Posts Tagged ‘welfare’

Refugee Test Case    

March 7, 2017

President Trump’s ban on refugees entering the US promises to be temporary, and I hope that turns out to be the case. Refugees are some of the most vulnerable and pitiable people on earth. Just over a year ago I was in Europe, interviewing scores of them. Their vulnerability will never leave me.

But how to treat them? This is one issue where the Bible is clear–not as to precise policy, perhaps, but certainly as to its general direction.

In ancient Israel, foreigners were a constant presence. This was not an age of walled borders or stamped passports. Foreigners found themselves in Israel because of economic opportunity—there was always international commerce—and as refugees from war and famine. Israel, preoccupied with threats to its survival, and concerned for a distinctive identity as God’s people, had an important choice: how would they treat foreigners? Would they see them as a threat? Or would they welcome them?

The Law makes it very clear:

Lev 19:10 Do not go over your vineyard a second time or pick up the grapes that have fallen. Leave them for the poor and the foreigner. I am the Lord your God.

Deut 26:12 When you have finished setting aside a tenth of all your produce in the third year, the year of the tithe, you shall give it to the Levite, the foreigner, the fatherless and the widow, so that they may eat in your towns and be satisfied.

The welfare system included foreigners. Gleaning was not charity. It was legally mandated, embracing almost the entire productive economy. In addition the tithe was a 10% tax over the entire productive economy, directed to help those who could not participate in the economy (Levites) and those who were poor and vulnerable (widows and orphans and foreigners).

Lev 19:34 The foreigner residing among you must be treated as your native-born. Love them as yourself, for you were foreigners in Egypt. I am the Lord your God.

Foreigners were to be treated the same as citizens, and with love.

Lev 24:22 You are to have the same law for the foreigner and the native-born. I am the Lord your God.’

Numbers 15:15 The community is to have the same rules for you and for the foreigner residing among you; this is a lasting ordinance for the generations to come. You and the foreigner shall be the same before the Lord.

Laws and rules must not distinguish between citizens and foreigners. Foreigners have the same rights as do citizens.

Deut 10:18 He defends the cause of the fatherless and the widow, and loves the foreigner residing among you, giving them food and clothing.

It’s well known that God is on the side of the defenseless poor. He is equally on the side of the foreigner, caring for their material needs.

Deut 24:14 Do not take advantage of a hired worker who is poor and needy, whether that worker is a fellow Israelite or a foreigner residing in one of your towns.

How do our farms and factories live up to that?

Deut 27:19 “Cursed is anyone who withholds justice from the foreigner, the fatherless or the widow.” Then all the people shall say, “Amen!”

Why should Israel treat foreigners so benevolently? The answer is consistent: because you were foreigners in Egypt. The treatment of refugees is a test case for empathy. Can you feel for others the way you feel for yourself?

Our treatment of foreigners is also a test case for America. History tells us that America has welcomed millions. It also tells us that episodes of fear and prejudice have caused us to exclude millions. (Most dreadfully, Jewish children were sent back to Nazi Germany just before WWII began.) What kind of people will our generation be? We are being tried.


Open Welfare

September 6, 2013

In comments on my post from Chris Wright’s commentary on Deuteronomy, some of my friends have been at odds over what “welfare” should look like in the modern world. It’s a serious question, the answer to which I don’t know. Studying Deuteronomy has influenced my thinking, however, in the following ways:

1. God’s law has a huge, fundamental concern for the poor and the vulnerable. It’s not just the odd verse here and there. It gets emphasized centrally and repeatedly. The implication seems to be: God’s law exists for the welfare of the community, which finds its focus in the needs of the poor, the widow, the orphan, the slave and the immigrant. They are part of the community and their welfare is a barometer for the community.

2. Welfare for the poor and the vulnerable is not optional. It does not depend on kindness or voluntary charity. It is law–God’s law. As such, the “income” of the poor, whether through gleaning, tithes, release from loans, or whatever, is seen to be their natural right as part of the community.

3. Property rights are consistently secondary to the rights of the poor and vulnerable, as seen for instance in the law of gleaning.

4. The poor and vulnerable are consistently treated with dignity as full members of the community. They do not wait in a separate line. Even when they are badly in debt, even when they have sold themselves as indentured servants, they remain equal in status to their masters. The lenders can go only so far in recovering their loans–for example, they cannot enter homes but must wait outside.

5. Welfare provisions generally assume that the poor and vulnerable remain independent, taking care of themselves. For example, gleaners must harvest from the fields; the harvest is not handed over to them. For example, every seven years they get to start over, with the same basic assets as everybody else (i.e., the land). The baseline assumption is that they can handle responsibility, if they get a chance.

6. Generous attitudes are insisted on. The orientation is not toward “how little can we provide,” but toward a spirit of community concern for each other. And that spirit is inclusive; it involves the immigrant, for example. Though “there will always be poor people in the land” (15:11) “there need be no poor people among you,” (15:4), because God has been so generous in giving the riches of the land (undeservedly). As a community we are to emulate God’s generosity toward us. “Therefore I command you to be open-handed toward those of your people who are poor and needy in your land.” (15:11) “Open-handed” is an interesting choice of word. Its basis is a phrase meaning to let go, or release. Generosity means letting go of our resources, not maintaining control.

As I said, I don’t know how we apply this to welfare law. It’s a complicated matter, and perhaps it’s best not to be dogmatic but to allow for experimentation. One thing to keep in mind, however, is that all such systems of law are imperfect and prone to failure. Given human nature, they will be abused. These biblical laws, as interesting and clever as they appear to be, certainly were. We know that because of what the prophets wrote about Israel’s failings. Laws don’t reverse human nature. But that’s no reason to abandon the attempt to make them as good as possible.