Today, we’re going to talk a little bit about a phrase and concept I’ve heard over the years: “God’s preferential option for the poor.” According to Wikipedia, this refers to “preference being given to the well-being of the poor and powerless of society.” It was formally articulated by the Catholic Church, but Protestants more on the left side of the political spectrum have bought into this to some degree as well. More from the Wikipedia article, quoting the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis: “According to said doctrine, through one's words, prayers and deeds one must show solidarity with, and compassion for, the poor. Therefore, when instituting public policy one must always keep the ‘preferential option for the poor’ at the forefront of one's mind. Accordingly, this doctrine implies that the moral test of any society is ‘how it treats its most vulnerable members.’ The poor have the most urgent moral claim on the conscience of the nation. We are called to look at public policy decisions in terms of how they affect the poor.’”
Now, there’s some truth in this. As I’ve mentioned several times before, you really have to put forth an effort to find a book of the Bible which doesn’t express God’s concern for the “least of these.” He cares about the well-being of the poor and oppressed, and we need to reflect that concern.
In the earlier essays I wrote on “Wealth and Poverty,” I made the case that while we all care about the poor, we differ on the best way to do that. Just handing money to someone usually is not the way to help them. If someone’s poor because they’re committing dysfunctional or self-destructive or economically foolish behavior, you’re not showing love by handing them money.
Today’s post deals with what I consider is the root of the problem: Letting our feelings of compassion overshadow our heads in how best to help those in need. Going back to the description above, the trouble I have is with the word “solidarity.” What I think is wrong with this idea is that it allows compassion—or more likely, guilt—towards the poor to overshadow justice.
It’s absolutely true that the Bible, particularly the Old Testament prophets, were very concerned with “justice” for the poor, but once again let me point you towards the NET Study Bible note on Isaiah 1:23: ” The rich oppressors referred to in Isaiah and the other eighth century prophets were not rich capitalists in the modern sense of the word. They were members of the royal military and judicial bureaucracies in Israel and Judah. As these bureaucracies grew, they acquired more and more land and gradually commandeered the economy and legal system. At various administrative levels bribery and graft become commonplace. The common people outside the urban administrative centers were vulnerable to exploitation in such a system, especially those, like widows and orphans, who had lost their family provider through death. Through confiscatory taxation, conscription, excessive interest rates, and other oppressive governmental measures and policies, they were gradually disenfranchised and lost their landed property, and with it, their rights as citizens. The socio-economic equilibrium envisioned in the law of Moses was radically disturbed.”
In other words, the “injustice” towards the poor which the prophets were condemning was an inappropriate, corrupt relationship between the wealthy and government officials. We need to work against that, and the most effective way I know of is to reduce the influence and power government has over our lives.
Another way that the FMS would scale back on the corruption we’re seeing condemned in Amos is a simple concept that escapes peoples’ notice: Rule of law. We make the rules simple, easy to understand, public, and hard to change. If the laws aren’t working, then we work within the system to change them. We don’t just bend or break the rules when it becomes inconvenient to follow them. Rule of law isn’t there to protect the elite so much as it’s there to protect those who can’t protect themselves. It’s not going to work out perfectly; nothing will in this fallen world. But the only alternative is government by feelings, which--I promise you--will lead from 1) rule of law to 2) the rule of the jungle, where the strong rule over the weak.
America started off as an underdog, fighting off the most powerful empire in the world. We’ve always had a soft spot in our hearts for the scrappy underdog, fighting “The Power.” All of our fictional heroes in conflict fit this pattern: Imagine a sports movie in which the big rich team wins in the end. Imagine a comic book in which the big conflict is Superman going up against a mugger. Imagine a TV drama in which a rich CEO is in a legal battle against people who’re suing his company, and it turns out in the end that the litigants were wrong to file the suit, and the CEO was the good guy all along.
But compassion is not the end-all and be-all of right and wrong. In our court system, the key virtue isn’t compassion but justice. In our personal lives, we have to be compassionate, quick to forgive, etc., but not in our government, especially our court system. Read these passages for a summary of how important the Lord took this issue seriously: Judges are to judge their cases with justice. What do the facts and the Law say?
Please read this warning to judges very carefully: “Do not pervert justice; do not show partiality to the poor or favoritism to the great, but judge your neighbor fairly.” Think about that for a moment. He specifically warns judges not to show partiality towards the poor. Why would he be tempted to do that? Because he had compassion on their plight. He felt sorry for them. “Well, maybe they did steal from this store, but I’m sure they’ve had a hard life.” “Well, maybe they did murder someone, but the guy they murdered was a rich guy whom I don’t like. So I think I’ll let him off.” Whatever the defendant’s background or economic status should make no difference. The only two things that the judge should consider are 1) The facts, and 2) The law.
Yes, we need to show compassion for the poor, but solidarity? Does that mean we stand with them when they’re wrong and their wealthier opponent is right? If you have trouble with answering that question, go back and read what Moses warned judges: “Do not pervert justice; do not show partiality to the poor or favoritism to the great, but judge your neighbor fairly.” Poor people are sinners just as much as rich people are. It’s entirely possible that in a legal battle between a rich man and a poor man, the poor man is wrong based on the facts and the law. If so, the judge had no choice but to rule accordingly, not based on his personal feelings in the matter.
I want to reemphasize that this is in the realm of government and public policy, not in our personal lives and relationships. When it’s an issue between us as an individual and someone else as an individual, the watchwords are love, mercy, grace, forgiveness, generosity, and, yes, compassion. We treat others like God has treated us.
But in the realm of government, law, and the justice system, the watchwords have to be—they must be—justice, rule of law, and impartiality.
That’s the way God set it up, and I don’t think we’re going to come up with anything better, do you?