He has told you, O man, what is good; and what does the LORD require of you but to do justice, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God?
As Christians, we understand that engagement with the poor is a matter of extending Christ’s mercy to the lowly. As Paul wrote in 2 Corinthians 8:9, Christ, though he was rich, for our sake became poor, so that we by his poverty might become rich. This is gospel reenactment.
But less familiar to Christians is the idea that engagement with the poor is also a matter of justice. We typically think of justice and mercy as opposed to each other. After all, don’t the poor deserve their poverty and the rich merit their wealth? The Bible says it is a lot more complex than that. Poverty, for many, is the result of laziness and immorality. But the Bible also understands poverty as a function of injustice. This is not widely accepted among Christians.
Let’s do a thought experiment. Suppose you have two children. One is born to wealthy, highly-educated white parents who are professors at UC Berkeley. The other is born to a black single-mother on welfare struggling with a drug addiction in East Oakland. Can we predict the paths of these two children? Sadly, yes – with alarming accuracy. Why should the fate of these two children be so strictly determined simply by the circumstances of their birth? We may flatter ourselves that our station in life is largely the result of our own individual effort, but the reality is that wealth and poverty is largely generational. Which means the deprivations of the poor are fundamentally unjust. This is the profound insight of the Bible. Helping the poor is not simply a matter of mercy, but of fairness and justice. Thus you have passages like:
Blessed is he whose help is the God of Jacob, whose hope is in the LORD his God, who made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, who keeps faith forever; who executes justice for the oppressed, who gives food to the hungry.
Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of wickedness, to undo the straps of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover him, and not to hide yourself from your own flesh? Then shall your light break forth like the dawn, and your healing shall spring up speedily; your righteousness shall go before you; the glory of the LORD shall be your rear guard.
Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean; remove the evil of your deeds from before my eyes; cease to do evil, learn to do good; seek justice, correct oppression; bring justice to the fatherless, plead the widow’s cause.
Without understanding the biblical framework of social justice, these verses seem to confuse upholding righteousness and helping the poor. But in the biblical worldview, all these things are connected – doing justice, correcting oppression, pleading the widow’s cause.
In the biblical understanding, pursuing justice is rectifying the fundamental unfairness that poverty inflicts on the poor. Consider Proverbs 13:23: “The fallow ground of the poor would yield much food, but it is swept away through injustice.” What is this proverb telling us? That the poor work hard but their labors are often in vain because poverty itself works against them. Unlike the rich, the poor don’t have a wide margin to make mistakes. A single illness, a few months of unemployment, a small emergency, and the family finances will go down the drain. Or consider the disparate realities of wealth and poverty in Proverbs 10:15 – “A rich man’s wealth is his strong city; the poverty of the poor is their ruin.”
According to the Bible, the righteous life is not simply to abstain from criminality, but to be deeply concerned with and immersed in the problem of chronic poverty. This is at the core of the Christian life.
If you would like to hear more, you can visit our Sunday School page for a two-part series on Mercy Ministry. Look under the dates Feb. 27 and March 6, 2011.