Tuesday, April 12, 2016

Bernie Sanders versus John the Baptist

"Anyone who has two shirts should share with the one who has none, and anyone who has food should do the same."
-John the Baptist (Luke 3:11 NIV)

As part of his mission to prepare people for the coming of Jesus Christ, John the Baptist preached that people must repent.  John made it clear that real repentance must include real changes in how we live.  The way he said it was:  “Produce fruit in keeping with repentance” (Luke 3:8).  Some of the people who heard John’s Holy Spirit empowered preaching, really did want to repent.  So, they asked John, “What should we do then?” (Luke 3:10).

There are many ways to “produce fruit” and there are multiple aspects to repentance.  But John, filled with the Holy Spirit, zeroed in on one very practical answer to the people’s question.  His answer was that they should help the poor (Luke 3:11, see above).

John’s answer assumes that there is a problem.  The problem is a type of severe inequality where some people have a relative excess of worldly possessions while other people have so little that they are suffering from their lack.

This was a real problem in John the Baptist’s day.  Is this type of inequality a real problem today?  It is, and I hope to help you see the nature and extent of the problem and then compare and discuss different types of solutions.

Seeing the Problem

Most of us are aware that there is inequality today.  We know that there are poor people who are suffering at the same time that there are rich people who have an excess.  But most of us probably do not have a good feeling for how extreme and extensive this problem is.  I want to share about the problem at two levels.  First, I have a six minute YouTube video that you can watch about wealth inequality in America.  Then, we’ll talk about the much bigger problem.

Here’s the video:

After I watched this video, one of the first things that popped into my mind was a question, “Are these facts and figures really true”?  So, I did some research.  I think that the basic facts in the video are mostly or all true, and this is why.  This video has been viewed over 18 million times, so of course a lot of people have written about it.  I found some intelligent critiques of the video.  While they pointed out some legitimate weaknesses of the video, none of these critiques claimed that the statistics given were actually wrong.

Nevertheless, I believe that unequal wealth distribution in America is a relatively small problem.  Most poor people in the US do receive (or could receive) help with their basic needs including food, housing, clothing, education for their children, and health care.  I don’t want to underestimate the real suffering of some of the poor in the US, but neither do I want to exaggerate it.  However, there is a much more serious problem.

Do you know that Jesus loves people in China, India, and Africa just as much as He love you?  Did you get to choose what country you were born in?  Did they?

The much bigger problem may be seen by comparing the relative wealth of different nations:


GDP per capita is a rough estimate of the average wealth of people in a nation.  What the above chart tells us is that people in Mexico (which is close to the world average) have on average about 1/5th as much as we in the US have, and people in Indonesia have about 1/3rd as much as people in Mexico, but people in India only have about ½ of what people in Indonesia have.  Yet people in India have about twice what people in Haiti have, who have about twice what people in Niger have.

I have never been to India, Haiti, or Niger.  But the Lord did bless me with the opportunity to live in Indonesia for fourteen years.  We lived at a level which would have been considered somewhat poor by US middle class standards, but which was significantly above the standard of the average Indonesian.  While I did not share their poverty, I did see how they lived.  I visited them in their inner city shacks and slums where it flooded repeatedly every year.  I saw the poor villages.  The suffering from poverty was intense, widespread, and severe. We gave food and carried the sick to hospitals that they could not afford and helped with housing. We helped where we could but it felt like trying to put out a raging inferno with a cup of water.

If John the Baptist were speaking to Christians in America today, instead of saying if you have two shirts you should share with those who have none, he might say, “If you have a hundred shirts you should at least give a few to your brothers and sisters in Christ around the world who have none”.

Different Solutions:  Give and Take

Bernie Sanders talks a lot about wealth inequality.  He is passionate about it.  His passion is contagious and many young people like him a lot.  I don’t like him (nothing personal, I’m only talking about not liking him as a Presidential candidate).  Why?

