CHRISTIANITY & ETHICS
Justice, Compassion, and Personal Responsibility
by John Jefferson Davis
i i ^r n one world, as in one state, when I am rich because you are poor, and I am
poor because you are rich, the transfer of wealth from the rich to the poor
JL is a matter of rights; it is not an appropriate matter for charity." Such are
the angry claims of Julius Nyerere, president of the African nation of Tanzania. His
sentiments are echoed by the Third-World revolutionary Frantz Fanon: "The question
which is looming on the horizon is the need for a redistribution of wealth. Humanity
must reply to this question, or be shaken to pieces by it."
Are the charges of Nyerere and Fanon supported by the facts and by the teachings of the Bible? Do we as members of the more affluent nations have a moral obligation to give "reparations" to the poor of the Third- and Fourth-World nations? Does our wealth cause their poverty? According to the Bible, what are the basic causes of poverty? The frequency of such claims and counterclaims in Christian circles today makes it all the more necessary to examine carefully the teachings of Scripture on the subject of poverty. Without such a grounding in the teaching of Scripture, the Christian is open to the twin dangers of either neglecting true responsibilities to exercise compassion or being manipulated by a false feeling of guilt.
The World Outlook
As twentieth-century Americans, we easily forget that poverty has been the normal lot of the vast majority of mankind for most of recorded history. The economic writer Henry Hazlitt has observed, "The history of poverty is almost the history of mankind."
Poverty was the order of the day in / the ancient world. Greek dwellings had no heat in winter, no adequate sanitary arrangements, and no washing facilities.
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The average Roman house was little better. Recurring famines took thousands of lives. In a famine in Rome in 436 B.C. thousands of starving people threw themselves into the Tiber River, so great was their desperation.
General and widespread poverty was also characteristic of the Middle Ages. "Alternations between feastings and starvation, famines, crime, violence, scurvy, leprosy, typhoid, wars, pestilence, and plague were part of medieval life to an extent we can hardly imagine today," wrote historian E. Parmalee Prentice. The homes of typical medieval laborers were hovels. The walls were made of boards cemented with mud and leaves; there was no sewage or water supply. The entire family was crowded into a single room or perhaps two, together with the family's animals.
The Encyclopedia Britannica listed some 31 major famines from ancient times down through 1960. Famines are still common in the less-developed countries. In modern socialist nations food shortages are a recurring problem, as this recent headline attested: "Rationing of Sugar and Meat in Poland."
The fact of poverty as the "normal" condition of the human race began to change with the rise of the Industrial Revolution in the mid-eighteenth century. Through the benefits of modern science and technology, poverty in Western industrial nations has been changed from the normal condition of the majority to the abnormal condition of a shrinking minority. It is easy to forget what a dramatic change this transformation has meant for the average person. The less developed nations are responding to a "revolution of rising expectations" created by the advances of the Industrial Revolution.
Here in the United States substantial progress has been made in efforts to reduce poverty to a residual level. Warren Brookes, economic writer for the Boston Herald American, has called attention to the fact that "in spite of spiraling inflation, and energy costs, socioeconomic data now shows that less than 7 percent of all Americans live below the U.S. poverty line, and even this 7 percent live better than 85 percent of the rest of the world's population." While it may be true that the United States, with only 6 percent of the world's population, uses over a third of the world's energy, Brookes points out that the critics usually fail to mention that the United States produces 40 percent of the world's food
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and supports nearly 80 percent of the world's private charities.
Michael J. Boskin, a professor of economics at Stanford University, has recently called attention to features of the government's "poverty index" that tend to exaggerate the size of the problem. While the index is adjusted for inflation, family size, and location, it excludes the actual cash value of transfer payments such as food stamps,
Scriptures call all people lo assume personal responsibility for their own lives and circumstances, rather
on government for their
subsidized housing, and medical care. "Even conservative estimates of the cash-equivalent value of these programs result in a startling discovery," writes Professor Boskin; "only about 3 percent of Americans live below the poverty line." If Boskin's analysis is correct, then the "war on poverty" in America is a war that has practically been won. In the world as a whole, it is undeniable that there are multitudes of poor and hungry people. But there are signs of hope. Nick Eberstadt reported in the July 1981 issue of Commentary that in the past 30 years, life expectancy in the less-developed countries, excluding China, has risen by more than a third, and China's may be up by 50 percent. Since 1950 worldwide per capita food production has risen by about 40 percent, in spite of dramatic population growth. Between 1950 and 1980 the world's arable land area grew by more than 20 percent, and even more rapidly in the poor countries as a whole. These figures do not minimize the tragic proportions of the hunger and poverty that still exist, but they do caution against
careless exaggerations that in the long run only retard responsible measures necessary to alleviate the problems.
