If one of your brethren becomes poor, and falls into poverty among you, then you shall help him, like a stranger or a sojourner, that he may live with you. (Leviticus 25:35)
…you shall not harden your heart nor shut your hand from your poor brother, but you shall open your hand wide to him and willingly lend him sufficient for his need, whatever he needs. (Deuteronomy 15:7,8)
For the oppression of the poor, for the sighing of the needy, Now I will arise,” says the Lord; “I will set him in the safety for which he yearns.” (Psalm 12:5)
Above are four scriptural references out of many that deal prescriptively with poverty. Note that they are all from the Torah—the Old Testament—and speak of a foundational element of Jewish, Christian and Muslim faith: the caring for the poor in society. If I expanded my selections to the Evangel and the Qur’an, the whole blog post would be nothing but quotes.
How important is this social principle of aiding the poor? The sheer number of repetitions of the basic idea of caring for the poor should hint at its importance, but if that’s not enough, the Old Testament prophet, Ezekiel, says in clear language, that the failure to elevate the poor was the sin that brought low Sodom and Gomorrah.
“As I live,” says the Lord God, “neither your sister Sodom nor her daughters have done as you and your daughters have done. Look, this was the iniquity of your sister Sodom: She and her daughter had pride, fullness of food, and abundance of idleness; neither did she strengthen the hand of the poor and needy.” (Ezekiel 16: 48-50)
“Be generous in prosperity, and thankful in adversity. Be worthy of the trust of thy neighbor, and look upon him with a bright and friendly face. Be a treasure to the poor, an admonisher to the rich, an answerer of the cry of the needy, a preserver of the sanctity of thy pledge.” (Bahá’u’lláh, Gleanings CXXX)
“…you must assist the poor as much as possible, even by sacrifice of yourself. No deed of man is greater before God than helping the poor.” (Abdu’l-Bahá, Foundations of World Unity, p. 36)
“Man reacheth perfection through good deeds, voluntarily performed, not through good deeds the doing of which was forced upon him. And sharing is a personally chosen righteous act: that is, the rich should extend assistance to the poor, they should expend their substance for the poor, but of their own free will, and not because the poor have gained this end by force. For the harvest of force is turmoil and the ruin of the social order. On the other hand voluntary sharing, the freely-chosen expending of one’s substance, leadeth to society’s comfort and peace. It lighteth up the world; it bestoweth honour upon humankind.” (Abdu’l-Bahá, from a letter to Andrew Carnegie)
We have a tremendous problem with poverty in this country. The wealth gap, which seemed to abating in the 1970s, has widened in successive decades and inflated dramatically during the recent recession. It pushed middle class families into poverty and crushed the working poor. Millions lost jobs at every income level and, so far during the recovery, most of the returning jobs have been in the lower-paying sectors of the economy. Healthcare in some of our rural areas looks just like it does in so-called “Third World” countries.
This has spurred a huge debate over who is responsible (if indeed anyone is) for helping the American poor recover alongside the corporations and businesses big and small, some of which have posted record profits in the last year or two.
- Everyone has a support network—family and friends. It’s up to the families and friends of the poor to bail them out.
- It’s up to charities to see to the poor—isn’t that what they’re for? People just need to contribute more as individuals.
- If someone is poor it’s their own fault. They should just stop being poor (Yes, a media network commentator did actually say that.); i.e., they should stop being lazy, they should get better-paying jobs, they go back to school to get useful skills, etc.
- It’s everyone’s responsibility to pull themselves up by their boot straps, no matter how they came to be poor. We all need to take responsibility for our own lives.
- It’s up to society as a whole to lift the poor out of poverty. We’re interdependent members of one nation (and one species), and if we behave like that we can solve this problem together.
Next time, I’d like to take a look at some of these arguments in light of scriptural teachings about the pernicious problem of poverty.