Biblical Responsibility for the Poor: Individual or Communal?

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In response to criticisms of new tax regulations passed by Congress, conservative writer and radio host Erick Erickson wrote on Twitter: “The Bible teaches it is an individual responsibility to help the poor. Shame on those who’d pass off their personal obligation to the government.” In other words, Erickson, like many other conservatives, believes that the Bible rejects government programs to help alleviate poverty. As Jack Jenkins has shown, over the past half-century prominent conservative evangelical Christians adopted free-market economic principles as a core principle of their faith. This new free-market fundamentalism has fast become a central tenet of the Republican party.

Unfortunately for them, it’s a sentiment that God has promised to judge harshly (Exod 22:21-27). One of the Bible’s most pervasive and defining claims is that the community is responsible for the welfare of all who reside in it—particularly the poor and vulnerable. The Bible’s idea of justice doesn’t ignore individual responsibility. It goes far beyond it.

In fact, ancient Israel stood out among its ancient Near Eastern neighbors precisely because its legal traditions assume that the entire community is responsible for the welfare of the poor and vulnerable. In the epilogue to the Code of Hammurabi, the king of Babylon pledges to take care of the widow and the orphan—yet those vulnerable people are not protected by the body of the law code itself. In the Law of Moses, by contrast, the widow and orphan are explicitly protected by legislation (Exod 22:22) and given economic provision in the law code (Lev 19:9-10; Deut 24:17-21). Moses also mentions “the poor” (Exod 22:25; 23:6, 11) and “the aliens” (Exod 23:9; Deut 24:14), classes of people not even considered in any other ancient Near Eastern law code. While ancient Babylonians certainly considered it a nice thing to take care of vulnerable people, they never legislated it. For them, taking care of the vulnerable was a matter of personal responsibility, and the community should be left out of it.

Israel’s biblical texts, on the other hand, legislate communal provisions for the vulnerable. In Exodus and Deuteronomy, God and the entire community of Israel enter into a legally binding agreement—a covenant. Deuteronomy in particular is a political document that discusses the judicial system (Deut 16:18-20), the military (Deut 20), and royal authority (Deut 17:14-20). And in it, Moses says to the community of ancient Israel: “I therefore command you, ‘Open your hand to the poor and needy neighbor in your land’“ (Deut 15:11). The “you” mentioned in this passage is the entire community of Israel, and this is a stipulation of a legally binding communal contract.

Moses commands all Israel: “Every third year you shall bring out the full tithe of your produce for that year, and store it within your towns… the resident aliens, the orphans, and the widows in your towns, may come and eat their fill so that the LORD your God may bless you in all the work that you undertake” (Deut 14:28-29; 26:12). This law creates a social safety net for all the vulnerable in the community, and it has nothing to do with personal responsibility or charity.

Other laws, like Leviticus 23:22, demand that Israelite farmers leave some of their crop in the field so that the poor and the resident aliens can feed themselves. This is not charity: it is the bare minimum expected of all community members. Moses demands that the community support and protect all vulnerable people, commanding that all debts be forgiven every seven years (Deut 15:1) and all people be given access to productive land every generation (Lev 25:28). Later, when Nehemiah discovers wealthy Judahites taking advantage of poor neighbors and acquiring them as debt slaves, he uses his power as regional governor to create new regulations to protect the poor (Neh 5:1-13). Throughout the Bible, economic justice is not a matter of personal responsibility. It is a matter of communal governance.

When ancient Israel and Judah’s political leadership failed to enforce these standards, the prophets confronted them with the Mosaic covenant. Isaiah repeatedly excoriates the political leaders for their failure to ensure the welfare of the poor (Isa 3:14-15). He tells lawmakers who “write oppressive statutes to turn aside the needy from justice and to rob the poor of my people” and “make the orphans your prey” that God plans for them a “day of punishment” (Isa 10:1-3). Likewise, the book of Amos is full of invective for national leaders (Amos 6:1-7) who disregard Moses’ vision for community wide, mandatory economic justice (Amos 8:4-6). Similar calls can be found in Jeremiah (7:5-11; 22:13-19), Micah (2:1-2; 3:9-12), Habakkuk (2:4-14) and Zephaniah (3:1-5, 19). And Jesus, who came not to abolish but fulfill the Law (Matt 5:17), describes his own ministry with Isaiah’s proclamation of communal liberation to all who suffer oppression (Luke 4:18; see Isaiah 61:1).

In their recent tax bills, both the House of Representatives and the Senate crafted and proclaimed their own vision for the future of the United States economy. It’s a future that makes life harder for the poor, the resident alien, and even for private charities that try to organize community-wide non-governmental support for the vulnerable. It’s a vision that will require individuals to take it upon themselves to help the poor, the sick, and the elderly. Sojourners recently organized a campaign focused on the 2000 verses of the Bible that deal with justice—but it’s important to emphasize that almost all of these assume a communal, even political responsibility for enacting and ensuring justice for all. Prophets like Amos cringe at the attempt to “trample the poor and take from them levies of grain” (Amos 5:11) and call for national repentance: “Seek good, and not evil, that you may live” (Amos 5:14). In the end, Christians should support legislation mandating communal support for “the least of these” (Matt 25:45) because they recognize and respect the shared humanity that links us all, according to the Mosaic Torah and the Prophets and Jesus.