The Theology of the Poor; or, Poor Theology

By | November 21, 2012

From “Leviticus: An Economic Commentary”, by Gary North, pages 236-247.

Ye shall do no unrighteousness in judgment: thou shalt not respect the person of the poor, nor honour the person of the mighty: but in righteousness shalt thou judge thy neighbour (Lev. 19:15).

“The theocentric meaning of this law is that the State is to imitate God by doing what God does: judge all people without respect to their persons, i.e., their class, status, or power. This law is one of the two most important laws in the Bible that deal with civil government. The other verse is Exodus 12:49, which insists that civil judgment in the land of the covenant must apply to all men equally, whether strangers or Israelites: “One law shall be to him that is homeborn, and unto the stranger that sojourneth among you.”  Exodus 12:49 confirms the judicially binding nature of the civil law of God: biblical civil laws are to be applied equally to all people residing within the geographical boundaries of a biblically covenanted society. The same civil laws are to be applied to everyone residing in the land, regardless of race, color, creed, or national origin. These binding civil laws have been revealed by God directly to mankind in the Bible, and only in the Bible.

Almost every legal theorist in Western society accepts the principle of equality before the law. This ideal is one of the bedrock foundations of Western civilization. It comes from the Bible, not from Greek and Roman law, both of which explicitly denied the concept of equality before the civil law. Classical law protected only citizens: males who had lawful access to the religious rites of the city. Women (half the adult population), slaves (one-third of all males), and foreign-born residents were excluded. The ultimate manifestation of the biblical principle of equality before the law in history was God the Father’s willingness to place His incarnate son, Jesus Christ, under the negative sanction that had threatened Adam. Paul writes: “He that spared not his own Son, but delivered him up for us all, how shall he not with him also freely give us all things?” (Rom. 8:32). Among these things that God gives is liberty. Liberty is a product, along with other judicial factors, of the ideal of equality before God’s law.

Leviticus 19:15 is an application of Exodus 12:49. Exodus 12:49 insists that the same laws must apply to everyone. Leviticus 19:15 specifically identifies two groups that must be treated equally in civil courts: the poor and the mighty. While Exodus 12:49 refers to covenantal rivals – the stranger in the land and the Israelite –  Leviticus 19: 15 refers to the legitimate differen-tiation of wealth and power. This verse formally legitimizes the simultaneous existence of degrees of power and degrees of wealth within the holy commonwealth. The poor man is to be judged by the same law as the rich man. The focus here is not simply on the law itself, but on the person who is actually bringing formal judgment as a member of the court. This is the judicial agent who determines the validity of a particular lawsuit. Men are not to respect persons in rendering judgment.

The Theology of the Poor; or, Poor Theology

From the late 1960’s through the late 1980’s, a movement known as liberation theology had considerable influence on the thinking of highly educated – i.e., humanist-certified –  North American evangelical Christians and Latin American Roman Catholic priests. This movement developed out of a self-conscious attempt by Communists and far-Left heretical Christian groups to fuse Marxist social diagnoses and solutions with biblical rhetoric. This phrase became the rallying point of the liberationists: “God is on the side of the poor.” Is this phrase true? No, and Leviticus 19:15 is the most obvious passage in the Bible demonstrating the phrase’s falsehood. Hardly less powerful in this regard is Psalm 62:9: “Surely men of low degree are vanity, and men of high degree are a lie: to be laid in the balance, they are altogether lighter than vanity.” Conclusion: “Trust not in oppression, and become not vain in robbery: if riches increase, set not your heart upon them” (Ps. 62: 10). In short, judge righteously.

Whose Side Is God On?

The Bible says specifically that God is on the side of the righteous. Occasionally, the Bible does say that God identifies with certain members of the poor. The poor who are poor not by their own fault, and especially those who are poor because of oppression by others, become identified with God by God’s grace. God does care for the righteous. But the Bible makes it clear that God is not on the side of the poor in general. This is why liberation theology is heretical when it is not actually apostate. (Most of the time it is apostate. It is too often merely baptized Marxism. Its adherents now face a spiritual crisis: since 1989, Marxism has become terribly passe. For them, this is a far greater psychological blow than mere apostasy.)

Two Kinds of Equality

Which kind of equality do we want? Free market economist and legal theorist F. A. Hayek made it very clear that we can choose between two kinds of equality, but we cannot gain them both simultaneously. We can pursue equality under the law, or we can pursue equality of economic results, but we cannot rationally pursue both simultaneously. He wrote in 1960: “From the fact that people are very different it follows that, if we treat them equally, the result must be inequality in their actual position, and that the only way to place them in an equal position would be to treat them differently. Equality before the law and material equality are therefore not only different but are in conflict with each other; and we can achieve either the one or the other, but not both at the same time. The equality before the law which freedom requires leads to material inequality.”

The Bible requires equality before the law. The inescapable result of impartial civil justice is economic inequality. This fact is an affront to all socialists and semi-socialists (i.e., defenders of the corporate State). They want to redistribute wealth by State compulsion, either through State ownership of the means of production (socialism) or though adjusting the incentives of the economy, even though legal ownership remains with private individuals or organizations (fascism, Nazism, and Keynesian-ism). Always, the socialists focus on the supposed need for specific economic results rather than the need for an impartial declaration of impartial law and the impartial application of predictable sanctions. Therefore, Sider concludes, “the God of the Bible is on the side of the poor just because he is not biased, for he is a God of impartial justice.”

