(New York: American Bible Society, 2008 paperback edition)
If you found a new product that at first glance looked appealing, and then saw it enthusiastically endorsed by Hugo Chavez, Bernie Madoff, Jeremiah Wright, and Al Gore, would that make you just a little leery of it?
So it is with The Poverty and Justice Bible, an outwardly inoffensive enterprise promoted by a troop of dubious characters. And the ones who aren't dubious seem no more qualified than you or I to promote a new Bible-in which case, why should anybody listen to them?
Kissing Off 2,000 Years
So what's wrong with a Contemporary English Version (CEV) of the Bible, with some 2,000 passages highlighted in bright orange to show God's concern with the issues of poverty and justice?
Obviously nothing-God does care about poor people and justice, and anyone who reads the Bible knows it.
But consider these words by mega-pastor Rick Warren, introducing "The Core"-a 55-page "study guide" obtrusively inserted in the middle of the book.
"Poverty and justice-yes; the Bible speaks about these issues," begins the introduction. "Has our society forgotten what the Bible says?" And then Warren chimes in, "How can we have missed it?"
Whoa! Do these guys realize what they've just done?
In a few ill-chosen words, they have cavalierly dismissed 2,000 years of Christian charity-from early Christians rescuing and raising unwanted pagan babies left exposed on hillsides, and medieval bishops enforcing God's Truce to protect defenseless peasants from marauding warlords, to the ongoing modern charities expressed by the day-to-day operation of Christian hospitals and schools, adoption agencies, homeless shelters and soup kitchens, medical missionary teams, and others too numerous to list.
"Missed it?" No, Rick Warren. Christians haven't "missed it." Indeed, if you exclude Christian charity from the world, there's precious little charity at all. How ignorant, how elitist, how silly can one human being possibly be?
Then we hear from another non-authoritative theological source, Christian rock star/socialist "Bono": "You know, the only time Christ is judgmental is on the subject of the poor."
Really? Didn't Jesus also make some rather judgmental remarks about stoning the prophets (Matt. 23:37)? Adultery (Mark 10:11)? Turning God's house, the house of prayer, into a den of thieves (Luke 19:46)? What about "[A]ll of their works they do for to be seen of men" (Matt. 23:6)? What do you suppose Jesus would think of "helping the poor" by zipping all over the world on a private jet, making a great big splash on cable TV, and boasting about one's own virtues? But the point is not "Bono's" sincerity, but rather his misrepresentation (by omission) of Scripture-and even more, his message of salvation by works of the flesh.
The introduction goes on to define "the basics" of Christianity: "care for the poor, the sick, those infected with HIV and AIDS and the rejected of our world." Never mind faith in Jesus Christ, forgiveness of sins, redemption, regeneration, obedience to God and His commandments. The words of Jesus spring to mind: "these ought ye to have done, and not to leave the other undone" (Matt. 23:23).
Christians have always cared for the poor, even before "Bono" came along. But if that is all there is to it, then Christianity is an axle with just one wheel, capable only of going around in circles.
"Whenever politics tries to be redemptive," wrote Pope Benedict XVI, "it is promising too much. Where it wishes to do the work of God, it becomes not divine, but demonic."
We will not say the P&J Bible is itself demonic. It's just another Bible, and whether you like the Contemporary English Version or dislike it is a matter of personal taste. The problem is not with this Bible, but with the politics informing it.
Why do we say that? Because the "religious leaders" promoting it are also well-known as statists, advocating big-government seizure of some citizens' property for redistribution to others.
"The Core" on page 11 advises readers, "Vote! Politics matters too much to be ignored. If you're too young to vote, find other ways to support candidates committed to improving society. Speak to the adults in your life and let them know why voting matters."
Yes-steer clear of those candidates who are opposed to improving society-if you can find any-and make sure you dole out political advice to your poor, dumb, unenlightened parents. But of course what this is really all about is "improving society" by massive and coercive government action. In contravention of God's plain commandments, these politicians first teach people to covet their neighbors' property and then, in the name of "the people," steal it.
For the government to deliver a dollar to a deserving poor person (as defined by the politicians currently in power), it has to spend another dollar-or two, five, ten, or a hundred dollars-to set up and staff agencies to wrest that dollar from a "rich" citizen and redistribute it to a "poor" one. So Peter winds up being taxed for $10 so that Paul can be given $1. This, in a nutshell, is why socialism cannot be sustained for long. But what's really wrong with the whole business is summed up in the Ten Commandments: "Thou shalt not covet," and "Thou shalt not steal." Having the state steal for you does not leave you guiltless before God.
