|The Thankful Poor, Henry Ossawa Turner
Health and Wealth
- “Beloved, I wish above all things that thou mayest prosper and be in health,
even as thy soul prospereth.”
- (3 John 1:2).
A popular modern teaching asserts that any lapse by believers into ill
health or poverty follows from a lack of faith. But the Bible does not
report that saints have always dwelt on Easy Street:
"Still others had trial of mockings and scourgings, yes, and of chains
and imprisonment. They were stoned, they were sawn in two, were tempted,
were slain with the sword. They wandered about in sheepskins and goatskins,
being destitute, afflicted, tormented—of whom the world was not worthy.
They wandered in deserts and mountains, in dens and caves of the earth."
This teaching, popular with many TV personalities, is a one-sided,
overly categorical development of promises which are contained within holy
writ, rather than heretic invention. Jesus did, and does today, heal the
sick; but some prayers for healing are answered otherwise. Paul suffered
from a "thorn in the flesh," evidently an eye ailment. He prayed
for release, but was told,
"Concerning this thing I pleaded with the Lord three times that it
might depart from me. And He said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you,
for My strength is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore most gladly I will
rather boast in my infirmities, that the power of Christ may rest upon
me." (2 Corinthians 12:8-9).
This popular teaching has led to unfortunate social consequences. Radio
personalities like Rush Limbaugh make their way in the world by inculcating
contempt for the poor. One would expect this viewpoint to be shunned like
poison by Christians, whose Master told them,
“Then He lifted up His eyes toward His disciples, and said:
'Blessed are you poor, for yours is the kingdom of God.
Blessed are you who hunger now, for you shall be filled...
But woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation.
Woe to you who are full, for you shall hunger.'” (Luke 6:20-24).
Instead this way of thinking is quite popular with the 'Christian Right.'
The unbiblical teaching that the poor are, not only lacking in this world's
goods, but also lacking in faith, has cleared the way for this inversion
of the Lord's teaching.
The root cause of poverty is shown in the Bible as multi-faceted, which tracks with the observed phenomenon. Some
people are poor because of personal failings. One Biblical diagnosis is sloth:
"Go to the ant, you sluggard!
Consider her ways and be wise,
Which, having no captain,
Overseer or ruler,
Provides her supplies in the summer,
And gathers her food in the harvest.
How long will you slumber, O sluggard?
When will you rise from your sleep?
A little sleep, a little slumber,
A little folding of the hands to sleep—
So shall your poverty come on you like a prowler,
And your need like an armed man." (Proverbs 6:6-11).
"Laziness casts one into a deep sleep,
And an idle person will suffer hunger." (Proverbs 19:15).
"Do not love sleep, lest you come to poverty;
open your eyes, and you will be satisfied with bread." (Proverbs 20:13).
"I went by the field of the lazy man, and by the vineyard of the man devoid of understanding;
and there it was, all overgrown with thorns; its surface was covered with nettles;
its stone wall was broken down. When I saw it, I considered it well;
I looked on it and received instruction: A little sleep, a little slumber,
a little folding of the hands to rest;
so shall your poverty come like a prowler, and your need like an armed man."
We all know people who are allergic to work. Another Biblical diagnosis is substance abuse:
"Do not mix with winebibbers,
Or with gluttonous eaters of meat;
For the drunkard and the glutton will come to poverty,
And drowsiness will clothe a man with rags." (Proverbs 23:20-21).
Inspection of the line at a downtown soup kitchen will confirm this diagnosis. So far
the radio talk show hosts are on the Bible bus. On a more esoteric level,
the failure of some communities to embrace Christian virtues and
live by the Golden Rule seems to have a real, though difficult to
trace, connection with their depressed living standard:
- “As part of a large
research project in Chicago, Professor Sampson
walked through different neighborhoods this summer,
dropping stamped, addressed envelopes to see how
many people would pick up an apparently lost letter
and mail it, a sign that looking out for others is
part of the community’s culture.
