During His ministry Christ once stated that the poor shall always be with you. Nearly two thousand years later we know this to be true. Today we continually ask, “ Why are the poor always with us?”
Hurricane Mitch, which ravaged Central America last November, left a tragic example of the modern poor and how vulnerable they are to natural disasters.
Mitch killed more than 10,500 people, 60 percent of them in Honduras. There are some 13,000 people missing. The two hardest hit nations, Honduras and Nicaragua, buried their dead in mass graves to head off the threat of disease epidemics. The economic damage is in the billions of dollars as the staple crops of bananas and coffee, the major sources of hard currency, were severely damaged. It will take years to recover the economic loss.
Disaster is not unknown to these small third world countries. In 1972 a major earthquake jolted Nicaragua leaving many thousands dead. Add to this the chronic political instability of the region and it presents an unpleasant picture.
We Ask Why?
Such a disaster is incomprehensible in the United States where the eastern and southern coasts are routinely wracked by hurricanes. What is the difference? Why the massive damage and loss of life in such countries? The television pictures that came in from the scene told part of the story. In Nicaragua more than 2,000 died from a mudslide of a collapsed volcano. They were peasants living in shacks on the sides of the volcano, eking out a meager living. The conditions are feudal in nature. The poor cannot afford to live in the safest regions of a land. They must live on land that is in a flood plain and of little economic value. The better land is often taken by their wealthier and more fortunate neighbors.
Another reason for such loss is the poor infrastructure of these countries. The governments have not invested in the transportation and communication facilities that would allow many to escape the path of an oncoming storm. Of course, these poor people would not have private vehicles to use in the first place. One look at the flimsy homes many of them inhabit also tells a part of the story. Poor people bear the brunt of misery in our modern sophisticated world and there seems no end to it.
Much has been done to alleviate the suffering. Churches, relief organizations, and other nations have poured in the badly needed food, medicine, and clothing. The United States’ military has gone in and rebuilt roads and bridges to facilitate the movement of material and people. Many of the multi-national companies such as Chiquita Banana and Dole, with large economic interests in the region, have been more effective in providing aid than anyone else. They also have an urgent need to restore order to protect their large investments.
Only A Band-Aid
A recent Wall Street Journal article had this to say. “The average person, watching the devastation on TV, instinctively cries out, ‘Do something.’ In point of fact, much has been ‘done’ for decades, in the form of foreign aid intended to alleviate the hemisphere’s poverty. It obviously hasn’t worked. Among other things, aid often unintentionally absolves irresponsible governments in the region of blame for their own ruinous policies; so the poverty persists.
“If Washington were a truly serious place, its policy makers and its international institutions would use Mitch as an opportunity to rethink the way countries such as the U.S. have traditionally tried to help Central America. For example, the post-Mitch consensus in Washington seems to be that Central America’s debt should be forgiven. This might provide relief but it will do nothing to raise the incomes of the people struggling in the mud and ruin on our TV screens or to protect them in the next storm. Nor, for that matter, will the recently announced $200 million World Bank package, targeted at hurricane cleanup and rebuilding” ( Wall Street Journal, November 13, 1998).
This article goes on to suggest economic solutions to the regional poverty. Open and free trade that would integrate them into the larger free market economies is advocated. A more equitable relationship with NAFTA, the North American Free Trade Association, would require a change in the protectionist trade policies of these Central American nations. But much more would be required. Government reform would also need to take place. For decades these countries have suffered from ruinous policies of ineffective governments which have not had the best interests of the people in mind.
An Ancient Problem
The herdsman-turned-prophet Amos saw the same kind of social injustice in eighth century B.C. Israel. The words he spoke then apply to any modern system of social inequity that eats away the hope of a people. His prophecy describes a land of extreme contrasts between the rich and poor. The small farmer found himself subject to the uncertainties of weather calamity or poor government policy (Amos 4:1-9 Amos 4:1-9 1 Hear this word, you cows of Bashan, that are in the mountain of Samaria, which oppress the poor, which crush the needy, which say to their masters, Bring, and let us drink.
2 The Lord GOD has sworn by his holiness, that, see, the days shall come on you, that he will take you away with hooks, and your posterity with fishhooks.
3 And you shall go out at the breaches, every cow at that which is before her; and you shall cast them into the palace, said the LORD.
4 Come to Bethel, and transgress; at Gilgal multiply transgression; and bring your sacrifices every morning, and your tithes after three years:
5 And offer a sacrifice of thanksgiving with leaven, and proclaim and publish the free offerings: for this likes you, O you children of Israel, said the Lord GOD.
6 And I also have given you cleanness of teeth in all your cities, and want of bread in all your places: yet have you not returned to me, said the LORD.
7 And also I have withheld the rain from you, when there were yet three months to the harvest: and I caused it to rain on one city, and caused it not to rain on another city: one piece was rained on, and the piece whereupon it rained not withered.
8 So two or three cities wandered to one city, to drink water; but they were not satisfied: yet have you not returned to me, said the LORD.
9 I have smitten you with blasting and mildew: when your gardens and your vineyards and your fig trees and your olive trees increased, the palmerworm devoured them: yet have you not returned to me, said the LORD.
American King James Version×). This situation was exacerbated by the greed of the wealthy who kept a tight control over the social order (Amos 2:6 Amos 2:6Thus said the LORD; For three transgressions of Israel, and for four, I will not turn away the punishment thereof; because they sold the righteous for silver, and the poor for a pair of shoes;
American King James Version×, 7; 8:4, 5, 6; 5:11, 12). For this Israel would suffer decline and punishment.
This fails to rectify the fundamental problems of injustice caused by greed and error. The problems here cry out for real justice-the kind that will turn around the systemic plagues of a culture.
