Defending the Defenseless in a postmodern New Zealand Let justice roll on like a river
Who are the defenseless in New Zealand today? How can the church minister to them?
We live in prosperous but also troubled times. Are these prosperous times? Several countries in the European Union are teetering on the brink of bankruptcy. According to a recent media interview with Treasurer, the Hon. Bill English, our own nation has to contribute four billion dollars to an international monetary bailout fund so that the world economy remains solvent and our treasury can continue borrowing the money it needs to keep trading. The United States administration not long ago averted defaulting on its loans by increasing its debt ceiling by trillions. Lending institutions maintain a constant stream of credit through fractional reserve lending where money creation requires loans from the wider banking system. This practice does not impose a natural limit on the growth of the money supply and causes unsustainable bubbles in asset and capital markets which are vulnerable to speculation and cause price inflation. When the bubble eventually bursts and property values plummet we see a spate of mortgagee sales and finance company collapses causing untold hardship. In one recent case in New Zealand 14,500 investors lost their savings when a finance company collapsed with debts of $459 million.
Identifying the helpless
Who are the defenceless in today’s world of debt-ridden, so-called national prosperity? They are the investors who have lost life-savings or their retirement funds in finance company collapses. They are single income families who have been priced out of the housing market. They are the ‘latch-key’ children of parents who are both forced to work in order to pay huge mortgages and make ends meet. They are the aborted unborn whose conception was viewed as an unwanted intrusion on a materialistic lifestyle and/or career prospects. They are the fatherless children, orphans with no names, conceived in promiscuity, funded by a permissive, extravagant welfare system sold to voters for their votes. They are the aged, abandoned in rest-homes whose middle-aged children are too busy to care for them.
What can the church do to assist these defenseless? A good place to begin is Deuteronomy 8:11-20, where Moses predicted a time when Israel would be prosperous.
God warned His people, “beware lest you forget the Lord your God by not keeping His commandments and His ordinances and His statutes ... lest when you have eaten and are satisfied and have good houses and live in them and when your herds and flocks multiply and your silver and gold multiply and all that you have multiplies then your heart becomes proud and you forget the Lord your God.”
Such a situation eventuated centuries later during Amos’s day. Eighth-century Israel had become wealthy but had forgotten the Lord their God. The rich were oppressing the poor and religion had become a ritual devoid of true biblical content. James 1:27 reminds us what the content of true religion is. “This is pure and undefiled religion in the sight of our God and father; to visit orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself unstained by the world.” After thundering against the nations because of their gross injustices, Amos directs his prophecy against Israel, also targeting her sins in the area of economics. Righteous men were being sold as slaves over trifles. Instead of obeying the Levitical laws which command the rich to be merciful towards the poor (25:25-27), the rich in Israel were trampling the poor into the dust, abusing them and profaning the Lord’s name (2:7). Contrary to the laws on debt (Deut 24:10-13) lenders were keeping the borrowers’ garments given as pledges on loans. Amos included in his denunciation the wealthy women of Israel (“cows of Bashan”) who were oppressing the poor and crushing the needy (4:1). It wasn’t that they necessarily had personal dealings with the poor but the constant demands they placed on their husbands for maintaining an affluent lifestyle had a “crushing” effect on the economic well-being of the poorer folk. Their luxuries were bought at the expense of charity, zero interest loans and gleaning which should have been directed to the poor. Instead, this proportion of their income was diverted to finance covetous and extravagant lifestyles. Isaiah, a contemporary of Amos, made a similar observation. “The women of Zion are haughty, walking with outstretched necks, flirting with their eyes, tripping along with mincing steps with ornaments jingling on their ankles.” (3:16) Meanwhile the poor were being “crushed.” (3:15). Amos extends his prophecy against those who were ruthless in their profiteering while trying to maintain a semblance of religiosity.
When will the New Moon be over that we may sell grain and the Sabbath be ended that we may market wheat? – skimping the measure, boosting the price and cheating with dishonest gain, buying the poor with silver and the needy for a pair of sandals, even selling the sweepings with the wheat.
God’s answer; “I hate your religious feasts ... away with the noise of your songs ... but let justice roll on like a river...” Amos 5:21-24
Debt burden and slavery
Amos helps us understand our responsibility towards victims of so called ‘prosperity’, which is really debt burden and slavery.
- The church must, as always, endeavor to extend justice and compassion toward those who are genuinely poor and struggling and those who have been defrauded. Today they are responsible small investors, struggling single income families, the unborn, women and children abandoned by irresponsible fathers. They are struggling mortgagors on low incomes. The words of Christ in Matthew 25:35ff: “for I was hungry and you gave me something to eat...” must continue to make a profound impression on the mind of the Christian today. We have a strong mandate to show charity and compassion to the poor and alleviate the needs of those who suffer want. “If there is a poor man with you ... you shall not harden your heart nor close your hand from your poor brother but you shall freely open your hand to him and shall generously lend him sufficient for his need in whatever he lacks” (Deuteronomy 15:6&7 cf. Acts 2:44, 4:34)
- Rather than follow the pattern of the world, i.e. “eat, drink and be merry for tomorrow we die” (even if we have to borrow to do it!), Christ’s followers should resist being tempted by the love of money and avoid getting into debt to the extent that we can barely give to charities or tithe our incomes for the Lord’s work. Defending the cause of the weak and fatherless requires the joyful sacrifice of our tithes so that the church is not limited in its ability to carry out her ministry of mercy. Furthermore, newly married couples are under a lot of pressure today to delay having children and both work full time for financial gain. If such behavior becomes the accepted norm in both church and society, it will create poverty in the long run. Empty mansions will be sold for a song. “A large population is a king’s glory but without subjects a prince is ruined” (Prov. 14:28). Church growth and economic growth depend heavily on population growth. Surely it is the task of God’s covenant people to lead the way.
- Amos also spoke against those who went through the motions of orthodox religion while practicing crafty economic oppression. In other words, we may be orthodox but if we fail to take care of our poor defenseless, then our orthodoxy will be meaningless. Righteousness with good works glorifies God and benefits our neighbor. Righteousness by good doctrine alone produces lovelessness and pride. There should be no separation between the so-called spiritual side of life and our business or economic life. Therefore, no-one should say to the Lord’s representatives, “what I do with my money is my business and has nothing to do with you!” All of life is worship. All of life is to be lived to the glory of God.
- Finally, the church must persevere in its prophetic task. Amos preached against injustice in his day on God’s behalf and out of compassion for the poor. Concerned Christians preached against the greed of slave traders in the 19th century. The church today must have something to say about immoral greed, uncontrolled debt-based spending and risky business practices which have contributed to the debt crisis and hardship today. No other religion, philosophy, teaching or nation has done more for the poor defenseless or the general betterment of society than Christianity has. This is achieved through the preaching of the gospel as it addresses all of life’s issues. We may not stop now. Let justice roll on like a river.