The experience of the modern Asian states of Taiwan, Singapore, Hong Kong, and South Korea demonstrates that determined and energetic societies can overcome conditions of poverty. These once-poor societies have been notably transformed in the last 20 years through initiative and hard work. Singapore, a city-state hardly larger than Memphis, Tennessee, and without natural resources, has won 25 percent of the global backlog of orders for oil rigs, second only to the United States. South Korea is already the world's largest producer of black-and-white television sets. These Asian states are rapidly moving from traditional reliance on the manufacture of cheap garments and toys into the high technology areas, offering stiff competition to Japan. Their experience shows that poverty can be overcome not through exploiting others, but through initiative, enterprise, efficiency, and hard work.
Scripture is clear that character is more important than circumstances. The Wisdom Literature of the Bible commends a moderate life situation characterized by neither wealth nor poverty: "Give me neither poverty nor riches; feed me with food convenient for me: Lest I be full, and deny thee, and say, Who is the Lord? Or lest I be poor, and steal, and take the name of my God in vain" (Prov. 30:8-9). This teaching is consistent with the Pauline admonition to be content with the necessities of life (1 Tim. 6:6-8), since the Christian's true fulfillment is found not in outward possessions, but in a personal relationship with the risen Lord.
God's concern for the needs of the poor is evident throughout the Bible. God pities and comforts the poor (Ps. 34:6; Isa. 49:13), and actively cares for them (Job 5:15; Ps. 107:41). The God of Israel is a "strength to the poor, a strength to the needy in his distress" (Isa. 25:4).
In the New Testament, Jesus showed concern for the poor (Matt. 19:21; John 13:29), and commended the giving of alms (Mark 12:42-44). One of the blessings of the new age was that the poor would have the gospel preached to them (Matt. 11:5; Luke 14:21). At the same time, Jesus made it clear that his primary mission was not to alleviate hunger and physical suffering—though He
did much of that—but to die for the sins of the lost (John 6:27; Mark 10:45).
The early church cared for its own poor (Acts 2:45; 4:34; 11:29). Widows who had no other means of support were to be cared for by the church (1 Tim. 5:16). Families were to take care of their own, and children were to help their elderly parents (1 Tim. 5:4-8). If the Christian church were to consistently apply these provisions today, much of the taxation for social welfare programs would be unnecessary.
In both Testaments kindness to the poor is honoring to God (Prov. 14:31; cf. Luke 14:13-14). When the believer comprehends the magnitude of God's gift to him in Christ, then a life characterized by giving to the needs of others is the natural result (2 Cor. 8:9; 9:8).
The Causes of Poverty
One popular theory about the cause of poverty might be called the "robber baron" theory. According to this theory, if I am rich and you are poor, it must be that you have been the victim of my exploitation and oppression. That view was popularized by Karl Marx, who believed that the relationship between capital and labor was inherently that of oppressor and oppressed.
Surely both Scripture and experience show that the poor can be exploited by the rich. The prophet Amos condemned those in his own day who sold "the poor for a pair of shoes" (2:6). In the New Testament, James condemns wealthy landowners who have defrauded their workers: "Behold, the hire of the labourers which have reaped down your fields, which is of you kept back by fraud, crieth: and the cries of them which have reaped are entered into the ears of the Lord of sabaoth" (5:4). The fact of oppression in human experience cannot be denied, and it is common enough to make the robber-baron theory plausible.
It would be a fatal error, however, to believe that all poverty is the result of oppression. The robber baron theory misunderstands the nature of both wealth and a free exchange in the market economy, and it slanders the character of those who have become wealthy through personal initiative, insight, and hard work.
Most wealth today is derived neither from exploitation nor from digging material resources out of the ground, but from discovering new ways of producing goods, organizing work, or pro-
cessing information. As Max Singer and Paul Bracken of the Hudson Institute have observed, "Much modern wealth isn't based on things at all, but on ideas, techniques, information, and other intangibles, such as new ways of motivating people or organizing work." They note that Japan's economic success "is the most dramatic evidence that wealth does not have to be based on natural resources."
Another popular but mistaken idea today is that the wealth of Western nations is the cause of the poverty in
Scripture teaches that individual character is a crucial factor influencing
one's state of poverty or affluence,
Third-World nations. This contention is simply not supported by the facts. Some of the most affluent nations, such as Switzerland and Sweden, never had any colonies at all. Others, such as Germany and Japan, became wealthy only after losing their colonies. Some of the most economically underdeveloped nations— Afghanistan, Tibet, Nepal, Liberia— never were colonies of the West. And in general, the most economically advanced Third-World nations today are precisely those having had the most extensive contact with the West.
