Surprised by Hope: Justice

Beginning at page 213, Wright argues that one part of the church’s mission is justice. By “justice” he means the realization of God’s plan to set the world right.

Wright warns us against the view of many that the world is such a mess that we’ve been saved to escape it. And he warns us against the “social gospel” view that man (or government) is the cure for man’s ills. Rather, true justice comes only through people, empowered by God through his Spirit, working in God’s mission.

Therefore, the solution isn’t a revolution against the powers — which would be a human solution. Nor do we wait for the 1000-year reign or the Rapture. That takes us entirely away from any responsibility — with us just waiting on God to finally do something.

Rather, the solution is found in realizing that the Kingdom has been inaugurated, we are part of it, and we have a role to play in bringing the Kingdom into further fruition — but not alone.

Debt relief

Wright likens the need for international debt relief to the need to end slavery 150 years ago. Few Americans are very knowledgeable of the question, although a few know that Bono, of U2 fame and a believer, has lobbied hard for it. And considerable debt relief has been granted thanks to Bono’s efforts.

The problem is simply that many countries have run up huge amounts of debt that they cannot service. As a result, money that normally would go to education or health care goes to pay interest, leaving the nations unable to escape poverty.

Were the nations American citizens, they’d take chapter 13 or 7 and get a fresh start. The international lending community has been much tougher, pushing these nations into deeper poverty than any bankrupt American, while the rich get, quite literally, richer.

The Biblical principles are actually pretty clear. Under the Law of Moses, debts were forgiven every 7 years and Jews were commanded to lend to the poor even if they knew they wouldn’t be repaid — even if the 7th year was only months away.

Jesus, of course, taught parables based on the urgency of debt forgiveness. We abstract these to be about forgiving sins — which is true — but they are only true about sin because they are first true about debt.

This is from an article in Time

[Bono] first became interested in Africa’s economic plight in the 1980s, after the Live Aid concerts that raised money for Ethiopian famine victims. “My wife Ali and I ended up going to Ethiopia for some time doing relief work. We were so high on the idea that Live Aid raised $100 million—and then you discover years later that that’s what Africa pays every couple of weeks on old loans. It’s kind of a shock. I thought we’d never forget what we’d been through in Ethiopia, but you go back to your life and then those images just fade away.”

The images may have faded, but Bono’s curiosity did not. In 1999, the singer got involved with Jubilee 2000, now known as Drop the Debt, a London-based coalition of academics and activists who equated Third World debt with slavery. In the course of his work with the campaign Bono has met with Presidents, Prime Ministers and the Pope to get attention for the issue. He relishes the incongruity of a rock star talking about world policy, but he backs it up by knowing his stuff. He reads economics tomes and did some unofficial studying at Harvard. “I think that politicians are attracted at first by the celebrity,” says Harvard economics guru Jeffrey Sachs, who has huddled with Bono and the Pope on the debt issue. “But once they meet him, they find that he is an outstandingly capable interlocutor.” Senator Jesse Helms met with Bono to talk about starving children in Africa and ended up weeping—marking the first time a rocker has inspired an emotion in the Senator from North Carolina other than perhaps outrage.

Now, in recent years, the international community has begun to grant debt relief to the poorest of nations. The Bush administration has been particularly active. As Bono said to President Bush at a 2006 Prayer Breakfast,

“After 9/11, we were told America would have no time for the world’s poor. We were told that America would be taken up with its own problems of safety. … But America has not drawn the blinds and double-locked the doors.” Bono said. “You have doubled aid to Africa. You have tripled funding for global health. And Mr. President, your emergency plan for AIDS relief and support of the Global Fund, has put 700,000 people onto life-saving antiretroviral drugs and provided 8 million bed nets to protect children from malaria.”

And yet, here’s the amazing thing — as Bush, an evangelical Christian — has pushed for debt relief or AIDs or malaria treatment for Africa, the American Christian community has reacted with a yawn. The liberals don’t get excited because they refuse to give Bush the credit. The conservatives don’t get excited because it’s for Africa and they oppose foreign aid.

And the Christians … well, the Christians as so coopted by the political parties that they seem incapable of independent thought. And so, rather than seeing our preachers excited over the help desperately poor people are receiving, we show no interest in the subject at all … because, to be honest, we really just don’t care.

Tax policy

Let me offer another example of the same phenomenon. In Alabama, Republican Governor Bob Riley recently proposed the repeal of all state sales taxes (4%) on groceries. Given the recent rise in food prices, many people would certainly benefit from that change. However, to pay for the change, Riley proposed to amend the Alabama constitution to repeal the income tax deduction for federal income taxes. The bill went nowhere.

Now, the higher your income, the higher percentage you pay in federal taxes. As a result, the federal income tax deduction in Alabama is worth much more to high income taxpayers than low income taxpayers — meaning that the poor actually pay a higher percentage of their income in Alabama income tax than the rich.

Riley, a Republican who is also a Christian, sought to change this outcome. The churches yawned and did nothing. The Democrats opposed it to avoid giving a victory to a Republican. The Republicans opposed it because it hurt the rich. The Alabama Christian Coalition sat the fight out. And yet, nearly every member of the Alabama legislature is a church-going Christian. Had the churches lobbied for the legislation, it would have passed.

