By Francis Nash
Jesus called Christians to be salt and light in the world. We have often said the body of Christ should act as the conscience of the community. We are here to bring hope for eternity and help for the present. If you surveyed the general public about issues important to Christians, they would probably list abortion, stem-cell research, pornography, and homosexual marriage. Those are the ones we hear about in the news.
While there are Scripture references leading us to speak out on these social problems, Jesus never actually mentioned any of them, specifically. But Jesus did speak about our treatment of the poor and neglected in society. He associated with those of the lower socioeconomic scale and the outcasts. His mission statement, recorded by Luke as a fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophecy, said he had come to the poor, the blind, the imprisoned, and oppressed. He is the one who will “proclaim justice to the nations” (Matthew 12:18). Christ taught often about materialism and a person’s relationship to money. In fact, about one of every six verses in the synoptic Gospels relates to that subject.
In the United States, statistics show a growing gap between the rich and the poor. According to Business Week, the average CEO in the United States makes 400 times the pay of his company’s average employee. According to Market Watch, corporate profits grow at a record pace, while median family income of workers is stagnant when adjusted for inflation. The 225 wealthiest people in the world earn more than what 3 billion of the world’s poorest folks earn combined.
Companies establish offshore storefront corporations to avoid taxes and regulations here. They fatten their executives’ wallets by exploiting the desperate in other countries, paying pennies per hour for labor. At home, many workers of major profitable companies struggle with low wages and no health insurance or benefits. The rash of corporate scandals is alarming to all fair-minded people.
We live in a wonderful free society where capitalism allows us to reach our potential. Naturally there will be differences in earnings based on supply and demand, education, opportunity, and skill. Profit is not a dirty word, of course. Companies must have the money to expand and reward investors.
But the issue here is how people are treated by others who have control. It is about giving people an opportunity to pursue goals in life. When the gaps between rich and poor grow wider and the treatment of workers by corporations becomes unjust, we have commerce without morality and Christians should be upset. It is an issue we must publicly address to a stronger degree.
Providing Social Justice
When Israel was a theocracy, God made provisions for the poor and aliens and established years of Jubilee to cancel debts. Laws provided for grain to be left for foreigners, orphans, and widows. Other laws provided for sharing with the immigrants and lending without interest to those in need. The intent of the laws was to prevent the concentration of wealth in a few.
The principle of “He who gathered much did not have too much, and he who gathered little did not have too little” (Exodus 16:18) is seen in the distribution of the manna in the wilderness and emphasized again by the apostle Paul in his philosophy of giving and equality in 2 Corinthians 8 and 9. The Old Testament prophets warned many times not to abuse the workers, the poor, and the disenfranchised of society in order to gain wealth. Social injustice and idolatry are the two most popular themes of the prophets.
Yet social injustice is often overlooked by evangelical Christians today for fear they may somehow be labeled promoters of the social gospel or liberation theology. Others accuse those of engaging in such talk as being guilty of class envy or advocating communism.
Isaiah wrote, “What do you mean by crushing my people, and grinding the face of the poor?” (3:15), and “Woe to those who make unjust laws, to those who issue oppressive decrees, to deprive the poor of their rights and withhold justice from the oppressed of my people” (10:1, 2). He condemned those who exploited workers and widows but were oblivious to the suffering around them while living in self-centered wantonness.
Malachi condemned those who oppress the hireling in his wages, the widow, and the fatherless, and turn aside the stranger.
The psalmist wrote, “He upholds the cause of the oppressed and gives food to the hungry” (146:7), and “Blessed is he who has regard for the weak” (41:1). Advocacy for the poor and vulnerable of the land permeates Hebrew literature. It flows from the revelation of God through the rescue of his own enslaved people, Israel. God’s people knew what is was like to live in oppression, and they were to rise above that in their treatment of others in their life and in commerce. The Proverbs writer called on God’s people to defend the rights of the poor.
“Doing Unto Others”
There is real virtue in neither poverty nor wealth. The issue here goes to the very foundation of Christian ethics—“Do unto others as you would have them do unto you”—and a person should not think only of himself, but others. It is about fairness in our dealings and opportunity for everyone. We will be judged on how we treat the less fortunate and the suffering (Matthew 25).
We see Jesus’ anger when commerce in the temple was exploiting the poor even in the name of religion. He redefined the meaning of neighbor as “anyone who is in need” in the parable of the Good Samaritan. He taught us in that story that our religion is more than right doctrine; it is right actions toward others who need assistance. He talked much about accountability when we are blessed. To whom much is given, much is expected.
