By Krista Bontrager
One of the repeated statements about God’s character is that He takes up “the cause” of the poor.
For the Lord your God is God of gods and Lord of lords, the great God, mighty and awesome, who shows no partiality and accepts no bribes. He defends the cause of the fatherless and the widow, and loves the foreigner residing among you, giving them food and clothing. And you are to love those who are foreigners, for you yourselves were foreigners in Egypt. (Deut. 10:18–19; emphasis added)
The prophet Isaiah pleads with God’s people to repent of their ways and take up “the cause” of the poor, to be like God Himself (Is. 1:16–17). By the time the prophet Jeremiah comes on to the scene, God is pronouncing His impending judgment against His people because of their continued failure to take up “the cause” of the poor (Jer. 5:28–29).
What exactly is “the cause” that God’s people are neglecting when it comes to the poor, the fatherless, the widow, and the foreigner? Social justice–oriented Christians will often bring up scriptures like these as biblical support that Christians must engage in the advocacy of various causes, including open borders, “reproductive justice” (abortion), and “marriage equality” (gay marriage).
THE FUN HOUSE–MIRROR VERSION OF JUSTICE
When I hear Christian leaders speaking on justice or social justice, their argument usually goes something like this:
Premise 1: God is a God who loves justice. After all, justice is all over the Bible.
Premise 2: The prophets repeatedly condemn Israel because they overlooked the poor and the oppressed and neglected justice.
Premise 3: The white evangelical church doesn’t advocate for the poor and the oppressed. This is because they don’t care about justice.
Conclusion: The white evangelical church had better start caring about justice and advocating for the poor; otherwise, God is going to judge them.
What happens next is usually a call for justice that matches the policies of leftist politicians. In order to be for the poor, you must also be against capitalism and for large-scale government welfare programs and the redistribution of wealth. And if you aren’t for these things, then, by definition, you aren’t for the cause of the poor.
This distorted “fun house–mirror” version of taking up “the cause of the poor” is common these days. This is why God’s people must take the time to carefully define our terms. Otherwise, the conversation about justice can degenerate into confusion and emotional manipulation.
LAYING THE CORRECT FOUNDATION
This brings us to the question of, What is it, exactly, that ancient Israel was condemned for when they didn’t take up the cause of the poor? Once we have a firm understanding of that, we can then begin to consider the question of how Christians can properly take up “the cause” of the poor today.
To answer these questions, we must begin by understanding humanity’s purpose. God created us to “have dominion over” the creation (Gen. 1:26). We were appointed to govern the earth on the Creator’s behalf. But in the Fall, something went dreadfully wrong (Gen. 3). Instead of ruling over creation, we impose our will by sinfully ruling over one another (Gen. 4:1–16). As God’s people exercise dominion over creation in a post-Fall world, part of that endeavor includes living according to His justice standards. The Mosaic Law provides case studies that can help to paint the picture of God’s standard of justice. Many of these principles are repeated in the New Covenant as timeless ethical principles.
Both the Mosaic Covenant and New Covenant agree: The primary motivation for an individual to act justly is love for God and neighbor. But how do we know how to love our neighbor? We look to the Law. That’s where God explains what love looks like. The apostle Paul summarizes the issue this way (Romans 13:8–10):
Let no debt remain outstanding, except the continuing debt to love one another, for whoever loves others has fulfilled the law. The commandments, “You shall not commit adultery,” “You shall not murder,” “You shall not steal,” “You shall not covet,”and whatever other command there may be, are summed up in this one command: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” Love does no harm to a neighbor. Therefore love is the fulfillment of the law.
In a nutshell, love for God and neighbor looks like obeying the Ten Commandments. All of the other commandments are additional examples of these broad principles. Exodus 23 provides a great illustration of this, connecting the Ten Commandments to what it means to defend the cause of the poor (Exodus 23:1–5):
Do not spread false reports. Do not help a guilty person by being a malicious witness.
Do not follow the crowd in doing wrong. When you give testimony in a lawsuit, do not pervert justice by siding with the crowd, and do not show favoritism to a poor person in a lawsuit.
If you come across your enemy’s ox or donkey wandering off, be sure to return it. If you see the donkey of someone who hates you fallen down under its load, do not leave it there; be sure you help them with it.
Verses 1–2 are a restatement and expansion of the ninth commandment: Do not bear false witness. And here is where justice gets very practical. God’s standard of justice doesn’t allow for lying when giving an account of wrongdoing. God’s people should not lie to cover up a crime. Rather, God’s people ought to be known as truth-tellers.
God’s people must not show favoritism to the rich or to the poor, especially in the law court. We don’t lie to protect the poor and we don’t lie simply to implicate the rich. Even if the whole world is screaming that someone is guilty, God’s people must not follow the crowd. We must live according to God’s justice standards and weigh the evidence as dispassionately as possible.
