There’s a movement afoot (how often do you get to use that word?) whose leaders like to repeat a particular statistic over and over. I’ll pause and let you try to figure it out, as you list everyone who fits this description in your head. Okay. Here’s a smattering of statements from the group in question:
“…there are more than 2,000 verses of Scripture that call us to express love and justice for those who are poor and oppressed.” Tony Campolo
“The religious right wants to say there is only one or two issues that reflect our values, but as Rick would say, I’m sure, poverty, if there is 2000 verses in the Bible about the poor, that becomes a religious issue, as well.” Jim Wallis
I’ve always been a bit skeptical about this. I’ve heard this stat repeated dozens of times, but never have I found any references to accompany it. I’ve actually been searching the internet for it periodically, with no luck. If anyone has the list, let me know.
Off the hook?
My issue isn’t that I don’t think caring for the poor is important. It clearly is. The problem I have is that these leaders are making care for the poor through politics the focus of the Christian mission. But that’s not what the Bible is about. As Gary DeMar said in The American Vision, the philosophy “takes verses that are directed at individuals and turns them on their head and gives them a political twist.”
If we vote for a candidate who want to fulfill the benevolent dreams of the Red-Letter movement, does that absolve us of our responsibility to personally help the poor? No. And if we vote for someone who will not expand social programs and spending, and give of our own time and resources, are we guilty of ignoring “the most explicit of all the social concerns of Scripture”? No.
Well, today I finally came across a resource. It is the Poverty and Justice Bible.
Almost every page of the Bible speaks of God’s heart for the poor. His concern for the marginalized. His compassion for the oppressed. His call for justice.
The Poverty and Justice Bible megaphones his voice as never before.
The premise is that it highlights verses – 2,848 of them – which pertain to poverty and justice issues; 2,130 of those are about poverty. When I found it online I was hopeful that I would finally be shown the 2,000 verses that would change my perspective on poverty. I opened the Factbox[pdf] with bated breath.
Unfortunately, what I found was less than inspiring:
The first highlighted passage in The Poverty and Justice Bible is Genesis 3.17-19, where God admonishes Adam for eating the fruit from the tree and warns him that he will ‘struggle to grow enough food’ and ‘sweat to earn a living’.
I’m not really sure what this has to do with helping the poor, oppressed, or marginalized. It sounds like a punishment for sin that resulted in difficulty for everyone. The next thing I found was just as moving:
The last highlighted passage in The Poverty and Justice Bible is Revelation 22.12-15. In this passage, Jesus apparently foretells his second coming, promising great things for those who have followed his path but eternal condemnation for those who have been unjust.
Jesus actually condemns “witches, immoral people, murderers, idol worshipers, and everyone who loves to tell lies and do wrong,” which is not exactly the same as succeeding while others struggle, or thinking that the government shouldn’t be in charge of my “benevolent giving” (is it really benevolent if someone else decides how much, how often, and where it goes?). In fact, it’s really, really different. Kind of like the difference between telling someone they can’t cut you in line and punching them in the face for asking.
The third reference in the Factbox is this:
According to Mathew’s Gospel, Jesus made his first reference to poverty and justice in Matthew 5, The Sermon on the Mount, where he says, ‘God blesses those people who are humble. The earth will belong to them.’
It’s almost like the Factbox was bait for people like me. If you’re keeping track, we’re down to 2,122 verses, and my confidence is shaken. The three references that are given are a long, long way from verses about poverty. Of course, it’s true that some of the people Jesus condemns in Rev 22:15 are guilty of injustice, but those verses are not about justice. Well, not social justice – they’re about God’s justice. The two are slightly different.
Is this what I can expect from this Bible? Is the list of 2,000 verses that Wallis, Campolo, and Warren are referring to as shoddy as this one? I know there are verses in the Bible about the poor, but is this how they got to two thousand? Is this why it’s so hard to find a list – because if we saw it, they’d have to admit that it was just a touch convoluted?
Gospel or politics?
Whatever these guys are trying to do, it has little to do with the gospel, and little to do with helping the poor. Consider this: at the end of 2005 I was just beginning my work at a liberal Lutheran church. When I went for my first interview, they were sending a load of supplies to Katrina Victims. It was pretty cool. But there was never a big push to get more involved. The pastor of the church I was still attending at the time – an old school Holiness-Pentecostal church that talked a great deal more about sin and righteousness than about social justice – had been once for a week and was planning a second trip with a small group from the church. I never heard about anyone from the Lutheran church going down. To be fair, I haven’t exactly been a beacon of hope for social and benevolence work, and I need to be better about it. I’ve organized and participated in a few service programs, but I could be doing so much more.
But my pastor didn’t need 2,000 verses. He just knew. He didn’t just send money – he didn’t have any. He went, and he went again. He did it because he knew he was serving Jesus. Jim Wallis traveled to New Orleans early this year and “became aware of the tens of thousands of people, members of church groups, who had traveled–and continue to travel–to that city to help rebuild after Hurricane Katrina.” Did he attribute it to their commitment to Jesus, their love for their neighbor, or even those 2,000 verses?
If this youthful enthusiasm does indeed spring from faith, Wallis believes the Spirit got some help from “the failure of the religious right as a project, as a movement over decades. [link]
It’s instantly political. No praise or glory to Christ, no acknowledgment of the compassion in these people; just an indictment of the religious right.
“There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics.” This 2,000 verses statistic may be legitimate, though it doesn’t look likely from my perspective, but it’s being used to position poverty as the Bible’s major issue as cover for a political agenda. It’s exactly what the religious right has done with other issues in the past. How long will we accept this kind of manipulation of the Gospel?