Biblical Foundations: A Post-Election Memo
I have been thinking and writing about faith and money, economic justice and poverty ever since my years at YDS. Here I want briefly to describe our current situation, sketch some biblical foundations, and then outline a few of the key things American Christians should do during the presidency of Donald Trump.
Globally, we have made stunning progress in reducing poverty – far more progress than I dared to predict 40 years ago in the first edition of my Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger. The Human Development Index (an important measure of poverty) has improved 41 percent between 1970 and 2010. One of the United Nations’ Millennium Development Goals set in 2000 – to cut in half by 2015 the percentage of people globally living in poverty – was actually achieved five years ahead of schedule. The percentage of people living below the international poverty level ($1.25 per day per person) has plunged by more than 50 percent since 1990. Central to this progress has been global trade and the widespread embrace of market economies, especially in Asia.
But it is still the case that today about 1.2 billion people struggle to survive on $1.25 per day. And another 1.2 billion try to manage on only $2 per day. We have made astounding progress, but about onethird of our global neighbors still struggle to live on two dollars or less per day.
The picture in the US is less hopeful. For decades, the richest nation in the world has had the highest poverty level of all Western industrialized nations – currently between 14 percent and 15 percent of the population. In the last several decades, the middle class has declined, and income and wealth have become more and more concentrated at the top. From 1979 to 2007, 63.6 percent of all income growth went to the top 10 percent. In the last few years, over 90 percent of all growth in income has gone to the top 1 percent. Escalating inequality in income and wealth, a declining middle class, and a persistent high poverty level are central aspects of the US picture today.
An Evangelical Response
I’m an evangelical Christian – no, not that kind, not the kind widely held in the public mind! I identify with the sort that fights racism, economic injustice and homophobia, and works to protect the environment without neglecting evangelism and historic Christian doctrines. As that kind of evangelical, my basic move, when confronting any social problem, is to look to the biblical canon for a normative framework. Four points are especially important for our topic.
First, the God portrayed in the Bible is on the side of the poor. Literally hundreds of biblical verses say that God and God’s faithful people are actively engaged in seeking justice for those who are oppressed and poor. God measures societies by what they do to the people on the bottom. The Bible dares to suggest that those who claim to be God’s people but fail to show God’s concern for justice for the needy are not really God’s people at all.
Second, I find the following principle of economic justice in the Bible: God wants every person and family to have access to the productive resources of society so that if they act responsibly they can earn a decent living and be respected members of their community. One place in Scripture that shows this principle at work is in the discussion of the land in ancient Israel before the kings centralized political and economic power. The ideal portrayed is not a circumstance where the government or a few wealthy people own all the land. Rather, we see depicted a decentralized economic arrangement where every family owns its own land – which, in an agricultural society, is the basic productive resource. That paradigm, when applied in very different economic times and places, means that everyone should have access to the relevant productive resources of a nation, especially education in a knowledge-based society.
Third, I think the Scriptures provide some clues about the role of government in empowering poor people. I do not mean to suggest that the Bible offers any kind of complete political philosophy, but the Bible does say things that flatly contradict any libertarian view that suggests that caring for and empowering the poor is a task for individuals, religious organizations, and other NGOs but not government. Numerous biblical texts call on the king to seek justice for the poor. Nehemiah 5 is an amazing text where the top government official calls a special assembly of the people to denounce the rich for (legal) activity that resulted in large numbers of poor people losing their land in difficult economic times. The ruler demands that the rich return the land immediately.
The Personal, the Structural
One final theme regarding the causes of poverty and how we reduce it focuses both on biblical principles and an analysis of society. The Bible tells us that both bad personal choices and unfair structures, judicial and economic, lead to poverty. Biblical teaching and contemporary experience show us that combating poverty requires both inner personal transformation and structural changes. Typically, political liberals want to emphasize only the structural, and political conservatives stress only the personal. Both are half right in what they affirm and half wrong in what they ignore.