“In some neighborhoods, like Grand Boulevard, where
the notorious Robert Taylor public housing projects
once stood, almost no envelopes were mailed; in
others researchers received more than half of the
letters back. Income levels did not necessarily
explain the difference, Professor Sampson said, but
rather the community’s cultural norms, the levels of
moral cynicism and disorder.”
- ('Culture of Poverty'
Makes a Comeback, by Patricia Cohen, October 17, 2010,
The radio talk show hosts reason, 'Since it's their own fault,
we don't owe them anything.' But God does not reason like that. For
the same reason that one really should mail the stamped letter,
responsible members of the community should also clean up the mess
left by others' misbehavior, and children whose parents are drunks or
druggies should live as decently as the community can arrange.
Moreover the Bible offers another diagnosis of poverty, which
finds no place in some people's world view, namely oppression:
“Hear this, you who swallow up the needy,
And make the poor of the land fail,
Saying: 'When will the New Moon be past,
That we may sell grain?
And the Sabbath,
That we may trade wheat?
Making the ephah small and the shekel large,
Falsifying the scales by deceit,
That we may buy the poor for silver,
And the needy for a pair of sandals—
Even sell the bad wheat?'
The LORD has sworn by the pride of Jacob:
'Surely I will never forget any of their works.
Shall the land not tremble for this,
And everyone mourn who dwells in it?'” (Amos 8:4-8).
These oppressors are not condemned for going after the poor with a pick-axe, but for market-driven behavior judged
unjust by Biblical standards. The Bible standard for justice in the economic realm is set by the law of Moses,
a law code which offers extraordinary support, even transferred material
resources, for people on the low end of the economic scale. This last
diagnosis meets with a blank stare from the 'Religious Right.' While 'blaming the victim'
reflects reality to a point, and the Bible concurs with this diagnosis to a point, God will not
allow us to stop there. The talk show hosts' resolution of the problem: to
blame the victim, then stop there,— is in no way Biblical.
I Will Not Hear
It is not the prayers of all that God promises to hear, but the prayers of those who are faithful to Him:
“When you spread out your hands,
I will hide My eyes from you;
Even though you make many prayers,
I will not hear.
Your hands are full of blood.” (Isaiah 1:15)
God specifically commanded His people not to set their hearts on the things that the Gentiles seek:
“Therefore do not worry, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’
For after all these things the Gentiles seek. For your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things.” (Matthew 6:31-32).
Some people insist that if God's children defy Him and set their hearts on the things that the Gentiles seek, God will hear
their prayers. But we have fallen into a vicious circle. If God's children defy Him, He will not hear their prayers. You have His word on it.
How many free persons did Moses' law enslave? Few, and those few thieves without means to make
restitution. (Incidentally, depriving convicted criminals of their liberty does not violate the thirteenth
amendment to the U. S. Constitution.) How many enslaved persons did Moses liberate, every seventh year and
then comprehensively at the fiftieth year? Thousands upon thousands, had these provisions ever been fully implemented:
The Other Side
- “IS CHRIST OUR EXAMPLE? He never said a word in favor of education. He never even hinted at the existence of any science. He never uttered a word in favor of industry, economy or of any effort to better our condition in this world. He was the enemy of the successful, of the wealthy. Dives was sent to hell, not because he was bad, but because he was rich. Lazarus went to heaven, not because he was good, but because he was poor.”
- (Colonel Robert Ingersoll, About the Holy Bible, IX).
Things haven't changed: "The analogy of humans to lilies, for instance,
suggests -- along with many other injunctions -- that things like thrift,
innovation, family life, and so forth are a sheer waste of time."
(Christopher Hitchens, 'god is not Great, p. 118).
"In particular, it is absurd to hope to banish envy of other people's possessions or fortunes, if only because the spirit of envy can lead to emulation and ambition and have positive consequences. It seems improbable that the American fundamentalists, who desire to see the Ten Commandments emblazoned in every schoolroom and courtroom...are so hostile to the spirit of capitalism." (Christopher Hitchens, 'god is not Great,' referring to the 10th commandment, p. 100).
