WHY GOD FAVORS THE POOR

By Jim Jordal

My brothers, don't hold the faith of our Lord Jesus Christ of glory with partiality. For if a man with a gold ring, in fine clothing, comes into your synagogue and a poor man in filthy clothing also comes in; and you pay special attention to him who wears the fine clothing, and say, "Sit here in a good place;" and you tell the poor man, "Stand there," or "Sit by my footstool;" haven't you shown partiality among yourselves, and become judges with evil thoughts? Listen, my beloved brothers. Didn't God choose those who are poor in this world to be rich in faith, and heirs of the Kingdom which he promised to those who love him?

James 2:1-5 WEB

It may shock some of us, but Scripture supports the view that God favors the poor precisely because some of their characteristics and strengths are closer to what God wants than are many of the rituals and traditions of the modern church. In other words, God has, as Liberation Theologians hold, a “preferential option” for the poor.

Notice in the reading above that our human nature responds favorably to the appearances of personal quality like gold rings and fine apparel, but tends to marginalize or even reject those not dressed or behaving according to our expectations. So we often judge by appearances rather than by character, usually at great loss to ourselves and our ecclesiastical institutions.

Perhaps God’s preference for the poor had something to do with the circumstance of Jesus’ birth. There he was, born to unwed parents, naked, alone, without house, home, an undocumented immigrant, surrounded by a society violent and fearful enough to order all children under the age of two to be killed. Doesn’t at all look like a favorable situation, does it? 

On the surface of things Jesus appeared more as a victim of prejudicial partiality than a future king. Partiality becomes a sin when it excludes or marginalizes people based upon anything other than character. But we use race, gender, wealth, bodily characteristics, speech patterns, clothing, and modes of transportation to assign worth to individuals. This assignment of worth based upon observable yet often totally insignificant appearances is a form of judgmentalism that creates a social ranking system very damaging to what we normally think of a Christian values---love, acceptance, toleration, personal respect and others. At its worst it becomes a caste system assigning total life in a community to racial and family background.

God especially values the poor of this world because of their richness in faith. They must be rich in faith because often they have nothing else, especially not the indicators of status used by the world to assign personal worth. The poor as a necessity must depend upon God for virtually everything they have.

Don’t make the classic error of using individual bad behavior to disparage an entire group of people. Every group has “bad apples” that reflect badly on other members, but they do not make up the ethos, or character of the group. To claim that the poor are what they are because they won’t work is to ignore all other causes of unemployment like shortage of jobs, needs for advanced training, health issues, inadequate transportation, and poverty-level wages that make it almost useless to work.

However, it’s in their society itself that the poor find the most rejection and suffering. The prophet Isaiah condemns the callousness and arrogance of the leaders of society with these stinging words: “The plunder of the poor is in your houses. What do you mean by crushing my people, and grinding the faces of the poor? says the Lord God” (Isa. 3:14b-15). And the Psalmist asks: “Shall the throne of iniquity, that devises evil by law, have fellowship with you?” (Psalms 94:20).

If the generic church is to be the custodian of moral values for the culture, what does that say to us about what the church needs to do about poverty? We may not be able to openly engage evil devised by law, or declare evil laws unconstitutional, but we can “speak truth to power,” by resolutely declaring in the various media what God says about the many national issues that create poverty through their very existence.

A new government is now ready to assume power. Why don’t we attempt to decry any unjust legislation we see, and call for removal by due process of those creating and implementing these laws. That’s “speaking truth to power,” and that’s true patriotism.

AMOS CONDEMNS THOSE WHO “SWALLOW UP THE NEEDY”

By Jim Jordal

 Hear this, O ye that swallow up the needy, even to make the poor of the land to fail, Saying, When will the new moon be gone, that we may sell corn? and the sabbath, that we may set forth wheat, making the ephah small, and the shekel great, and falsifying the balances by deceit? That we may buy the poor for silver, and the needy for a pair of shoes; yea, and sell the refuse of the wheat? The LORD hath sworn by the excellency of Jacob, Surely I will never forget any of their works. Shall not the land tremble for this, and every one mourn that dwelleth therein?                                                                                                     Amos 8:4-8a  KJV

If you’re one who believes that the poor are solely responsible for their poverty, you can stop reading right now because nothing else I say is going to make any difference to you. As I’ve said before, there are over 2,000 verses in the Bible on poverty, its causes and its effect. There are only about 40 verses, found mostly in Proverbs, blaming poverty on sloth and poor personal decision-making. So if you want to know what God says about poverty, it might be better to get it from his word rather than from discredited dogma.