Jesus even challenged the Sabbath laws that denied helping people or providing for their needs. He condemned the Pharisees for exploiting the widows and forgetting the important matters of justice, love, and mercy. He himself, of course, set the example of living simply.
The early church sold possessions so that all might be cared for. They appointed the first deacons to remedy the unfair treatment of widows in food distribution. While Paul didn’t advocate changing the first-century economic system with its servants and slaves, he strongly urged masters to treat their workers with principled fairness. James told the church it is the rich who exploit you. About the rich he said, “You have hoarded your wealth in the last days, Look! The wages you failed to pay the workmen who mowed your fields are crying out against you” (James 5:4).
Are we responding to the inequities in our society, taking a stand against maltreatment of workers in the world by corporations? Do we work to relieve the oppressed? Are we preaching about materialism? Why are churches not addressing these issues more?
It could be that, sadly, the church is part of the problem, often operating in an environment of comfort and wealth. We have big-time evangelists preaching the “prosperity gospel,” living in grandiose fashion themselves, telling us that if we don’t have riches, God isn’t blessing us. Their prevailing message is it is all about me. I deserve to be happy, to feel good, and have healing and money. All it takes is believing, they say, and giving them a little “seed money.” Then poverty and disease will disappear. We know many of these preachers have been guilty of exploiting the poor and aged while using that income to embellish their own fortunes.
Jesus said his true follower would “deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow” (Matthew 16:24). He told us to seek first the kingdom’s purpose, and the needs of life will be provided. He told the rich young ruler he had to sell what he had to come and follow. It is hard, Jesus said, for the rich to enter Heaven, because of the love of money and material goods. Pure religion, James said, is to take care of the widows and orphans in their distress.
We have churches functioning with a self-centered philosophy that keeps money invested in their own property, staff, and programs rather than missions and benevolence to relieve suffering and preach the gospel to the unreached. With the Scripture’s emphasis on widows and orphans, you would think churches would be busy daily constructing homes and shelters, directing programs by the thousands throughout the world. Instead, it seems our concern is more about new buildings for ourselves. According to George Barna, only 15 percent of ministers surveyed listed missions as a high priority in their church.
Yes, Christians do have many organized efforts of aid everywhere, but we still spend less than $3 overseas for every $100 of church offerings (Status of Global Missions 2005). Hopelessness, poverty, despair, and bitterness anywhere in the world affects us all. The church needs to be the bastion of charity and compassion.
In the past, Amercian Christians have led great campaigns to alleviate injustice, including the abolition of slavery, the establishment of child-labor and workplace safety laws, and the civil rights movement. The duty is not to change the free-enterprise system, but to show that Christian morality means a more evenhanded treatment of people, using riches to share and not for pure self-indulgent excess.
The widening gap between the wealthy and poor in the world, the exploitation of the worker, corporate greed, white-collar crime, the lack of concern for the sick, needy, and homeless refugees in the world—all these should touch our hearts and motivate our preaching, prayer, and actions.
What Can Christians Do? (sidebar)
We, as Christians, must live temperate lives ourselves, as an example. The committed wealthy person can certainly be a great blessing to the church. But we must refuse to get involved in the race of always bigger, better, and more. Don’t buy into the doctrine that only if I have riches is God truly blessing me. Support companies that seem to have a Christian philosophy in treatment of workers.
Churches should examine their budgets for what percentages are being spent on missions and benevolence throughout the world. Congregations should generously provide for the work of saving and serving others in all the nations. We should seek to increase our giving to such projects yearly.
We can strive for change in our culture through publicity, voting, and participating in nonviolent organized efforts. We can also call on the government to enact laws to reform corporate abuses and injustice in many areas. We can amplify the call for more spending for aid to those in need and for less government waste.
We must keep in mind three key biblical principles:
• Work hard—The Bible is clear that sloth is sin. Use whatever talent you have fully. If wealth comes to you, that is wonderful. Give your best at what you do as if working unto the Lord.
• Live right—Realize that the important matters in life are character, your soul, and how you treat others, not your material possessions.
• Share much—Our responsibility is to be generous so that the Lord’s work is accomplished and those who suffer are lifted up. Only by understanding the principles of humility and sacrifice can we grasp the true message of Christianity.
In reality, we know the real cure for all the social sins we deal with daily is the change within the heart of each individual. We have that medicine with the message of salvation in Jesus Christ and the simple question, “What would our Leader do?”
Francis Nash is general manger of WGOH-WUGO in Grayson, Kentucky. He ministers with Sugar Grove Christian church in Owingsville, Kentucky, and serves as executive director of Workers for Mexico Mission.