Martin Luther, the reader will recall, said that we are 'beggars all.' Colonel Ingersoll was consistent in his disdain for beggars.
Not only did he think poorly of those who eat unearned bread in this
life, but also of those who attain heaven unearned, relying on "the
goodness of another," i.e. the substitute, the scape-goat, Jesus. He
condemns those who gain heaven unearned, though none gain those shores
on any other basis. Colonel Ingersoll said of the man who "lives to
"He asks for nothing he does not earn. He does not wish to be happy in heaven if he must receive happiness as alms.
He does not rely on the goodness of another. He is not anxious to become a winged pauper."
(Robert Ingersoll, The Best of Robert Ingersoll, pp. 94-95).
Heaven will be populated by none but winged paupers! These
atheists are consistent in their attitudes, while many Christians are not.
If we despise beggars, while yet we are 'beggars all,' we despise ourselves and complain of the gift of our salvation.
Government Sponsored Theft
The case which the Religious Right makes against governmental
assistance to the poor centers around the idea that the Bible
forbids the government to assist the poor, though undeniably
enjoining such assistance upon private individuals:
"Anyone who has actually studied and taken the
'precepts of Jesus' to heart knows that Jesus taught us to be
personally charitable. This is fitting with Christ's testimony
that his was not a political kingdom, but a spiritual one (John
18:36). He came to conquer not earthly thrones, but the human
"Yet false teachers like Obama seek to confuse that point. They
tell us that obedience to Christ comes in the form of high taxes
on the wealthy to fund social programs for the poor. Even if
these programs weren't as miserably ineffective as they are,
look at what they foster: envy, greed, bitterness, and
resentment. Not exactly the motivations of love and altruism
that Jesus said were to be at the heart of our goodwill.
"In truth, there is not one recorded instance of Christ
advocating government confiscation and redistribution of wealth
in the name of charity.
"Jesus did say, "The King will reply, 'I tell you the truth,
whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine,
you did for me'" (Matthew 25:40).
"Jesus did not say, "The King will reply, 'I tell you the truth,
whatever you forcibly took from the masses through taxation in
the name of these brothers of mine, you did for me.'"
"Jesus did say: "If you want to be perfect, go, sell your
possessions and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in
heaven. Then come, follow me" (Matthew 19:21).
"Jesus did not say: "If you want to be perfect, go, get elected
to high office and then use the law to confiscate the property
of those who have, and give to those you deem more worthy of it.
Then claim you are following me."
"You get the point. Barack Obama's social gospel of
government-sponsored theft is a flat contradiction to what Jesus
(Peter Heck, 'O,' he of little faith,
onenewsnow, October 11, 2010).
But this view overlooks the fact that the Bible contains an
entire law-code which does mandate "government-sponsored theft,"
i.e. mandatory redistributions of wealth from those who have it
to those who don't. These ordinances were not optional:
- “And when ye reap the harvest of
your land, thou shalt not make clean riddance of the corners of thy
field when thou reapest, neither shalt thou gather any gleaning of
thy harvest: thou shalt leave them unto the poor, and to the
stranger: I am the LORD your God.”
- (Leviticus 23:22, 19:9-10).
- "When thou cuttest down thine
harvest in thy field, and hast forgot a sheaf in the field, thou
shalt not go again to fetch it: it shall be for the stranger, for
the fatherless, and for the widow: that the LORD thy God may bless
thee in all the work of thine hands. When thou beatest thine olive tree, thou shalt not go over
the boughs again: it shall be for the stranger, for the fatherless,
and for the widow. When thou gatherest the grapes of thy vineyard, thou shalt
not glean it afterward: it shall be for the stranger, for the
fatherless, and for the widow."
- (Deuteronomy 24:19-21).
- "At the end of every seven years thou shalt make a release.
And this is the manner of the release: Every creditor that lendeth
ought unto his neighbour shall release it; he shall not exact it of
his neighbour, or of his brother; because it is called the LORD’S
- (Deuteronomy 15:1-2).
