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Tuesday, December 2, 2014

A Biblical Role for the Government in Caring for the Poor

This is an essay I wrote for an assignment in my ENG COMP class. I exceeded the maximum word count by just a smidge...

It is a curious irony that during election seasons - like the one that recently concluded – it is difficult to have a nuanced political discussion.  Bombarded and overwhelmed by attack ads and sound bites as we are, our discussions tend to veer toward the hyperbolic.  Perhaps, now that the vigorous electioneering is over, at least for a time, we can examine, without bombast and without rancor, one of the claims that is often made during election seasons.  Political and theological conservatives frequently say that the Bible does not prescribe any role for government in caring for the poor - that this should be handled by private charities and individual donations. While it is true that the Bible does encourage each individual to be generous to the poor, it is not true to say that it prescribes no role for the government in caring for the poor; the Bible does allow (even mandates) a governmental role in providing for the poor.

In a recent campaign speech in Des Moines, Iowa, Republican Senator-Elect Joni Ernst said, “We have lost a reliance on not only our own families, but so much of what our churches and private organizations used to do…They used to have wonderful food pantries. They used to provide clothing for those that really needed it, but we have gotten away from that. Now we’re at a point where the government will just give away anything. We have to stop that” (Ernst 21: 46).   Ernst ran on a conservative platform of small government and biblical values, one of which, she believes, is that it is not within the government’s purview to care for the poor.

Conservative Christian and political commentator David Noebel says “[b]ecause government is an institution of justice, not of grace or community or creativity, it should not … attempt to dispense grace through tax-funded handouts … or control the economy and the disposition of property” (Noebel 628). He believes that there simply is no biblical allowance for a governmental role in providing for the poor, but this argument is easily refuted.  There are many biblical examples that describe the role of the government in taking care of the poor.

The prophet Jeremiah was a frequent critic of the king and leaders of Judah at the end of the seventh and early years of the sixth century BCE; he condemned the idolatry and greed that was rampant among the leaders of the nation.  In a speech directed to King Jehoiakim the prophet spoke for God, saying:
                        Do you think you are more a king
                        because you compete in cedar?                       
                        Your father ate and drank
                         and dispensed justice and equity -
                        Then all went well with him.                       
                         He upheld the rights of the poor and needy -
                        Then all was well.                         
                        That is truly heeding me (JPS Hebrew – English Tanakh, Jeremiah 22: 15 - 16).
This king was chided for failing to care for the poor.  The prophet held up the memory of his father, King Josiah, as an example.  Josiah upheld the rights of the poor; he ensured that they had food to eat and protected them from those who would exploit their labor or steal their land, and he was blessed for it.  This was the role of the good king, Josiah.  This was the role of his government.

The book of Proverbs is the biblical collection of ancient wisdom and deep thoughts.  These sayings were collected from an eclectic variety of sources, including the otherwise unmentioned Lemuel, King of Massa.  This king passed down to his son the words of advice that his mother had given him, “Speak up for the dumb, / For the rights of all the unfortunate. / Speak up, judge righteously, /  Champion the poor and the needy” (JPS Hebrew – English Tanakh, Proverbs 31: 8– 9).

It may be argued that to “champion the poor and needy” or to uphold the rights of the poor and the needy is not the same as providing tax funded government charity, but there is more of a correlation than many conservatives are willing to admit.  One of the biblically defined rights of the poor and needy was the right of “gleaning,” that is, the poor were allowed to harvest grain from the edges of other people’s fields and fruit from other people’s orchards and vines (Leviticus 23:22, Deuteronomy 24: 19 – 21).  While it is not a perfectly analogous relation to tax funded government programs, the concept is very similar.  And the biblically defined role of the king including protecting these rights of the poor.

The ideal king of Israel is described in Psalm 72, and it is clear that this perfect king will care for the poor.  He will “champion the lowly among the people/ deliver the needy folk,” and he will save “the needy who cry out/ the lowly who have no helper. / He cares about the poor and the needy / he brings the needy deliverance” (JPS Hebrew – English Tanakh, Psalm 72: 4, 12 - 14). This king will rule with justice, which is to say, he will care for and provide relief to the poor and the weak.  This, the psalmist says, will bring blessing not only to the nation of Israel, but to the entire world.  The primary role attributed the ideal king in this psalm is that of helping the poor; the psalm is clear and unambiguous in declaring that the role of the king is to care and provide for the poor.

We can debate how these instructions from an ancient theocratic monarchy are to be applied in our contemporary secular democratic republic, and we can argue about the best way to put them into practice because, “[a]lthough biblical revelation tells us that God and his faithful people are always at work liberating the oppressed, we do not find a comprehensive blueprint for a new economic order in Scripture” (Sider 193).  It is up to us to determine what that will look like in this modern age.  But we cannot make the bald assertion that the Bible does not allow for a governmental role in providing for the poor.  It very clearly does.

Ernst, Joni. “Campaign Speech” Des Moines Conservative Breakfast Club.  Des Moines.
August 20, 2013.
Noebel, David.  Understanding the Times: The Story of the Biblical Christian, Marxist/Leninist
and Secular Humanist Worldviews.  Manitou Springs, CO: Summit Press, 1991.
“Jeremiah.” JPS Hebrew – English Tanakh. Philadelphia, PA: The Jewish Publication Society,
“Proverbs.” JPS Hebrew – English Tanakh. Philadelphia, PA: The Jewish Publication Society,
“Psalms.” JPS Hebrew – English Tanakh. Philadelphia, PA: The Jewish Publication Society, 1999.
Sider, Ronald J.  Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger. Downers Grove, IL: Inter-Varsity Press,

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