Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Rich Man Poor Man

This past week I began reflecting on the following verses related to poverty, riches, and impartiality:

  • Leviticus 19:15 “You shall do no injustice in judgment; you shall not be partial to the poor nor defer to the great, but you are to judge your neighbor fairly.”
  • Exodus 23:3 “… nor shall you be partial to a poor man in his dispute.”
  • Deuteronomy 1:17 “You shall not show partiality in judgment; you shall hear the small and the great alike. You shall not fear man, for the judgment is God's. And the case that is too hard for you, you shall bring to me, and I will hear it.”
  • Deuteronomy 16:19 "You shall not distort justice; you shall not be partial, and you shall not take a bribe, for a bribe blinds the eyes of the wise and perverts the words of the righteous. 20 Justice, and only justice, you shall pursue, that you may live and possess the land which the LORD your God is giving you.”

What strikes me about these passages is the corrective they prescribe for the current imbalance that is all too apparent today. According to the verses above, Israel was not to show favoritism to either the rich or the poor, especially in court. To favor one social class over the other would ultimately lead to a distortion of justice. There is a tendency to gravitate toward the imbalance of pitting one social class against the other for some form of personal gain. This can only lead to injustice and a degradation of the truth, because favoritism requires a lopsided modification of the facts. This is a subtle form of bearing false witness and violates the ninth commandment.

When most people think of showing partiality, they probably instinctively equate displays of favoritism for the wealthy, because of their riches and the status that accompanies wealth. No one can doubt the reality of such a scourge. James 2 highlights this abuse of showing preference to those of means while relegating the poor to the back of the sanctuary. This is nothing less than discrimination, which has no place in the Body of Christ!

Favoring the rich is only part of the equation that must be addressed. It is just as likely that the poor and their poverty stricken situations are so emphasized that the sum still leads to impartiality and favoritism. This is just as unjust as favoring those with untold treasures. It leads to a basic inequality and perpetuates the class-envy and strife that is all too common in our age. This only serves to fuel existing tensions as the differences between the two classes are exploited for some kind of political or personal expediency.

Abuses of both polar extremes are plentiful today. Yet, the current headlines seem to lean decidedly in favor of the poor. Almost every political issue today some how uses the theme of poverty in the promotion of policy acceptance. If policy, or proposed legislation is seen to benefit the poor in some way, then it must be the right course of action. The inclusion of poverty alleviation sanitizes almost any policy. Or so the thinking goes.

One caveat at this juncture is probably in order. It is not my intention to seem uncompassionate and unsympathetic to the plight of the poor and disadvantaged. Scripture is clear about issuing a helping hand to those in need. What is under scrutiny here is the exploitation of poverty for political or personal agendas. The fruit of such action will only produce schism. Politicians, self-righteous social activist, liberal clerics, the media, and of course Hollywood-types all love to smugly pit the poor against the rich and thus perpetuate class envy and hatred. Anyone with even meager means has become fair game for today’s avant-garde guilt-mongers.

This overemphasis on the poor, cited in the passages above, is seen on many fronts today. I will restrict my comments to four popular promotions of the Rich-Man-Poor-Man syndrome:

1. Liberal and socialist regimes the world over have exploited the rich- man-poor-man divide with great effect. Elections are now won or lost by promising to eradicate, or at the least alleviate poverty. Politicians get a tremendous amount of useful mileage out pitting the social classes against one another, the haves at odds with the have-nots. This attitude implies that government needs to play Robin Hood and equitably redistribute the wealth so all can have a bigger peace of the pie. To achieve this, liberal politicos must remind the poor of their victimization and their right of entitlement. Essentially the message that socialistic politicians send is the poor are helpless victims who need the government to liberate them from their bondage.

I can think of no modern day examples where this has succeeded. Lyndon B. Johnson’s Great Society in the USA, implemented in the sixties, has never materialized. America’s welfare state approach tackled poverty from the wrong angle. It only succeeded in creating an entitlement mentality while further contributing to the fragmentation of the family. As a result it further polarized the rich and the poor.

One of the political slogans already being bandied about in the run up to the presidential elections in the states is “change”. “Change”, in part, is code for poverty eradication. So the next time you hear a presidential candidate talk about the need for “change”, what he or she really means is, that by the time the rich are done being financially fleeced the only money they will have left is a bit of pocket “change”! After all utopia isn’t cheap. So much for justice and impartiality.