Before our attention span is diverted by the next crisis du jour we should examine a different solution that is more enduring. There is a reason we have “the poor with us always.” God did not intend that society always have a sub-class of people who perpetually exist in generational poverty.
To ancient Israel God gave a system of laws and statutes meant to produce social justice. The system was meant to work for everyone, providing opportunity and avoiding an unfair economic structure. At the heart of this system was a cycle of land rests and debt restructuring that culminated every fifty years in the Jubilee.
Leviticus 25 lays out how this system worked. When Israel entered the land of promise they were told to set up a series of “land sabbaths” (verse 2). Every seven years the land was allowed to rest from a planting and harvest. There were seven cycles of these land rests, or 49 years. On the fiftieth year a Jubilee was declared (verses 8, 9).
During this fiftieth year, a general release of all debt took place and everyone returned to his or her possession (verse 10). By this returning, God meant there was a general land redistribution where all the land reverted to the family that originally owned the land. If a man had “bought ” a piece of land during this fifty year period he saw it go back to the original owner in the Jubilee. The price of land was determined by how many years there were to the next Jubilee. If there were 25 years remaining, the price of land was more than if there were only seven years to go. In other words, the land was never sold forever. It was only leased for the value of the crops that could be raised upon it. Verse 23 says, “The land shall not be sold permanently, for the land is Mine; for you are strangers and sojourners with Me”. God owned the land. Everyone else was considered a steward.
Far Reaching Impact
The teaching of the Jubilee goes on to prescribe specific regulations that apply to cases of bankruptcy, property ownership, and employment. The guidelines have far reaching effects upon all society . When studied in the larger context of God’s law it can be shown how adherence to this Jubilee structure would ensure a society that was just and equitable for all. Many social problems that affect every modern developed nation are impacted by this law. The solution to the problems of labor strife, family breakup, crime, poverty, and racial strife are found within the safeguards provided by the Jubilee. It is a remarkable chapter that can be seen as a prophecy of how physical nations will be run during the millennial reign of Christ on earth. Acts 3:21 Acts 3:21Whom the heaven must receive until the times of restitution of all things, which God has spoken by the mouth of all his holy prophets since the world began.
American King James Version×speaks of the “times of restoration of all things.” Could Leviticus 25 and the Jubilee structure be the means by which Christ will restore His way to the earth?
Land reform is the first step to building a viable economy. When the land is controlled by the few then the many, usually the poor, are denied the means of a stable life within the country’s economy. Property ownership is a key to God’s economic plan (Zechariah 3:10 Zechariah 3:10In that day, said the LORD of hosts, shall you call every man his neighbor under the vine and under the fig tree.
American King James Version×). When a man has title to property there is the incentive to work hard to make a living and preserve the land for posterity. There is pride in ownership. A family that can stay on its land for generations builds stability into a community that positively impacts everyone. The old are cared for by the younger and the children grow up in a nuclear family with a sense of place. No one is forgotten.
Further safeguards for the family structure were built into the Jubilee. The law guaranteed to the family the means of self-sufficiency. Even if poverty or bad management forced people into bankruptcy, a form of economic slavery, there was always the hope of the fiftieth year release from debt. Poverty would not be passed on to each generation. One generation could learn from the mistakes of the previous one and obtain a new start.
Under God’s system a nation would own and control its own land. They would not import large numbers of foreigners to work their land, thus creating the conditions for the racial and ethnic strife we see in many areas of the world today. Nor would a nation see its prime land and cash crops bought and controlled by large multi-national companies, controlled by directors who do not live in the country nor have the same concern for the long term social and economic development of the peoples.
It will take more than open free trade policies with other countries to solve the poverty of the Central American nations. Neither NAFTA, the World Bank, nor massive relief aid will bring a permanent solution. Utopia is not found in any humanly devised economic system. It also takes the principles found in the word of God, faithfully taught and followed, to create a system of lasting prosperity and justice.
A Papal Solution?
The problems of economic injustice in the developing third world nations have not escaped the attention of Pope John Paul II. Seeing that economic globalization and financial fluctuations have hurt many of the world’s poor, the pontiff has called for a new world vision to deal with the downside of free markets.
In a message intended to coincide with the Roman Catholic Church’s World Day of Peace (January 1, 2000), the 78-year old Pontiff also repeated an appeal to rich nations to see the year 2000 as an ideal moral opportunity to help developing countries extricate themselves from the quicksand of international debt. Ironically, the year 2000 is also a year of jubilee as proclaimed by that Church.
In what has been considered one of his strongest political statements ever, the Pope was quoted as saying: “The rapid advance towards globalization of economic and financial systems illustrates the need to establish who is responsible for guaranteeing the global common good and exercising social rights.” He then went on to say: “The free market by itself cannot do this because there are many human needs which have no place in the market.”
The Pope’s message, contained in a 20-page document called Respect For Human Rights: The Secret of True Peace, has been well received by other religious organizations, including several Protestant churches. The document will soon be sent to heads of state around the world (Reuters, December 1998).
Could this be a step closer to the time when a powerful religious figure will offer a church/state solution to the economic woes of the world, thereby monopolizing control of those who will buy and sell? “And he causes all, both small and great, rich and poor, free and slave, to receive a mark on their right hand or on their foreheads, and that no one may buy or sell except one who has the mark or the name of the beast, or the number of his name.” (Revelation 13:16 Revelation 13:16And he causes all, both small and great, rich and poor, free and bond, to receive a mark in their right hand, or in their foreheads:
American King James Version×, 17).
The endemic poverty of many third world nations, like those of Central America, cries out for a solution. The enduring solution will come with the return of Christ. The poignant message of Hurricane Mitch is drawn from the prayers of believers who cry out, “thy kingdom come.” WNP