Friday, December 29, 2006

The rights of the poor

Calls for compassion and charity dot the biblical record and inform the faith of most Christians and Jews.

Much less familiar to most believers are directives formed around an understanding of the "rights" or the "cause" of the poor.

Both terms imply that the poor among us are entitled to certain benefits due to life circumstances beyond their control that landed them in the predicament in which they find themselves. Further, the forces keeping them trapped in poverty are not only largely to blame, but should be opposed and, if possible, set aside by people of faith and action.

Consider a few examples.

"The righteous know the rights of the poor; the wicked have no such understanding." Proverbs 29:7

"It is not for kings. . .to drink wine, not for rulers to drink beer, lest they drink and forget what the law decrees, and deprive the oppressed of their rights." Proverbs 31:5-6

"Speak out for those who cannot speak, for the rights of all the destitute. . .defend the rights of the poor and needy." Proverbs 31:8-9

"They know no limits in deeds of wickedness; they do not judge with justice the cause of the orphan, to make it prosper, and they do not defend the rights of the needy." Jeremiah 5:28.

"May he defend the cause of the poor of the people, give deliverance to the needy, and crush the oppressor." Psalm 72:4

"I know that the Lord maintains the cause of the needy, and executes justice for the poor." Psalm 140:12

"Do not rob the poor because they are poor, or crush the afflicted at the gate; for the Lord pleads their cause and despoils of life those who despoil them." Proverbs 22:22-23

"'Does it make you a king to have more and more cedar? Did not your father have food and drink? He did what was right and just, so all went well with him. He defended the cause of the poor and needy, and so all went well. Is that not what it means to know me?' declares the Lord." Jeremiah 22:15-16

The poor and the needy, the oppressed and the marginalized in a society have a case to present against those people, systems and forces that contribute to their state of need and despair. They have rights and are entitled to be heard.

Even more important, God takes up that case and God defends their rights.

This strong voice coming from the biblical record moves us well beyond charity and simple compassion as we consider our responses to poverty and the injustices that so often create and sustain it.


JD said...

Thank you, Larry. I appreciate what you are doing so much. May God multiply your efforts and blessings.

Justin said...

While we do need to do more to help the poor, it is important to realize that we are in a different society now. Many of the causes of poverty were different than they are now. While we do have some semblance of class systems today, they were not nearly set in stone like those 2000-3000 years ago. The poor were poor not because they lacked work ethic but because of their bloodline. Society was set up vastly different then compared to now. While it may be difficult, people can actually get out of poverty, and Larry, people like you are helping folks do just that. In ancient times, the aristocracy was rich and the rest of the people were poor, and nothing could change that. The system was explicitly set up to keep them down because they were viewed as less than human. Most people I know don't view anyone as a lesser human being and they don't want the poor to stay poor forever.

If there's any system that has helped more poor people overcome poverty, it is capitalism. That is not what needs to change. What needs to change is that Christians need to get in the trenches and help people learn the skills they need to be released from poverty... and they need to help them out along the way. Whether that's giving them job interviews, internships, becoming a mentor to a poor child, starting camps for inner city kids to go to that help them see past the ghetto to what they can accomplish. There are many avenues that we should be chasing.

Our system has flaws, but so far, we haven't come up with a better one. Governments can do a lot of things, but they can often make things worse than they were before. Lenin and Stalin claimed they were for the poor. Apparently they were so for the poor that they wanted to make everyone poor... except for themselves of course.

Anonymous said...

While capitalism may be the best option avaiable, it's still severely flawed and to assume it has absolutely no contributing effect on poverty is incredibly naive.

Also, I would contest the idea that it is easy to get out of poverty. It might not be impossible, compared to ancient times, but there is a reason why sociologists have defined a "cycle of poverty." Generational poverty is real issue, and without government and Christian intervention, it won't get any better.

I enjoyed the scriptures Larry... It's good to be reminded of the rights of the poor.

Justin said...

exactly my point anonymous. I never said it was easy to get out of poverty, just that it is possible in our system, whereas, under many other systems, such as those in ancient times, or tyranical communist systems, or feudal systems, ours is the easiest to get out of poverty (easy being a relative term obviously).

We do need to do more, but until we can find an economic system that works better, we should help people make it under this system.

Anonymous said...

I have been listening to economist Walter Williams, substituting for Rush this morning. He made a few observations worth repeating that will go a long way to prevent poverty.

1. Finish high school
2. Don't have children until marriage.
3. Stay married.
4. Work at any job
5. Stay out of the criminal justice system.

These are truths that my husband can attest to because he works in prison ministry

Anonymous said...

The "poverty cycle" is broken with about 95% efficiency if one 1)graduates HS 2) gets a job, any job
3)keeps job and works at job 4)delays pregnancy until married, and remains married. Depending on how you define poverty or the poor, this strategy moves up to near 98% successful. A christian intervention changes lives, it doesn't attempt to manage the "poverty cycle"

Anonymous said...

Justin: by this comment, I assume you blame the modern poor for where they are?

"The poor were poor not because they lacked work ethic but because of their bloodline"

This, as well as the comments above about how to get out of poverty, indicate a lack of understanding of the lives of the poor. People are not "deciding" to drop out of HS or to get pregnant; there are a variety of factors in their life that might make those "choices" less of a choice than a natural progression.

When you don't understand the value of school, why remain in it? Particularly if you are not doing well or testing well.

Anonymous said...