2. Closely related to the abuses of governments exploiting the poor, comes Liberation Theology (LT). Promoters of LT in both Africa and South America have effectively advanced the cleavage between the rich and poor. With the eisegetical (subjectively reading into) slight of hand, LT interpreters pervert portions of God’s word to dovetail with their radical Marxist ideology. In their deconstructive processes, they vilify wealth and extol the plight of the poor as the original righteousness. The outcome of this approach is always the same: the poor are still poor, while the promoters of LT now enjoy the spoils denied them during the fight for “freedom”. That has certainly been the case here in South Africa.

3. In recent days, no movement has trumpeted poverty alleviation more then the climate change alarmist. A headline from the paper the other day read “Rich must help the poor”. In the context of man-made global warming, Brazil’s president maintains that the rich should pay for climate change initiatives in order to help the poor. What the alarmist doom-and-gloomers of climate change haven’t yet acknowledged is that the complete implementation of the Kyoto Protocol will require an estimated one trillion dollars per annum from developed countries—developing countries like China, India, and Brazil get a free ride here despite their record as the worst polluters in the world.

According Danish economist Bjorn Lomborg, if one fifth of that one trillion dollars were used for the poor, this would be enough to provide sufficient drinking water and adequate sanitation for the billions who have no access to these essential poverty alleviating measures. Think of how the health of untold numbers of impoverished people would dramatically improve with these two simple commodities. But in their short-sightedness, climate change alarmists insist on exploiting the poor to extort the rich with costly climate change legislation, which will at best reduce the temperature in 2050 by only 0.2 degrees Celsius. The only achievement here will be the advance of globalism along with the corresponding demise of the free market. This will only make the poor even poorer. In this, the poor have become a necessary tool to advance the draconian initiatives desired by the greens. My question for the greens is this, why are you only waking up to the plight of the poor now?

4. Finally, another sect of Christianity-the emerging church-has seemingly replaced The Great Commission with an emphasis on feeding schemes and social action. While one cannot deny the need for the Church to proactively reach out to those in need, one has to question the whole-sale secular methods and motivation often employed in this endeavor. I personally know of so-called Christian organizations who are reaching out to the poor and HIV infected. In the process they have abandoned the gospel. You see, governmental funds and secular help are in the offing for those who aren’t fanatical about their faith. Yet, Christ emphatically reminds us that “…man does not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds out of the mouth of God.”

Yes, the Church should reach out to those in need, but not at the price of compromising the gospel. We must avoid resorting to the secular reasoning and humanistic methods when addressing the issue of poverty, as such only breeds a partisan spirit of class envy. We must scrutinize our motivation and ensure it is gospel centered. We must ask the difficult questions like: What are the reasons for the poverty? How can we best help the poor in the long run? Will the methods we use address the poverty effectively by equipping them and preparing them to provide for themselves? Is the gospel central to the aid that we render? Is our approach toward poverty alleviation really the best possible stewardship of the Lord’s resources? Apart from a tough line of inquiry, we will only perpetuate their plight while pitting the poor against rich.

To illustrate the need for a thoughtful inquiry, the situation here in South Africa is dire. Poverty abounds in the midst of riches untold. There are many complex reasons for this to include the apartheid past. But one of the primary contributing factors to the extensive poverty in South Africa is directly related to the African world view. The traditional African world view has produced an outlook on time, money, work, life, and morals that has by-in-large contributed to the gross cycles of poverty that currently exist. The break-down of the family along with culturally approved promiscuity has all coalesced to assure poverty’s continuance for some time to come. Until this errant world view is adequately addressed there is little chance of the tide turning in the affirmative. But to date, the probing questions needed to address this issue aren’t even being asked. In this, the gospel is the only effective anti-dote that will promote the necessary change of world view, through a transformed mind found only in Christ.

In final analysis, an equitable balance must be maintained between the rich and the poor. Neither group must be marginalized nor singled out. Money is not the root of evil, only the love of and greed for such is condemned, which, by this definition, even the poor are capable of.

The cross of Christ provides a level spiritual playing field for all concerned. Economic disparities and distinctions will exist in this earthly life, but eternity will reveal a vastly different picture as the current disparities will be dissolved! All who are in Christ are and will be equally rich in His presence, regardless of their financial station in this present life. To this end the Church at large would do well to heed the concluding scriptural insight:

“7 For we have brought nothing into the world, so we cannot take anything out of it either. 8 And if we have food and covering, with these we shall be content. 9 But those who want to get rich fall into temptation and a snare and many foolish and harmful desires which plunge men into ruin and destruction. 10 For the love of money is a root of all sorts of evil, and some by longing for it have wandered away from the faith, and pierced themselves with many a pang. 11 But flee from these things, you man of God; and pursue righteousness, godliness, faith, love, perseverance and gentleness. 12 Fight the good fight of faith; take hold of the eternal life to which you were called, and you made the good confession in the presence of many witnesses.” (1Timothy 6:7-12)

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