The Book of Proverbs. Part 4.
“Speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves, for the rights of all who are destitute. Speak up and judge fairly; defend the rights of the poor and needy.”
The Book of Proverbs commends giving money to help a poor man in a crisis. It also makes it clear that God hates us ignoring the plight of the poor: “He who gives to the poor will lack nothing, but he who closes his eyes to them receives many curses.” (Prov 28:27). However, Proverbs, together with the rest of the Bible, makes it clear that giving alone cannot help the poor. If we are going to be serious about helping the poor we have to look at everything God connects with poverty. This includes government and justice. As Psalm 72 says of King Jesus: “He will judge your people in righteousness, your afflicted ones with justice. The mountains will bring prosperity to the people, the hills the fruit of righteousness. He will defend the afflicted among the people and save the children of the needy; he will crush the oppressor.” (Ps 72:2-4). If we are to capture the heart of our Saviour, then we must work for Him. To help the poor find prosperity, we must tackle injustice and unjust governments.
Government is the primary cause of poverty today.
In the past, disease and a lack of technology were the main causes of poverty. Today it is government. Proverbs is blunt about how much damage a bad government can cause: “A ruler who oppresses the poor is like a driving rain that leaves no crops.” (Prov 28:3) “Like a roaring lion or a charging bear is a wicked man ruling over a helpless people.” (Prov 28:15) “When the righteous triumph, there is great elation; but when the wicked rise to power, men go into hiding.” (Prov 28:12)
There are thousands of companies and entrepreneurs who are keen to build factories, start new businesses and provide employment in every country in the world. For example, a Dutch company recently built a factory in Kazakhstan. Shortly after it was completed some government inspectors found a piece of machinery in violation of a code they had written for the purpose. As a result the company were fined 40% of their investment. As they try to recover that what the government stole from them, they will have charge the Kazakh people much more for the factory's products and pay their Kazakh employees less. They won't be building there again and all the jobs and wealth that could have been created for Kazakhstan will never be created. Many Kazaks will remain stuck in their poverty thanks to their own government.
Foreign aid given by rich Western governments to developing nations has not solved poverty. It has subsidised poverty. In Tanzania, foreign aid kept the political class and their bureaucrats in control of the whole country. They ended up working to keep their people in poverty so that the foreign aid wouldn't dry up, (and with it, their source of wealth). The corruption was so obvious that people said that you could always tell that a man was a member of the ruling party. He was the fat one surrounded by all the skinny people.
In 2015 Ugandan politicians and governmental bureaucrats stole $300 million that should have helped Ugandans escape poverty. A million Palestinians remain living in ruins and poverty because of theft by the Palestinian Authority. The UN lost $3.3 billion which they sent to Africa to fight the ebola virus. Thieves and bank robbers can only ever steal a few thousand pounds. A daring thief may manage to steal diamonds worth £1 million, but only a government can steal £100 million and get away with it. Why can governments steal more than common criminals? Because only Governments have legal authorisation to use force. Common criminals don't.
The irony of this is that both rich and poor alike end up poorer. As Proverbs puts it, “He who oppresses the poor to increase his wealth and he who gives gifts to the rich—both come to poverty.” (Prov 22:16). In a prosperous and just country, the rich and poor alike enjoy less crime and more beautiful surroundings. In a corrupt country, the rich are surrounded by the chaos, ugliness and danger that their own corruption has created for the poor to live in.
Most of the proverbs were written by king Solomon, which means he knew how government actually works, rather than how it is normally presented to the public. He gives us insider information. He is blunt about why bribes work: “A bribe is a charm to the one who gives it; wherever he turns, he succeeds.” (Prov 17:8) “A gift opens the way for the giver and ushers him into the presence of the great.” (Prov 18:16) He is shockingly honest about why he was offered bribes and how those who tried to bribe him gained influence over others: “Many curry favour with a ruler, and everyone is the friend of a man who gives gifts.” (Prov 19:6) He warns us of the danger of bribes: “A wicked man accepts a bribe in secret to pervert the course of justice.” (Prov 17:23) Solomon also showed us why one nation can thrive while another remains mired in poverty. “By justice a king gives a country stability, but one who is greedy for bribes tears it down.” (Prov 29:4)
Japanese, Danish and Italian companies built a fertilizer plant in Bangladesh with the help of financial aid given by the governments of Japan, Denmark and Britain. (Yes, Britain. Don't ask). Yet when the factory opened in 1995, the equipment was so shoddy that production was delayed for another five years. It cost $150 million more than agreed and $480 million more than a similar fertilizer plant at another location in Bangladesh. This fertilizer plant has robbed one of the poorest countries in Southeast Asia of $350 million. Much of this money was also stolen from the Japanese, Danish and British tax payers who gave their money as the financial aid to build the factory. Without access to this financial aid, and without the the necessity to having to bribe local politicians, these companies would have simply built the fertilizer plant at a much lower cost and made it efficient enough to recover their investment and make a profit. Then Bangladeshi farmers would have been able to buy cheeper fertilizer, increase their yields, sell their crops to the poor for less and still make enough of a profit to help themselves escape poverty. Everyone would have won, except for the only people who have the legal right to use force.
