A great deal of debate
is taking place in regard to the poor and those who live on the desperate economic margins of society. The connection is
now (finally) being made regarding Christian faith and economic policy --- due in large part to Catholic organizations and
institutions. Yet, even with this intense focus upon the issues and concerns of the least of these, our overall response,
as Christians, is not nearly strong enough.
on, hold on Chaplain Rhymes! I donate time to charity; I give money to those in need; I give clothes to organizations that
help the poor. Yes, these endeavors are noteworthy, laudable even; however, Christian scripture directs us to something
For far too many times we have reduced
the debate concerning Christian duty to something as nebulous or childish as “being nice to the poor,” or “not
being mean to the poor.” What we are called to do is much more than that.
There are three words and/or phrases that require our attention as we attempt to craft a more complete understanding
of our Christian responsibility to society’s most vulnerable.
1. The cause: throughout scripture we find this phrase being used in reference to the least of these. In the affirmative:
Plead the cause of the poor and needy (Prov. 31:9 KJV*); the righteous considers the
cause of the poor (Prov. 29:7 NKJV*). In the negative: … they do not judge and plead with justice
the cause of the fatherless*, that they may prosper (Jer. 5:28 AMP*); they judge not for the fatherless
nor defend them, neither does the cause of the widow* come to them (Isa. 1:23 AMP).
There are many more passages in this same vein throughout scripture, but for the
sake of time and space, these examples will do. Let’s focus on the word cause as it is used in the aforementioned
texts. The Hebraic word cause is riyb (reeb) which means to contest, to fight, to challenge (some
translations use defend in place of the phrase plead the cause). As we can see here, this does not suggest
passive participation or a simple tip of the hat in the direction of the poor. It does not merely counsel us to bind the
wounds inflicted upon those after they have been brutally assaulted by poverty, but rather, it also compels us to proactively
stand between them and the aggressor --- whether that aggressor is a person or a policy.
2. Defend/judge: Depending on the particular translation, the words defend or
judge are used interchangeably in various passages. Defend the poor and the fatherless: do justice to
the afflicted and needy (Psa. 82:3 KJV); Learn to do right! Seek justice, relieve the oppressed, correct the oppressor.
Defend the fatherless, plead for the widow (Isa. 1:17 AMP). The original word, in Hebrew, for both defend
and judge is shaphat (shaw-fat), which means to pronounce sentence, to vindicate,
to avenge. It also meant (and means) to be a champion or someone or something.
These words have an air of urgent, righteous indignation.
It should make it abundantly clear that this is no inert support that we are called upon to give here. So when politicians,
of any persuasion, suggests that there is something amiss (or un-American even) in a plea for economic policies that are
fair and just when it comes to our nation’s most vulnerable, they couldn’t be more wrong. Though the call for
income equity and budgetary compassion may not comply with certain individual’s definition of American, it
fits the biblical description of righteous and Christian to a tee.
3. Oppress/oppressed/oppression: Christian scripture is replete with the word
oppress and its derivatives. In large measure, it is used in reference to the mistreatment of those who are impoverished.
To do justice to the fatherless and the oppressed, that the man of earth may oppress
no more (Psa. 10:18 NKJV); the people of the land have used oppression and extortion and committed
robbery; yes, they have wronged and vexed the poor and needy (Eze. 22:9 AMP). In light of the recent budget passed by
the House, this next verse is extremely prescient: He who oppresses the poor to increase his riches,
and he who gives to the rich will surely come to poverty (Prov. 22:16 NKJV).
So what can we glean from these pronouncements? Going back to the original Hebrew, the words for oppress and its
various offshoots are ashaq (aw-shak), arats (aw-rats’), dak (dak), showd (shode),
to name a few. Their meanings are a virtual checklist for the injustices that our most vulnerable citizens face: to
defraud; to violate; to afflict; to crush; to crack into
pieces, to overwhelm, violence, to ravage.
When we look at the criminality of the home foreclosures by institutions such
as Wells Fargo; when we see the crushing debt incurred by those who had the nerve to become ill without proper healthcare;
when we see budgets and proposals that stand to overwhelm, ravage and crack into pieces those of already meager means, is
this not oppression? These are the injustices and sufferings that the Christian is called to address.
The commitment that we are called to give transcends the regular (or irregular)
donation as the plate is passed around --- once again, that type of contribution is commendable. Nevertheless, we are called
to an emphatic advocacy; an explicit engagement; an enthusiastic championing.
If one would take just a cursory view of scripture, we would find that not only individuals were judged in regard
to their treatment of those in need, but societies and nations as well. Which leads me to this question: how can we take
up the cause of the poor; how do we champion the concerns of the least of these, without tackling the laws and policies
that negatively impact them?
consider just one more passage:
cedar may be excellent, but that doesn’t make you a better king.
True, your father ate and drank, but he also did what was right and just, so things went well with him.
He upheld the cause of the poor and the weak, so
everything went well. Isn’t that what knowing me is all about?” says the Lord (Jer. 22:
Are you my Christian sister;
my Christian brother, a champion of the poor?
KJV: King James Version
NKJV: New King James Version
CJB: Complete Jewish Bible
Fatherless and widows: in ancient Hebrew society the
most vulnerable citizens were the individual who did not have the economic support of a father or husband. Although contemporarily,
orphans or widows are still among our most vulnerable, the designation, fatherless and widows, has come to represent
the most impoverished in society.