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The Biblical Basis for Serving and Empowering the Poor

My job is to lay a Biblical basis for serving and empowering the poor. It is a topic close to my heart. I could expound the Bible from cover to cover on this one item, God’s concern for the poor. In fact, I’m convinced God’s justice is biased in favor of the poor. That’s a heavy statement. It can be seen in Jesus’ inaugural address in Luke 4, where He quoted Isaiah, saying, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me because He has anointed me to preach the gospel to the poor.” I think God has a special, burning concern for the poor and that those of us who catch a glimpse of it are in a very privileged position. Those who follow God’s heart into action for the poor are in a position to be heavily blessed in the process.

A friend. of mine once said that healthcare is “interfering with the fall.” By the fall, he refers to the time in the Garden of Eden when man and woman blew it, causing cosmic consequences that still affect us. The thought comes from Genesis, where man and woman didn’t simply pick a piece of fruit off a tree but made a declaration of independence from God. They said, “God, we like you; you’re a nice guy, but we think there is a better way. We’d like to take your advice and suggestions, but we prefer to be autonomous people.” What happened in the Garden resulted in separation between God and people. From that separation followed the problems of disease and death. So the idea of interfering with the fall goes all the way back to the beginning of history.

However, when I started to meditate on the church’s response to the poor as a part of interfering with the fall, I hit a blank wall. I see that there are problems of disease and death which are related to the fall, but I also see that the majority of teaching and writing coming from the church gives me very little to help me deal with those problems. What I began to run up against was a gospel that we have crippled. We can’t answer the question of how we can apply our faith in the poor community until we look at the nature of the gospel upon which our actions are based.

Now, let me break that down very specifically When I came to know the Lord, the gospel was explained to me like this first. God loves me and has a wonderful plan for my life. I believe that. Second, there are two cliffs. God is on one cliff, and I am on the other. But there is a problem, a big valley of sin that separates us. The third part of the message is that all I have to do is accept Him by faith, walk across the bridge, and be united through Jesus with God. That’s what I did.

And that was the basis for my beginning a new, individual life in Christ.

But the problem is that a gospel that deals only with my little old individual self is not a whole gospel. It’s only a piece of the gospel. But that is what we’ve reduced the good news to in our country.

When I ask the question, “What does Jesus say about racism?” I look to this gospel and' see only Jesus and me. What does racism have to do with that? If I ask the question, “What does Jesus have to say about nuclear war?" I look at this same gospel and see only Jesus and me. If I ask the question about economic oppression, I see only Jesus and me. Jesus is giving me personal peace and prosperity, and so I don’t have to deal with economic oppression. That’s a secular issue.

There is a second problem crippling the gospel. Much of the church is in an argument about how to apply the gospel in the world. One group says, “Do you see those four steps? Proclaim them! Get the word out! Be verbal, put it in print, put it in the media!” Another group says, “Look, that's fine, but some people’s stomachs are growling so loudly they can’t hear the message. In fact,” they say, “that gospel is no longer relevant. What we need is to do justice.” On one side are people saying, “Jesus, Jesus, Jesus,” and on the other side people are saying “justice, justice, justice,” One side says, “Faith”, the other side says “Works” — One says “Evangelism,” the other says, “Social action.” And so we split the gospel, producing evangelicals on one side, liberals on the other.

So, the gospel is further crippled. We had people during the civil rights movement who were beaming down the message through the media to black people, hoping they would get saved, without becoming involved in the real needs of the people. On the other side were liberals who came down to work, who got beaten up, and who later created programs that didn’t take into consideration the spiritual needs of the people. Eventually, the programs turned into welfare programs.

We are left with a very real problem. If we rely on either side of the crippled gospel, we will come up with strategies that create more problems than they solve. If my goal is evangelization without any real involvement in the physical, social, economic, and educational needs of the people I am witnessing to, my programs are compassionless and my words are empty. If I get involved with the poor because of charity and good works, then I may begin to devise a system of care and development that actually creates more dependence.

