In this election year and the 50th anniversary year of President Johnson’s War on Poverty, politicians are debating the best way to reduce poverty and narrow our widening income gap. (See “2 Parties Place Political Focus on Inequality” – NY Times, February 9.)
This is good. Entrenched poverty and income inequality were hardly, if at all mentioned in the 2012 U.S. elections. As President Reagan put it: “We fought a war on poverty, and poverty won.” Nicholas Kristof points out in his recent op-ed article, that even though “There Has Been Progress in the War on Poverty,” 16 percent or near 50 million Americans remain below the poverty level. An increasing number of those are the working poor.
In the recent past poor people, especially children have either been ignored or blamed for misfortune. It gets worse.
Those in faith communities who have bought in to the notion that material wealth is a sign of God’s blessing, it follows that poverty is a sign of God’s displeasure. The poor are poor because they are sinners.
There is a long-standing debate in American religion about the undeserving poor.
Talk about blaming the victim.
Poverty and inequality are more than political and economic problems. In the Judeo-Christian tradition these are moral and religious issues.
The Biblical directive about wealth and poverty originates in the Jubilary laws found in Leviticus. These laws were intended to prevent anyone from becoming too rich, hording their wealth, or from becoming destitute.
Farmers were instructed to leave some the grain in the fields for the gleaners. Every 50 years, in a year of Jubilee, properties that had been bought and sold were to be returned to the original tribal families.
Since the Jubilary laws were neither followed nor enforced, the Hebrew prophets began to anticipate that with the coming of the messiah a new society would emerge in which the ideals of the Jubilee would rule.
(This theme is developed in “The Politics of Jesus,” by John Howard Yoder, 1972 and in “Jesus and the Nonviolent Revolution,” by Andre Trocme, 1973.)
It was this prophetic tradition in Isaiah 61 that Jesus identified with in his first sermon recorded in Luke 4. The Kingdom of God had finally come. The ideals of the Jubilee were being fulfilled.
This is not to suggest that there is a Biblical form of government or economics. People of faith will differ on that.
What they will agree on is the prophetic call for a social order in which no one gets too rich or too poor.
The political debate about how to achieve this is partisan, as it should be. The role of the faith community, on the other hand, is prophetic, always asking government leaders including themselves– “are some getting too rich and some too poor?”
Servant leaders, particularly from faith communities may not agree on public policy or partisan solutions, but in faithfulness to their tradition they have the right question.