I have been intrigued that nowhere in Scripture does God encourage or exhort the poor to seek justice.
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 important, 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 living in Bangladesh and 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.'”
He continued, “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. Consequently, according to this mindset, 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 nonviolent means, the result is violence, and not necessarily a peaceful and egalitarian society.
Because 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,” he says. Violent means result in violent and oppressive systems.
So should the poor simply remain passive in their poverty?
Proverbs is full of exhortations for working hard and taking responsibility. To the church at Rome, which was predominantly lower middle-class and poor migrants, Paul writes in Romans 12:11, “Never be lazy, but work hard and serve the Lord enthusiastically.”
In 2 Thessalonians 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.
Rupen Das is research professor at Tyndale Seminary in Toronto and a consultant for mission and development at the European Baptist Federation based in Amsterdam, on temporary assignment from Canadian Baptist Ministries. A version of this article first appeared on his blog and is used with permission.
Editor’s note: This is the first of a two-part series. Part two is available here.