In a recent column for USA Today, Gary Bauer (former GOP presidential candidate and President of a conservative political organization called American Values) makes a big biblical blunder. He addresses the issue of the role of faith in politics and uses Jim Wallis as an example of a Christian with whom he shares religious heritage but not political conviction.
Sojourners Editor Jim Wallis and I are both evangelical Christians. But we come to radically different conclusions about government's role in addressing poverty. Wallis thinks Republican tax cuts are unbiblical, and that more government spending and taxes are the main antidote. But nowhere in the Bible are we told that government should take one man's money by force of law and give it to another man. Jesus' admonition was a personal command to share, not a command for Caesar to "spread the wealth around."
First, Bauer mischaracterizes Wallis’ position. Sojourners and the entire Circle of Protection have called for a balanced approach to deficit reduction. This means that taxes should be on the table. But, the Circle acknowledges that there does need to be spending reductions and explicitly states that some of those reductions will need to come from entitlements.
Now, on to the biblical problem.
Bauer claims, “But nowhere in the Bible are we told that government should take one man's money by force of law and give it to another man.”
This is false.
Both the Year of Jubilee (when all debts were forgiven, slaves released and land returned to its original owners and related to the “sabbatical” year) and “gleaning” laws (mandate to leave grapes or grain on the vines or in the field for the poor to collect) are forms of government mandated redistribution of wealth.
They were laws concerned with justice not encouragements to charity.
To read up on gleaning you can flip to Leviticus 19:9; 23:22, Deuteronomy 24:19-21 or the story of Ruth and Boaz in Ruth chapter 2. To read up on Jubilee and “sabbatical” years I recommend Leviticus 25 and then later scriptural references of Isaiah 61 and Luke 4.
There are Biblical scholars who will argue that it is not clear if the Year of Jubilee was ever actually put into practice. Therefore, Christians today shouldn’t practice it or it’s importance should be diminished.
But, I don’t buy that.
Prophets regularly criticized rulers for denying justice to the poor and oppressed. If you read Isaiah and Amos you will clearly see that God wasn’t happy that His people weren’t doing a better job making sure that those in need were taken care of.
Others argue that it’s dangerous to try and directly apply Old Testament laws written for an ancient agrarian society to our current government system and economic milieu.
But, that doesn’t mean we throw away the values behind Jubilee and gleaning. Both are intended to provide opportunity for those at the bottom, need help or have come upon hard times. Today, we try and figure out public policy solutions to achieve similar ends.
The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities has shown that if it wasn’t for government assistance the poverty rate in our country would be nearly twice as a high. They have put together a blog series showing the effects of some of our country’s most effective social safety net programs.
It is perfectly reasonable to have a debate about which government programs are most effective at actually alleviating poverty and creating opportunity for those at the bottom. Not every line item of government spending is justified and limited resources should be invested well.
But, Bauer’s argument is Biblically ignorant. The antidote is obvious.
Read the Bible.
A Baylor University study, referenced on this blog before, found that there was a direct positive correlation between the level of concern a Christian has for economic justice and how often they read the Bible.
In conclusion, read the Bible.
Tim King is Communications Director for Sojourners. Follow Tim on Twitter @TMKing.