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Written by Jim Jordal   
Friday, 13 July 2007


By Jim Jordal

My people, those who lead you cause you to err, and destroy the way of your paths. Yahweh stands up to contend, and stands to judge the peoples. Yahweh will enter into judgment with the elders of his people, and their leaders: "It is you who have eaten up the vineyard. The spoil of the poor is in your houses. What do you mean that you crush my people, and grind the face of the poor?" says the Lord, Yahweh of Armies.

Isaiah 12b-15 (ASV)

If you're a politically-conservative number-cruncher working on a government budget, anti-poverty programs are cost items that must be reduced as much as possible to curtail government expenditures and cut taxes. So political conservatives usually think of poverty eradication as a good idea worthy of consideration, but not possible because it is too expensive. Perhaps some day, but not now.

But it is far more costly to tolerate poverty than to end it. Somehow we've deluded ourselves into thinking that fighting poverty only drains financial resources, never enhancing or increasing them. We are blind to the true costs of poverty.

Someday we'll understand that budgets are not just numbers, but are moral documents of the highest order since they reflect and prioritize intent and determine direction of government policy.

Budgets reflect the deepest, most tenaciously held values of our society, and are worthy of lengthy debate, not only by politicians and economists, but also by all members of society, led by none other than our religious institutions.

It is one of the foremost tasks of true religion to, as Jim Wallis says, "inform the debate" and "speak truth to power," especially on financial matters having ability to negatively affect large portions of society. Proverbs 31:8-9 hurls this command to political and religious leadership: "Open your mouth for the mute, In the cause of all who are left desolate. Open your mouth, judge righteously, And serve justice to the poor and needy." How better can we open our mouth to aid the helpless than to speak out on budgetary priorities, wherever they may be?

One reason why we miss the true costs of poverty in our budgetary considerations is our persistent habit of measuring everything solely in terms of dollars. We assign dollar costs to virtually everything, except what really matters--the health and welfare of our people. Should we ever reach the moral level where we assess true costs of our national priorities, then we may realize that poverty has immense costs reaching far beyond the easily measurable dollar costs associated with productivity lost to unemployment, under-employment, and lack of education. Poverty also exacts a heavy toll on society in the form of personal illness, mental disorder, addiction, family breakdown, abuse, crime, and a host of other dysfunctions.

And who can truly assess the real costs to a nation (like ours) that persistently abuses perhaps 20 percent of its people with poverty, homelessness, poor education, and lack of health care? We purport to be world leaders, and we are in terms of raw economic power, militarism, pop culture, and technology. But what of the moral and ethical leadership that really matters: justice, decent living standards, health care, enough to eat, adequate housing, for everyone, not just the fortunate, favored few. And what of the gains that would accrue should the U.S. take seriously God's command to serve all of humanity and to husband, rather than exploit, the earth?

Another reason why we ignore the true costs of poverty is the prevailing view, even among Christians, is that it is useless to fight poverty since Scripture relates that "the poor will be always with you." We avoid the unpleasantness associated with the real meaning of this phrase, which is "Yes, poverty will always be with you because you will not obey God's economic laws, neither will you love your neighbor as yourself."

Another is the view that society has no responsibility for determining the true costs of poverty because it is due to individual human failings and habits, which can never be adequately measured or alleviated. It is true without doubt that some poverty is caused by individual irresponsibility, but it is also true that far more relates to endemic injustice and oppression that occurs in every society.

Is it possible that God might actually judge leaders and nations for not actively measuring and combating poverty? Could God be angry enough over pervasive economic injustice to bring various disasters upon peoples who fail to heed the cries of the unfortunate? Could the God we venerate in church actually do such things?

Well, if you believe Scripture then God has done such things and will continue to do so. The God who only loves and never judges is a creation of our wishful thinking, not the God of Scripture. The time is soon here when all but the people most resistant to reason and justice will come to understand this.