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The Farm Bill and the Bible

One of the major pieces of legislation approved by the Congress of the United States this year was the Farm Bill. Every five years Congress is supposed to reauthorize the Farm Bill, which subsidizes agriculture production in the United States and funds various food assistance programs.

The debate over the Farm Bill was acrimonious. The bitterness over the bill which has a $876 billion price tag over 10 years was not over support prices for corn, cotton, soybeans and the rest. It was over nutrition programs like Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), formerly known as Food Stamps, school lunches and other social safety net programs.

Statistics indicate 42 million Americans now live below the poverty line and rely on SNAP to help purchase food. The majority of recipients are women with children. The next largest percentage is the elderly.

At the root of the rancorous disagreement is whether the government should provide a social safety net for the poor and disabled of the nation. If so, what kind of safety net it should be? If not, who should take that responsibility—the church perhaps?

The disagreement provides an opportunity to look at the Bible to see what God’s Word says about the roles individuals and society as a whole have in caring for the least of these.

Christians frequently tell the story of God’s providential care of Joseph in Egypt. Less frequently do Christians reflect on the way God used government to gather, store and distribute food during the years of plenty and want.

Only government had the resources to address the seven years of famine that stretched beyond Egypt to surrounding areas. It was because of government programs that Egypt weathered the crisis and that others like the House of Jacob could find food to survive the severe famine.

A one-time event? Perhaps. But before the Hebrews became a people, God established guidelines indicating community responsibility for caring for the poor and needy.

Leviticus 19:9-10 introduces the practice of gleaning. The Hebrews were instructed not to harvest every corner of their fields or gather the fallen fruit of their vineyards. Deuteronomy 24:19-20 expands that principle to olive trees where trying to get a second harvest from the trees was forbidden.

The grain, the grapes and the olives were all left for the widow, the orphan, the needy, the stranger and the alien.

Additionally, every third year each family was instructed to contribute a tithe of their produce to the Levites “because (they) have no portion or inheritance among you.” This tithe, in addition to the regular tithe, was to be used by the Levite, the alien, the orphan, the widow and the needy “who are in your town” (Deuteronomy 14:22-29).

Deuteronomy 15:1 declares, “At the end of every seven years you shall grant a remission of debts.” Creditors were instructed to forgive the debt of a fellow Hebrew. Exodus 21 explains that one who has sold himself into slavery was to be released at the end of seven years.

After seven Sabbath years, the principle of debt forgiveness was extended. Every 50 years, called the Year of Jubilee, all land was returned to its original owner no matter how many times it had been bought and sold (Leviticus 25:8).

Laws laid down by the Bible concerning working conditions, wages, a sliding economic scale for sacrifices, equal justice for the rich, poor and the alien, plus much more.

Instructions given by God to the community did not lessen the responsibilities of individual members of society to care for the poor. Many of Israel’s prophets pleaded with rulers and citizens alike to care for the poor and needy.

Isaiah said, “Learn to do good. Seek justice. Reprove the ruthless. Defend the orphan. Plead for the widow” (Isaiah 1:17). Jeremiah 22:16 quotes God as saying, “He pled the cause of the afflicted and needy. Then it was well. Is not that what it means to know me?” Zechariah 7:10 adds, “Do not oppress the widow or the orphan, the stranger or the poor. And do not devise evil in your hearts against one another.”

In Jesus day all the Old Testament rules guiding the community’s care for the poor and needy were still in place. He spoke against none of them but emphasized the importance of individual action adding to what the community provided.

In Luke 10 Jesus held up the model of the Good Samaritan. In Luke 11:41 He commended “giving that which is within to charity.” Luke 12:32-33 shows Jesus urging His “little flock” to give to charity which He calls an “unfailing treasure in heaven.”

Perhaps it is because the Bible so clearly teaches that Christians are to care for the poor and needy that historians conclude that Christians were the first group to care about individuals beyond their family or tribe. Christians have always been at the forefront of ministries such as education, healthcare, hunger relief, prison reform, child labor and caring for the poor, the widow and the orphan.

Christians have sacrificed themselves in personal service, and Christians have sought to establish policies and practices that helped the community offer care and relief.

Recently a media outlet reported a poll indicating 80 percent of Americans opposed cutting Medicaid, 78 percent opposed cutting Social Security disability insurance and 66 percent opposed cutting food stamps.

Some say the results indicate the strong self-reliant spirit of America is failing.

Others point to the Bible and conclude the results show the church has helped people realize that care for the poor and needy is the responsibility of the community as well as of individuals.

Personally, I believe Christians are called to contend for what the Bible teaches. That means impacting public policy as well as in their individual lives.

How Ethical is the Clergy?

It may not be surprising to learn that non-Christians have a lower view of the clergy than self-identified Christians. What may be surprising is how low an opinion of the clergy both groups hold.

According to a study released by Gallup on December 26, 2017, only 25 percent of non-Christians rated the honesty and ethics of clergy as very high or high. That was far behind other professions such as nurses (83 percent), grade school teachers (71 percent), pharmacists (63 percent), and medical doctors (62 percent) to mention only some.

