I will readily admit my background and training in social justice issues is weak. I was brought up during a time when most things considered “justice” was considered “liberal.” I was trained that the “social gospel” was really no gospel at all, and evangelism was selling Jesus, closing the deal by having someone repeat the sinners prayer.
I have come to believe I have missed the target on what Christians, churches, and ministers ought to be doing. Is personal evangelism important? ABSOLUTELY! But so is bringing glimpses of God’s kingdom on this earth by speaking up for those who have no voice. It is now my conviction that if I am not involved in social justice issues, I am being disobedient to Christ.
Recently, I have read some blogs, and had a few conversations with fellow Christians, where the subject of helping the poor has come up. A troubling theme I have seen in these blogs and conversations is an attitude among conservative Christians that the government has no business in creating welfare to assist the poor and disenfranchised. The belief seems to be that nowhere does God command the government to take money from those who have and give it to those who don’t. Charity, I have been told by some people, should always be voluntary and never coercive.
That attitude troubles me.
I will be the first to admit there is a lot of abuse and corruption in our welfare system at the present. But you don’t solve extreme corruption by going to the other extreme. Furthermore, I do believe the best type of charity is voluntary and all churches need to be doing more to help the poor. But some issues are so large, and so systemic, that the only way to combat them is through legislation. To say the government has no God given role to play is, I believe, naive and short-sighted.
Since the first of the year I have been reading the book of Amos. In the first two chapters, God condemns several nations. (I would assume by condemning nations God was including the governments of those nations.)
Listen to what God says. Listen carefully to why God says He is going to punish each
nation. Listen especially to what He says to Israel:
“This is what the Lord says: ‘For three sins of Damascus, even for four, I will not turn back my wrath. Because she threshed Gilean with sledges having iron teech, I will send fire…'” (Amos 1:3-4)
“This is what the Lord says: ‘For three sins of Gaza, even for four, I will not turn back my wrath. Because she took captive whole communities and sold them to Edom, I will send fire…'” (Amos 1:6-7)
“This is what the Lord says: ‘For three sins of Tyre, even for four, I will not turn back my wrath. Because she sold whole communities of captives to Edom, disregarding a treaty of brotherhood, I will send fire…'” (Amos 1:9-10)
“This is what the Lord says: ‘For three sins of Edom, even for four, I will not turn back my wrath. Because he pursued his brother with a sword, stifling all compassion, because his anger raged continually and his fury flamed unchecked, I will send fire…'” (Amos 1:11-12)
“This is what the Lord says: ‘For three sins of Ammon, even for four, I will not turn back my wrath. Because he ripped open the pregnant women of Gilead in order to extend his borders, I will set fire…'” (Amos 1:13-14, I think this condemnation says something about abortion, but that’s a subject for another day.)
“For three sins of Moab, even for four, I will not turn back my wrath. Because he burned, as if to lime, the bones of Edom’s king, I will send fire…'” (Amos 2:1-2)
“For three sins of Judah, even for four, I will not turn back my wrath. Because they have rejected the law of the Lord and have not kept his decrees, because they have been led astray by false gods, and gods their ancestors followed, I will send fire…'” (Amost 2:4-5).
And not the words of condemnation for Israel (including the government)…listen carefully:
“This is what the Lord says: ‘For three sins of Israel, even for four, I will not turn back my wrath. They sell the righteous for silver, and the needy for a pair of sandals. They trample on the heads of the poor as upon the dust of the ground and deny justice to the oppressed…'” (Amos 2:6-16)
If you read it carefully you will notice that God’s most severe and longest condemnation is given to the nation of Israel (including the government) because they did not take care of the poor and oppressed. Even worse, they took advantage of the poor and oppressed.
This is just one example. The prophets are full of warnings to governments for not taking care of the most vulnerable among them.
How should the government take care of the poor? I don’t know.
Where should the government get the resources it needs to take care of the poor? Well, I guess from their citizens through taxation.
Are we overtaxed? For most of us, the answer is a resounding “Yes.”
Should churches and individuals do all they can to help the oppressed? Absolutely.
To pray for godly leaders in government, and then to say those godly leaders have no responsibility (at the governmental level) to assist their more unfortunate citizens, at the very least is inconsistent.
How can we expect God to bless our nation if the government does not do all it can to help those who are very near to God’s own heart?
I don’t understand how any believer can say the government has no responsibility to take care of the less-fortunate among us.
But then again, I could be wrong.
What do you think?
I believe you are right about the government taking care of the poorest and most helpless among us. I also believe however that the system our government has created serves far more than that group, and that is what many conservatives, including myself, feel like we are fighting against. The Heritage Foundation released a study last year that clearly demonstrated that we have a very broad idea of poor in this country. This study showed, among other things, that “more than half of poor families with children have a video game system, such as an Xbox or PlayStation.” and that “One-third have a wide-screen plasma or LCD TV”. There are many facts that are also stated in this report that make it clear that what we have to come to call poor in this county are really not that poor, especially when you consider the face of global poverty throughout the world. Perhaps if we knew that our tax dollars weren’t going to help a family who has used their disposable income to pay for an xbox or a flat-screen tv we wouldn’t resist taxation as much. But the truth is that many in power want to keep people who could make it on their own dependent on them because that in turn means votes.
