Until recently, few evangelicals had much to say about “social justice.” Leftish evangelicals like Ron Sider, Jim Wallis, and Tony Campolo, along with Evangelicals for Social Action and Sojourners, virtually cornered the market. Other evangelicals wrote on inequality, race, and poverty, but mostly in reaction.
Today, everyone in the evangelical world is talking about justice, and then talking in the next breath about poverty. “If we as evangelicals remain silent and do not speak up in defense of the poor, we lose our credibility and our right to witness about God’s love for the world,” wrote Rick Warren in a 2005 open letter to President Bush. Billy Graham’s son Franklin has dedicated his life not to evangelistic crusades but to the remarkable work of Samaritan’s Purse. Manhattan Presbyterian Pastor Tim Keller’s recent book on “generous justice” is partly about the doctrine of justification, much more about the whys and hows of “doing justice.” Evangelical academics are in on the act too—witness Bruce Longenecker’s work on Paul and poverty. You can’t throw an egg . . . well, you can guess the rest.
This represents a resurgence of earlier evangelical obsessions. Before fundamentalists and social gospellers parted ways in the early twentieth century, evangelicals were in the forefront of social activism and poverty relief both here and abroad. Evangelicals have been looking out as well as back. As barriers between evangelicals and Catholics become more porous, evangelicals join Catholics in advocating the “preferential option for the poor.”
The resurgence also arises from evangelicalism’s commitment to Scripture. After all, the social justice evangelicals have always had plenty of biblical precedent for their emphases and rhetoric. Israel’s prophets regularly condemn the predatory powerful who “plunder” and “grind the faces of the poor” (Isaiah 3:14-15). Yahweh rejects Israel’s worship because their hands are filled with the blood of undefended orphans and widows (Isaiah 1:10-17, 21-23). Isaiah calls Israel to a fast that includes dividing bread with the hungry, housing the homeless, and covering the naked (Isaiah 58:7).
For the prophets, care of the poor is a matter of righteousness or justice, not mercy. Yahweh Himself maintains “justice for the poor” (Psalm 140:12), and rulers (Isaiah 10:2) and people (Ezekiel 22:29) are expected to do the same. Filled with the Spirit, the Messianic Branch will judge the poor with righteousness and act for the afflicted (Isaiah 11:4).
Protection and defense of the poor is embedded in Israel’s defining exodus story: Because Yahweh delivered His people from bondage, Israel is to be a liberating people. And this demand is imprinted on the Mosaic law. From an exhaustive survey of the Old Testament laws on wealth and poverty, David L. Baker concludes that, in comparison with other ancient Near Eastern codes, “Old Testament law is more concerned to ensure that widows and orphans are not abused, nor exploited in law courts or in financial dealings.” As Jesus said, the weighty things of Torah are justice, mercy, and truth (Matthew 23:23).
That connection with the institutions and practices of Torah is fundamental to grasping what the Bible tells us about justice and poverty—fundamental, and neglected. Unless prophetic rhetoric is anchored in Torah, it floats free, gets transformed by modern statist idolatry, and comes out ready to be co-opted in support of the latest federal entitlement. When the Torah-prophet nexus is neglected or minimized, 'justice for the poor' tends to be reinterpreted as 'the state will save us.' Thus, in a quasi-creedal statement, Jim Wallis made support of Obamacare a litmus test of justice for the sick.
Israel’s prophets say nothing new but reiterate the demands of Torah. When Isaiah condemns Israelite landowners for “devouring the vineyard” and taking the “plunder of the poor” (Isaiah 3:14), for instance, he is alluding to gleaning (Leviticus 19:9-10; Deuteronomy 24:19-22). Landowners are forbidden to harvest the corners of their fields, pick up dropped stalks of grain, beat olives from trees a second time, or strip the vines of all grapes. The remnant of grain, olives, and grapes is for the poor, who are permitted to harvest the corners and follow the harvesters. What Baker calls “scrumping” allows anyone to eat his fill of grain or grapes (Deuteronomy 23:24-25). Hebrew farmers are not allowed to maximize efficiency or to squeeze out the last bit of the harvest. Torah has built-in yield inefficiencies, as a gift to the poor.
At the same time, the right to glean and scrump does not dissolve the claims of owners. Gleaners are not permitted to enter a field before harvest begins; they take the leftovers. Nor are they simply given a handout. Gleaning is as back-breaking as harvesting, maybe more so. Scrumping allows the landless and hungry to share in the abundance of a harvest, but the landowners’ profit is protected, since scrumping is strictly limited. When the prophets attack greedy landowners for stripping the vineyard, they have in mind specific practices: The right of widowed Ruth to glean Boaz’s field, the right of a hungry man to scrump from a vineyard.
Especially in Deuteronomy, generosity to the poor is coupled with festivity. When Israelites bring the tithe (tenth) of their harvest to the Lord’s house, they celebrate with meat and strong drink, but are exhorted to remember the Levites, who have no land of their own (Deuteronomy 14:27). Every third year, a portion of the tithe is given to the alien, orphan, and widow who “shall come and eat and be satisfied” (Deuteronomy 14:28-29). At the annual feasts of Pentecost and Booths, too, the celebrants welcome those with no resources of their own (Deuteronomy 16:10-11, 13-14). Again, the rights of both owners and non-owners are honored. Landowners rejoice in their abundance, but the landless poor share the abundance. The successful are not pilloried or punished, but the Lord commands them to open their hearts and their tables to the unsuccessful.
Obviously, Torah is designed for an agrarian society and the prophets’ tirades are directed at agrarian abuses. Still, it would be healthy for evangelicals to devote a good portion of their considerable zeal and energy to exploring creative ways to enact the justice of Torah in the twenty-first century. Welcome and biblical as it is, evangelical rhetoric of 'justice for the poor' will collapse into vacuity unless it is linked to political, legal, and economic institutions and practices that actually protect the poor and do justice to everyone. Worse still, evangelicals may end up giving aid and comfort to a bloated, and broke, welfare state.
Peter J. Leithart is pastor of Trinity Reformed Church in Moscow, Idaho, and Senior Fellow of Theology and Literature at New St. Andrews College. His most recent book is Athanasius (Baker Academic).