively. Are those tax dollars being spent efficiently? Or are they feeding a bloated bureaucracy with little left over for those they intended to help? This is a legitimate concern. You may feel that bigger governments are inefficient. Instead, we should keep taxes low in order to keep more money in the hands of Christians who will then give it directly to causes that help the poor. If you come to this conclusion, then you would likely side with the American political right. Be careful here. The onus is now on you to put that money in service to the poor and disenfranchised.
In summary, Chan is right. If we seek to follow what the Bible teaches, then we must seek to close the gap between rich and poor with whatever means are available to us. We must give sacrificially of our money and time. If we have a political voice, then we must also use that voice in whatever way possible to address wealth inequality. We may disagree on the best political solutions, but we cannot ignore politics in our pursuit of a Christian ethic of care for the impoverished. Nor should we separate our political opinions from our religious convictions. Our Christian impulses should inform and manifest themselves in our political actions.
1. Francis Chan, Crazy Love (Colorado Springs, CO: David C. Cook, 2008), 121.↩
2. I am arguing here that the religion should be the spring that flows into politics. Politics should never be the primary spring that then informs our religion. This is an important point. If we confuse the proper relationship between religion and politics, then horrible things can happen. Some of the world’s worst atrocities have been committed by societies who perverted the relationship and used religion as a tool of politics. ↩
3. I am willing to give away my bias here. I refuse to explicitly identify with one party, but I generally caucus with Democrats. This is primarily because of my answers for my Christian concern for the poor and the environment. In case you are wondering, I do find it difficult to come to terms with the issue of abortion and the generally un-nuanced pro-choice position of the Democratic party. I also refuse to be a one-issue voter.