The Common Good

Caring for the Poor is Government's Biblical Role

There is hardly a more controversial political battle in America today than that around the role of government. The ideological sides have lined up, and the arguments rage about the size of government: how big, how small should it be? Some famously have said government should be shrunk so small that it "could be drowned in a bathtub."

But I want to suggest that what size the government should be is the wrong question. A more useful discussion would be about the purposes of government and whether ours is fulfilling them. So let's look at what the Bible says.

The words of Paul in the 13th chapter of Romans are perhaps the most extensive teaching in the New Testament about the role and purposes of government. Paul says those purposes are twofold: to restrain evil by punishing evildoers and to serve peace and orderly conduct by rewarding good behavior. Civil authority is designed to be "God's servant for your good" (13:4). Today we might say "the common good" is to be the focus and goal of government.

So the purpose of government, according to Paul, is to protect and promote. Protect from the evil and promote the good, and we are even instructed to pay taxes for those purposes. So to disparage government per se to see government as the central problem in society — is simply not a biblical position.

First, government is supposed to protect its people. That certainly means protecting its citizens' safety and security. Crime and violence will always be real in this world, and that's why we have the police, who are meant to keep our streets, neighborhoods, and homes safe.

Governments also need to protect their people judicially, and make sure our legal and court systems are procedurally just and fair. The biblical prophets regularly rail against corrupt court decisions and systems, in which the wealthy and powerful manipulate the legal processes for their own benefit and put the poor into greater debt or distress. The prophet Amos speaks directly to the courts (and government) when he says, "Hate evil, love good; maintain justice in the courts" (Amos 5:15 NIV).

But along with protecting, what should governments promote? The prophets hold kings, rulers, judges, and even employers accountable to the demands of justice and fairness, therefore promoting those values.

And the Scriptures say that governmental authority is to protect the poor in particular. The biblical prophets are consistent and adamant in their condemnation of injustice to the poor, and frequently follow their statements by requiring the king (the government) to act justly. That prophetic expectation did not apply only to the kings of Israel but was also extended to the kings of neighboring lands and peoples.

Jeremiah, speaking of King Josiah, said, "He defended the cause of the poor and needy, and so all went well." 

Psalm 72 begins with a prayer for kings or political leaders: "Give the king your justice, O God, and your righteousness to a king's son. May he judge your people with righteousness, and your poor with justice. May the mountains yield prosperity for the people, and the hills, in righteousness. May he defend the cause of the poor of the people, give deliverance to the needy, and crush the oppressor." 

There is a powerful vision here for promoting the common good — a vision of "righteous" prosperity for all the people, with special attention to the poor and to "deliverance" for the most vulnerable and needy, and even a concern for the land.

Evangelical theologian Ron Sider says:

The biblical understanding of justice clearly includes both procedural and distributive aspects. That the procedures must be fair is clear in the several texts that demand unbiased courts (Exodus 23:2-8; Leviticus 19:15; Deuteronomy 1:17; 10:17-19). That distributive justice (i.e., fair outcomes) is also a central part of justice is evident not just from the hundreds of texts about God's concern for the poor ... but also in the meaning of the key Hebrew words for justice (mishpat and tsedaqah).

Time and again the prophets use mishpat and tsedaqah to refer to fair economic outcomes. Immediately after denouncing Israel and Judah for the absence of justice, the prophet Isaiah condemns the way rich and powerful landowners have acquired all the land by pushing out small farmers (Isaiah 5:7-9). It is important to note that even though in this text the prophet does not say the powerful acted illegally, he nevertheless denounces the unfair outcome.

Notice that Sider says "fair outcomes" and not "equal outcomes." The political right's continuing accusation against all who would hold governments accountable for justice is that we are really aiming for equal outcomes from public policy. But that simply is not true.

Indeed, the historical attempts by many Marxist governments to create equal outcomes have dramatically shown the great dangers of how the concentration of power in a few government hands has led to totalitarian results. The theological reason for that is the presence and power of sin, and the inability of such fallible human creatures to create social utopias on earth.

Yet the biblical prophets do hold their rulers, courts, and judges, and landowners and employers accountable to the values of fairness, justice, and even mercy. The theological reasons for that are, in fact, the same: the reality of evil and sin in the concentration of power — both political and economic — and the need to hold that power accountable to justice, especially in the protection of the poor. So fair outcomes, and not equal ones, are the goal of governments.

Governments should provide a check on powerful people, institutions, and interests in the society that, if left unchecked, might run over their fellow citizens, the economy, and certainly the poor.

If government is rendered unable to "punish the evil" and "reward the good" when it comes to the behavior of huge corporations and banks, for example, exactly who else is going to do that? And coming to a better moral balance in achieving fiscal responsibility, while protecting the poor, should be a bipartisan effort.

The radically anti-government ideology of the current right wing Tea Party ideology is simply contrary to a more biblical view of government, the need for checks and balances, the sinfulness of too much concentrated power in either the government or the market, the responsibilities we have for our neighbor and the God-ordained purposes of government — in addition to the churches — in serving the common good and, in particular, to protect the poor.

Jim Wallis is the author of Rediscovering Values: A Guide for Economic and Moral Recovery, and CEO of SojournersFollow Jim on Twitter @JimWallis.

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