This perspective on poverty is basic to all socialist thought. The socialist blames poverty on the capitalist system, not on scarcity and not on immoral behavior on the part of the poor. The phrases that Sider and his colleagues used again and again are “structural injustice” and “structural evil,” meaning unjust institutions. It is therefore not cursed mankind (Gen. 3:16-17) and cursed nature (Gen. 3:18-19) that bring poverty, the socialist insists. Widespread poverty as a social phenomenon is always explained by capitalism’s critics as the result of unjust institutions that are in turn the product of politically powerful rich men who successfully exploit others. This is a vision of a universe not under a curse, not populated by sinners, and not under God’s judgments in history – factors that would frequently bring people under the negative sanction of poverty. Proverbs 19:15 – another 19:15 verse that is despised by the socialists – tells us: “Slothfulness casteth into a deep sleep; and an idle soul shall suffer hunger.” The socialist discounts this message almost to zero. 

God is not on the side of the rich, the poor, or the middle class as such; He is on the side of the covenantally righteous. 

The Righteous

God is on the side of the righteous: the righteous poor, the righteous middle class, and the righteous rich. There are few principles in the Bible that are of greater judicial and economic importance. In verse after verse, book after book, the Bible testifies to the fact that God is on the side of the righteous. I offer a long list of supporting verses in the hope that readers will acknowledge the extent of God’s commitment to the righteous. Both amillennialism and premillennialism deny the relevance of these verses as they apply to history. But these vers-es do apply to history: “Behold, the righteous shall be recompensed in the earth: much more the wicked and the sinner” (Prov. 11 :31). There are dozens of these verses, all ignored by  liberation theologians. (My favorite is Psalm 58:10, although I do not interpret it literally. It is the thought that counts.) Read them all, so as to drill the basic point into your ethical decision-making: there are predictable covenantal sanctions in history.

There is no escape from this conclusion; the texts are clear: God is on the side of the righteous as such, not the poor as such. God is righteous; so, His people should be righteous (Lev. 11 :45). God is righteous; so, He brings blessings in history to His people who are righteous. God is righteous; so, He brings negative sanctions against those who are not righteous. God is righteous; so, some people are deservedly poor. This is what the socialist does not want to consider.

Gen. 18:23-26; Ex. 23:7, 8; Deut. 25:1; I Kings 8:32; Ps. 1:5,6; 5:12; 34:15, 17; 34:19; 37:17; 37:25,29,39; 55:22; 58:10-11; 92:12; 112:6; 146:8; Prov. 2:7; 10:3, 28; 11:8, 10,21,28; 12:7; 13:9,21,25; 14:19; 15:6,29; 28:1; 29:2,16.

…It is part and parcel of the socialist perspective of all liberation theologians to deny this principle. They seek equality of results, and therefore they inescapably recommend policies that are a flat denial of the biblical principle of impartiality of justice. Liberation theology is a self-conscious rebellion against Leviticus 19:15. Its defenders seek to confuse their followers and their readers on this point. Impartial justice that is applied in a world made up of people with differing capacities and differing degrees of righteousness will inevitably produce inequality of economic results. It is this outcome of biblical law which enrages and outrages almost all modern Christian theologians, especially those who are either neo-evangelical college professors (outside of the natural sciences) or liberation theologians. They call for the State to use the threat of violence to steal the wealth of the successful and transfer it to the unsuccessful. They call for socialism: the State’s control over resources through bureau-cracy. They prefer the political sanctions of bureaucrats to the economic sanctions of consumers.

The law of God testifies against the legitimacy of any society that seeks the equality of results. The law of God testifies against any society that would use the power of the civil government to redistribute wealth on any basis except one: the proportional restitution payment from a criminal to his victim. The liberation theologians, the neo-evangelical theologians, and the humanist-trained and humanist university-certified Reformed theologians who staff and control Reformed seminaries are united on this one point: there must be equality of ideological results, and therefore there must be respect, if not for persons, then for ideological purity. This ideological purity is the purity of perspective that says that the civil law of God is no longer to be enforced in the New Covenant era. Anyone who denies this principle will find himself the victim of the seminaries’ version of modern academic freedom: ”All opinions regarding biblical law are equal, but some are more equal than others.” The Bible is quite clear. There must be no respect of persons. Because individuals have different abilities, there must be inequality of economic results if God’s law is enforced without respect of persons. The only justification for the State to intervene to take wealth from one individual and give it to another individual is that the first individual has been convicted in a civil court due process of law for having committed a crime against the second individual. The quest for restitution for a specific crime is the only legitimate way for an individual to seek the economic intervention of the State against another individual.

In contrast to this principle of civil justice is the socialist ideal: the equality of economic results. This equality is pursued by using civil power to take wealth from those who have legally gained it through competition in a market with open entry, and to redistribute it to those who have done nothing to receive it other than being statistically classified as poor. Nevertheless, the poor are still with us. So is a growing horde of middle-class bureaucrats who administer the government-mandated anti-poverty programs. The U.S. Federal bureaucracy extracts as administration expenses at least half of the Federal government’s total expenditures on welfare programs.

All of this is rejected by those Christian socialists and Keynesians, who reject – necessarily – the idea of judicially binding biblical blueprints in civil government and economics.”