Non-Christians ranked the honesty and ethics of clergy behind newspaper reporters (31 percent) and even with local politicians (25 percent).

Obviously, the public perception of the clergy is not high among non-Christians. That may not be surprising since non-believers may not have much personal contact with Christian ministers. Their image of God’s vocational servants may be formed more by news reports and public media than firsthand experience.

If that is the case, the reports of clergy sexual abuse, religious hucksters on the airwaves and the negative depiction of clergy in media may have all contributed to this negative image. Few films and fewer news stories chronicle the self-sacrificing service of most ministers for the good of their parishioners and communities.

One would expect the appraisal of self-identified Christians, those who should have firsthand experience with ministers, to reflect a high appreciation for the honesty and ethics of clergy. Unfortunately, that is not the case.

Fewer than half of the self-identified Christians in the Gallup survey (48 percent) rated the honesty and ethics of ministers very high or high. Again, these are the people who interact with pastors and other ministers and still, the ratings are low.

More self-identified Christians said nurses (82 percent), military officers (74 percent), grade school teachers (65 percent), medical doctors (65 percent), pharmacists (62 percent) and police officers (59 percent) have very high or high ethical standards than clergy.

When the two groups were combined, 42 percent of Americans view honesty and ethical standards of clergy as very high or high. That is the lowest rating in the 33 years Gallup has polled on this issue.

Ministers may never be able to change the opinions of those whose paths they seldom cross, but something can be done and should be done about the views of self-identified Christians. That this group expresses so little confidence in the honesty and ethics of their ministers is a tragedy that deserves focused attention.

In 1 Peter 5:3 the Apostle Peter writes to pastors urging them to “be examples to the flock.” He urges pastors not to do this from selfish motivation. He warns them against acting greedily for money or lording authority and power over others. Peter tells them they should “be eager to serve,” understanding that rewards come ultimately from Christ in glory.

In many places, the Bible outlines the kind of example ministers are to be. For instance, 1 Corinthians 4:2 declares, “It is required of those who have been given a trust to prove faithful.” That “trust” could be a position of leadership and influence. It could be responsibility for money. It might be privileged information. Whatever it is, the minister is not to use the information selfishly but is to be faithful to the one who gave the trust, whether it is a group or an individual.

Jesus addressed the issue of trust in Luke 16:10 when he said, “Whoever can be trusted with very little can be trusted with very much, and whoever is dishonest with very little will be dishonest with much.” Honesty and ethics do not apply only to momentous situations. They are demonstrated most clearly in everyday experiences.

Writing to young minister Timothy, the Apostle Paul urged him to set an example in speech, in conduct, in love, in faith and in purity (1 Timothy 4:12). There must not even be a hint of sexual immorality, Paul adds in Ephesians 5:3a.

Integrity, honesty and ethical behaviors are required for all who follow God. That applies to leadership, to personal relations, to finances, to sexual conduct and more.

Perhaps the Apostle Paul summed it up when he wrote to the church at Corinth, “Men ought to regard us as servants of Christ” (1 Corinthians 4:1). When that is the case, honesty and ethics of the servants of Christ will go without saying.

Blessed is the Nation whose God is the Lord

It is not called a “National Day” but that is what July 4th is for those of us living in the United States of America. It is a day when citizens everywhere celebrate our nation, our freedoms and our ability to worship God according to the dictates of our hearts.

July 4th is a national holiday and Americans will celebrate with picnics and fireworks. There are parades, musical concerts and a variety of other events all designed to acknowledge the rights, privileges and responsibilities of every citizen blessed to live in this “land of the free.”

Social commentators wax eloquently about the many components that make America great.

Some will point to the nation’s economic leadership. One study valued the US economy at $19.42 trillion annually making it the largest economy in the world. The United States accounts for 25 percent of the gross world’s product, the study said.

China, the second largest economy, was rated at $11.8 trillion.

Most indicators point to a strong economy this July 4th. Nationally, unemployment has steadily fallen from 9.9 percent in 2009 to 3.9 percent the end of April. Alabama unemployment has fallen from 11 percent in 2009 to 3.9 percent in August 2018.

Still some people ask when salaries for average workers will rise and wonder about the dwindling number of good jobs – jobs that offer a livable wage along with basic benefits. Stakeholders in a business should be considered along with stockholders some contend.

Unlike many countries, America’s “National Day” will not focus on government officials. Not the president or the Congress. Not on governors or mayors. Focus for America is on the individual citizen. It is his day. It is her day. It is a time for every citizen to celebrate the gifts of freedom and opportunity available in the United States.

Government officials are certainly important. We pray for them regularly just as God’s Word teaches (1 Timothy 2:1-2). And these servants need our prayers. President Abraham Lincoln observed, “Nearly all men can stand adversity but if you want to test a man’s character give him power.”

John Adams, the nation’s second president, stated, “Because power corrupts, society demands for moral authority and character to increase as the importance of the position increases.”