Here is a link to the study I cited: http://www.heritage.org/research/reports/2011/09/understanding-poverty-in-the-united-states-surprising-facts-about-americas-poor
I agree that our system is broken and that it entraps people instead of really helping them. I also agree that poverty is far worse in other parts of the world. (I have been there and seen it.)
However, what you have described, and what the study you cite shows, is the difference between relative poverty and absolute poverty. In the U.S. what you have is relative poverty, but it is still poverty, and it helps no one to say, “You are lucky you don’t have it as bad as people in Honduras, or Africa, or Haiti.” The poor in America are poor in America. At the very least, we should be fighting the systems that keep people down (and most of the systems are protected by the government), while fighting for better ways to truly help.
I don’t think we should try to make people feel better by trying to show them how their status looks in contrast to other people, but I do think we should say you’re not poor if you have enough money to pay for luxuries but depend on the government for food and therefore will no longer receive handouts.
I am not saying this happens all the time, and I do agree there is abuse in the system and many people are getting governmental help that really don’t need it, but we have to be careful making generalizations and stereotyping.
Here is a real life scenario:
My son has had a lot of different video game systems and games throughout his life. He is getting older now and doesn’t use a lot of them. We have several young, underprivileged kids in our church. So let’s say I decide to give them an xbox 360 and dozens of games. At the same time I gave them the games, another family in the church gives them a large flat screen, HD television. By your definition, those kids are no longer poor and their family no longer needs food stamps because they have luxuries. (I know that is not really what you meant, but I hope you see where I am going.)
Please don’t misunderstand, I am not arguing with your point, I am just trying to point out that often times what we think we see is not really what we see. A lot of the “luxuries” people who are poor have, have been donated to them, and just because they have them does not mean they are “wasting” their money or have their priorities wrong. That could be the case, but it is not the case in every situation. In other situations, people in poverty do make unwise financial decisions but they do so in an attempt to give their kids what they think is some sense of “normalcy.”
Again, the scenario I described is relative poverty, not absolute poverty, but it is still poverty, and we have to be careful that in our effort to make sure people don’t abuse the system we end up hurting those who really do need help. We also have to be careful that we don’t become judgmental of people based on our perceptions of what they may or may not be doing wisely.
Thanks for your dialogue and input on this issue. I really do appreciate it.
You’re right about avoiding generalizations and I probably did come across as though I was failing to see the fact that everyone has unique circumstances. I do believe there is abject poverty to be found in this country and that there are systems in place within both the private and public sector that create and continue a downward spiral. I just think that the governments part in it should be as minuscule as possible. I think that Christians throughout this country should respond to the needs of these poor among us, but I also think that we have the right to speak to truth in love to people who are making bad financial choices and keeping themselves in their situation. It seems like too often people who say the government should be able to take from some and give to others aren’t willing to accept the fact that there is a large group in this country who should be working but instead are taking advantage of the system (I don’t think you are unwilling by the way, I just feel like that is my experience). Our current welfare system has created a culture dependent on the government which is harmful to the very ones we want to help because it teaches them to stay down in the pit of poverty instead of helping them to find ways out.
I do believe you and I are in general agreement.
I have a question for you: Our government is on the verge of bankruptcy. Eventually some tough decisions are going to have to be made and entitlements will be cut way back or completely off. This will take place out of necessity, and is what many conservative Christians want. Those same Christians talk big about how the church should be the place to receive help (and I whole-heartedly agree). But here is my question: Do you think most churches are prepared to handle all of the physical needs that will come there way when entitlements are cut back? My fear is that most of us are not prepared for that because our priorities have been out of whack. As the church, I fear, that we have been more concerned with buildings and budgets then meeting real needs. (But there I go make generalizations 🙂
What do you think?
I totally agree that the church is unprepared to help because of its misplaced priorities. Even if it were prepared to help financially, the real need is for the church to become more missional and be willing to not simply help those in need by simply passing on resources but also to work among those most affected and to actually serve.
The Bible has much to say about mistreating the poor. I believe what we want to zero in on here however is where the government fits in. It seems to me that the condemnation of Israel did not mention anything at all like what we are usually told our government needs to do. There was systemic corruption and injustice, and they were condemned for that, but the injustice went way beyond what is commonly called injustice in our day.
It is helpful to look at how God structured Israelite society. A study of the Pentateuch from this angle is very instructive. Now, we’ll leave aside whether or not the society ever functioned that way. Perhaps at times it tried, but by and large, many things went undone. Consider:
1. The land that was distributed to each family was to serve as their heritage forever. They were instructed not to sell the land. It was their inheritance. King Ahab got in trouble for taking inheritance land by devious means.
