Thursday, April 30, 2015

Poverty, the Church, and Entitlement Programs

Christians are routinely bashed for not being concerned about the poor. This charge is based upon our lack of support for “entitlement” programs.

Meanwhile, many are now calling for “income equality” as a basic “human right,” and even claim that this is a Christian thing. But is it? Certainly, concern for the poor is a high biblical priority. Here are some examples:

THE SABBATH  “Observe the sabbath day… Six days you shall labor and do all your work, but the seventh day is a sabbath of the LORD your God; in it you shall not do any work, you or your son or your daughter or your male servant or your female servant or your ox or your donkey or any of your cattle or your sojourner who stays with you, so that your male servant and your female servant may rest as well as you. (Deut. 5:12-14)

The Sabbath was even a rest for the least of people. Such mercy for the poor was in direct contrast to all other ancient cultures:

  • “Tacitus, Juvenal, Plutarch make merry over the idea of presenting one day in every seven to the worker! The far-reaching humanitarian significance of the Sabbath was, of course, undreamt of by them.” (J.H. Hertz, The Pentateuch and Haftorahs)
  • “Subordination of the rights of property to those of humanity…a new conception in the history of the world-a conception that could as little have been derived from Egypt as from Greece and Rome.” (Hertz)
  • “Among the Romans, the idea of property took precedence over theidea of humanity. Thus, if the debtor was unable to repay a sum advanced to him, the Roman creditor could imprison him in a private dungeon, chain him to a block, sell him into slavery, or kill him…pity for the poor was looked upon as sickly sentimentality, unworthy of a free man…Virgil praises one of his heros because he never felt any sympathy for sufferers through want; Seneca thinks it natural to recoil in horror from a poor man; and Paulus declares feeding the hungry to be cruelty because it prolongs a life of misery.” (Hertz)
According to Mosaic Law, the poor were never to become a permanent underclass. Therefore, debts had to be cancelled every seventh year – an historical anomaly among the nations:


  • At the end of every seven years you must cancel debts. This is how it is to be done: Every creditor shall cancel the loan he has made to his fellow Israelite. He shall not require payment from his fellow Israelite or brother, because the LORD's time for canceling debts has been proclaimed. You may require payment from a foreigner, but you must cancel any debt your brother owes you. (Deuteronomy 15:1-3) 

  • Consecrate the fiftieth year and proclaim liberty throughout the land to all its inhabitants. It shall be a jubilee for you; each one of you is to return to his family property and each to his own clan. (Leviticus 25:10) 
Land was the means of wealth and security. When the poor would lose their land, they would also lose their means of income. Therefore, the land had to revert to the family to whom it had been originally allocated.


  • At the end of every three years, bring all the tithes of that year's produce and store it in your towns, so that the Levites (who have no allotment or inheritance of their own) and the aliens, the fatherless and the widows who live in your towns may come and eat and be satisfied, and so that the LORD your God may bless you in all the work of your hands. (Deuteronomy 14:28-29)
This was not intended for the able-bodied but for the needy. We do not know to what extent it provided for their needs.


  • "When you reap the harvest of your land, do not reap to the very edges of your field or gather the gleanings of your harvest. Leave them for the poor and the alien. I am the LORD your God." (Leviticus 23:22)
The law of gleaning did not encourage laziness. Instead, the gleaners would have to forage strenuously for scarce resources.


  • If there is a poor man among your brothers in any of the towns of the land that the LORD your God is giving you, do not be hardhearted or tightfisted toward your poor brother. Rather be openhanded and freely lend him whatever he needs. (Deuteronomy 15:7-8) 
Jesus seems to have only reiterated the Mosaic laws:

  • Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you. (Matthew 5:42)
These loans weren’t gifts. They had to be paid back or else the Israelite might have to sell himself as a servant until the debt is paid off. Giving was never to be administered in a way that created dependency but in a way that would help the needy to escape dependency.