We have housing projects, for example, which were built on a charitable notion. Here in Chicago, in Cabrini Green, the idea was to give the poor good housing and subsidize their rent. It isn’t working because these people aren’t getting a sense of ownership or dignity and too many people with too many problems are put into one place. The result of neglecting the broader spiritual consequences of the problem is some of the worst living situations ever created on the face of the earth.

In order to create strategies to make people whole, we need to return to a Biblical basis. And the problem is that we don’t know what the problem is. The problem is not only my individual relationship with God. That is just a part of it. A big picture of the gospel starts first with a beautiful beginning. In Genesis 1:26-28a we read, “And then God said, let us makeman in our image, after our likeness, and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air and over the cattle and over all the earth and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth. And so God created man in His own image, in the image of God He created Him, male and female He created them. And God blessed them and said, ‘Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue in,” God says, “You are not puppets. You are going to be pictures of power.” God intended man and woman to be on earth a picture of what He is in the universe. In their relationships with Him, with each other, and with creation - relationships of power and dominion - they would express the image of God.

The second part of the big gospel is the terrible problem. When their declaration of independence was made, Adam and Eve began to have less intimacy with each other; there was murder in the first generation; mankind was alienated from the Creator; no longer would the creation yield its fruits easily to man. Disease and death set in. And as humanity began to unfold in history, individuals became families and families became nations, there developed racism, war, injustice, poverty. All these things can be traced back to the first sin.

When we identify the bigness of the problem, we ask, “Where is Jesus in all this?” This leads us to the third part of the big gospel, total reconciliation in Jesus Christ. The good news is that God intends for reconciliation to take place, not only in my individual relationship with Him, but in His whole creation. That’s why He came to earth. In Ephesians 1:9-10, powerful verses, Paul says,

For He has made known to us in all wisdom and insight the mystery of His will according to His purpose which He set forth in Christ as a plan for the fullness of time, to unite all things in Him, things in heaven and things in earth.

In the cross of Christ there is that vertical reconciliation in which God reunites us with Himself above and with His creation below. And there is that horizontal reconciliation in which He reunites us with each other.

Paul makes this very specific as it relates to the racial issue. In the second chapter of Ephesians he continues, concerning Jews and Gentiles, saying, “For He is our peace. He has made us both one, and has broken down the dividing wall of hostility.” This is perhaps the most critical evidence that the church has substituted a crippled gospel for the real thing. We have become socially incompetent. Eleven o’clock Sunday morning is still the most segregated hour in America. If we look at the problem, we see that God has provided the solution. He said He would reconcile all things to Himself. Therefore, no barrier is too great for Him to cross.

As we begin to consider a gospel that is able to handle the questions we have and look at health care in particular, we are able to see true need. There is a reconciling God who has healed the breach between us, God, each other, and creation. He can put all that back together. We need to see that the problem is worse than we thought. Then, we need to go back and see that the plan of salvation is better than we hoped. We can then look at the difficulties with new eyes.

In Christian health care, we talk about bringing God’s power to bear on any of the areas that keep people unhealthy. We know we have a God who can deal with housing because He can deal with all of creation. We know we have a God who doesn’t expect us to simply meditate on things like abortion or pornography. One of my big concerns is that I see a good portion of the Christian church picking and choosing its social issues. And those we choose are individually oriented. We must hold our feet to the fire. If we fight abortion, and we must, then we must also fight poverty and racism. If we fight pornography, and we must, we must also fight economic injustice.

This is excepted from H. P. Spees’ talk at the 1983 CCHF Conference in Chicago. The entire article is available in Vol 4, No. 2, Summer 1983 of Health and Development.

It is exciting to see a growing number of people looking at ministry in this country and asking, “How do I apply my faith to health care needs in a way which has an impact on the poor?” We see rural people, urban people, people in the private sector, the government, people across all denominations, all racial and cultural barriers — Native Americans, black, Hispanic, white, coming together to ask this question.