2. God gave instructions on how to deal with those who, either through the vicissitudes of life or through their own actions, became destitute:
2.a At harvest time, the corners and edges of the fields were to be left so that the poor could glean some for themselves (as with Ruth). Recognizing that harvests depend in large part on good weather and soil, both the harvesters and the gleaners were enjoined to look to God in gratitude for what they brought in with their hands.
2b. When walking through a field or orchard it was permitted to take what one could eat while there in the field. This was officially defined NOT as stealing.
2c. Taking the one possession (a cloak) that a poor man might have as collateral overnight while it was needed was forbidden.
2d. The big one: When all else failed, people could fall into slavery. While the Old Testament placed restrictions on how slavery could be practiced, what is most interesting is how the slavery of Israelites was never to be a permanent solution. If someone lost their allotted inherited land, that could last no longer than 50 years — the year of Jubilee at which time everything went back to its rightful owner. In theory, all parties would understand how far away the Jubilee year was, so that the value of the land would shift accordingly. Land that could only be used for two years until Jubilee would naturally not be worth as much as land two years after a Jubilee year. In a similar way, the slavery of an Israelite had defined limits.
In a real sense, this temporary slavery should have become the safety net. It was to be there if nothing else worked, but it was to be temporary in nature, and it was not to lead to a permanent underclass.
We would do well to analyze these practices for the principles that made them important to God for Israel. A few suggestions:
1. If there is a way to get people “set up” with something that becomes their legacy, we should look for an equitable way to do that.
2. We should look for ways that poor people can survive, but the first choice should not be to take care of them. The first choice is to find a 21st century equivalent to gleaning, to walking through the field and eating what is there, to not taking as collateral what one needs to survive, etc. All of these are designed to help the poor person survive at least in part through his own efforts, yet this may also require something from those who do not harvest every single grain, so to speak.
3. We probably don’t want to bring back slavery (!), but we should perhaps revisit how we handle any formal programs for the truly poor. We do not seek a program that will make people comfortable, nor a program that will not require something in return. But above all, we do not want a program that fosters a permanent underclass.
4. An Israelite father was said to be responsible to get a wife for his son, to teach him the Law, and to teach him a trade. So an orphan would have little shot at a good marriage, learning the law and supporting himself through a trade that he learned. Perhaps we could look at something similar for those today who are without fathers in their lives. Whether the government is the best suited to handle this is debatable, however, at least in our current context.
I do not mind a government program that limits itself to the very worst off, but I will not ask for yet more tax money for programs that support people somewhat comfortably while asking nothing in return, nor especially for government programs that foster the creation and maintenance of a permanent underclass. That is just as much against the principles of the Mosaic Law as was mistreating the poor in the first place. And that, arguably is what we have today: a number of programs that provide gainful employment for numbers of regulators and administrators and case workers, but that end up keeping people mired in dependence.
There are lots of people writing about the things you have stated. Books like When Helping Hurts and Toxic Charity are two books that I would recommend. Also, anything written by Dr. John Perkins is worth reading.
Dr. Perkins was involved in the Civil Rights movement and is the father of modern day, evangelical, community development. I have heard him say, “The best welfare system is a job.” That about says it all.
As a church, are attempt to make a difference is through a “Jobs for Life” program. Yet less than 1% of churches and church resources are spent on actually assisting people find liveable wage jobs. I have yet to meet a person on welfare who prefers being on welfare to actually working a job. The majority of people on welfare would rather work and are not abusing the system.
Personally, as a Christian, I am troubled by what I see are other “Christians” (not you) complain about how are governmental welfare system has failed (and I believe it has), but yet are not willing to do something in their church (bsides the occassional canned food drive) to get involved and help make a difference.
In my opinion, the Church in the United States does not have their priorities right and are ill equipped to really assist people who need help.
Your insights are very good. Thanks for posting.
I couldn’t agree with you more. I have spent years teaching inner city kids and working with disadvantaged families. It is infuriating to read over and over again from “Christians” the idea that people live off welfare because they are lazy and because the system enables their laziness. It further infuriates me to constantly read how welfare families drive luxury vehicles, have all the latest technology and gaming systems and spend food stamps on filet mignon. Does this happen? In some cases it does, but if one has spent any time at all in any low income housing communiity anywhere in America they would know this is not the case in the vast majority of welfare families. Also, just once I would like to see Christians acknowlege the role racism and stereotyping plays in the inability of many on welfare to find jobs. Do we really believe that a single woman on welfare with a GED and three kids at home is being offered any jobs? Let alone a job with an income level that can actually support her family? Add “African American” to the same description of the lady mentioned above and her odds of finding employment drop exponentially. As Christians, if we would devote some time to getting to know just one impoverished famiy by spending time with them, inviting them into our homes, and visiting them in their homes, perhaps our opinions would change and we could begin to understand better how to encourage, support and help them.
Thanks you so much for your comments. You are my new hero!