Do not pervert justice; do not show partiality to the poor or favoritism to the great, but judge your neighbor fairly.
–Leviticus 19:15 (TNIV)

Some say “the rich are evil” or “the rich must pay.” Others announce “the poor are lazy.” Those who imagine that God loves the poor more than the rich, and those who believe the rich are specially favored by God, are both simply ignorant bigots.

The Bible is quite clear: the poor who are oppressed and suffer injustice–God is attentive to their cry. The rich who are unjust, who take advantage of the powerless, and who show no compassion for the disadvantaged are repeatedly denounced in the Bible. But the Bible is equally clear that those who condemn someone simply because they are rich, or praise someone simply because they are poor are just as wrong. In fact, those who argue like this are thinking as clearly–and using the same sorts of arguments–that one would hear coming from the worst racist. Denouncing or praising a group simply because they belong to a particular class is like denouncing or praising a group simply because of their race or gender. Belonging to the class of people that we would characterize as rich is not inherently evil. Being a member of the class that we would characterize as poor is not inherently good. One’s actions as a human being–how one treats one’s neighbor–is what matters. Your moral standing is not determined by the class, race, or gender that you happen to belong to.

Are there evil rich people? Certainly, just as there are evil poor people. No one group of human beings is entirely virtuous or entirely evil. Individuals are evil or good, regardless of their group identity.

It is a widespread human temptation to compartmentalize the world into simple categories. We tend to believe that we can decide that a particular bunch–usually a bunch we are not a part of–is wicked and responsible for most of the problems we face. Then, we decide that the solution to our problem is simply to destroy that group we’ve labeled as evil. Throughout history, the ugly choice has regularly been made to deny groups deemed unworthy of their possessions, jobs, rights, and lives.

Always, those who make such a choice argue that they are motivated by righteousness. The haters of a group insist that they are fixing problems and righting wrongs. The defenders of justice will insist that the targets of their ire are vile and anyone who disagrees with them must be vile as well. And they will always claim to be motivated by love: love of the oppressed, love of righteousness, and love of justice.

But those who decry a group–no matter how obviously evil that group must seem to all “right thinking” people–will be no more just than all the other bigots who were certain of their righteous cause. They are like every lynch mob that ever slung a rope over the branch of a tree: absolutely convinced the one being hanged is getting what he deserves. The mob screams about the crime that has been committed, the need for justice, the rightness of the complaint. But there will be no concern about whether any of the individuals being blamed are actually guilty. What matters is the greater good, the higher truth, the cause. For the mob, all that really matters is their own suffering, the suffering of the group, the suffering of the majority or minority, their history of discrimination and deprivation, the crimes against “my people.” The mob’s perceived misery makes all the violence and lies they commit in the name of justice acceptable. What matters most is justice. What matters most is that someone must be punished. So why not the ones that the virtuous and concerned have labeled as despicable because of their class, their positions, their affiliations?

Our system of jurisprudence, unlike many, insists that the accused are innocent until proven guilty. Our society has decided it is preferable that guilty people go free than that even one innocent person be punished. Of course, the system is not perfect. On occasion innocent people suffer punishment. But the innocent will suffer more rarely when they are assumed innocent, than under a system that insists on justice above else. Those who demand punishment for a group simply because they belong to that group are uninterested in the rights of the innocent, because they’ve decided that among the despised group, none are innocent, by definition.

Justice is worthwhile; justice is desirable. But it must be balanced by mercy and a concern with the truth above all else.

When people are hurting, we want to make their hurt go away. But it is never the right answer to blame the innocent. It is never the right answer to blame a group, imagining that they must all be guilty just because we don’t like them for whatever reason, or because they are not attractive, or because they don’t think or act the way we think they should.

It is easy to raise money and to get people involved in protecting cute animals. No one wants to see pandas become extinct. But we probably would have trouble getting anyone to care if cockroaches suddenly became an endangered species.

Many of the rich seem out of touch, clueless, tone deaf, uncaring and self-absorbed. Therefore, they make a convenient scapegoat. But if we are honest with ourselves, we have to admit that we ourselves are often selfish, self-absorbed and, like many of them, concerned only with making money. After all, we mostly all go to work only because we have bills to pay and stuff we want to buy. Oddly enough, the rich are simply human like the rest of us. Just like every other class, race, gender, or affiliation.

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About R.P. Nettelhorst

I'm married with three daughters. I live in southern California and I'm the interim pastor at Quartz Hill Community Church. I have written several books. I spent a couple of summers while I was in college working on a kibbutz in Israel. In 2004, I was a volunteer with the Ansari X-Prize at the winning launches of SpaceShipOne. Member of Society of Biblical Literature, American Academy of Religion, and The Authors Guild
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