Bad Bible Arguments About Poverty and Economics
Whenever Christians make the argument for economic egalitarianism, there seem to be a set of standard prooftext arguments with which other Christians respond, thinking they’ve ended the conversation. The problem is that this method of “sound-bite” theology is almost always the wrong way to go when trying to build a faithful understanding of how to follow God’s will in the time God placed us in. While these might sound like easy answers to stall dealing with the difficult reality of what the Bible says about poverty, wealth, and economics, they turn out to be bad interpretations and worse applications of God’s word.
“The poor you will always have with you.”
When one Christian says that we ought to work to make sure no one is poor, another Christian often fires back: “Well, Jesus said that the poor will always be with us.” But this turns out to be a silly argument. First of all, Jesus was saying this to his disciples at a particular moment: they would have a lot of time ahead of them to relieve poverty, but Jesus was about to go to the cross. He was not making a proclamation for all time, and he certainly was not issuing a commandment that Christians should never work to eliminate poverty! To use this verse as an argument against welfare and other anti-poverty measures is an irresponsible reading of the Bible.
“The one who is unwilling to work shall not eat.”
Paul’s little quotable from 2 Thessalonians has turned into a justification for a wide variety of economic positions—including, surprisingly, Lenin’s soviet program. Most contemporary Christians, however, use it for similar purposes as the quote from Jesus above: as an easy prooftext to bat down welfare as a Christian option. Yet it isn’t clear that the poor were the targets of this rule of thumb: itinerant preachers abusing the generosity of their hosts, those used to being clients in the Roman patronage system, and the rich used to living as rentiers are perhaps even more plausible targets for Paul’s criticism.
But there is no reason to think that in our contemporary economy, unwillingness to work drives a significant amount of poverty. The non-workers who drive poverty, as I’ve argued before, are people that cannot or should not be working, such as children and the elderly. Since we do not expect those populations to work, this decontextualized prooftext doesn’t accomplish much in the way of rebutting welfare.
It is also telling that Christians so greatly fear the specter of the idle poor but make little noise about the reality of the idle rich. We still live in a world of rentiers—people who can live off of the profits of the wealth they own rather than the fruits of their own labor. There is far less Christian condemnation of the Walmart heirs than there is of a family struggling to make it with the help of food stamps, and this ought to be to our shame.
The Parable of the Talents
Jesus’ Parable of the Talents is, like most of Jesus’ parables, a metaphorical statement regarding the Kingdom of God—that is, the return of God’s reign over the world through the restoration of his people which Jesus went around announcing and embodying. To read it as a metaphor for how economies ought to work is simply a mistake. Jesus was not primarily aiming to teach about thrift and investment or to naturalize economic inequality. He was using an image from the world of their day to speak about how his followers ought to be obedient, knowing that God will one day return to judge their faithfulness.
“The borrower is slave to the lender.”
This is a proverb associated with the financial self-help guru Dave Ramsey, who uses it to shame those who carry debts. But this proverb is not obviously condemning people for financial irresponsibility. The surrounding lines give some clues to a different interpretation:
The rich rule over the poor, and the borrower is slave to the lender. Whoever sows injustice reaps calamity, and the rod they wield in fury will be broken. The generous will themselves be blessed, for they share their food with the poor. (Prov 22:7-9)
It seems clear in these proverbs that the rich ruling over the poor is not viewed as a good state of affairs, but rather an unjust one to be corrected by mutuality. Verse 7 is descriptive, not prescriptive.
The Bible has a lot more to say about property, money, and economic life than these decontextualized passages. Whipping them out in an argument is an easy way to get around the hard work of engaging the big set of challenging texts about the topic in God’s word. It’s far more fruitful to go for a sustained account of the whole counsel of Scripture than for a few convenient sound bites. What we find might not be as convenient to us. It might challenge the way things are done in the societies we live in. The goal for Christians, however, is never ease or popularity, but faithfulness.