In America and in Alabama, we have witnessed firsthand the corrupting nature of political power. We know our elected officials need the fortifying power that can come through the prayers of God’s people.

Economic power, military strength, courageous leaders – these are important. But they are not what God looks for in a great nation.

In 1 Samuel 17:7, the Lord said to the Prophet Samuel, “Do not look on his appearance or on the height of his stature because I have rejected him. For the Lord sees not as man sees: man looks on the outward appearance but the Lord look on the heart.”

When the Lord looks at the heart of America what does He want to see?

Part of the answer is provided in the Apostle Paul’s letter to Timothy. He writes in 1 Timothy 2:11, “But you, man of God, flee from all this and pursue righteousness, godliness, faith, love, endurance and gentleness.”

Paul’s instructions to Timothy are consistent with the teaching of Micah 6:8 where the Prophet said, “He has told you, O man, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice and to love kindness and to walk humbly with your God.”

Many scholars consider this verse to be an accurate summary of the Old Testament teachings about righteousness.

Both biblical references relate to one’s relationship with others, with one’s self and with God.

How can what is inside the heart of an individual show what is inside the heart of America? Because what constitutes the character of a nation is the character of the many individuals who make up that nation.

If the majority of individuals tolerate hate, stimulate violence, pursue selfish ends and make life important only when it agrees with their own views, then that will be the character of the nation. History will show the nation as inhumane to all who did not choose its side.

But if a people can show righteousness, godliness, faith, love, endurance and gentleness in their daily lives, then history will show a “nation whose God is the Lord.”

While there are many “outward” things about America to celebrate this July 4th, let us not forget that God looks at the heart of our nation, the hearts of our people. May God see a people who do justice, who love mercy, who walk humbly before Him.

May God see a people whose God is the Lord.

Are we losing religious liberty?

For years some observers have warned that the day is coming when religious groups in the United States will have to silence their voices about certain moral and ethical issues or be “punished” by governmental entities.

Most people scoffed at that message, believing religious liberty was so thoroughly ingrained in the nation through the U.S. Constitution and in the people through generations of practice that government forces would never attempt to force citizens to compromise their “inalienable right” of religious liberty.

More recent developments are causing some thoughtful people to listen more closely to voices predicting the loss of religious liberty. Today the United States seems caught up in a struggle between religious liberty and other competing values.

Current antagonists are sexual ethics and religious liberty.  Media outlets have carried an array of stories about bakers, florists, pharmacists, nurses, physicians, hospitals and others. These stories shared the tensions between people trying to live out their religious liberty in the face of national values linked to abortion, sexual identity and same-sex marriage.

Some of these cases are headed for the U.S. Supreme Court for greater clarification. However, signs are not encouraging for those committed to religious liberty as the dominant value.

At the University of Iowa, a student organization called Business Leaders in Christ lost its status as an official on-campus organization because it requires leaders to hold biblical beliefs about sexuality.

In accordance with school requirements, the organization is open to everyone, but organizational leaders must affirm the group’s statement of faith, which upholds marriage between one man and one woman adding that “every other sexual relationship beyond this is outside of God’s design and is not in keeping with God’s original plan for humanity.”

That requirement, school administrators concluded, violates the university’s nondiscrimination policy. The Business Leaders in Christ organization was prohibited from reserving campus meeting space, participating in student recruitment fairs, use of university-wide communications services and more.

Interestingly, fraternities and sororities are able to restrict membership based on gender but remain officially recognized even though they are not open to all comers.

The Christian group argues that all groups, religious or not, should be allowed to ensure leaders chosen by the group who embrace the mission of the organization.

Instances like these cause some observers to worry that what is now taking place in Canada may soon take place in the United States. Their churches and other Christian groups must affirm support for abortion or lose eligibility for a government program that helps provide over 70,000 summer jobs annually.

The summer jobs program provides jobs for a student in places like summer camps, daycares, drop-in centers and other program run by church groups and other religious organizations. Canada’s Employment Minister Patty Hajdu now requires that each organization seeking to participate in the summer jobs grant program check a box stipulating they have a “core mandate” which respects “reproductive rights.”

Unless the box is checked, the application cannot be accepted.

One source argued this stipulation was purposely aimed at groups opposing abortion like the Roman Catholic Church, evangelicals and other religious organizations.

During an interview at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said, “This is a really important right that we have established and there are organizations out there that couch themselves as freedom of speech, freedom of conscience.

“Of course, you’re more than allowed to have whatever beliefs you like, but when those beliefs lead to actions determined to restrict a woman’s right to control her own body, that’s where I, and I think we, draw the line as a country,” he added.

In light of these and many other cases, it should not be surprising that people who value religious liberty are beginning to worry about its role in the future of this nation and the world. As Christians, we believe religious liberty is a God-given right. No one, including no government, can stand in the sacred space between the created and the Creator except for Jesus Christ, the great High Priest.

Commitment to religious liberty has been part of the foundation of this nation and championed by churches for generations. Religious liberty is an inalienable right in this nation. It must always be an inalienable right. That will only happen when the church champions religious liberty for all and defends it against other competing values.

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