This corruption only happens because of government. Democratic governments only get away with their corruption by bribing their voters with the promise of free stuff. Worse, voters don't understand that they are being robbed of far more than the value of all the free stuff that their government bribed them with.
Injustice Always Makes Poverty Worse
Even though most of the world's poor are hard working and careful with their money, they still remain poor. Proverbs explains why: “A poor man’s field may produce abundant food, but injustice sweeps it away.” (Prov 13:23). Every poor person is made in God's image and equipped to be a steward of God's good earth. They have enormous potential to escape poverty and create wealth but injustice keeps them poor.
For example, in Ghana the government has no clear system of recognising who owns what land. This means it is possible for 4 or 5 different people to lay claim to the same piece of land. This also means that someone can be forced to buy the same piece of property 4 or 5 times. Those boring chapters in the Bible that list who owned what land (e.g., Joshua 13-21) are there to remind us how important it is for people to be able to prove property ownership in the courts. Proverbs reminds us that this is important to God: “The LORD... maintains the widow’s [property] boundaries.” (Prov 15:25). Yet the church in Ghana does not teach this so Ghanian Christians do not demand it from their government.
In Britain we have seen a sharp increase in our population without a corresponding sharp increase in house building. Voters with wealth and education have used Parliament, the courts and local government to make a very limited amount of land available to build on and have limited the size of the flats and houses that can be built there. Those that own houses in the country want to keep their pleasant views and have somewhere nice to walk the dog. Those that own houses in cities have used the planning system to restrict the hight of buildings because they don't want to look at ugly blocks of flats that overlook their houses or cast a shadow on them. When a rising number of people are trying to buy the same amount of houses, the price of houses keeps rising until the number of houses is the same as the number of people who can afford them. Everyone else gets priced out of the market, despite their growing numbers. The poor don't get involved in the planning system, but the people that do get involved are always pleased to see the price of their houses keep rising. They also vote accordingly. As a result, the poor are trapped in rented accommodation and an ever increasing number of people can't even afford a flat. This probably includes you, or your friends or your children or grand children.
No wonder Proverbs says, “When the wicked rise to power, people go into hiding; but when the wicked perish, the righteous thrive.” (Prov 28:28) “When the righteous thrive, the people rejoice; when the wicked rule, the people groan.” (Prov 29:2)
A Christ-rejecting Nation Makes Poverty Worse
Proverbs tells us: “Where there is no prophetic vision the people cast off restraint, but blessed is he who keeps the law.” (Prov 29:18) “A tyrannical ruler lacks judgment...” (Prov 28:16) “If a ruler listens to lies, all his officials become wicked.” (Prov 29:12) As a nation, the British people have rejected the prophetic vision of the Bible. We have rejected the Law of God as a standard for ethics and therefore a restraint on the laws that we will permit our lawmakers to write. Without the authority of the Word of God, we have the authority of “what's in it for me?” Without the Law of God to restrain politicians, they become tyrannical rulers. Without the truth of the Bible to guide them, they listen to lies and their officials become wicked. The church in our nation must also bear a great responsibility for this. The church has failed to teach this to Christians so that together we can use the standards of the Law of God to hold our politicians to account.
How A Nation Ought To Help The Poor
“Righteousness exalts a nation, but sin is a disgrace to any people.” (Prov 14:34). We've looked at the disgrace of injustice, now we need to look at the righteous standard of God. Since the people have cast off restraint, we need to return to the blessing of keeping the law, (Prov 29:18) We need to return to the wisdom of the Scriptures, to get beyond the “what's in it for me?” aspect of politics. “Wisdom will save you from the ways of wicked men, from men whose words are perverse, who leave the straight paths to walk in dark ways, who delight in doing wrong and rejoice in the perverseness of evil, whose paths are crooked and who are devious in their ways.” (Prov 2:11–15)
Currently, justice is in the hands of evildoers in most nations, making them rejoice. We must reverse this, so that, “When justice is done, it brings joy to the righteous but terror to evildoers.” (Prov 21:15). When the rewards of theft vastly outweigh the risk and consequences of getting caught, theft will be abundant. When the penalty and likely hood of getting caught outweighs the potential rewards of theft, thieving will be reduced. If government officials can get away with greater crimes than common criminals, then they ought to be punished more severely than common criminals, (after a fair trial of course). What would God have us do? “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.” (Prov 22:22–23) It is not enough for a corrupt politician or government official to to just lose his seat or her job and walk into a cushy job with the firm that had bribed them. When convicted, the courts should take all of their assets to recover the all the stolen money and as a fine to warn other politicians. Think of it! “When the righteous triumph, there is great elation...” (Prov 28:12)
Can we say, “Christians shouldn't get involved in politics? It's too difficult for me to understand. There's not much we can do about it.”? No, because our Saviour commands us: “Rescue those being led away to death; hold back those staggering toward slaughter. If you say, “But we knew nothing about this,” does not he who weighs the heart perceive it? Does not he who guards your life know it? Will he not repay each person according to what he has done?” (Prov 24:11-12) This goes beyond just telling them the gospel. It makes the gospel even better news. With God's help, evil can be restrained and the poor can be rescued from the hand of the wicked.