Notice in the first sentence of the Scripture quoted above that there really are people who “swallow up the needy,” and “make the poor of the land to fail.” So poverty is not merely an unfortunate accident of history---it is the direct result of policies designed by human predators to make people poor and to keep them that way. Back in Amos’ time that predation of the poor consisted largely of manipulating commerce around the prohibitions of feast days and the Sabbath so that poor quality farm produce, like the “refuse of the wheat” could be sold.

This manipulation of food production and distribution was aided by what Amos so quaintly calls “making the ephah small and the shekel great, and falsifying the balances by deceit.” It’s easy to falsify scales in the market place of weights and measures, but the real danger occurs in manipulating the value of money. This deed helps transfer wealth from poor to rich and is accomplished (both then and now) by what we call “tight money,” or fiscal austerity. Tight money occurs as the Federal Reserve raises interest rates or enacts other deflationary monetary policies. It can also occur as commercial banks limit their lending, either through fear of inflation, or due to Fed policy demands. Banks seem more terrified by fear of inflation than of recession, so if rising prices threaten the Fed and its banking members, they quickly act to raise interest rates. If money is scarce, it’s value rises, making the shekel great as Amos complained, and creating hard times and public suffering.

Today commercial banks are a major source of money creation through “fractional reserve” banking, meaning that banks are required to keep only a small fraction of deposits in reserve and can in effect create money by loaning out excess reserves. They also create money through “deposit creation,” which is just as it sounds, creating their own deposits through lending. So in essence Amos was complaining about a commercial/financial system that had the effect of swallowing up the needy and making the poor of the land to fail.

It’s instructive to note that most complaints concerning this abusive, destructive commercial/financial system came from prophets who were often outside the existing religious system (usually because they valued truth more than power). With a few exceptions, kings and their usually wealthy consorts liked and supported this domination system because they could use it to maintain their wealth and power. Actually, Isaiah 14:5 calls it the “staff of the wicked” and the “scepter of the rulers.” The organized religious structure didn’t complain about this “swallowing up of the needy” because many of its members were the very people who dominated and oppressed the poor. It was left to the prophets who operated on the margins of society and were therefore free (although in great danger of imprisonment or death) to express their understanding of the Scriptures.

Why does it so often escape organized religion that it has a God-given duty to, as Jim Wallis says, “speak truth to power”? We wouldn’t have to join the ranks of power, but we could and should speak to them of what God says about justice, truth, and mercy. As Amos says, “Let justice run down like water, and righteousness as a mighty stream.”

ONE WAY TO DEAL WITH POVERTY

By Jim Jordal

 As poverty in the U.S. continues to worsen in spite of our supposed recovery from the Recession of 2008, we again face legislative gridlock in finding any viable solutions. Even with recent increases in minimum wages, the income gained by millions of full-time workers remains inadequate for family health. As President Obama said in his recent State of the Union address, nobody in Congress would even attempt to live on $15,000 per year, yet we ask many millions of workers to do just that. As politicians brag about the many new jobs created each month, no one mentions that most of them are contracted positions with no benefits, part-time only, or full-time, but with poverty-level wages. 

Since wages appear to be relatively stagnant over the foreseeable future, what other options to ease poverty may exist? One of these, the Guaranteed Annual Wage, or Basic Income Guarantee (BIG), I’ve written about earlier. But this option frightens legislators because it would fund the guaranteed wage by increased government spending fueled by tax increases. In other words it’s just a method for dividing the same economic pie in a different manner.