In addition, if I see something that is threatening my enemy’s livelihood, I should act to try and help him. For example, a donkey or ox were key tools to be able to earn a living. If I saw my enemy's donkey wandering off or in danger of injury, if I am a righteous person, then I would demonstrate my allegiance to God by stopping to help my neighbor. Likewise, if I join the crowd in looting a business (which is stealing), I'm acting inconsistently with God's standard of justice--even if I consider the business owner to be “my oppressor.” We simply don't treat our enemies that way; we don't allow our enemies' livelihoods to go up in flames. Instead, we stop and help them.
Verse 6 goes on to provide a critical piece that relates to our big question about taking up the cause of the poor:
Do not deny justice to your poor people in their lawsuits. Have nothing to do with a false charge and do not put an innocent or honest person to death, for I will not acquit the guilty.
God specifically delineates a key injustice that the poor are vulnerable to experiencing: To deny justice to the poor is to bring up false charges against them. It’s to lie about them. It’s to punish an innocent person. To knowingly do this will result in God’s judgment against us.
We see this play out in Israel’s later history. In Psalm 82, God condemns the unjust judges of Israel with these words (Psalm 82:2–4):
How long will you defend the unjust
and show partiality to the wicked?
Defend the weak and the fatherless;
uphold the cause of the poor and the oppressed.
Rescue the weak and the needy;
deliver them from the hand of the wicked.
God’s definition of what it means to “uphold the cause of the poor” (verse 3) is explained at the end of verse 2: to defend the unjust and to show partiality to the wicked. Such language directly connects us back to what we saw in Exodus 23.
This leads to a very important question: What is it about the poor that makes them so vulnerable to being exploited? Proverbs 31:8–9 offers a helpful insight. The Proverbs 31 mother teaches her son how to obey God’s law in the real world:
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 solution to injustice is for God’s people to act righteously. Godly parents teach their children to speak up on behalf of the poor because they often cannot speak up for themselves. Maybe they can’t afford a good attorney. Maybe they don’t have the political connections to highlight corruption in the handling of their case. To live a righteous and just life is to speak up for those who don’t have the loudest voices of influence. It is to make sure the world doesn’t just run over them. The poor have rights that shouldn’t be disregarded. Why? Because a just society is one that treats the rich and the poor equally under the law.
When we don’t treat the poor with equality under the law, that is when we exploit them. When we don’t allow the poor to have their fair day in court, when we don’t allow the evidence in their case to be fairly considered, that is when we oppress the poor. And that is what brings God’s judgment.
The general principle of what it means to “take up the cause of the poor” is this: Make sure everyone is treated equally under the law––whether rich or poor. Here are a few more practical examples of how God’s people can reflect His standard of justice without falling into the trap of adopting worldly social policies:
If God’s people want to take up the cause of the poor, then they must advocate for verdicts that reflect the evidence. If you serve on a jury, then as a Christ follower, then you must dispassionately weigh the evidence. You must seek the truth and render a verdict that reflects that—even if it goes against the majority who are in the jury box with you or goes against cultural sensibilities.
If you are a Christian who is also a judge, think about how you can work to ensure a fair trial for the poor coming through your courtroom.
If you are a Christian and work as an attorney––either as a prosecutor or as a defense attorney––you should never try to persuade a witness to shade the truth in the direction of your case.
If you have skills as an attorney, consider how you might put those skills to use for people who can’t afford your standard fees. What role could you play to make sure the poor have the same quality of representation as the rich?
If you are a Christian working in the realm of criminal defense, think about how you can work to release people who have been wrongfully convicted? Can you get their evidence re-evaluated in light of new technology? God’s justice standard says that the truth of a matter must be established by using two or three witnesses. Thus, if there are instances where new technology can come forward as a “witness” for truth––such as DNA evidence, new video footage, or a credible new eyewitness––as a Christian working in the legal field, you have an obligation to make sure that those witnesses are considered, even if the defendant can’t afford my normal fees. That is what it means to take up the cause of the poor.
If a law enforcement officer in your congregation has direct knowledge of corruption in their police precinct or in the District Attorney’s office, especially if it involves the poor not receiving equal treatment, then the local church needs to get behind that person in terms of finances if he or she needs to blow the whistle and lose their job. God’s standard of justice demands that we not just go along with the crowd in doing wrong. We must speak out.
God is creating a new people from among the nations. He is calling men and women from all over the world, creating through them an invisible nation so that they will be a light to others. God wants His New Covenant people to take up the cause of the poor and the oppressed by treating them with fairness, ensuring they get their day in court and that their cases are fairly heard, and preventing perversions to justice such as bribes and false testimony. Even if the overall system is flawed, God’s people who are working inside it have a moral obligation to make sure that the poor are given a proper defense and are treated with dignity, fairness, and equality. In this way, we will show the world what it means to truly care for our neighbor.
You can also visit Krista's playlist on justice. It contains all of her teachings on the topic.