Thursday, October 11, 2018

On favouring the poor

Did you know that the Bible repeatedly forbids favouring the poor?

Well, all right, just twice that I can see.  In Exodus 23 God's people are forbidden to "be partial to a poor man in his lawsuit"; and in Leviticus 19 Israel's judges are warned against being "partial to the poor".  Of course, in the very near context of both these sayings there are prohibitions against favouring the rich, being intimated by the powerful, or taking a bribe.  Perhaps the overall attitude is best summed up in Deuteronomy 1:17:  "You shall not be partial in judgement.  You shall hear the small and the great alike."

The majority concern in Holy Scripture, which recurs in the NT at places like James 2, is the temptation to show partiality towards the rich and powerful.  The reasoning behind this is obvious: these are the people who might be able to reward you for your unwarranted favour, or indeed to harm you if you don't show them favour.  Human nature being what it is, the temptation to pre-judge in favour of the great is always strong.

But the other stream is also there, founded in the reality that our God is a god of truth, judging impartially.  Because this is his character, his people are to show the same equal regard for the privileged and the destitute, the powerful and the weak.

I mention this because I'm a little concerned that some Christians, passionate for justice, are accepting the world's (or at least, the Western-liberal-leftish) definition of what justice is; in particular, the idea that justice means favouring the weak, or pre-judging in favour of the powerless.  That isn't what justice is.  Where there are systemic prejudices preventing particular groups from justice, that is something we have to speak against and strenuously combat.  But the answer isn't to invest those disempowered groups with an automatic (and therefore necessarily imaginary) righteousness.

Now all this is about a judicial context in Israel.  But God is still the same now, and his character is still the same, and he rules his Church.  That means that in local church life and in Christian interaction with society there should be a concern for impartiality, and therefore a rejection of intersectionality, at least as it is applied today as a practical programme (as a framework for analysis, it remains a helpful tool imo).

Or, in other words, when we say 'justice', let's make sure our idea of what that means and our picture of what it looks like derive from Scripture and not any other piece of philosophical or political discourse.


  1. I broadly agree. A major caveat, though: I've been reading a lot of Marx recently, and, as obvious as this is, have been struck by just how different an industrialised, capitalist society is to the economic world of the Bible (or pre-17th centuryish society for that matter). When the rich's pensions and other investments (inc. those of Christians) are built off an unseen system of exploitation and slavery, something is clearly wrong. The Bible only becomes more relevant, cutting through our ignorance to challenge us as to how exactly labourers are paid (or not) for our comfort and retirement.

    This is not to suggest a witless embrace of 'social justice' or hope in communism as 'the solution', just to say that the difficulty now is that exploitation has become so diffuse, so indirect, that there is a grain of truth to the idea of systemic injustice - although I'm inclined to agree with Marx that it's a function of capital rather than largely about prejudice. There are a number of Marxist philosophers grumbling about identity politics, these days...

    Anyway, not really disagreeing with you, just a mess of thoughts triggered off by your post.

    1. Yes, I actually think there is more than a grain of truth in the idea of systemic injustice - and although it certainly takes a particular form (or, one is tempted to say, is particularly *amorphous*) in late-modern capitalism, I'd say it's always been there. And Holy Scripture knows a great deal about this.

      I think a lot of contemporary politics/philosophy is okay at diagnosing (elements of) the problem; I just don't think they're got the solution right.

    2. 'No solution outside the church' is what I wish Christians on the left or right (as far as those terms have any real meaning) would take to heart, rather than wasting time seeking on 'social justice' or critiquing 'Cultural Marxism', both nebulous and wrong-headed terms. But that would take the church having a unique economy and political outlook for people to latch onto, which as yet is far from evident.

      On a lighter note, a good basis for an Alan Partridge radio phone-in: 'Who's your favourite Karl? Marx, Barth, Rahner... or Lagerfeld?'