Redefining Generosity in the Fight Against Poverty

This is Part 2 in an article series that is a product of the 2015 McKenna Student Faculty Research Project at Wheaton College in Wheaton, Illinois. The members of the research team are Dr. Amy E. Black, Professor of Political Science; Dr. Michael Graves, Armerding Professor of Biblical Studies; Hannah Considine, senior bible and theology major; and Kira Dittman, junior political science major. The broad aim of our research was to analyze contemporary anti-poverty policy through the lens of Old Testament ethics.

What does generosity look like to you? If you are like us, you connect generosity with the impression of a person who goes above and beyond, whose lavish giving resounds in kindness—someone extraordinary. However, when we step back and take a look at Scripture, we find that God's definition of generosity doesn't line up with our idea of something “extra”. God demands generosity from all His children.  If we want to reflect biblical values concerning care for the poor, we must raise our standard of generosity.

The call to generosity resounds throughout the Bible, especially in the Mosaic Law. Consider, for example, gleaning, as we discussed in the previous article. This ancient Israelite practice provided for the poor in Israelite society to gather leftover crops after the first harvest. It is often hailed as the perfect example of the importance of work for the poor. However, it also makes claims on the ancient landowners. What were they thinking as the poor came to retrieve what had been grown by the owner's labor? Were they annoyed, frustrated that they legally weren't allowed to harvest their entire crop while the “undeserving poor” received the benefits instead?

Perhaps the practice of gleaning has just as much to say about the value of generosity as it does about the value of work. God demands generosity from Israelite landowners when they "overlook a sheaf," during the harvest, and He tells them, "do not go back to get it. Leave it for the foreigner, the fatherless and the widow," (Deut 24:19). Gleaning did indeed require that the poor take initiative to come and work, but it also required the wealthy to limit their own profits and generously leave some of the harvest for the needy. While gleaning is undeniably foreign to our culture, the embedded call to generosity is a transferable principle. Our modern business practices and public policies should reflect this generosity in our anti-poverty efforts. Employee profit-sharing programs are one example of how businesses can generously use their earnings and dignify the efforts of their employees.

Biblical values can serve as a prism through which we can evaluate political agendas.

The call to generosity resounds throughout Scripture. Everything ultimately belongs to God; He has been lavishly generous to us, and we should respond with lavish hearts. To put our tithing and small charitable gifts in perspective, consider the ultimate example of generosity: Jesus Christ and His life, death, and resurrection. God incarnate is generosity beyond compare. Christ gave of His very Self, and "though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped," (Phil 2:6). Is there anything more generous than giving up one's life as a sacrifice for all?

In order to think rightly about generosity, we must recognize its foundation. Generosity is rooted at the beginning of creation, when our human role as stewards of God's good design was established. God spoke the earth into existence, launching into His role as Creator, Sustainer, and Giver of all. Nothing on this earth belongs to us. What we try to grasp is not ours in the first place; it is a gift from God. Thus, as stewards of God's gifts, we should assume a posture of grateful open-handedness. Then generosity becomes the norm, for we are simply sharing the gifts the Lord has given us. 

One of the most important gifts given to the ancient Israelites was the land, especially in a culture where land was the primary means of sustenance. Before His people even entered Canaan, God had generously apportioned land to every family (e.g. Num. 26:52-56; 33:54; Ezek 45:8; 47:14, Jos. 11:23; 14:1-5). One way God demonstrates generosity is valuing work and providing opportunity. He wanted His people to be able to provide for themselves, so He offered every person an opportunity for self-sufficiency. As we evaluate anti-poverty policies, we should keep in mind our Lord's generosity that led to His generous provision of land and work.

Where does the value of generosity lead us in the political sphere? As the Center for Public Justice's guidelines remind us, "The financial assistance and services provided to individuals and families should be generous and effective, not stingy and second-rate." However, generosity toward the poor is not just a call to government; it is a command for us all. As we discussed in our first essay, most political discussions of poverty focus on the false dichotomy of either work or expanded governmental programs as the answer to poverty. Is it possible to find a mediating position, one that stresses both the value of work and the need for generosity from and for all people? And how might this help us moving forward, especially in light of the upcoming presidential election? A faithful beginning point is recognizing that the principles of both work and generosity are upheld by Scripture.          

Biblical values can serve as a prism through which we can evaluate political agendas. As we again approach a season of presidential campaigns, use this Scriptural foundation to assess each candidate's approach to fighting poverty. Do their proposals stress the value of work or are they encouraging dependency? Do they desire to give wisely and willingly, or do the proposals promote uncompassionate penny-pinching at the expense of the poor? We have an important opportunity to view the 2016 presidential race with these principles as our lens.

As we seek to expand the conversation about poverty policy, we should proceed with caution. Scripture encourages both work and generosity in its discussion of the poor, but Scriptural practices do not directly legitimize any particular policy proposal or candidate. Dr. Amy Black notes that the Third Commandment warns us not to use the Lord's name "in an attempt to validate merely human pursuits," (Black, Beyond, 22). When we invoke the Lord's name to defend a specific political proposal that may or may not have biblical bases, we may be guilty of using the Lord's name in vain. We also risk erecting false political dividing walls between brothers and sisters in Christ. In our attempt to integrate both work and generosity in our anti-poverty policies, we should apply biblical principles with humility and care.

As engaged Millennials, let us take advantage of this opportunity to reexamine our own lives in the light of the call to generosity, reframe the political debate about anti-poverty policy, and find new ways we can extend generosity to those in need. May we learn not just to praise the exception, but raise our own expectations.

 - Hannah Considine is a senior bible and theology major at Wheaton College.