The fact of the matter is that the colonial system benefited the colonies as well as the ruling countries. Colonization brought schools, roads, banking, and business know-how without which much of the former colonies' present economic development would have been impossible. Resentful robber-baron theories applied to the West by Third-World leaders influenced by Marxist ideology distort the historical record and short-circuit the personal initiative needed for upward economic mobility in their societies.
While Scripture clearly recognizes that poverty may be caused or aggra-
vated by external circumstances such as oppression and injustice, it teaches just as clearly that individual character is a crucial factor influencing one's state of poverty or affluence. Poverty can be caused by sloth and laziness. "A little sleep, a little slumber, a little folding of the hands to sleep, so shall thy poverty come as one that travelleth, and thy want as an armed man" (Prov. 6:10-11). "Slothfulness casteth into a deep sleep; and an idle soul shall suffer hunger" (Prov. 19:15).
The Scriptures call all people to assume personal responsibility for their own lives and circumstances, rather than depend on government for their basic needs. Instead of blaming impersonal environmental and structural conditions for one's poverty, individuals are urged to take personal initiative and actively exert the effort necessary to better their circumstances.
In 1966 Professor James S. Coleman stunned the educational world with his massive study, Equality of Educational Opportunity, perhaps the second most expensive social research project in U.S. history. The conclusion of Cole-man's study was that public schools made no measurable impact either in eliminating or even in modifying disparity of achievement among students. That was a stunning blow to the liberal assumptions undergirding U.S. social and educational policy during the 1960s, namely, that spending more money on the public schools would reduce poverty. That assumption saw the primary roots of poverty in the child's social environment. Coleman's finding pointed instead to family values as the prime factor in educational achievement. It turned out that the character formation provided by a sound family structure, rather than "federal money thrown at a social problem" was the key to motivation and achievement in the public schools—a result that biblically oriented Christians could have suspected all along.
The Bible points to other character traits that can cause impoverishment. Folly and stubbornness can bring one to such a state: "Poverty and shame shall be to him that refuseth instruction" (Prov. 13:18). A hedonistic lifestyle can bring one to poverty: "He that loveth pleasure shall be a poor man: he that loveth wine and oil shall not be rich" (Prov. 21:17).
In 1970 Professor Edward Banfield of Harvard earned the wrath of much of the academic profession with his
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book, The Unheavenly City. Banfield argued, contrary to the conventional wisdom, that the primary cause of poverty in the ghetto is not external but internal, and in particular, the self-chosen lifestyle of the majority of ghetto inhabitants. The problem according to Banfield is "present orientation," a set of values oriented toward "action" and immediate gratification, rather than planning, saving, and extended effort. Such a value orientation cannot be changed merely by bigger schools or better job training, but only through a more fundamental moral and spiritual reorientation—a "conversion." Banfield's insights reflect the truth of Proverbs 21:17 and underscore the fact that poverty is basically rooted in a state of mind rather than in external circumstances.
It is intriguing to study modern history and notice how nations such as the United States, Canada, England, Germany, the Scandinavian countries, and Switzerland, which were significantly affected by the Protestant Reformation, have enjoyed greater economic prosperity than nations such as Spain, Portugal, and Italy.
One of the ironies of the modern world is that the "Protestant work ethic" seems best exemplified in non-Christian states such as Japan, Singapore, South Korea, Taiwan, and Hong Kong. Insofar as these new industrial
Jo we os members of the more affluent nations have a moral
obligation to give "reparations" to the poor?
giants of Asia have applied virtues commended by the Bible, they have enjoyed remarkable economic prosperity.
When Kim Kyang Won, secretary general to South Korea's president, was
asked about the reasons for his country's progress, he replied, "It's the culture of discipline and postponing immediate satisfaction for the future-even for posterity." Such character traits have encouraged a national investment rate of 25 to 35 percent of the Gross National Product, twice the U.S. rate.
We can learn from the Asian example of diligence and future-orientation. Being the "salt of the earth" in our own society implies such character traits. God's temporal blessing can then be directed not toward needless self-gratification, but toward financing the further expansion of the kingdom of God.
■ John Jefferson Davis is associate professor of theology at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, Hamilton, Massachusetts. He holds a Ph.D. from Duke University, Durham, North Carolina. This article is adapted from chapter 3 of his book Your Wealth in God's World © 1984. Used by permission of Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Company, Phillipsburg, New Jersey. Source list available upon request.
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