When trying to determine what is good and true, right and just, most Christians are quick to refer to the authority of Scripture. The Bible offers plenty of guidance to Christians eager to live holy lives; it also communicates guidelines for establishing a just society. Unfortunately, Christians sometimes focus exclusively on certain injustices while neglecting others.
Though Evangelical leaders have a lot to say about a Christian's duty to defend the sanctity of life and the institution of marriage, they spend much less time talking about our obligation to the poor. The emphasis on abortion and marriage is understandable. After all, if a baby's life is terminated before she is born she will never experience life within society. Furthermore, strong marriages are the foundation for a healthy society. Nevertheless, Christians should not consider civic engagement an "either/or" proposition. It is not, "Either we combat abortion and the decline of marriage, or we help the poor." Instead, Christians should look at these problems in a "both/and" way. We must both fight for justice for the unborn, work to preserve the institution of marriage, and honor our obligation to help the poor and oppressed.
Jesus identifies with the poor
The Bible makes it clear that our Lord identifies himself in an inextricable way with the poor. Jesus told his disciples that when they feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, provide shelter for the homeless, clothe the naked, nurse the sick, and visit the imprisoned, they are actually doing these things for him. (Matthew 25:35-36). The converse is also true. In the Matthew passage, Jesus did not welcome into his kingdom those who did not serve the poor and needy. (Matthew 25:41-46)
Our Lord's close identification with the poor is not just a New Testament concept. The Old Testament attests to this relationship as well. For example, we read that, "He who is gracious to the poor man lends to the Lord, And He will repay him for his good deed." (Proverbs 19:17)
The Christian's duty to the poor
There is no debate among Christians about whether we have an obligation to serve God. However, some Christians seem to show less conviction when it comes to our obligation to serve the poor. Scripture, however, eliminates any ambiguity. For example, consider the following verse:
"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) This verse is soon followed by another, which Jesus alludes to in the Gospels: "There will always be poor people in the land." However, notice the following sentence: "Therefore I command you to be openhanded toward your brothers and toward the poor and needy in your land." (Deuteronomy 15:11) Far from being an excuse to ignore the impoverished, the full verse actually reminds us that there will always be plenty of opportunity for us to selflessly and joyfully give to those in need.
Our destiny is linked to the poor
In view of a clear obligation that Christians have to the poor, it is not surprising that there are consequences that flow out of our response to the poor.
The Bible often speaks of blessings bestowed on those who reach out to the less fortunate. For example, the book of Proverbs says, "He who is generous will be blessed, for he gives some of his food to the poor." (22:9) We should also understand that there are negative consequences that result from ignoring the poor, "If a man shuts his ears to the cry of the poor, he too will cry out and not be answered." (Proverbs 21:13)
Similar ideas are found in the gospels. For example, in the book of Luke Jesus says, "When you give a luncheon or a dinner, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or rich neighbors, lest they also invite you in return, and repayment come to you. But when you give a reception, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind, and you will be blessed, since they do not have the means to repay you; for you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous." (Luke 14:12-14)
Christ is apparently trying to teach us to put special emphasis on helping and comforting those who cannot repay us. God has promised to bless those who bless the needy, and he will not look favorably upon those who neglect those in poverty. We have seen clearly in the verses quoted above that our disposition toward the poor will have eternal consequences.
In a prosperous, capitalistic country like ours, it is easy to pat ourselves on the back when we are personally successful and forget those who are less fortunate. In a just society, however, those with an abundance have an obligation to share with those in need. Provision for the needy ought to be a vital part of the Church's mission.
Evangelical leaders should work to ensure that their flocks understand that God's "issue set" is much broader than just a few hot topics. Without neglecting big issues like abortion and marriage, Christians should be creative and diligent in addressing a wide range of problems. Considering the Biblical emphasis on poverty and oppression, these issues should also be at the forefront of our political thinking.
Ken Connor is Chairman of the Center for a Just Society in Washington, DC and a nationally recognized trial lawyer who represented Governor Jeb Bush in the Terri Schiavo case. Connor was formally President of the Family Research Council, Chairman of the Board of CareNet, and Vice Chairman of Americans United for Life. For more articles and resources from Mr. Connor and the Center for a Just Society, go to www.ajustsociety.org. Your feedback is welcome; please email email@example.com