Those who received the loan had to be treated with dignity. The loaner could not simply enter into the home of the indebted one. His dignity had to be preserved:

  • When you make a loan of any kind to your neighbor, do not go into his house to get what he is offering as a pledge. Stay outside and let the man to whom you are making the loan bring the pledge out to you. (Deuteronomy 24:10-11)
Although the indebted might have to provide security on his loan in case of default, the loaner could not deprive the indebted of his means of repaying the debt:

  • Do not take a pair of millstones--not even the upper one--as security for a debt, because that would be taking a man's livelihood as security. (Deuteronomy 24:6)
Christians, therefore, rightly want to give in a way that will help and not hinder. If giving creates dependency and laziness, it is destructive. Instead, compassion argues that the lazy should reap the appropriate consequences of their laziness so that they might wake up:

  • He who gathers crops in summer is a prudent son, but he who sleeps during harvest is a disgraceful son. (Proverbs 10:5) 
  • Diligent hands will rule, but laziness ends in forced labor. (Proverbs 12:24)
  • A sluggard’s appetite is never filled, but the desires of the diligent are fully satisfied. (Proverbs 13:4)
  • One who is slack in his work is brother to one who destroys. (Proverbs 18:9)
Consequently, Paul argued that the lazy should not be enabled in their laziness:

  • For even when we were with you, we gave you this rule: "If a man will not work, he shall not eat." (2 Thess. 3:10) 
When giving is not coupled with wisdom, it can damage:

  • As for younger widows, do not put them on such a [support] list. For when their sensual desires overcome their dedication to Christ, they want to marry. Thus they bring judgment on themselves, because they have broken their first pledge. (1 Tim. 5:11-12)
Giving can also elicit contempt and an entitlement mentality. The Occupy Movement believes that they are entitled to the money of others. They decry the riches of the “one percent” and even talk violently against them, as if they have committed a great injustice. (Sometimes, it is a matter of injustice. But if this is so, then it must be mediated by the courts, or new laws must be passed to protect the poor. However, the Occupiers have never seemed able to articulate what the new laws should look like.)

From where do their threats come? They have been told that they are entitled to more, and that they have been unjustly cheated out of their “human rights.” While poverty is sometimes a matter of justice, it is not always so. It might instead be the product of other causes, including laziness and substance abuse.

It is therefore important to exercise discernment and wisdom. Many entitlement programs have actually hurt those who were supposed to be helped by them, creating dependency and an angry entitlement mentality:

  • We hardly need another polemic about the failure of America’s “war on poverty.” After decades of bitter wrangling and torpid inaction, there is at last a broad consensus that the welfare system is a cure no less malignant than the disease it was intended to remedy. Liberals and conservatives, politicians and program administrators, social workers and taxpayers have all been forced to acknowledge that the poor are not best served by our current lumbering and impersonal entitlement bureaucracy. They never have been. They never will be. On this, we now all agree.
  • If the poor are to be equipped with the tools of self-reliance and initiative, they must first restore family ties and community connections that have been sundered by privation and irresponsibility. Promiscuous philanthropy does little to solve the long-term dilemmas of social disintegration. It is little surprise then that programs that emphasize personal accountability, family responsibility, and community cooperation are much more likely to succeed than programs that simply dispense aid as sheer entitlements. 
How can we truly help the poor? First, we have to understand their must fundamental needs. Gracey Olmstead writes:

  • In his excellent essay at the end of the book, Peter Greer references a World Bank survey from the 1990s, in which surveyors asked financially poor people throughout the developing world how they would describe poverty. “The poor did not focus on their material need,” writes Greer. “Rather, they alluded to social and psychological aspects of poverty.” They referenced poverty in terms “shame, inferiority, powerlessness, humiliation, fear, hopelessness, depression, social isolation, and voicelessness.” 
Can we give in a way that helps the needy recover their sense of dignity? Many Christian aid groups have! In The Tragedy of American Compassion, Marvin Olasky, editor-in-chief of World Magazine, argues that, for 300 years, the church has been doing a good job of addressing the needs of the poor:

  • Faith-based groups a century ago helped millions out of poverty and into homes. Local organizations had the detailed knowledge and flexibility necessary to administer the combination of loving compassion and rigorous discipline that was needed.
Caring for the poor is not an option, it is a Christian duty! However, this duty must be wisely fulfilled, or it will damage the ones we are to help.

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