Politics and the Poor
By Dr. Melba Padilla Maggay
It is cause for rejoicing that in the past four decades, there has been a growing awareness that the church should somehow be involved and make a difference in the massive poverty that has engulfed this country.
In the early 70’s, you could count on your fingers the number of evangelical organizations doing what has come to be called as ‘wholistic ministry.’ Today, there are thousands doing ‘transformational development,’ or, in the language of the Micah Global Network, ‘integral mission.’ Micah Global is a coalition of more than 800 faith-based development organizations worldwide.
It is in the field of politics, of making democratic institutions work, that the churches have been reluctant to step out and speak truth to the powers. While we have seen a movement towards putting Christians into office, we have yet to see a political engagement that is theologically informed and truly consistent with the concern for righteousness in our governance. This is partly due to deficiencies in our theological paradigms, and the fear of being allied with forces whose morals and ideological leanings we suspect.
For those who are already engaged as politicians or activists, there have been unfortunate mis-steps. Senators known to be believers take positions that betray a lack of sophistication in both biblical social perspectives and political analysis. Faith-based forays into politics show a certain naivete, with a tendency to get rigid, unable to discern those convictions that can be negotiated though not surrendered, lacking the skills necessary to engage the powers with some degree of effectiveness so that some good can be achieved
Politics – simply defined as the art of governance – is at the heart of the first-ever commandment given to us: ‘go forth and multiply, and rule over creation.’ (Genesis 1.28) Known as the ‘Cultural Mandate’, this command spells out our twin tasks in relation to creation: growth and governance. We have had no trouble multiplying, but we have always had difficulty governing.
The prophet Micah tells us that the doing of justice, or seeing to it that power is used to ensure redress for the aggrieved and fairness for all, is at the center of God’s requirements for his people. Alongside doing works of mercy, we are to do justice and walk with God humbly. (Micah 6.8)
There is need to confront the powers, those subhuman forces that have entrenched themselves in institutions and keep our people poor and captive to an unjust system.
Why it’s time to do politics
Theologically, Scripture sets forth a number of reasons why it is important to confront the powers if we want to truly help the poor:
- Poverty is perpetuated by injustice that is organized and embedded in structures.
‘On the side of the oppressor is power,’ says Eccelesiastes. (Ecclesiastes 4.1) While power may be used for good, it is often biased against the weak and the poor. Isaiah speaks of princes who are ‘companions of thieves’ and do not bring justice to the fatherless; the widow’s cause does not even come within hearing distance.
At best, the powers are described by Jesus as indifferent. They could be made to respond to petitions by small people, but only by persistent and relentless appeals, like the case of the importunate widow.
Much of the poverty in the world today is due not only to the residues of colonial history but to bad governance of the ruling classes. ‘Democratization’ in many parts of the world is useless in contexts where political rights are meaningless to the poor, whose interests do not figure at all in the concerns of those in power.
Compassion fatigue and the experience of futility in responding to what looks like bottomless pits of need should warn us that we cannot go on ignoring the structural reasons for why people remain poor.
In the words of Martin Luther King: “we are called to play the Good Samaritan on life’s roadside, but that will only be an initial act…. we must come to see that the whole Jericho road must be transformed so that men and women will not be constantly beaten and robbed as they make their journey on life’s highway.”
- Poverty is a sign of dysfunction in the institutions of society.
“There need not be any poor among you,” God tells Israel, “…if only you will strictly obey the voice of the Lord your God, being careful to do all that I command you today.” (Deuteronomy 15.4-5)
Massive poverty is a smoke signal that the institutions are not working. In the legal context of this passage, what is commanded is debt relief during the Sabbatical Year; those who get into servitude because of debts must be released and allowed to go back to their ancestral lands.
Quite early in their history, Moses was commanded to institute safety nets for the most vulnerable segments of society — the poor, the widow, the orphan and the alien. Structural re-arrangements like the Jubilee Year in Leviticus 25 were meant to prevent social imbalances, like undue concentration of wealth in the hands of a few. In Israel’s case, this kind of wealth was in land, the primary means of production.