- "At the end of three years thou shalt bring
forth all the tithe of thine increase the same year, and shalt lay
it up within thy gates: And the Levite, (because he hath no part nor inheritance with
thee,) and the stranger, and the fatherless, and the widow, which
are within thy gates, shall come, and shall eat and be satisfied;
that the LORD thy God may bless thee in all the work of thine hand
which thou doest.
- (Deuteronomy 14:28-29).
- "If there be among you a poor man of one of
thy brethren within any of thy gates in thy land which the LORD thy
God giveth thee, thou shalt not harden thine heart, nor shut thine
hand from thy poor brother: But thou shalt open thine hand wide unto
him, and shalt surely lend him sufficient for his need, in that
which he wanteth.
- (Deuteronomy 15:7-8).
- "And thou shalt rejoice in thy feast, thou,
and thy son, and thy daughter, and thy manservant, and thy
maidservant, and the Levite, the stranger, and the fatherless, and
the widow, that are within thy gates.
- (Deuteronomy 16:14).
- "When thou hast made an end of tithing all
the tithes of thine increase the third year, which is the year of
tithing, and hast given it unto the Levite, the stranger, the
fatherless, and the widow, that they may eat within thy gates, and
be filled; Then thou shalt say before the LORD thy God, I have brought away
the hallowed things out of mine house, and also have given them unto
the Levite, and unto the stranger, to the fatherless, and to the
widow, according to all thy commandments which thou hast commanded
me: I have not transgressed thy commandments, neither have I
- (Deuteronomy 26:12-13).
- "And if thy brother be waxen poor, and fallen
in decay with thee; then thou shalt relieve him: yea, though he be a
stranger, or a sojourner; that he may live with thee. Take thou no usury of him, or increase: but fear thy God; that
thy brother may live with thee. Thou shalt not give him thy money upon usury, nor lend him thy
victuals for increase."
- (Leviticus 25:35-37).
- "The land shall not be sold for ever: for the land
is mine; for ye are strangers and sojourners with me. And in all the
land of your possession ye shall grant a redemption for the land. If
thy brother be waxen poor, and hath sold away some of his
possession, and if any of his kin come to redeem it, then shall he
redeem that which his brother sold. . .But if he be not able to
restore it to him, then that which is sold shall remain in the hand
of him that hath bought it until the year of jubile: and in the
jubile it shall go out, and he shall return unto his possession."
- (Leviticus 25:23-28).
It seems unlikely that Jesus intended to criminalize observance of the Mosaic law, though of course
a theocracy is only a theocracy when God founds it, not when man does. All
of the condemnations the prophets thundered against Israel fall
within this context: you are oppressing the poor when you don't do
those things which are enjoined by the law of Moses:
"The people of the land have used oppression, and
exercised robbery, and have vexed the poor and needy: yea, they have
oppressed the stranger wrongfully. . . Therefore have I poured out
mine indignation upon them; I have consumed them with the fire of my
wrath: their own way have I recompensed upon their heads, saith the
Lord GOD." (Ezekiel 22:29-31).
"Rob not the poor, because he is poor: neither oppress the afflicted
in the gate: For the LORD will plead their cause, and spoil the soul
of those that spoiled them." (Proverbs 22:22-23).
We are prone to read passages like these with the assumption that
'robbing the poor' means what we would count as 'robbing the poor,'
which would have to be pretty dire because we allow things Moses does not
allow, such as foreclosure resulting in permanent alienation of ownership.
We do not keep ownership of real property open in spite of failure; we do
not clear the decks every fifty years and go back to Square One, as Moses
does. It is because the nation of Israel failed to do these things, which we
do not in any way expect the wealthy to do, that the prophets accuse their
neighbors of 'robbing the poor.'
