Standing up for the poor

Peter Leithart considers the different ways that the Bible talks about the oppression of the poor, concluding that

Who abuses the poor?  As Scripture sees things, it could be anyone, and Christians are called to oppose oppression whether it is carried out by civil rulers, by religious leaders, by large corporations or small businesses, by neighbors, by family members, by the weak on the weaker.

On a related note, Doug Wilson and Toby Sumpter answered a question that I posed on about the protection of workers in a free market economy here (it’s a video of about 12 minutes).



  1. The question I ask myself is, what mechanisms are available to oppose the oppression of the poor, especially when conducted by organized groups. Also, how do I know that a group is truly oppressed, and not simply being used by someone for personal or political gain, or that one isn’t applying modern standards of “good” to an issue. Modern agriculture and immigrant labor is a subject that comes to mind for me when discussing abuse of the poor. We have a system that is practically designed to encourage the abuse of the vulnerable, starting with ultra-low prices on food at the grocery store, all the way to most of our produce being picked by people with no legal standing in this country; people who are often afraid to go to authorities about lost wages and theft by their employers. Having worked in agriculture and been shorted on my wages by an unscrupulous farmer, I know this is happening to illegals, probably quite often. Yet, there are so many degrees of separation between myself and the food in the store, there is no way to tell which food that I’m buying has been produced without abusing workers and which food hasn’t. I’m not convinced buying local is the solution, because it was a small local farmer that ripped me off as a kid, and I was working with plenty of foreigners out his fields who I’m sure had similar problems with him. The whole system sucks as far as I’m concerned; it seems almost designed to produce abuse. And yet I probably encourage it as much as anyone with my refusal to buy all but the cheapest produce and food “on sale.”

    I guess that’s a really long winded way of saying that opposing oppression seems so nebulous and futile to me, in so many ways. There are a few things, like helping a food bank, supporting a domestic violence shelter and praying outside an abortion clinic, that can have real, measurable results. One can see that people are getting needed food, or a safe place to stay. We had 3 turn backs outside a local abortion facility this week in ABQ, one woman who was 6 months pregnant. But in most cases, especially in cases involving corporations, the oppression is so hidden and/or subject to politicization, that it is tough to tell the good from the bad.

  2. Awesome! You’re “someone”, Scott! I guess they were maintaining your anonymity? They should’ve said, “The famous dancer Scott Kistler wrote in to ask what protections are necessary for workers in a market economy …” 🙂

    I think Wilson hit it well right off the bat — the pertinent positive freedoms here (i.e. that the government should coerce) are freedom from fraud and theft.

    Doug’s case sounds like fraud. A lawsuit might be warranted, and I think it is valid role of government to make such basic justice attainable by anyone. But perhaps the most powerful thing we can do within a free market is provide clear and truthful knowledge — what options / recourses are available? How do they compare? At the very least, let everyone know which farmers break their word, so there will be a preference amongst workers and possibly other businesses and customers.

  3. I think that we have to stay as close to what we know as we can; it’s so easy to get carried off on crusades against vague injustices that we don’t really understand. I’ve stopped participating in most online petitions because I often have no idea what the effect of the action would be, and I wonder how much the people asking me to sign really know.

    Knowledge and local action are the key starting points. Doug, praying outside the clinic involves real sacrifice of time and perhaps some (or a lot of?) ridicule. Kevin, transparency is key too. Christians are probably best equipped to stand up for the oppressed in their own communities first, whether it’s the local slumlord or dishonest employer. The key is knowing what we’re talking about and making the distinction that Wilson makes between sin and crime. The church does need to call out the sins, which I imagine is better than a lot of hamhanded, well-intentioned regulations.

    The next level, probably, is that sometimes there are bad systems, like what Doug said about produce. These have to be approached by Christians with extreme caution so that we don’t just take the convenient Republican or Democratic talking points and apply them to the situation. Instead, it involves learning as much as we can, determining what a just reaction (law, winsome persuasion, boycott, denunciation, or a host of other things) is in the situation. And it can’t be about feeling good, but rather something that actually helps.

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