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Friday, June 21, 2013

When Poverty Calls, Justice Is Listening

I have been severely disillusioned by many who share my faith. Here, I am not speaking of Christians in general as much as Christians who come from Reformed Tradition. This tradition consists of those who adhere to the teachings of Calvin, Luther, and a bunch of catechisms and confessions. Why am I so distressed? It seems that too many from the Reformed faith do all they can to confirm the Left's charge that it is an institution of indoctrination for the maintenance of the status quo.

Part of the problem for those from the Reformed faith here is that they put so much emphasis on submitting to the authorities, taken from Romans 13, that they don't see the forest for the trees.  They don't see that after so much submission, they merely end up practicing the same kind of tribalism that was so popular in the past especially in the Old Testament but is so out of place because of the New Testament today. Because of their emphasis on submission, the resulting division of labor resembles a well modularized computer program where each part of the program has its own specific responsibilities that are shared with no other part. But that is the nice way of saying it. What we could say is that too many from the Reformed Tradition are extremely rigid thinkers especially when it benefits them.

Likewise, with the Reformed faith's submission to the authorities, it isn't the believer's position to determine if the orders he or she is to carry out is leading to injustice. That is the job of those in authority. Rather, according to many Reformed faith leaders, the believer's job is to simply obey those in authority unless the command given causes the believer to disobey God. Thus, the sole concern for the Christian who holds to this view is to be concerned solely for themselves but in a spiritual way. They are absolved of all responsibility if the Christian citizen is not committing sin but the policies instituted by the government are unjust.

A similar division of labor occurs again when some Reformed Christians talk about government caring for the poor. While some allow for the government to be partially responsible for caring for the poor but worry about what tax rate constitutes stealing, others believe that government should not offer any assistance to the poor because to do so would require it to steal from those creating wealth. They call collecting taxes to fund programs for the poor stealing because the government is forcing people to donate funds they would otherwise choose to keep for themselves. Rather than allowing the government to care for the poor, they believe that helping those in need is a job for the Church only. Never mind that the Church has neither the resources nor the will to provide the necessary relief for the vulnerable, it is this rigid thinking regarding roles again which moves many Reformed Christians to employ exclusive-or thinking.

An additional problem to the inflexible thinking mentioned above occurs when we excuse those who have more from helping to support those in need, we are supporting the growing trend of those with wealth who flee from meeting their end of the social contract. And all of this continues the status quo.

In short, up until a few days ago, all leaders from the Reformed faith with whom I am acquainted appeared to support the maintenance of the status quo that serves those with wealth and power. And there appeared nobody who would even dare to challenge the abuses practiced by those with wealth and power. That until an non-reformed theologian referred me to Dr. Nicholas Wolterstorff. Dr. Wolterstorff currently teaches at Yale but attended and taught at Calvin College.

According to Wolterstorff's lecture at BIOLA University, social justice came to him through a couple of conferences. One conference occurred in South Africa during apartheid and another in Chicago which dealt with the oppression of the Palestinians in the Occupied Territories. In the first conference, Wolterstorff explained how the Afrikaners defended Apartheid by claiming that their treatment of the Blacks and Colored (mixed decent) was benevolent rather than unjust. These apologists for apartheid claimed that the inequitable treatment of Blacks and Colored people showed how good the Afrikaners could be to the rest and that their goodness far outweighed any problems resulting from practicing injustice that South Africa's Apartheid might involve. According to Wolterstorff's interpretation of the what the Afrikaners were saying and doing is that their benevolence was a tool of oppression.

In the latter conference, he discovered that a speaker from Palestine was given conditional permission to attend the conference so long as any audience he spoke to did not exceed five people. Wolterstorff concluded that  something is seriously wrong with our policies when we put those kinds of restrictions on free speech.

The stories about the conferences were there to tell us how social justice became an important issue to Wolterstorff. But the key point the he makes that challenges the typical views of Reformed Christians is that instead of portraying the solution to poverty as an issue of tough-love or charity because the poor are either lazy or have had bad luck, Wolterstorff uses the Scriptures (Psalm 72 and Isaiah 10 to be specific) and the writings of Church Fathers such as Basil of Caesarea, Ambrose who was the Bishop of Milan, and John Chrysostom to assert that to not care for and share with the poor is to practice injustice and this is regardless of the causes for the poverty.

The ramifications of such an assertion should not be underestimated. For if helping the poor is a matter of tough-love, then rebuke is all that one needs to help those who are impoverished.  And if we are considering how to help those who have had bad luck, we will consider the option of giving charity and we are our own judge regarding how much charity we bestow if we share at all and under what conditions. But if giving aid to the poor is practicing justice, then there are a couple of conclusions that follow this premise. The first conclusion is that helping the poor is not an option or something we do that is above and beyond the call of duty. Though Wolterstorff did not refer to Jesus's parable of the sheep (Matthew 25:31-46), this conclusion is certainly implied by the parable. That is God holds us accountable for not helping the poor. Of course, Wolterstorff does not dictate how helping must be implemented. But the fact that each individual is to help and share with those in need is required course in life rather than optional one.

But another conclusion that comes from the premise that helping the poor is a justice issue raises its ugly, remember that beauty is in the eye of the beholder, head here. That is if helping the poor is a justice issue and the job of government is to establish justice, then helping the poor is a responsibility of the government. And if one of the jobs government has is to help the poor and the government uses taxes to do that and we are taxpayers, then all of us unless we are suffering financial hardship are also called to help the poor through our taxes that funds the government's efforts. And those who avoid paying taxes, such as around 66%, which is the last percentage I saw, of corporations that do business in the U.S., are practicing injustice by not giving their fair share. And the significance to this argument is that it shows how businesses, especially large corporations and financial institutions, must be called on by the Church, if not others, to repent of their policies that allow them to hoard their money. For it is in the avoidance of paying taxes rather than in the government's collection of taxes that the real stealing is occurring.

However, we have another snag. What do we do with a government that is withholding the just help due to those in need? That will be a subject for another post. As for this one, we see that in people like Dr Nicholas Wolterstorff, there is hope in that someday the Reformed Church will no longer serve the interests of the wealth and power but will serve God and part of that service is to promote and practice justice instead.





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