[image: blossoms, 2010, JA Van Devender]
1 Samuel 2:6–8 (NKJV)
6 “The Lord kills and makes alive; He brings down to the grave and brings up. 7 The Lord makes poor and makes rich;
He brings low and lifts up. 8 He raises the poor from the dust And lifts the beggar from the ash heap, To set them among princes And make them inherit the throne of glory. “For the pillars of the earth are the Lord’s, And He has set the world upon them.
There are 16.4 million American children living in poverty. That's nearly one quarter (22.6 percent) of all of our children. More alarming is that the percentage of poor children has climbed by 4.5 percent since the start of the Great Recession in 2007. And poor means poor. For a family of three with one child under 18, the poverty line is $18,400.
I have been thinking a lot about the "poor" and "poverty" this week. Mostly it's because I am preaching on Matthew 5:3 this coming Sunday and that necessarily requires some reflection on what it means to be "poor" both as a spiritual state and as an objective reality. It also calls for thought about how those with "wealth" ought to be oriented toward the poor.
There might be some providential connection in the timing because the recent budget actions in the US Congress has generated quite a bit of discussion on the idea of "food stamps" and a some reassessment of this nation's policies going all the way back to LBJ's ill-considered "Great Society."
Abraham Kuyper wrote a very instructive short book called The Problem of Poverty back at the turn of the 20th century. His concern, serious at the time, was to address the "socialist" movement that was gaining such world-wide strength. The question of "poverty" is key to understanding why "socialism" as a philosophy has any appeal at all. It's apparent that the modern dependence of "big government" as the answer to social ills has its roots in this era and its continuing effects. The debate today still revolves around the same general concepts even though the cultural circumstances are far different.
American Christians, especially we Evangelicals, tend to have a pretty Lassiez Faire attitude toward poverty. Although not indifferent to it entirely and especially not so when it comes to donations to institutions who provide benevolent or missional ministries to the destitute, Evangelicals generally are not "burdened" with the "poor". Mostly we assume that those, in this country, who are "poor" are only "relatively poor" and mostly as a result of their own lack of integrity or willingness to live on "hand outs" when they ought to be out looking for a job.
Now that is a huge over-generalization, I know, but it does fit, I think, the prevailing, day to day, attitude I encounter among most Christians. We are conservative, by nature and inclination, and most often prone to think that "success", or at least "material sufficiency" is a corollary to personal integrity and especially a good old "American" protestant work ethic. We are usually hardened against any hint of a "social gospel", not because most of us really have ever investigated what the "social gospellers" in the late 1800's actually taught, but because of cultural conditioning.
In this, as in all things, we need to remember that our first duty is to understand "what hath God said" and then begin to evaluate what we ought to think and do in conformity to what He has revealed.
As theologians as widely disparate as R. Rushdoony, Ron Sider, Abraham Kuyper and N. T. Wright, have confirmed, the Bible speaks pretty forcefully about "the problem of the poor" and how God expects His people to relate to them. There are quite a few ancient Hebrew or Greek words that are translated by the English term "poor" and I will not go into all of them. But the prevailing tone of the Bible's teaching on the subject might very well be summarized in Psalm 10. When the poor are a stark witness to evil structures (oppression particularly) in the social order then God very clearly calls His people to do something about it... individually and corporately. Individually Christians are called to deal with the "unjustly poor" as they encounter them. The "rich man" encountered Lazarus, a prime example of the "unjustly poor", and his unrighteous disregard of him was the foundation of his eternal judgment and torment according to Jesus Himself. Corporately, as the passage above quoted states, Christians have a social obligation to work to remove institutional evil that represses and oppresses those who are subject to it.
In the late 1800's such an institutional evil was clearly present in the abusive child-labor practices, sweat shops, coal & steel and other monopolies that essentially enslaved people without due regard to their health or potential for flourishing. Again, that is a gross generalization, but it reflects a core truth.
So... this current debate is one in which Christians must have more than "knee jerk" arguments to advance. The "food stamp" and "welfare" programs in this country are rife with abuse and corruption. I consider the institutional "war on poverty" features of the Great Society to be one of the more insidious forces still weakening our culture and its potential resurgence. That being said, there remains the "problem of the poor." If we agree that Leopold's basic analysis has at least some merit... that there are children in this country who in their life situation are "poor" to the degree that there is little hope for their upward mobility (there is a minimum degree of "wealth" that must be available before a person can move upward... a person who spends all day rifling through the garbage in a land fill hoping to find a half-eaten hamburger is not really a candidate for admission to college at the moment) then we Christians have to have our own answer about how to address that issue.
We will be required by God to give an answer in due time... and He expects us to seek that answer, and act on it, now.
I have no doubt that a true Christian approach to "poverty", undertaken not as an institutional approach through supposedly disinterested parties like the United Way or the Federal Government or the Combined Federal Campaign, but rather as a common dedication expressed in mutual cooperation among distinct Christian communitites can make a decided difference in our culture. At least in pockets if not in the whole.