On the surface, it may seem like John the Baptist and Bernie Sanders are on the same side.  After all, they are both talking about the same type of problem:  some people have a lot while others are suffering.  But their solutions are almost opposite.  Bernie Sanders solution is to “take”, while John the Baptist’s solution is to “give”.  Let me explain.

Sander’s solution is more socialism.  By “socialism” he means that the government should take more money from the rich through increased taxes and use this money to give more help to the poor. (This is only part of it, but it’s a big part of it.)

Now, there is nothing inherently wrong with the government taxing the rich more than the poor, and there is certainly nothing inherently wrong with the government using some of the money it collects in taxes to help the poor.  In fact, our government already taxes the rich at much higher rates and already uses money from taxes to help the poor in many ways.  For example, the government spends an average of about $10,000/student/year to provide free education through 12th grade to everyone who wants it.  The government also helps the poor extensively with health care, and sometimes with food, housing, heat, and many other needs. Social Security is also a type of “socialism”, which helps many retired people avoid poverty.  One of the weaknesses of the video up above is that it does not include the value of all this help when it calculates the “wealth” of the poor.

While these programs do some good, I am not in favor of even more socialism.  Why?  Here are some reasons:

1.  The government is inefficient.  Competition tends to encourage efficiency.  Government involvement tends to limit and eliminate healthy competition and creativity.  If businesses were run the way many government programs are run, they would quickly go bankrupt.

2.  The government has a legitimate and important role to play in providing justice and punishing corruption.  When the government expands, it finds itself in the role of trying to police itself.  While this is not impossible, in real life it usually does not work well and often leads to increased corruption.

3.  We already have massive national debt.  I do not believe that it will be possible to expand social programs without also increasing debt.  When countries expand debt, eventually payday comes.  The result of excessive debt in country after country has eventually been hyperinflation.  We were in Indonesia when this happened there.  I’m not talking about 10% or 20% inflation.  I’m talking about inflation rates above 100%.  It is devastating to the entire nation, and those who are hurt the most are the poor.  If we continue to increase national debt in the US, this really could happen here.

4.  Countries who have gone the furthest with socialism have failed terribly.  Examples include the Soviet Union, China before they began to embrace more free market strategies, and many communist countries (communism is a form of government which takes socialism to an extreme).  In these countries there may have been a little more equality, but only because almost everyone except the communist party elite became equally desperately poor.

5.  Our government makes decisions about how to help people in ways that are often amoral or even immoral.  When our government taxes the rich and uses some of the money to help a relatively poor person receive lifesaving treatment for cancer, we feel good about that.  But the same government can take your money through taxes and use it (directly or indirectly) for a young lady who forgot to use protection while having sex with her boyfriend to pay a doctor to kill her unborn baby.  And the people who are most in favor of more socialism also often support killing unborn babies (and a lot of other immoral things).

6.  Our government is godless.  It intentionally create walls between its activities and God.  When a Christian individual, a church, or a Christian ministry helps someone in need, they do it in Jesus’ Name.  This brings glory to God and also points the needy to Christ, who alone can meet their deepest needs.  The government does not help in Jesus’ Name, which robs Him of glory.

I’m not against all government programs which help the poor.  And I’m not against the rich paying more taxes than the poor.  But, I am against even more socialism in our nation at this point.

Socialism involves taking.  The government, backed up by real threats of penalties, jail, and if necessary even the use of force, takes money through taxation.  Is there any other way for the relatively rich to help the poor?  Yes!

More Giving

John the Baptist’s solution was not more taxes and socialism.  His solution was voluntary giving.

But do rich people really give voluntarily to the poor?  No, and yes.

Most rich do not give to the poor as much as they should.  Their greed is part of the reason it is so hard for them to receive salvation and make it to Heaven (Luke 18:24-25).  The Bible teaches that there is a serious connection between people who do not help the poor and people who get thrown into the fire on judgment day (see Matthew 25:41-43 and Luke 16:20-25).  Obviously, many people are not giving as they should.