Who Are These Guys?
Again we must stress that it is self-evident from the Bible that charity and justice matter very much to God, and as Christians they matter very much to us, too. This has been true from the beginning.
What is different here is that the Bible is used to justify a statist drive to force people to be charitable-in which case it is not charity, but theft.
Let's look at some of the endorsers of the P&J Bible-the ones cited on the cover.
Jim Wallis, "Christian Activist and Author," is very well-known as a neo-Marxist and a preacher of liberation theology. In a recent television interview, Wallis recalled his work as a consultant to the 2008 Democratic National Convention's platform committee, whose goal, he said, was to "cut poverty in half in ten years" and implement various United Nations economic and social objectives. But how?
Asked if he believed the method of choice ought to be government redistribution of wealth, Wallis answered, "Absolutely, without any hesitation-that's what the Gospel is all about." Voluntary charitable work, he said, "is not adequate," calling it "a charity that falls far short of Biblical justice."
Is it truly necessary to state that nowhere in the Bible is the state given the authority to seize property, by force, from some and give it to others? Would Ahab have been all right if he'd wanted to give Naboth's vineyard to some "poor" person, instead of just coveting it for himself? Is it even sane to entrust such vast coercive powers to the politicians that we find in Washington, D. C.? But this is precisely what Wallis advocates.
Then there's Tony Campolo, "Sociologist and Christian leader." We know him better as a leader in the "red letter Christians" movement, another group enamored with big government. By tossing out of the Bible everything but the "red letter" quotes of Jesus Christ, they have by deletion cooked up a new gospel purportedly supporting the state's forcible redistribution of wealth.
Campolo has described himself as an advocate of liberation theology, and in one of his books, he wrote, "There was no question in our minds that in the struggle for justice, God sides with the poor and oppressed against the strong and the powerful."
How many times does the Bible tell us that God is no respecter of persons-that He does not favor one class at the expense of another? Reformed theologian R. C. Sproul reminds us, "the Bible does not say it is inherently evil to be wealthy and inherently righteous to be poor. The love of money is the root of all kinds of evil, not money itself (I Tim. 6:10) ... Abraham, for example, was very wealthy (Gen. 13:2). Nevertheless, we learn from him how to live by faith ... Judas was a disciple of Jesus and suffered poverty ... But he loved money and betrayed Jesus for silver ..."
You would never learn that from listening to Wallis and Campolo.
The P&J also boasts cover blurbs by Brandon Heath, a musician; Shane Claiborne, a self-proclaimed radical revolutionary; and Rob Bell from the Mars Hill Church, who claims to be "rediscovering Christianity as an Eastern religion" and says, "I affirm the truth anywhere in any religious system, in any worldview."
Conspicuous by absence is anyone whom Chalcedon readers might recognize as a serious theologian or religious teacher.
The reason for that is simple. The Bible does not support such a tunnel-visioned view of poverty and justice, and no reputable Christian teacher would promote it.
More to Come
Because this is an election year, and issues of poverty and justice, and what to do about them, are bound to be debated endlessly, we have taken the P&J Bible as a springboard for a three-part series of articles.
Part two will examine what the promoters of the P&J mean by "social justice," and what their ideas actually look like when put into practice in the real world.
In Part three we will look at what real Bible scholars teach about poverty and justice, and hopefully learn how to answer the arguments of statists on the Religious Left.
Again we must declare that we don't dispute the claim that the Bible teaches us to take care of the poor and to love and practice justice. We must say so because anyone who disagrees with Wallis and Campolo et al. is inevitably accused of "not caring about the poor" and not wanting to "improve society."
In these articles we will show that the statist approach to poverty and justice, wherever it has been implemented, only disimproves society in many ways, brings injustice instead of justice, and for all its self-righteous prattle, it is simply not Biblical-not by a long shot.
See, for instance, "Fasting for Big Government" by Mark Tooley, http://frontpagemag.com/2010/02/26/fasting-for-big-government/
- Lee Duigon
Lee is the author of the Bell Mountain Series of novels and a contributing editor for our Faith for All of Life magazine. Lee provides commentary on cultural trends and relevant issues to Christians, along with providing cogent book and media reviews.
Lee has his own blog at www.leeduigon.com.