Pete Buttigieg in Merrimack, N.H.
Photo credit: Marc Nozell (CC-By-2.0)

During Tuesday’s night’s first of two CNN democratic presidential debates, South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg cited scripture to rebuke conservative Christian senators opposed to raising the minimum wage to $15/ hour.

CNN’s Don Lemon asked Buttigieg a question about his plan for workforce development in light of an announced GM plant closure in Michigan.

Buttigieg answered that a similar event in South Bend that occurred twenty years before he was born highlighted the need to “put workers first.”

He said the issue is “so much bigger than a trade fight” because the economy is changing. In that regard, he’s right, there is a major economic shift looming that many people are unprepared for.

Buttigieg did not address a workforce development plan other than to say “retraining is needed.” He instead promoted giving people the opportunity to unionize in the “gig economy” and attacked conservative Christian senators for opposing a minimum wage increase.

“So-called conservative Christian senators right now in the Senate are blocking a bill to raise the minimum wage. When scripture says ‘whoever oppresses the poor taunts their maker.'”

Watch below:

The specific bill Buttigieg refers to recently passed in the U.S. House of Representatives would raise the minimum wage to $15 per hour over a period of seven years.

The scripture that he cites is the first half of Proverbs 14:31 that reads, “He who oppresses the poor taunts his Maker, but he who is gracious to the needy honors Him,” (NASB).

I read from the English Standard Version of the Bible and it translates the verse a little differently, but the meaning is the same. It reads, “Whoever oppresses a poor man insults his Maker, but he who is generous to the needy honors him.”

First, there is a distinct difference in how the religious right and religious left apply verses like these. Those on the right see commands in scripture dealing with the treatment of the poor and appeals that the people of God are to deal generously with them are directed at individual believers and the Church. Those on the left look at these same commands and see an application for the government.

The context of Proverbs lends itself to individual application for the most part. It conveys wisdom, and the immediate passage addresses wisdom necessary for godly living. A couple of examples:

“Poverty and disgrace come to him who ignores instruction, but whoever heeds reproof is honored,” (Proverbs 13:18, ESV).

“Whoever walks in uprightness fears the LORD, but he who is devious in his ways despises him,” (Proverbs 14:2, ESV).

“The simple believes everything, but the prudent gives thought to his steps,” (Proverbs 14:15, ESV).

That’s not to say there’s no national implications whatsoever. For instance we read, “Righteousness exalts a nation, but sin is a reproach to any people,” (Proverbs 14:34, ESV). Granted I never see this particular verse quoted by the left.

A plain reading of the verse in question makes it clear this wisdom is for the individual by its use of “he” or “whoever” (depending on translation).

Buttigieg’s use of the verse as a cudgel against “so-called conservative Christian senators” implies he’s applying it to individuals as well. He basically says those who do not support the mininmum wage increase are “oppressing the poor” thereby taunting our Creator.

There are several problems with this. For starters, Buttigieg implies that these senators are not Christians because they don’t support this particular bill. What else did he mean by when he referred to them as “so-called conservative Christian senators”?

Second, opposition to this bill is not “oppression.”

“Oppress” in this verse is the Hebrew word ashaq (עָשַׁק) it conveys that a person is oppressing someone by wronging them or, in particular, extorting a person. In this particular case it would be “the poor.”

Oppressing someone in this context would require direct action. So it would be the employer, not senators who are wronging or extorting the employees.

Not paying an employee above the federal minimum wage can’t reasonably be considered extortion or even wronging an employee. Before someone is hired they have to agree to work and agree to the pay. Unless they are coerced to work or an employer withholds the agreed upon wages there is no extortion.

Third, people who are gainfully employed for less than $15/hour are certainly not “the poor” the Bible has in mind. The Hebrew word for “the poor” is dal (דָּ֭ל). It gives a picture of someone who is low, weak, and thin. It comes from the root word dalal (דָּלַל) which is to hang, be low, languish.

These are impoverished people. A good picture of what this would look like is found in 1 Kings 17. Elijah encounters a widow is about out of food to eat. He asked her for “a morsel of bread” and she replies, “As the LORD your God lives, I have nothing baked, only a handful of flour in a jar and a little oil in a jug. And now I am gathering a couple of sticks that I may go in and prepare it for myself and my son, that we may eat it and die,” (1 Kings 17:12, ESV).

She fully expected to starve to death.

These are people who are destitute, penniless, and dependent upon the generosity of others. Not to say those people don’t exist in the United States, they do, but to imply everyone working under $15 per hour is nonsensical.

There is an application here. The Bible has numerous commands dealing with the poor. They basically boil down to two: we are to be generous toward the poor and to speak on their behalf.

Christians should be generous. I think Christian employers should pay fair wages and treat their employees well. We shouldn’t just do what is the bare minimum of what is required. I also think we should be generous in providing mercy to those in need. I believe we should speak out against injustice against the poor when we see it.

None of that means advocacy and support for $15/hour minimum wage.

Christians can (and do) land on both sides of this issue.

It is also essential that we don’t apply scripture selectively as Buttigieg, and some on the left seem to do. He’s all about the poor but neglects what scripture says about homosexuality. It’s hard to accept a lecture about morality from a person living an openly sinful lifestyle.

Jesus’ admonition in Matthew 7 applies to Buttigieg as well, “You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your brother’s eye,” (Matthew 7:7, ESV).

Ripping a verse from its context, misinterpreting it, and misapplying it in order to make a political point is inappropriate regardless of the political party to which the candidate belongs.

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