Scripture, government and the poor

There is no remaining Garden of Eden in which the U.S. can remain isolated from the rest of the world. –David Gushee

At this week’s consultation in Wheaton, Gushee spoke on “Scripture, Government and the World’s Poor.” His comment about the Garden of Eden resonated. Often, especially in the West, we just want to enjoy our Garden and ignore what’s happening on the outside, in the tougher places. We can’t.

Whether it be global economic activity or global terrorism, we know better today than a few years ago that isolationism will not work. The world’s various systems of economics, government, religion and other systems have linked us with the world outside of our Garden.

So the question is not whether to help the poor but how Christians should advocate, Gushee said. (I’m using italic for Gushee’s remarks because I’m not sure if they are direct quotes.) This was really an underlying premise to the consultation. How should we advocate?

The consultation focused on the role of U.S. foreign assistance for other nations, but toward the end it became clear that foreign assistance is only a piece of the broader issues facing responses the world poverty.

Gushee’s key contribution to the discussion was driving us to biblical passages that explicitly deal with the relation of government to poverty in a context of what God is trying to do.

Psalm 72 is a prayer of support for the king as a channel of God’s justice, Gushee said. Psalm 72:1-4:

“Endow the king with your justice, O God,

the royal son with your righteousness.

“He will judge your people in righteousness,

your afflicted ones with justice.

“The mountains will bring prosperity to the people,

the hills the fruit of righteousness.

“He will defend the afflicted among the people

and save the children of the needy;

he will crush the oppressor. ”

There are obvious differences between the king of Israel and leaders of other states today, but Scripture expresses an affirmation that we all can pray with purpose. We should pray that God will endow governmental leaders with desire to pursue justice, knowing that justice will bring prosperity to the hurting around the world.

And we surely should pray that the fourth verse would be realized, that our leaders would defend the afflicted and save the children of the needy.

National prosperity and royal success are connected to the king’s care for the poor, Gushee said.

Many, if not most, people in America have not made that connection.

Another key passage is Jeremiah 21-22. Jeremiah has a word from God for Zedekiah, king of Judah.

“… say to the royal house of Judah, ‘Hear the word of the LORD; O house of David, this is what the LORD says:

” ‘Administer justice every morning;

rescue from the hand of his oppressor

the one who has been robbed,

or my wrath will break out and burn like fire

because of the evil you have done—

burn with no one to quench it.”

–Jeremiah 21:11-12

Gushee summarized the application of these passages to our own context as follows: When we fail to protect the poor … we invite the judgment of God.

He noted that the United States is a “quasi-Empire,” and the Old Testament treats empires as evil, except for one, the Persian empire under Cyrus. While Cyrus was indeed a world conqueror, our leaders should be more like Cyrus and less like Nebuchadnezzar.

Then Gushee dealt with the familiar passage in Romans 13, and in this he made an important distinction between the Roman setting and our’s today. I did not follow his explanation clearly but let me jump to the conclusion. Monarchs have subjects, not citizens, Gushee said. We, in the liberal democracy that is the U.S., are citizens; we the people are, in essence, the responsible party.

If American Christians advocated for care for the world’s poor, this empire would be exceptional in history, Gushee said. We do not need to have a pre-democratic theology of the state.

Our current economic priorities are profit, efficiency and growth. But those can be be challenged. … Christians need to urge leaders to specific poverty-reducing activities.

Gushee’s quick overview (and summarized even more briefly here) provide some helpful ways forward for those of us followers of Christ who value God’s work in history as recorded in Scripture. This is a framework which, in essence, demands our advocacy for the poor since we have the privilege of living in a constitutional democracy, and our responsibility reaches beyond our national borders and to the extent of all God’s concern–everyone everywhere.

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