Wednesday, June 29, 2005

Christians and Global Poverty

Evangelicals for Social Action sent an open letter to the president demanding a global war on poverty. Reading the list of signers, I noticed a few “conservative” evangelicals, including Richard Land, President of the Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission.

According to Time Magazine, Land is “God’s Lobbyist,” and one of the most influential evangelical leaders in America. Land has a huge rolodex filled with the names of Washington insiders, not to mention an educational pedigree that includes stops at Princeton and Oxford, but he has evidently not taken an economics class.

The letter begins by emphasizing the moral imperative to clothe the naked and feed the hungry:

We write as evangelical leaders to urge a strengthened, expanded emphasis on overcoming hunger and poverty both here and abroad in the next four years. Precisely the commitment to moral values (including the sanctity of human life) that shape all our political activity compels us to insist as a nation we must do more to end starvation and hunger and strengthen the capacity of poor people to create wealth and care for their families.

ESA goes on to urge a greater commitment to foreign aid programs:

In 2000, virtually every nation on the planet approved the Millennium Development Goals that included a commitment to halve global poverty by 2015. But adequate funds to meet these goals are not being given, and the U. S. ranks absolutely last (as a percentage of GNP) among all developed nations in its governmental assistance to overcome global poverty. Our nation has fallen far short of the increase in health and development assistance that you proposed. The richest nation in history can and must grasp the opportunity to lead.

The ESA is also concerned about poverty here at home, and while they laud the work of charities and churches, they say that faith-based social services are just not doing enough:

But our faith-based social service agencies cannot by themselves solve the problem of poverty of the wallet. As you have often said, government can and should help solve this problem. Tragically, millions of Americans today work full time and still fall below the poverty level. The moral values that shape our lives tell us this is wrong. We believe our rich nation should agree that everyone who works full time responsibly will be able to earn enough to rise above the poverty level and enjoy health insurance.

ESA urged the president to stare down austere members of congress (hee hee) who might want to take an axe to "effective" government anti-poverty programs:

We know there will be powerful pressures, from some places, as you and the Congress work to reduce deficit spending, to cut even effective programs for poor people. We pray that you will not allow this to happen. We pray that God will give you the strength to act like the righteous king in Ps. 72:12-13 and “deliver the needy who cry out, the afflicted who have no one to help, take pity on the weak and the needy, and save the needy from death.

Indeed, God's concern for the poor and helpless is manifested throughout the Bible. In fact, God's word has much to say about specific remedies for poverty.

But how is wealth created? The only way to achieve to broad-based wealth is by increasing productivity through capital investment. However, investment and capital accumulation don't spring from nowhere. To bear such fruit, a culture must first ingest principles of thrift and work based upon a future-orientation. In short, economic growth is a product of culture, and culture is a product of the religious presuppositions that under gird the culture. It is no accident that free-markets, capitalism and freedom constrained by law are largely confined to those parts of the world still borrowing off the spiritual capital accumulated by Christian ancestors.

Economist P. T. Bauer summarizes the ideology of pagan countries as:

lack of interest in material advance combined with resignation in the face of poverty; lack of initiative, self-reliance and of a sense of personal responsibility for the economic fortune of oneself and one's family; high leisure preference, together with a lassitude often found in tropical climates; relatively high prestige of passive or contemplative life compared to active life...belief in perpetual reincarnation which reduces the significance of effort in the course of the present life; recognized status of beggary, together with a lack of stigma in the acceptance of charity...

Bauer rightly concludes that these attitudes are "an integral part of the spiritual and emotional life" of millions, perhaps billions, of people. Moreover, irresponsible charity and foreign aid will only be reinforce these attitudes

Another assumption made in the ESA letter is that the state is the primary institution established by God to tackle poverty. But is that true? What are the legitimate functions of the state? According to the Bible, God established civil government for three primary reasons:

1) To protect human life that is made in the image of God: “Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed; for in the image of God has God made man” (Gen. 9:6);

2) To defend the law-abiding from lawbreakers: “For rulers hold no terror for those who do right, but for those who do wrong. Do you want to be free from fear of the one in authority? Then do what is right and he will commend you. For he is God’s servant to do you good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword for nothing. He is God’s servant, an agent of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer” (Rom. 13:3-4);

3) To provide for a peaceful, orderly society: “I urge, then, first of all, that requests, prayers, intercession and thanksgiving be made for everyone-- for kings and all those in authority, that we may live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness” (I Tim. 1:1-2).

Paul says that the civil authority is a servant of God (Rom. 13:4) who is responsible to enforce justice. The Biblical role for the state is limited to the administration of just laws to defend life and property, punish criminals, and defend the innocent. There is no implied right for the state to coercively take money from one party to give it to another in the name of social welfare.

Rather than dependence on the state, scripture commands responsibility on the part of individuals and families. Paul says, “If anyone does not provide for his relatives, and especially for his immediate family, he has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever.” The basic social institution is the family, not the state, and when we are quick to call on non-family agencies, we undermine the responsibility of families to care for their own.

While the church has a duty to care for indigent widows (I Tim. 5:3) who do not have family, even that charity is restricted. A widow is placed on a list and must be engaged in charitable service. She must be "well known for her good deeds, such as bringing up children, showing hospitality, washing the feet of the saints, helping those in trouble and devoting herself to all kinds of good deeds" (I Tim. 5:10). Here we see that principle that charity must not subsidize irresponsibility (II Thess. 3:10). The further that charity is removed from familial and local institutions, the more likely the principle is to be abused.

In conclusion, the Bible commands individuals, families and churches to provide charity to the poor in as direct a way as possible. Likewise, there are obligations imposed on the recipients of charity. Such a framework rejects the notion that "thou shalt not steal, except by majority vote," and reinforces the principle of loving our neighbor through real, concrete action. Basic to such change is the regenerative power of the Holy Spirit and propagation of the gospel rather than the "redemptive" power of the state.

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