 But there is another possibility that would significantly increase family income even though wages remain stagnant. This option involves charging businesses for their use of what is known as “the commons,” or valuable public assets now given freely to anyone with enough technical know-how to use them.  These publicly owned resources include air, both surface and artesian water, electronic airwaves used by broadcasters and the social media, the internet, tillable earth, natural resources in the ground, and other public entities that economists often  call “free” goods.

Historically, the commons was that communally-owned land around small villages where the inhabitants pastured their farm animals and grew needed food. The people and their villages owned the land, which then provided income for all. But gradually powerful feudal barons began the process of “entailment, or fencing parts of the commons for their own private use. In other words, they privatized what had previously been public resources. In the U.S. you might remember the range wars arising when strong cattlemen began fencing the open range, thereby in essence stealing the commons from poorer and less powerful farmers. Currently we see it in attempts to privatize natural resources like water supplies, infrastructure, in-ground natural resources, and the airwaves.

In the moral, ethical sense these valuable products belong to the people, not powerful corporations able to overcome resistance to their larceny of public resources. The people should then have power to “rent” these natural assets to the private sector at prices commensurate with gains derived from use of these assets.

Biblically, this concept arises from the Jubilee provision that God owns the earth and gave it to men to use, not destroy. All humans by virtue of their very existence should share equitably, not necessarily equally, in the wealth of the earth. The operative concept is that the earth is not a garbage dump, but a life-giving gift from God to man, to be used for human welfare, not only corporate profit.

The problem is that corporations gain enough wealth and power to be able to unjustly persuade legislative bodies into providing excessive benefits to them in the form of subsidies, almost obscene tax breaks, and other rewards serving to transfer income from the people to the owners of capital. So as the power of these corporate monsters increases, the people’s share of the economic pie gradually decreases.

The new proposals claim they can create new income streams by taxing corporations on their use of the commons and its resources that were previously lightly taxed, if at all. The proceeds would then be given directly to the people, just like the Permanent Fund today gives every Alaskan citizen over $1200 dollars annually from state oil revenues.

Even though this system might not raise family income levels enough to fully end poverty, it would still provide a needed annual boost that would also grow as national domestic product outputs increase.

GOD’S PREFERENTIAL OPTION FOR THE POOR

By Jim Jordal

Listen, my beloved brothers. Didn't God choose those who are poor in this world to be rich in faith, and heirs of the Kingdom which he promised to those who love him?                                                                  James 2:5 WEB

With the recent visit of Pope Francis to the U.S., the poor are now again on the front page, but for how long no one knows. World leaders have a remarkable tolerance for shedding tears over their suffering, and an equal ability to shove the poor out of national attention when it becomes convenient. It’s as if underneath all the tears and moaning over the poor, no one really believes the issue can be satisfactorily resolved, at least not without a massive dislocation of the social and economic status structure.

But even if most world leaders really care enough to force the changes in economic structures and policies necessary to deal with poverty, someone still cares mightily about the poor and their suffering: God cares!

 The concept that God has a "preferential option for the poor" comes from the late Twentieth Century writings and work of various Latin American priests under the common title of liberation theology. The idea is that Mosaic Law, the prophets, Jesus Himself, and the apostles all gave preference to helping vulnerable elements of society beginning with the poor, widows, orphans, immigrants and anyone else victimized by deliberate, structured, institutionalized injustice and oppression. In fact, some of the more extreme proponents of liberation theology proposed that finding God can only be accomplished through gaining solidarity with the poor in personal participation with them in their destitution and suffering.

If you doubt the assertion that God cares especially for the marginalized and downtrodden of the earth, read again the Beatitudes of Jesus (Matthew 5). In this monologue Jesus confers comfort, deliverance, and membership in His kingdom to the poor in spirit and those who mourn as they meekly and hungrily thirst for righteousness. He offers mercy to the merciful; the ability to see God to the pure in heart, membership in His family and kingdom to the peacemakers and those persecuted for righteousness’ sake. Doesn’t this outpouring of Divine blessing to those meek mourners of the earth read as if God cared especially for them?

Some liberation theologians call these "the crucified people" because society has done to them exactly what was done to Jesus as He groaned in agony for his simple desire to bring salvation, justice, and deliverance to His people. And more than a few Latin American priests paid with their lives for their opposition to the entrenched economic, political, and social yoke of the existing patrician, corrupt, arrogant domination system of large landholders and resource exploiters.