The 800 evangelical organizations that are members of the Christian Community Development Association founded by John Perkins embrace this holistic approach. And the official public policy document (“For the Health of the Nation”) of the National Association of Evangelicals provides a concise statement about it:
From the Bible, experience, and social analysis, we learn that social problems arise and can be substantially corrected by both personal decisions and structural changes. On the one hand, personal sinful choices contribute significantly to destructive social problems (Prov. 6:9-11), and personal conversion through faith in Christ can transform broken persons into wholesome, productive citizens. On the other hand, unjust systems also help create social problems (Amos 5:10-15; Isa. 10:1-2) and wise structural change (for example, legislation to strengthen marriage or increase economic opportunity for all) can improve society. Thus Christian civic engagement must seek to transform both individuals and institutions. While individuals transformed by the gospel change surrounding society, social institutions also shape individuals. While good laws encourage good behavior, bad laws and systems foster destructive action. Lasting social change requires both personal conversion and institutional renewal and reform.
Unfortunately, many American Christians have paid little attention to the hundreds of biblical verses about God’s special concern for the poor. Equally problematic, those who have developed some genuine concern in this area often fail to understand the structural causes of poverty. We need more courageous preachers who talk as much about the poor as the Bible does and more economists and sociologists who can popularize knowledge of unjust economic structures.
Our situation has been complicated by a presidential campaign that saw most major figures denounce global trade agreements instead of proposing to fix genuine problems – problems such as the neglect of workers’ rights and environmental concerns in global trade agreements, and the failure in the US to offer meaningful assistance to US workers who lost their jobs because of global trade. Donald Trump and his party seem to promote important changes that will significantly harm the people whose votes elected him.
Hopes and Fears
In my (occasional) optimistic moments, I think some progress is possible under President Trump. Some leading conservative intellectuals, such as Arthur C. Brooks, president of the American Enterprise Institute, have chastised their conservative political colleagues for their failure to embrace an agenda that would empower poor people. Candidate Trump promised economic improvement for (largely white) less-educated, lower-income working Americans who supported him so enthusiastically. Just maybe his threats about destructive trade wars were mere campaign rhetoric.
But I fear a much more negative outcome. If this president turns America inward and away from global responsibilities, he will slash humane and successful economic foreign aid that under Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama has saved the lives of millions of poor people in other countries. If he turns away from global trade, hundreds of millions of poor people in Africa, Asia, and Latin America will suffer. If he abandons global and national measures to avoid dangerous global warming, the entire planet will suffer, and hundreds of millions of our poorest neighbors will suffer the most.
Nationally, if he cuts Medicaid, Food Stamps and Pell Grants, privatizes Medicare, and reverses the expansion of health insurance that was enacted under President Obama, then tens of millions of poorer Americans will suffer. And if he implements his proposed tax cuts (which overwhelmingly benefit the richest 10 percent), then the gross, unjust trend of economic inequality will only increase.
If President Trump and the Republican Congress take this second route, then Christians committed to biblical teaching about the poor must resist in every possible peaceful way. We may need to allow Dr. Martin Luther King to teach us again the power of nonviolent protest, including civil disobedience. As part of the professionally educated segment of the US public, we will certainly need to learn again how to respect, communicate with, and join arms with the rest of our country.
No matter what the cost and how difficult the challenge, biblical Christians must live today the central biblical teaching that God demands justice for all, but especially the poor.
Ronald Sider ’63 M.A., ’67 B.D., ’69 Ph.D. is Distinguished Professor of Theology, Holistic Ministry, and Public Policy at Palmer Theological Seminary of Eastern University in St. Davids, PA. He is the author of more than 30 books, including Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger: Moving from Affluence to Generosity (sixth edition, Thomas Nelson, 2015), Just Politics: A Guide for Christian Engagement (second edition, Baker, 2012), The Early Church on Killing: A Comprehensive Sourcebook on War, Abortion and Capital Punishment (Baker Academic, 2012), and Nonviolent Action: What Christian Ethics Demands but Most Christians Have Never Really Tried (Brazos, 2015). He is also the founder and president emeritus of Evangelicals for Social Action.