On May 2, 2008, Cyclone Nargis made landfall on Burma (officially, Myanmar). Its path of destruction was huge, with fatalities numbering well over 100,000. Unfortunately, Burma is ruled by a corrupt military junta that has so far outright blocked or otherwise interfered with the international delivery of relief assistance. Through its action and inaction, the Burmese government has exacerbated the suffering of its people.
If some people are poor because of their own foolish choices, it is also true that others are poor because of the wicked choices of the rich and powerful who hold sway over them.
The Book of Proverbs has this to say about oppressive rulers:
A ruler who oppresses the poor
is like a driving rain that leaves no crops (28:3).
Rain is necessary. But what good is rain if it doesn’t produce growth? Similarly, government is necessary. But what good is government if it doesn’t help the people?
Unfortunately, the poor are often at the mercy of governments specifically, or the rich and powerful generally.
A poor man’s field may produce abundant food,
but injustice sweeps it away (13:23).
In such cases, to blame the poor for his own poverty is blaming the victim. Blame instead the victimizer!
Proverbs makes it very clear that oppression of the poor is contrary to God’s will and deserving of punishment.
He who oppresses the poor shows contempt for their Maker,
but whoever is kind to the needy honors God (14:31).
He who mocks the poor shows contempt for their Maker;
whoever gloats over disaster will not go unpunished (17:5).
Notice in both these proverbs that how we treat human beings, who are made in God’s image, reflects how we treat God himself. To show contempt for the poor is to show contempt for God. To be kind to the poor is to honor God. We cannot separate out ethics and spirituality, how we treat others and how we worship God. Ethics and spirituality are inseparably linked.
At some point, either now or in eternity, God himself takes up the cause of the oppressed poor.
Do not exploit the poor because they are poor
and do not crush the needy in court,
for the Lord will take up their case
and will plunder those who plunder them (22:22-23).
The divine punishment of the oppressors is condign; the plunderers are themselves plundered.
Other proverbs make clear that oppression is counterproductive.
He who oppresses the poor to increase his wealth
and he who gives gifts to the rich — both come to poverty (22:16).
He who increases his wealth by exorbitant interest
amasses it for another, who will be kind to the poor (28:8).
Neither of the proverbs explicitly states that God is the one who makes oppressive behavior counterproductive in this life, but that seems to be the import of what each of them.
We should never minimize, excuse, or justify the poverty of the oppressed. But Proverbs also makes clear that there divine resources to deal with poverty.
All the days of the oppressed are wretched,
but the cheerful heart has a continual feast (15:15).
God demands that oppressors repent or face judgment. But he provides joy to the hearts of those who put their faith in him, regardless of their material circumstances. And he requires that we be generous toward those in need. More on that last point tomorrow.