It is surprising but true that many Christians nowadays borrow
their thinking about wealth and poverty not from the Bible, but from
popular right-wing authors like the atheist Ayn Rand:
For reasons unknown, many Christians today will choose an atheist in
a flash over any Christian when it comes to matters political or
economic. They prefer Ayn Rand to the Anglican John Maynard Keynes, who
devised a way to tamp down the business cycle. Capitalist economies have
always been plagued by a boom-and-bust cycle. Wherever such economies
are planted, whether in Europe or Singapore, the progress of their
production shows as a straight line upward only in the most charitable
soft focus. In detail it is a roller-coaster ride. The downturns are
hard, killing people's dreams of a decent retirement, wiping out savings
and destroying businesses. There seems to be something ingrained in
human psychology that entices people to predict that 'current trends
will continue:' if gold prices are going up, for example, people assume
they will continue to rise on a straight line and invest accordingly.
But nothing ever rises on a straight line; things revert to the mean,
and the real chart will always look more like a sine wave than a
straight line. By predicting according to the 'straight line' paradigm,
people will always overbuild and overproduce in the boom, and
undershoot, hiding their money in the mattress, during the down years.
Keynes suggested setting up a counter-cycle, where government
spending acts as a counter-weight to the private economy's
gyrations. In good times the government was to run a surplus, in bad
times operate at a deficit. This tamps down and smooths out the
private economy's unwelcome oscillations, as well as providing
much-needed relief and employment through public works during the
depressions. This pragmatic, workable idea is hated by ideologues of
the Ayn Rand persuasion. Why? What is wrong with what works?
It is sometimes asserted by these conservative political commentators, for what reason
I am not completely sure, that no pagan government in antiquity ever
provided welfare to the poor. This simply isn't so; isn't it a
common-place that the Roman government anesthetized the poor with 'bread
and circuses'? Many of these states did provide an upkeep for those
unable to provide for themselves:
"The Council also examines infirm paupers; for there is a law which provides that persons possessing less than three
minas, who are so crippled as to be unable to do any work, are, after examination by the Council, to receive two obols a day
from the state for their support. A treasurer is appointed by lot to attend to them."
(Aristotle, The Athenian Constitution, Chapter 49).
This was not uncommon or distinctive,
"The Rhodians, although their form of government is not
democratic, are attentive to the welfare of the people, and endeavor to
maintain the multitude of poor. The people receive allowances of corn, and
the rich support the needy, according to an ancient usage. There are also
public offices in the state, the object of which is to procure and
distribute provisions, so that the poor may obtain subsistence, and the
city not suffer for want of persons to serve her, especially in manning her
fleets." (Strabo, Geography, Book XIV, Chapter II, Section 5,
Volume III, p. 30).
Since Moses' God-inspired polity did without controversy mandate
communal support for the disadvantaged, I'm not sure why the practice of
pagan governments interests these commentators, but if they think it is
important, they ought to get it right.
Since there is so much material in the Bible favorable to the
poor, one would think those who want to uphold their cause could not be held
back from looting this treasure-trove. What could be better than leaving the right-wingers to argue
with Jesus? The 'red letters,' even! Unfortunately nothing good happens when Democratic politicians quote the Bible. Some may recall from
the lovely old hymn that God is the "Help of the helpless" (Abide With Me). Others beg to
differ; reportedly Joan of Arc said, "Aide toy, Dieu te aidera:" "Help
yourself and God will help you." Certain Democratic hacks think the Bible says 'God helps those who help themselves:'
Will a Man Rob God?
Many churches teach that the Old Testament tithe is still binding on Christians today. Is the requirement
for church members to contribute ten percent of their income to the church Biblical?
During the 1970's this country experienced double-digit inflation. As
the currency lost value, lower-income tax-payers were relentlessly
pushed into higher brackets intended originally for wealthy people. This
was a lazy legislator's dream: yearly tax increases without ever having
to vote a tax increase, always an unpopular measure. Belatedly,
legislators woke up to an angry public demanding relief, and reduced the
tax rates, or rather brought them back down to where they were before
inflation had kicked everyone into a higher bracket. Even poor people,
never intended as a target of the income tax, had to pay. One Solon of
the day remarked, the best anti-poverty program the government can
devise is to cease taxing people into poverty! In a similar vein, the
best thing churches concerned about helping the poor can do is to cease
demanding 10% of their income, a demand the Bible nowhere makes.