Ultimately, there’s a huge disconnect between our Christianity and our politics. We compartmentalize our lives so that we preach about sacrifice on Sundays and vote for self-interest in Tuesdays.

Making justice God’s justice

Debt relief, tax reform, and such are all good things, but none of these reforms will fix our major social problems. Nonetheless, it’s often important to get bad governmental policies out of the way so that Kingdom solutions can more easily come into effect.

If people are too poor to feed and clothe their children, they’ll not be open to hearing the gospel from rich white people. Structural injustice has to be addressed —

(Isa 10:1-2)  Woe to those who make unjust laws, to those who issue oppressive decrees, 2 to deprive the poor of their rights and withhold justice from the oppressed of my people, making widows their prey and robbing the fatherless.

But to avoid the mistakes of the social gospel, we cannot ever pretend that we can fix the world via government. We can only keep the government from making things even worse! The cure is only found in Jesus.

This ultimately means evangelism but an evangelism that calls people to be servants of God, which will make us all better parents and better spouses. And as Jesus changes us, then one family at a time, society will get better.

Social justice is essential because social injustice destroys souls. But social justice does not heal souls. Only Jesus can do that.

About Jay F Guin

My name is Jay Guin, and I’m a retired elder. I wrote The Holy Spirit and Revolutionary Grace about 18 years ago. I’ve spoken at the Pepperdine, Lipscomb, ACU, Harding, and Tulsa lectureships and at ElderLink. My wife’s name is Denise, and I have four sons, Chris, Jonathan, Tyler, and Philip. I have two grandchildren. And I practice law.
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3 Responses to Surprised by Hope: Justice

  1. Alan says:

    As a result, the federal income tax deduction in Alabama is worth much more to high income taxpayers than low income taxpayers — meaning that the poor actually pay a higher percentage of their income in Alabama income tax than the rich.

    That just didn't seem right, so I checked on the tax rates, and here's what I found.

    The poorest tax payers in Alabama pay 2% on what's left after federal tax. The wealthiest pay 5%. If a wealthy tax payer had to pay 50% of his income in federal tax, he'd still end up with an effective gross tax rate of 2.5%, which is higher than the tax rate on the poor. But the top bracket of the federal tax rates is 35%, not 50%. So the wealthy *always* pay a higher gross income tax rate than the poor in Alabama.

    Lots of people think that, regardless of what tax rates currently are, the wealthy are not taxed enough, and the poor are taxed too much. And they act like it's a moral imperative to raise taxes on the wealthy to fix the supposed problem. Taking that to its logical conclusion, the government would tax 100% of the income of wealthy and none of the poor (however you define wealthy and poor). But that is clearly not morally right. There is *some* rate at which it is no longer equitable to raise the tax rate on the wealthy — even though it leaves the wealthy with more money remaining than the poor have.

    The scriptures teach that hard work brings a profit. A man ought to enjoy the fruits of his labor (and not enjoy fruits he did not earn). The Marxist mantra "From each according to his ability; to each according to his need" failed miserably as public policy. The truth is that the poor need the rich. Rich folks are not inherently a plague on society, and should not be taxed into extinction.

  2. Jay Guin says:

    Alan,

    For anyone making more than $3,000, the nominal tax bracket is 5%, which looks like a flat tax, but it's not. There's a $1,500 exemption for single (doubled for marrieds), meaning that if a single person makes $4,500 a year, he's in the top tax bracket.

    At minimum wage, you make more than $4,500 per year if you work 1,000 hours — 50% of a fulltime job. Therefore, everyone working 50% of a fulltime job or more is in the 5% tax bracket.

    But you also have to take into account the federal tax deduction. Federal taxes vary from 0% to 35% on individuals. At $4,500, you pay 0% in federal taxes, meaning that your effective Alabama tax bracket is 5%.

    However, if you make $357,700, your federal tax rate is 35%, while your state tax rate is 5%. But you only pay the state tax on what's left after the federal tax is paid (the tax is deductible). Hence, you actually pay 5% of 65% or about 3.25% in Alabama income taxes.

    Thus, the effective Alabama income tax rate for the very wealthy is 3.25% while the effective Alabama income tax rate for those working only 1,000 hours per year at minimum wage is 5%. And people making only $4,500 qualify for welfare, subsidized housing, and food stamps.

    I am simply arguing that someone who qualifies for welfare shouldn't pay a higher percentage of income to support the government of the State of Alabama than someone making $400,000.

  3. Alan says:

    But you only pay the state tax on what’s left after the federal tax is paid (the tax is deductible). Hence, you actually pay 5% of 65% or about 3.25% in Alabama income taxes.

    The way things are set up, the federal government takes their cut first. Then the state takes their cut out of what is left. The rich man pays the federal government first, and then pays 5% of what is left. The poor man does the same — except that he pays the federal government $0. I don't see how that puts the poor man at a disadvantage.

    Would it make the state more equitable if both the poor man and the rich man first paid 35% to the federal government? Of course not. Does the federal government's generosity cause an otherwise fair state tax to be unfair? I don't think so.

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