Israel failed to obey these laws, which were supposed to distinguish them as a just society among the nations. As a consequence, they lost all the identifying marks of what made them unique as a ‘called out’ people – the promised land, the temple, the monarchy and a society under the Law or the Torah. They were scattered about as exiles in strange lands. That once great kingdom of David and Solomon, whose lineage was to be the seed for the Messiah of all peoples, disintegrated. Israel as a nation dispersed and disappeared because of two major sins – idolatry and oppression, or the failure to love God and neighbor.
Today, the churches in many nations and the civil societies within them are rising to fill the deficits in justice and social services. It is a cause for celebration. Microfinance, particularly, has proven to be a liberating tool for those in the informal economy. Yet the rise of civil society, the emergence of microfinance and a growing corporate social responsibility in the Two-Thirds World can also be signs that something is amiss in the structures that should have been delivering justice and growing the economy.
Almsgiving and the proliferation of welfare agencies cannot substitute for the effective functioning of the institutions mandated to enforce equity and build a sound economy that reduces poverty to a minimum.
It is the core business of government, not civil society, to enforce justice – to “punish those who do evil and to praise those who do good.” A strong state can only be made possible, not by repression and curtailing dissent in the name of ‘peace and order,’ or the ‘war on terror,’ but by sending strong signals to high and low that the rule of law shall be enforced without fear or favor.
Gunnar Myrdal had long ago diagnosed that ‘soft states’ – those whose rule-keeping tend to get slippery because the institutions are riddled with corruption and subject to the oily machinations of the powerful — are seedbeds to perpetual poverty.
Likewise, it is business institutions and not NGO’s that God has ordained to serve as engine for growing a nation’s economy. It is decent, productive work that is meant to sustain people, not charity.
History shows that when society relegates the plight of the poor to charity, it can feed rather than alleviate poverty. As in the Middle Ages, it can get spiritualized, making poverty a mystical state. The practice of charity slips into spiritual banking, a way of piling up ‘treasures in heaven,’ securing merit or indulgences for the afterlife or some such return for one’s investment, besides creating paternalistic dependencies between giver and receiver.
- Advocacy on behalf of the poor is a command, not an option
To serve the poor is to get political; inevitably, we will run into issues of power. In many countries, access to resources is not a right but a thing you fight for. For the poor to even have the minimum conditions for survival, inserting their voices in the public square is necessary.
Central to the transforming role of the church is its obligation to speak with a prophetic voice to abusive powers. It is part of our office as ‘kings,’ as vice-regents of the God of justice. We are called to exercise ‘dominion,’ but this is not to be interpreted as lording it over all, that we are to be masters of society, as some quarters suggest. It is to serve the creational purposes of God in whatever calling he has given us.
Our political role is not primarily to put Christians into office, or even to insert our own interests into political space as a power bloc, like the Moral Majority or the religious rightwing in the US or, in our context, the Iglesia Ni Kristo. This is a regressive return to a Constantinian understanding of the role of the church vis-à-vis the state.
Our primary task is to see to it that God’s original purposes for society are realized for the good of all. Our work for justice is ‘justice for all.’
The church as an institution is not called to usurp the powers of the state and run its affairs, as has happened [on] in the Middle Ages or in the de facto friocracy that held sway in this and many other countries that were once under Spanish colonization.
The church’s calling is to preach the Word in such a way that it is truly a conscience to society, a ‘voice for the voiceless.’
This is the functional equivalent in our time of this oracular admonition addressed to King Lemuel by his mother:
“Open your mouth for the mute, for the rights of all who are destitute. Open your mouth, judge righteously, defend the rights of the poor and needy.” (Pro. 31:8-9)
This prophetic advocacy on behalf of those who are weak, voiceless and poor can no longer be ignored in a time such as this.
–Melba Padilla Maggay, Ph.D. is from the Institute for Studies in Asian Church and Culture.