Martin Luther King’s Workfare Proposal

I read more of Steven Weitzman’s Song and Story in Biblical Narrative.  On pages 66-67, Weitzman compares Hanna’s song after the birth of Samuel (I Samuel 2:1-10) with Mary’s Magnificat in Luke 1:46-55.  Actually, he brings other things into the discussion as well, such as the narratives about Samuel’s birth and that of John the Baptist (Luke 1).  Weitzman states: In both texts, pious wives miraculously conceive future saviors who will initiate a new stage in Israel’s history by delivering it from its troubles and preparing for God’s kingdom…[T]he Magnificat helps link Jesus’ birth to a similar moment in the history of biblical Israel, the miraculous birth of Samuel.

An Anchor Bible Dictionary article by Walter Bruegemann helped me understand the relationship between Hannah’s prayer and the rest of the Hannah story, or at least he offered me a way to look at the situation.  Hannah talks about the deliverance of the poor from oppression, and, in a sense, Samuel helped to accomplish that later in his life: he defeated the Philistines who were oppressing Israel, and he ruled as a just judge (though his sons were bad).

As to whether or not Jesus fulfilled such expectations, I wrestle with this problem in my posts, A False Hope? and A Community Called Atonement.  In the latter post, I state the following:

Years ago, when I read the Gospel of Luke, I noticed its hope that the Messiah would soon come and vindicate the poor. What I thought that meant was that Jesus viewed his kingdom as imminent (Albert Schweitzer style): he was assuring the poor that their liberation was nigh, for he’d soon come and set up a kingdom that would topple the rich and powerful while exalting the lowly. As a believer, I had a problem with such an interpretation, since that didn’t happen. Two thousand years later, the rich and powerful are still oppressing the poor and the lowly. But, in my mind, that was the best reading of the text.

Part of me considered another proposal, however: Perhaps Luke’s Jesus expects the poor to find their relief and exaltation in the church. In Luke’s other work, Acts, the disciples hold their goods in common (Acts 2:44; 4:32), and deacons help the poor widows (Acts 6). Indeed, the church was a place where the poor could be fed, where the first put themselves last so that the last could be first.

Unfortunately, churches are not always places where the poor can find relief.  But the call is still there for the church to be like God’s kingdom—concerned for the poor.

I looked through an interesting article today on Martin Luther King’s economic views:  Dr. Martin Luther King’s Economics: Through Jobs, Freedom.  As I watched Tom Brokaw’s documentary on Martin Luther King, Jr., I thought to myself, “Okay, so King opposed poverty.  But what did he propose as a solution?  Government handouts?”  It turns out that he wanted the government to create jobs for as many people as possible—jobs that would enhance the social good.  Those who still couldn’t find jobs would receive a guaranteed annual income, which they would use to pump money into the economy.  King was still sensitive to the government spending within its means, however.  In the article, I didn’t exactly see him comment on deficit spending (though the article calls him “Keynesian” for his demand-side emphasis), but he did believe that defense spending and the Vietnam War were taking money away from programs that could help the poor.  That seems to imply that the government only had so much and needed to spend it on what was truly important.

I thought about biblical views on poverty.  At times, my impression is that the Bible supports throwing money at the poor through almsgiving, and, in a sense, it does.  But it also promotes work (I Thessalonians 4:11; II Thessalonians 3:10-12) and supporting the truly needy (I Timothy 5).  That’s not to say that we should be judgmental.  The last thing we should tell the Haitians is “Get a job!”  But the agenda of helping the poor should be to help them move into a position of economic self-sufficiency.  But there are also times when it’s a matter of helping people who cannot help themselves.

I’m not going to comment on King’s economic proposals.  There are arguments “pro” and “con.”  Right now, it doesn’t look like President Obama’s stimulus is working in ending the recession, but is that a condemnation the government employing people and giving them money to spend, or of the way that Obama has gone about it?  That’s debated.

But King at some point felt a need to focus on poverty rather than race alone.  I see that as a call for concern on my part, however I may choose to express it.

About jamesbradfordpate

My name is James Pate. This blog is about my journey. I read books. I watch movies and TV shows. I go to church. I try to find meaning. And, when I can’t do that, I just talk about stuff that I find interesting. I have degrees in fields of religious studies. I have an M.Phil. in the History of Biblical Interpretation from Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, Ohio. I also have an M.A. in Hebrew Bible from Jewish Theological Seminary, an M.Div. from Harvard Divinity School, and a B.A. from DePauw University.
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