Yet, the Bible also gives positive examples.  When people meet Jesus and believe in Him and get filled with the Holy Spirit and learn from God’s Word, one result is that they begin to give generously, even extravagantly, to the poor.  Here are some examples:


But Zacchaeus stood up and said to the Lord, "Look, Lord!  Here and now I give half of my possessions to the poor . . ."  (Luke 19:8, NIV)
New Believers:

There was not a needy person among them, for as many as were owners of lands or houses sold them and brought the proceeds of what was sold and laid it at the apostle's fee, and it was distributed to each as any had need.  (Acts 4:34-35, ESV)
Believers in one nation sending money to help believers in another nation:

Our desire is not that others might be relieved while you are hard pressed, but that there might be equality.  At the present time your plenty will supply what they need, so that in turn their plenty will supply what you need.  The goal is equality . . . (2 Cor 8:13-14)

When we see the example of God giving us His own Son, when we experience God’s love for us and we start to love others the same way, when we get filled with His Holy Spirit, it changes us.  And we do something unusual in this hard, cold world:  we start to give.

And now we can see that pointing people to Jesus and motivating them to give was John’s solution to the painful reality that many are suffering from severe lack while others are rich.

Are you rich?  Compared to Bill Gates, of course not.  Compared to the Christian in Africa, India, China, Indonesia, and many other parts of the world?  Yes.  Ask God to show you how to give.

Hebrews 13:16 And do not forget to do good and to share with others . . .


  1. I respect your opinion and the work you put into this, but I believe your number one premise is wrong. The government is highly efficient. That's why you can send a letter from New York to Los Angeles for 49 cents and no other company in the world can do it for anything close to that. (Please don't tell me the US Post Office loses money. They actually make money, but Congress raids the cookie jar.) Also, look what happened when CA allowed a private company, ENRON, to administer their electric. It was a disaster and rates went up and electricity was rationed. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gl8eJTRKOIc

    1. Bob, thanks for your comment. I appreciate the way you word it, even though you disagree with at least some of what I write.

      I agree that our government is efficient at some things. The US Post Office is a good example of something which the government has done well. There are also some things which only the government can do well, including police protection, running the criminal and civil justice systems, and providing for national defense. Other areas the government does well (at least sometimes) in partnership with private companies, such as building and maintaining public infrastructure like roads, water supply, power supply, and to a lesser extent communication. However, as the government expands into more and more areas it becomes less and less effective. As I mentioned, one reason for this is that as government expands it becomes more difficult for government to police itself. Even good government programs have to be constantly guarded from corruption and misuse. It is easier to police/guard someone else to than to police/guard yourself. Government watching over private industry is not perfect, but I expect it to work better most of the time than government watching over itself.

      At the same time, there are many examples of government inefficiency and waste. Googling “government inefficiency and waste” will produce a pile of well researched and documented examples.

      I am thankful for the many hard working teachers in public schools throughout our nation. But despite their good work, there are many school districts (including the one where I live, and surrounding districts as well), where no one who can afford to either homeschool their children or else send them to private school would choose to send them to public school. There are many reasons for this, but I am convinced that one reason is that the public schools do not have to compete in the same way that private schools do. Another reason is that public schools are not allowed to teach God’s Word and point students to Christ, the way a Christian school or homeschool family can. I am not suggesting that the government teach the Christian religion. It is not equipped to do that well, either. But, the government could better provide education through voucher programs which allow all families (including poor families) to choose where to send their children, including allowing them to choose private Christian schools.

      I certainly do not believe that government is intrinsically bad. In fact, I believe that human government has an important God given role to play. But I do believe that at this point in time in the US, more “socialism” would tend to hurt us rather than help us.

      Bob, I probably will not convince you that more socialism is not the best choice now. But, whether you agree with that or not, I hope will you agree with the other major point of my blog post, namely that all of us who are relatively rich (even most “lower class” Americans are relatively rich compared to the average person in the world we live in) should seek to personally give more to help the poor around the world. And I hope that we will all be motivated by the love of Christ to love others in very tangible ways.

      Grace and Peace, Mark (with Hope and Joy!)