Is it for the Poor to Seek Justice and Liberation?

I have been intrigued that nowhere in Scripture does God encourage or exhort the poor to seek justice.[1]

Throughout the Bible the responsibility for social justice and care for the poor and those on the margins of life, is on society as a whole, on every individual. Micah 6:8 states in no uncertain terms what God requires. “He has shown you, O mortal, what is good. And what does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.” More importantly, this is not just a challenge to only the people of God but to everyone, because right at the beginning of Micah in 1:2 the prophet declares, “Hear, you people, all of you, listen, earth and all who live in it.”

Our son while they were in Bangladesh, reflecting on what he was seeing, wrote, “Development practitioners often over use the analogy “Give a man a fish, and he eats for a day. Teach a man to fish, and he eats for a lifetime.” As our understanding of poverty has become more complex, this analogy has now been expanded to include power dynamics by asking who owns the lake that the man is fishing on. But there is still troubling evidence which reveals that despite the needs we may see around us, helping others doesn’t come easily.”

Most people in the developed “northern countries” live in social contexts where the acquiring and possession of wealth is a result of hard work and does not have any moral connotations. Hard work, rooted in the Protestant work ethic, is valued; the basic principle being that hard work results in prosperity. This in turn provides security, honor, and social and economic privileges. If people are poor, it is because they are lazy.

Because of this cherished value of hard work, most do not understand the role of unjust social and political systems that enslave people in poverty. They have a hard time understanding the teachings of Jesus, where it seems that wealth is often portrayed as evil and that the poor have special favor with God. Yet Jesus never condemned the rich for their wealth, but for not being compassionate to the poor.

While poverty may be caused by laziness, substance abuse and addiction, the Bible is very clear that the major cause of poverty is injustice. If we merely “empower” and train people and expect them to get out of poverty, when the real cause of their suffering is a system that traps them in poverty, we merely frustrate them. Paulo Freire, the author of Pedagogy of the Oppressed recognized this. Power, authority, and wealth are never ceded easily. When power and authority are challenged by the poor and oppressed, even by non-violent means, the result is violence, and not necessarily a peaceful and egalitarian society.

Since poverty and oppression are so destructive, the process by which the poor are liberated from their bondages of poverty is critical. Freire writes, “Attempting to liberate the oppressed without their reflective participation in the act of liberation is to treat them as objects that must be saved from a burning building.” If the process is not handled properly (by the poor and the non-poor), “The oppressed, instead of striving for liberation, tend themselves to become oppressors.” Violent means result in violent and oppressive systems.

So should the poor simply remain passive in their poverty. Proverbs is full of exhortations for hard work and taking responsibility. To the church at Rome which was predominantly lower middle class and poor migrants, Paul writes, Rom. 12:11, “Never be lazy, but work hard and serve the Lord enthusiastically.”  In II Thess. 3:10 he reminds the Thessalonians, “While we were with you, we gave you the order: “Whoever doesn’t want to work shouldn’t be allowed to eat.” The poor need not be destitute and starve, nor are they to be dependent on the “system”.

Each person is made in the image of God and has the right to live with dignity. The various human rights laws affirm what God has already bestowed. The poor need to be aware of how God sees them – created in the image of the Living God. As they grow in confidence that they are not garbage and parasites to be avoided, they need to seek the rights already given to them by the law to live as part of society and not on its margins. But can they do this on their own when the social and political system benefits from maintaining the status quo and not allowing change?

I wonder what my hope and desire for the poor is? Is it that their lives become bearable and decent while they remain poor?  But if I desire to see them get out of poverty, they will not be able to do it on their own because the social, economic and political systems are against them and do not want to change the way things are. The Apostle Paul’s uses the image of the ‘body’ to characterize various individuals working together, in I Cor. 12 and Rom. 12. This had not only to do with the gifts of the Holy Spirit, but also of the stronger members of the body taking care of the weaker ones. Canadian theologian Bruce Longenecker refers to it as not communism, not charity, but community. The poor are not objects to be pitied.

I wonder if we have it wrong when we leave the poor to seek their rights on their own, when we who have the power and influence should be standing up and fighting for justice for the poor. Is it because we are comfortable with our Christianity and do not want to risk the privileges we enjoy in society by challenging the powerful and those in authority? If we are unable to change unjust systems, we at least need to be prophetic voices that speaks against injustice.

How are we then to live? The Bible definitely talks about being charitable and meeting the immediate needs of the poor and broken as being the hallmarks of a follower of Christ – the marks of a disciple. Jesus provides us a model of what it is like to work with the poor. 80% of the population of Palestine were poor (not destitute).

In the midst of a brutal occupation in 1st Century Palestine, where there was little justice, Jesus lived by the power of God. He demonstrated what the Kingdom of God was like by healing the sick, feeding the hungry, treating every human being regardless of who they were with dignity, challenging those who oppressed the poor as they sought to worship God (the money changers and the priests), and teaching about a God who cared and listened to their cries for help. He pointed them to a God who is loving and just, and challenged them to turn away from evil and worship Him. He dared to show the world that there was another Kingdom where there was justice and compassion, and this threatened those who were in power.

[1] The parable of the widow pleading with the unjust judge (Luke 18:1-8) is to teach about persistence in prayer rather than about the poor seeking justice.