My conservative friends often tell me, “Government should play no role in alleviating poverty.” This prompts me to wonder: Would God support laws that required everyone to give up some of their income and forced businesses to forego opportunities for profits, all for the sake of caring for the most vulnerable members of society?
Yes, he would, and we can read about it in the book of Deuteronomy.
American Christians have never been quite sure what to do with Deuteronomy, or the other biblical books of law. While many on the Right have no trouble applying perceived biblical standards while banning same-sex marriage, they look past the regulations regarding equity and poverty. Those on the Left fear the morality legislation coming from the Right, but point to the biblical commands regarding the poor as justification for their government programs. No one advocates a wholesale adoption of the Old Testament’s laws (for which every lobsterman, tattoo artist, and disobedient child can be grateful), but both sides pick and choose the parts they like. In the process, we all miss the true value of a book like Deuteronomy: to teach us about the holy character of God.
Deuteronomy tells us about how God turned a wandering group of former slaves, steeped in the religion of Egypt and tantalized by the idols of nearby nations, into his holy people. Early on in this book, Moses reveals the reason God gave his law to the Israelites: “See, I have taught you decrees and laws as the LORD my God commanded me, so that you may follow them in the land you are entering to take possession of it. Observe them carefully, for this will show your wisdom and understanding to the nations, who will hear about all these decrees and say, ‘Surely this great nation is a wise and understanding people.’” (Deuteronomy 4:5–6, NIV). God was doing something radical in calling a people to be his own. Israel was to stand as a light to the surrounding nations as an example of how people could live justly before God (Isaiah 42:6, 49:6).
God’s law would make the people of Israel a nation set apart. Many of the laws in Deuteronomy forbid the Israelites to worship the gods of other nations; others set them apart by regulating the foods they are allowed to eat and the rituals by which these foods are prepared. However, a significant number of these laws regulate the use of money and the exercise of political power. In Deuteronomy, God calls on the people of Israel to set themselves apart not only by what they eat and how they worship, but also by how they act toward poor and vulnerable members of their community. The book reveals a God whose law teaches that concern for the poor is an important part of holiness. In Deuteronomy, the Israelites were required:
· to leave part of their harvests in the field to be gleaned by widows and orphans (24:17–22),
· to give a tenth of their income every third year to support those who could not support themselves (14:28),
· to forgive all debts owed to them by other members of the community every seventh year (15:1-2),
· and to be lenient when asking the poor to provide surety for debt (24:12–13).
Additionally, the law required that the Israelites pay their poor workers promptly (24:14) and forbid charging interest when lending money to other members of the community (23:19–20). Clearly, God does not consider alleviating poverty to be a matter of individual initiative. Caring for the poor wasn’t optional; it was required by the law.
Since leaving the corners of our gardens for gleaning won’t yield the kind of food needed to end hunger, Christians in America need to ask what Deuteronomy and other biblical law books, such as Leviticus, reveal about God’s character and what these laws mean for us today. In Deuteronomy, God provided for the poor through a kind of tax on landowners and by forcing his people to wipe the debt slate clean every seven years. These specific requirements might not make sense today, but even if we can’t use Deuteronomy as a blueprint, shouldn’t God’s people think about how they can reflect God’s character in a new time and culture? At the very least, Deuteronomy suggests that it is as important for our nation to have laws about caring for the poor as it is to have laws that regulate personal behavior.
At the end of the day, God’s “big government” in the Old Testament consisted mostly of property laws and regulations for harvest time, debts, and slaves. This approach ensured that the able-bodied could work, that debt could be avoided, and that no one would be trapped in generational poverty. It was light on government programs, but demanding and counterintuitive when compared to the expectations of modern capitalism. In addition, we learn from Deuteronomy that God wanted to empower the poor to care for themselves. That means we can’t just throw money at the poor, but it also means we can’t cut off all aid and chastise them if they are unable to rise above the crushing power of poverty. The laws of Deuteronomy do not support the obsessive collectivizing of socialism, but they also don’t protect personal property and individual profit to the extent that capitalism does.
As Christians we don’t want to take over the government, but we do want our government to reflect the justice that God desires for all nations and people. To this end, we should support solutions to poverty that are empowering for the poor, but that also involve the wealthy in the process, without necessarily creating a larger government. In light of these lessons, perhaps one way forward could involve a robust grant program for nonprofit organizations that is widely available, adequately funded by taxpayers, and easy to access. There are many efficient and effective nonprofit agencies that empower the poor and help them meet basic needs that would otherwise remain unmet, but the funding that these nonprofits struggle to find could be easily supplied through a grant system. In addition, if businesses are driven by higher profits, the government could offer incentives and tax breaks to businesses that employ former prison inmates or workers from the inner-city. These kinds of solutions do not necessitate the creation of a larger government, even if sometimes government programs are warranted.
God’s call for us to be generous and to alleviate poverty is not an invitation to double the size of our government, nor is it vindication to scrap every government program. We can’t deny that God envisioned a holy nation as one that cared for the poor. The work of creating a nation that embodies the justice and mercy that God desires must transcend partisan lines. The Bible recognizes that some people need help to get by, that some people need to be forced to be generous, and that the wealthy must make sacrifices for the benefit of the community. Perhaps if the wealthy could share opportunities, capital, and even their property, we wouldn’t need taxes, large government programs, and the other trappings of big government. The cost of holiness includes sacrifice from the wealthy and hard work for the poor.
As it turns out, God’s solution to poverty is far more personal and costly than either political party could ever imagine. The biblical picture of a just nation is one that includes the alleviation of poverty and the upholding of justice through its laws. God intended for other nations to learn from the laws of Israel what a just nation looks like. While we can’t lift the laws from another culture and drop them into modern America, we can learn that God doesn’t grant prosperity to nations for the benefit of the supposedly hard-working few. Rather, a truly prosperous city on a hill imitates the justice and mercy of God, using its prosperity to ensure that all people have the dignity of being able to meet their basic needs.
Ed Cyzewski is the author of Coffeehouse Theology: Reflecting on God in Everyday Life. He blogs on Christian belief and practice at www.inamirrordimly.com.