Poverty, Justice and the Wholly Bible

Is the release of the Poverty and Justice Bible just another cynical publishing move?

First it was the Police Bible; now it’s the Poverty and Justice Bible. The market segmentation of the Bible reading audience knows no bounds. It’s easy to be cynical about ‘trendy’ versions of the Good Book – are they not merely publishing manoeuvres designed to flog a dead religious horse?

Well, yes and no. Of course, repackaging and relabelling an old product is a time-honoured way of making more sales and expanding markets. Some specialist Bibles, like the various Teen Study Versions, just seem to add to the Scriptures dubious cultural commentary about wearing make-up, handling break-ups and pursuing middle-class-ness. But there is a more useful, corrective side to the specialist Bible industry.

The Bible is such a vast and comprehensive book that it is easy to miss the trees for the forest. Specialist Bibles alert people to particular themes or aspects of the Bible that they may have ignored or forgotten. The new Poverty and Justice Bible, launched in Australia by the Prime Minister, Kevin Rudd, at the Micah Challenge Voices for Justice national gathering, is just such a Bible.

Jim Wallis, head of the Sojourners movement in the USA, once cut out all the verses about poverty from the Bible and paraded around his ‘hole-y’ Bible to show wealthy Americans just what was missing from their reading of the Holy Book. The Bible Society has taken a less destructive approach and produced a Bible with the verses about justice and poverty—and related issues such as wealth, equality, suffering, selfishness and health—highlighted in red. It’s a way of saying, “Look! This book really is concerned big-time in justice for the poor”.

According to Bible Society Chief Executive, James Catford, “Poverty and justice have always been on the heart of God”, but we are having to work hard to bring them back to the attention of the world itself. Thanks to the work of campaigners such as U2’s Bono and leading American pastors such as Rick Warren and Bill Hybels, concern for the poor is now making a comeback among worldwide Christians, as well as more broadly across the affluent West.

This is nothing other than a rediscovery of the church’s historical roots. In the ancient world Christianity’s welfare programs—open to believers and unbelievers alike—was utterly unique, so much so that the fourth century pagan emperor Julian feared that the ‘impious Galileans’, as he called them, would take over the Roman world by the stealth of their compassion: “it is disgraceful,” he once wrote to a leading official in Galatia, “that they care not only for their own poor but for ours as well.”

This is Christianity’s true heritage.

And we quickly forget. Amidst all the assertions of Christianity’s links to democracy, capitalism, prosperity and the success of the West, it can easily be lost that God has a heart for the downtrodden, the widowed, the disabled and the enslaved. The Christian community around the world needs this kind of re-centring of its social compass.

The Bible Society has highlighted a wide range of the biblical material on justice and poverty. Some of Jesus’ sayings are great encouragements to the poor, not that they will become materially rich, but that God hasn’t forgotten them even when everyone else does: “God will bless you people who are poor. His kingdom belongs to you!…But you rich people are in trouble. You have already had an easy life!” (Luke 6:20 & 24).

Other highlighted passages emphasize the responsibility of the ‘haves’ to share with the ‘have nots’, as well as the spiritual challenges of being rich: “in fact, it’s easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to get into God’s kingdom” (Luke 18:25).

They have highlighted not just passages about poverty in this world, but also passages about spiritual wealth: “You know that our Lord Jesus Christ was kind enough to give up all his riches and become poor, so that you could become rich” (2 Corinthians 8:9).

And they haven’t shrunk back from some difficult sayings either, such as this kick in the pants for the bone-idle: “Laziness leads to poverty; hard work makes you rich” (Proverbs 10:4); and this one, addressed to what you might call the ancient world’s corporate CEOs: “Slave owners, be fair and honest with your slaves. Don’t forget that you have a Master in heaven.” (Colossians 4:1).

It must be said, they have missed a few gems, such as the immortal saying, “the love of money is the root of all kinds of evil” (1 Tim 6:10). You can’t highlight everything, but we are not sure how that chapter and verse escaped notice!

Taking themes from Scripture — be they justice, poverty, love, or ‘things teens need to know’ — is often worthwhile and can be a good corrective when we have swayed too far in one direction of biblical application. We ought not to get one-eyed about it but remember that it is the whole Bible that reveals to us the plans of God, an unfolding drama of God’s love for the world that offers guidance to the poor and rich alike, if only we will read it.

Greg Clarke and John Dickson are Directors of the Centre for Public Christianity

This article first appeared on The Punch