Let's also not forget that capitalism is based upon self-interest and greed. While it may work for some, it will take advantage of those with less power. That's why the government has to keep the economy in check.

Anonymous said...

capitalism is based on freedom. The poor need freedom as much as anyone. Don't limit their freedom.

Justin said...


I don't think that poor people are poor solely because of decisions that they make. But, the fact is that in bible times, no matter what decisions you made, you could not get out of poverty. Many AMericans who are poor are poor because of bad decisions. Is it their fault that they made these decisions? Not entirely. Its part of the cycle of poverty. They have never been taught to make good decisions because their parents made bad decisions and those people's parents made bad decisions as well. That's why its a cycle. But its breakable.

In jesus time, sure some of the poor probably made bad decisions. But even if they did everything perfectly, they couldn't get out of their situation because they weren't in the right family. While its still hard for the poor to break the cycle today, it is NOT THE SAME as in JEsus day, which is my point.

And what Walter Williams says is true. If you do those things, you will likely succeed. Problem is, many people have never heard anything like that. And its not up to us to just hand out leaflets and tell them to pick themselves up by their bootstraps. We have to show them that they are loved, and that they can succeed, and we have to teach them the things we learned because of our birth situation that we often take for granted. You don't just tell a person to get up by their own bootstraps, and you don't just give them enough to survive while they are lying on the ground. You help them up and teach them how to stay up. That is the only way we will defeat poverty. And it can happen. But free market capitalism is the best system to help them out of their situations because it creates wealth, where other systems move it around until it is squandered. Just look at Europe. Nice unemployment rates in those socialist countries over there.

Justin said...

"That's why the government has to keep the economy in check."

how about "that's why we as christians have the responsibilty to stand up for the poor"

We depend on government way to much to do what we are supposed to be doing in the first place. The government is not God and never will be. Well, its God for secularist leftists... but that's beside the point.

You don't trust corporations I imagine. Why in the world would you trust the government to do the right thing. They are hardly accountable to the american people... probably less so than corporations because corporations know that if they mess up they go out of business. If someone in government messes up, they start a committee to determine whos at fault, and you damn well better believe it won't be them.

Governments are fallen powers, just like corporations. Neither one can be trusted to truely do the work of Christ. Both can help the situation, but its ultimately up to us.

Larry James said...

Let's see if I can reduce the rhetoric a bit here and steer us back to my point.

Does the Bible have anything to say to us today?

If your answer is "No,", stop reading here.

If your answer is "Yes," then keep reading.

The transcending truth of the ancient words I quote is simple and clear: THE POOR HAVE RIGHTS AND A CAUSE, A CASE TO BE ARGUED AND HEARD. Since that is true, there are forces, forces that persist, no matter what the time or the economic system, in keeping them down and out.

This was the point that was quickly lost in various attempts to justify the status quo.

Sorry, I don't buy it. We can do much, much better.

Justin said...

I don't think anyone here is trying to justify the status quo Larry.

We're discussing what those rights are.

Is it the right to live and to be treated like a decent human being. The right to look at people who profess faith in Jesus, but who do nothing to alleviate poverty, and say, "why are you not helping us"?

Then I would say absolutely.

Is it the right for them to steal from someone because the person has more than they do? or the right to the possesions of someone who doesn't even have faith in Jesus? Or the right to make bad decisions, and then complain that its someone elses fault that they made bad decisions?

That is where we probably disagree.

I am going to help the poor as much as I can as often as I can, but any one of us can consider ourselves "poor" compared to someone else and then demand that they give us what they have. I don't think that's a Christlike spirit. Jesus ate grain out of the outside of the field like the law said... he didn't just walk up to people and demand that they give him money because he was hungry.

I probably shouldn't have said damn. I apologize for that. I thought I was explaining that we need to be doing more, and all anonymous did was pull one thing I said and tried to determine my thought processes from it. I thought my points were fairly clear in the context of what I wrote.

Apparently not.

Anonymous said...

If person A stole from person B and gave it to person C, he would be thrown in jail. Some think it's OK for the government to do it.

Anonymous said...

But person B abused person C and took advantage of C financially - Person A is acting as an arbiter to ensure that things remain fair between B and C

Anonymous said...

In my opinion person C was not taken advantage of.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the Scripture references. Your readers have made some good points, too. Sometimes poverty can be traced to illness, discrimination, corrupt governments, drug and alcohol abuse, lack of education, laziness, broken families, broken spirits, anti-social behavior, and many other factors. Poverty is complex, and solutions are complex. Whatever the causes, I would like to be a part of a solution.

Larry James said...

I've been working in inner Dallas for almost 13 years. Before that I worked in inner city New Orleans for five years. In that time I have known a handful of thieves.

However, the vast, vast majority of poor people I've known did not want what belonged to others. They only wanted an opportunity for themselves and their children to do better and to have better.

To equate solid, sound, fair, just public policy that delivers adequate health care, education, housing, fair wages and enhanced skills training to theft is highly insulting and anything but a reflection of the values of the texts I quoted.

Yes, some people suffer due to mistakes they've made. If you look at those mistakes in view of their backgrounds (generational poverty) and in view of what their current financial wherewithal(unlike the rich who make many of the same mistakes but escape most of the harsher consequences) allows them to overcome, they come into clearer focus.

Public policy that creates real space for progress for the poor is not theft, it is more like investment in the sort of nation we will leave for my grandchildren and yours.

One last note. Terry, thanks for your comments. I am right there with you.