Today the concept of a preferential option for the poor is here again in statements made by Pope Francis to the effect that the church and society need new focus on the earth’s billions of vulnerable, suffering people. Some 2.5 billion people (about 40 percent) exist on less than $2 daily. Most of them exist in squalid urban slums or as marginal sharecroppers on land seized from rightful owners during the colonial period of European and American domination several centuries ago.

Pope Francis understands the need for advocacy as well as charity. He knows why God chose the poor as a vehicle through which to reveal himself to humanity. And he comprehends why God has a special place in his heart for the poor: They are rich in faith because they have to be, since society has appropriated or denied almost everything else they have or might believe in.

We in the church today could learn much from the poor by focusing less on their dysfunction and more on their continued oppression by a system deliberately structured to "devise evil by law," as Psalm 94:20 says.

Yes, the poor have many problems, some of their own making. But they are still the children of God, and the sooner we learn this, the more stable will be the Republic in which we believe.

IS POVERTY NORMAL?

By Jim Jordal

One of the reasons it’s so difficult to eradicate poverty is that most Americans think it’s a normal outcome of capitalistic enterprise. They see it as a game with winners and losers in a free market system operating in a political democracy. If you win it’s because of your superior intellect, hard work, good timing, perseverance or other fortuitous attributes. And if you lose it’s because of your lack of marketable skills and worthy attitudes and behaviors.

Since we all are aware of the vast range of human skills, abilities, and accidents of birth it then follows that the outcomes for some will be less than for others---so poverty becomes normal since somebody has to be at the low end of the curve of distributed human attributes. Poverty is now just another human difference---like height, intelligence, or manual dexterity.

When some situation is considered normal society loses interest in solving it since solutions are viewed as unnecessary or impossible. We can then commiserate over those unfortunate souls having the problem but at the same time studiously ignore it. Often we come to view poverty as "punishment" for bad behavior and as such it becomes both moral and necessary.

But is poverty normal and even necessary to the progress of society? Scholars explain that modern habits of accumulating wealth grew out of the transition from egalitarian hunter-gatherer to stratified farming economies, which made it possible for some to accumulate wealth based on the labor of others and thus to assume a privileged status.

Today in America amassing wealth is considered evidence of superior intellect or inventiveness. It has progressed so rapidly that we now possess the most unequal income and wealth distribution of any developed nation. The social consequences of this imbalance are staggering, yet many upper income persons consider this not only normal, but also beneficial as a sanction against laziness and ineptitude.

One would expect persons and institutions engaged in the pursuit of profit to defend poverty as a necessary outcome of business activity. But why do many religious institutions and their members also defend continued poverty in spite of the thousands of Bible verses leading to an opposite conclusion? Both Moses and Jesus are commonly quoted in defense of poverty. In Deut. 15:11 Moses counsels that his people be generous to the destitute because "the poor will never cease from the land." And Jesus rebuked his disciples when they questioned why a women anointed him with costly ointment when the money could just as easily been given to the poor, with the comment, "For you have the poor with you always, but Me you do not have always" (Matt. 26:1—11).

These verses must be taken out of context in order to use them to justify continued poverty. Moses knew that jubilee deliverance and redistribution of wealth would be strenuously resisted by the rich and powerful. Under that scenario, yes, there would always be poverty. Jesus knew the same thing---that his message of jubilee release from oppression would not be heeded so poverty would always be there.

The message taught by Jesus in his every action---including his first sermon---was that he came to deliver people from the social and economic conditions that created poverty. So to claim that he condoned it is to depart seriously from the heart of his message. Yet we continue to do this, whether out of selfishness, ignorance, misunderstanding, or even malice, I don’t know.

But condoning poverty does not belong in our ecclesiastical structures, whatever its cause. It must be challenged. You can politely correct this faulty thinking with every opportunity. Be firm, but kind as you point out what Moses and Jesus really said about poverty. You can also use current figures to point out the extreme human costs of poverty today and the many benefits of attempting to change it.