There is a moment in scripture that has been the cause of much ruminating for me; particularly when looking at issues of social or biblical justice. Jesus said “The poor you will always have with you, but you will not always have me.” Given the context of this verse, there is certainly a hint of caution to the disciples that they not develop a new legalism in place of the old. That is, that there are occasions when extravagance, motivated by love, are appropriate. However caring for the poor had become, and was meant to be, the norm. But why would the poor always be amongst us? Wasn’t Jesus the Messiah who was meant to be ushering in a new and just kingdom? Jesus did not run about proclaiming hopelessness but hope. It is for this reason that I would argue that the presence of the poor in society is consistently invitational. The people of God must be drawn to serving the poor as a hallmark of genuine faith, and attention to the most vulnerable a formative motivator to building a society that mirrors, if only in part, the kingdom of God.
Karl Polanyi was influenced by socialism and Christianity as he traces the rise of free market capitalism in his book “The Great Transformation.” He argues that “the attempt to create a market society is fundamentally threatening to human society and the common good” and will not result in freedom without political intervention. He examines the conditions that lead poverty, including the inability to work and the inability to find work and how the laws created with the intention of protecting the poor actually drove the shift to the free market that would leave them far more vulnerable. The Speenhamland system was introduced as markets were emerging in an effort to ensure a basic income for workers which was calculated around the rising and falling of the price of bread. This newfound security would assure that no worker would ever become destitute. However, the ultimate impact of the system was that workers lacked the motivation to work harder for their employers. Survival and sufficiency had long been the goal of humankind and so once guaranteed, productivity declined alarmingly. In reaction, the mantra in the church (imitating the rest of society) became “(i)f at all possible, the poor should help themselves; and public assistance was to be rejected out of hand.” In line with Adam Smith, many evangelicals believed that “no disincentive to hard work could be permitted in a well ordered society.” The church was following the sentiments that arose once the Speenhamland system had proven ineffective in supporting the free-market system. The result were degrading solutions such as work houses that would ensure all would earn their keep. An unanticipated consequence was that the rationality and morality that had undergirded societal interactions was slowly replaced by social naturalism. Those who could work hard, and had favourable conditions and opportunities, would thrive. The poor would suffer and be left to decay. This seems a natural consequence of a market driven, amoral foundation for society. With even the generosity of the church discouraged the plight of the poor was dismal indeed. To neglect the most vulnerable was to reject the invitation Jesus had extended to keep the poor amongst us and instead they were cast aside.
Political intervention was motivated more by the desire for national stability than benevolence. Social security and labour unions were initiatives seen “as the start of a process by which society would decide through democratic means to protect individuals and nature from certain economic dangers.” The instability of the market meant that even the well employed were vulnerable to a turn in the economic system. For example the industrial revolution was virtually unanticipated and resulted in a “catastrophic dislocation of the common people . The prospect of such a quick turn in fortune led to a desire for stability and security. Time would demonstrate that while a self-regulating market may ultimately lead to stable economic growth, it’s lack of personal direction meant that livelihoods could be destroyed virtually overnight and given the increasing international nature of trade, many of the factors impacting these shifts were not even under national control. On a large scale, this could create national and even international instability. “Militant movements-often intermixed with religious fundamentalism-are poised to take advantage of the economic and social shocks of globaliasation.” If this is true, it seems that it is in the best interest of the state to step in with legislation that would regulate the market in such a way that mass economic vulnerability might be prevented through regulation.
What wasn’t anticipated as the free-market began to shape society, was that people would internalise the motivation to want more—that is, succumb to greed. The assumption was that people would stop working hard once they had enough as had been the case with the Speenhamland system. “The true criticism of market society is not that it was based on economics…but that its economy was based on self-interest.” The poor increasingly lose their freedom in a system where freedom is sustained by financial stability. Economic disparity also rends communities, contributing to greater division. Polanyi‘ s final thought is a sober warning from the past, “As long as he is true to his task of creating more abundant freedom for all, he need not fear that either power or planning will turn against him and destroy the freedom he is building by their instrumentality.” If “Where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom” , then if we withhold freedom from the most vulnerable, have we not also rejected the Spirit?
1. Matthew 26:11, NIV.
2. Henry Farrell, “The Free Market Is an Impossible Utopia,” The Washington Post, July 18, 2014, , accessed January 23, 2019, https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/monkey-cage/wp/2014/07/18/the-free-market-is-an-impossible-utopia/?noredirect=on&utm_term=.d327f423917b.
3. Karl Polanyi, The Great Transformation: The Political and Economic Origins of Our Time (Boston: Beacon Press, 2014), Google Play, 153-161.
4. David W. Bebbington, Evangelicalism in Modern Britain: A History from the 1730s to the 1980s (London: Routledge, 2015), Google Play, 197.
5. Ibid., 198.
6. Polanyi, 26.
7. Ibid., 97.
8. Ibid., 26.
9. Ibid., 355.
10. Ibid., 355.
11. Ibid., 364.
12. 2 Corinthians 3:17, NIV.