Christians losing their way
By Richard Stearns and Lamar Vest
American Bible Society/World Vision
Rick Warren, perhaps the nation's best-known pastor, was stunned. "I went to Bible College, two seminaries and I got a doctorate. How did I miss this?" "This" is not some deep, hidden biblical code predicting the end of the world. It isn't a cipher that further elucidates the truth of the Trinity. It isn't even the formula for turning water into wine.
No, the thing that stunned Rick Warren was when he was struck for the first time by the sheer volume of verses in the Bible that express God's compassion for the poor and oppressed. Unfortunately, Warren isn't the only person of faith to be surprised by just how much God has to say about poverty and justice. Despite the fact that God's heart for the poor is mentioned in some 2,100 verses of Scripture, many of us simply miss it. In a recent survey of adults in America conducted by Harris Interactive, although 80 percent of adults claimed to be familiar with the Bible -- the best-selling book in history -- 46 percent think the Bible offers the most teachings on heaven, hell, adultery, pride or jealousy. In fact, there are more teachings on poverty than on any of those topics.
That's why when our organizations joined to create the new Poverty and Justice Bible, we made sure to select an unusual color -- orange -- for highlighting passages relating to poverty and justice. We wanted to stop people in their tracks. We wanted this simply highlighted Bible to act as God's megaphone revealing a heart for the poor, concern for the marginalized and compassion for the oppressed.
And yet, so often, issues of poverty and justice are seen as "policy problems" or "social issues" rather than a no-brainer mandate for Christians to "go and do likewise" (Luke1 10) as laid out so clearly in the parable of the Good Samaritan and made such sense to us even as children. How did Christianity drift so far from Jesus' mandate to care for the widows and orphans? How did "whatever you do for the least of these you do for me" get skewed--intentionally or not--to "what is the minimum required of me?"
It isn't that Christians aren't and haven't been involved in addressing issues of poverty and social justice. From the first days of Christianity, followers of Jesus have demonstrated distinct concern for the poor and the oppressed. The apostle Paul speaks in Acts about returning to Jerusalem to bring "gifts for the poor." The early Christians rescued abandoned children and stayed in plague-ridden cities to help the sick. Why? Because they knew what the Scriptures said and they knew that this was what they were supposed to do. When St. Francis leaped off his horse and embraced a leper, he was emulating what he'd read about Jesus.
Throughout history, Christians have had a strong, if sometimes inconsistent, record of battling social ills. While some used the Black Death as an opportunity for fear mongering, Christians were among the few to remain in disease-ravaged cities to care for the sick. While many Christians acquiesced to slavery, it was a Christian, William Wilberforce, who led the fight to end the British slave trade and the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and others joining alongside him who championed racial equality in the United States. While some sought to shame those suffering with AIDS, Christians from Franklin Graham to Bono have battled to offer practical help to those affected by the deadly disease.
The problem isn't that Christians aren't doing their share to address the ills of poverty and injustice. The problem is that we too often see our efforts as supplementary to our Christianity. Care for the poor and suffering should be at the core of our Christian faith because it is at the core of God's desire -- written large across the pages of the Bible.
The Bible isn't some outdated rulebook; it has something to say about everything from health care to public toilets. And while many government, not-for-profit and ministry-based programs do an excellent job, their existence isn't an excuse for individual Christians to do nothing. Only when we come to understand just how much the poor and oppressed matter to God will we begin to have a response to poverty and injustice that is worthy of God. Compassion should be a natural part of the Christian's DNA -- because it is so clearly in God's DNA. When it comes to compassion, concern, love and action for the poor and oppressed, God and the Bible -- not social policy and programs -- got there first.
Lamar Vest is president and CEO of The American Bible Society. Richard Stearns is president and CEO of World Vision, a Christian relief and development organization dedicated to helping children and communities worldwide reach their full potential by tackling the causes of poverty.
On Faith :Guest Voices, Washington Post, December 14, 2009