The first title I thought of for this exercise was “why don’t Christians address poverty?” But as cynical as I can be on this subject, I do recognize that the church as a whole does at least acknowledge the problem of poverty, and there are many in the church that are actively seeking practical ways to resolve or at least lessen its effects. But the overwhelming majority of Americans identify as Christian, and as inequality and poverty grow, it’s worth examining why the church as a whole doesn’t appear to be making a significant impact (or even slowing negative trends). For the purposes of this discussion, I will ignore some obvious answers, like apathy or ignorance. I will focus on a few closely related concepts that I see as contributing to this overall ineffectiveness. I am separating these arbitrarily because that is how my brain is processing them.
Resistance to “Government Solutions”
Especially in conservative Christian circles, there is a resistance to “government solutions” to address poverty. After all, why did Jesus not prescribe government intervention on behalf of the poor? Of course this question is misleading in several ways. First, we know that the law as given through Moses required Israelites to give of their own resources to aid the poor. This is at least some type of government intervention, under that form of theocracy.
We also know that during his earthly ministry Jesus did not prescribe government intervention for anything, probably because the people he was speaking to were under foreign occupation and had little say in the structure or priorities of the government that ruled them.
As Elizabeth Stoker has pointed out, Jesus clearly laid out his goals – defining how these should be accomplished in every specific society over time would probably not have been as effective.
But in a country like the US, where Christians are able to exert influence on policy at every level of government, why the reluctance to use it to help the poor?
One of the most common refrains from the right is the idea that government intervention on behalf of the poor is ineffective. Of all the lines of reasoning pointed against practical solutions to the problem of poverty, this might be the simplest to refute because one need not change ones philosophy or moral viewpoint to observe the evidence against it. Even a cursory examination of programs like Social Security and SNAP will reveal that in fact, giving money and resources directly to those in need improves their lives and happens to act as an economic stimulus. Are there government programs aimed at the poor that are ineffective or inefficient? Probably! Does that mean we can’t enhance and build on the programs that are proven to work? Probably not!
One of the most subtle and pernicious reasons for the avoidance of “collective action” is the emphasis that the American church has placed on individualism – individual choice, freedom, and liberty. These ideas would have been very out of place in a first century Jewish context but make sense in the political and intellectual environment in which America was conceived and developed.
The purpose of a command like the one God gave Israel was that the nation should act in a manner consistent with God’s nature. There is no indication that the compulsory nature of these commands imparted a lesser degree of virtue to those who obeyed.
There are elements of “choice” in a democratic society. Government policies are partly an expression of our communal will. Even with the way popular influence has been weakened in today’s representative government, we still have some say in its priorities and structure. So when we as a society choose a form of government that unfairly burdens the poor, we can not then act as if the result is out of our control. It is disingenuous to refuse to acknowledge a government solution to a problem created by government policy.
(Side note here – my personal belief is that poverty, like so many of society’s ills, is caused by what I would call “evil.” The responsibility of a moral society is to judge how to most effectively ameliorate the effects of evil. In the case of poverty, we know that there are multiple ways we can counter its effects, and when we choose not to, I would say we are “causing poverty.”)
When in modern day America we Christians praise “individual choice” as a response to the problem of poverty, we are making a couple of bold statements. First, we are choosing and reinforcing a dynamic of power that is contrary to the demands of the gospel. The gospel requires that we entirely give up our right of personal choice and conform to the divine will. Framing this compliance as personal charity allows us to essentially “reserve our right” to choose to follow God’s will. Charity also allows us to maintain, and direct our resources. This kind of control is very tempting, but it is illusory. When we look to the life of Jesus, we see someone who was fully submitted to the divine will. When he acted in accordance with the divine will, the emphasis was not on the fact that he chose it, but that the divine will was accomplished. To say, “I want to give to the poor of my own accord,” allows the American believer to act as though his heart has not been fully ceded to Christ, and that each similar choice he makes brings him some favor with the Almighty. I do not see any good arguments for the idea of “extra credit” being given for obeying Christ when that action is not also required by earthly law.
(To be clear, I understand and appreciate the reluctance to impose “Christian” laws on a secular society- I am wary of dominionism and similar movements. But if we as Christians can show that society is improved by following moral principles, I see no reason why they shouldn’t be fair game. Laws should not be enacted because they are “Christian,” but because they provide a benefit to society that is recognizable across a spectrum of beliefs. At some point Brian will have to contribute more on this specific point.)
The second statement we are making when we worship “personal choice” as a response to poverty, is that we don’t really believe poverty should be addressed in a meaningful way. When a politician says that he or she personally opposes abortion but that it should be between a woman and her doctor, and not a legislative matter, the logical reaction from the right is “this sounds like a person who is uninterested in preventing abortions.” The Christian right sees legislative obstacles to reproductive care (and abortions) as the most immediate way to reduce the number of abortions. Theoretically abortions could also be reduced if enough individual people were convinced not to have them, but individual choice is not emphasized here because it is considered an impractical way to achieve the impact of ending the practice nationally. At the very least, the anti-choice approach seems to be a blanket approach that reaches the appropriate individual actors, while also seeking to affect policy.
Contrast this with the way the Christian right addresses poverty. I believe that many Christian conservatives do feel kindly towards the poor – but if they are not committed to effective methods of support, what good are those feelings? When I hear a pastor say that providing for the poor should not be the role of government, I hear someone who is not seriously interested in making an impact on poverty. Does this mean the pastor lacks compassion, or doesn’t view poverty as a problem? No, but what is the difference to those in poverty? He might be anti-poverty in sentiment, but his actions reinforce a system that neglects to address it.
If you approve of a government solution to end abortion, but disapprove of any similar types of action that would seek to limit poverty, maybe it is not the process that you are really objecting to. Circling back to the previous section, I have never heard someone argue against abortion restrictions because Jesus didn’t specifically advocate for a “government solution.”
Closely related to the effect of individualism is what I would “no handouts” Christianity. This is an odd hybrid of Puritanical work ethic, and meritocratic wistfulness. From this perspective, everyone should be rewarded according to their work, and charity should be reserved for those who meet certain conditions. On first glance, those seem like pretty reasonable ideas.
I won’t take on the larger “desert theory” of economics, other than to say clearly many of the poor in our country don’t deserve to be poor, and most of the rich don’t deserve the scale of their wealth. I wouldn’t even be against people who (based on all sorts of problematic assumptions) seek to make the distribution of income more “fair,” and encourage work. But these are often one sided propositions. To many, it is not “fair” that the impoverished receive benefits they don’t (and couldn’t) work for. While these same people might concede that the super wealthy could not have possibly contributed to society any value proportional to their wealth, there are rarely any practical solutions offered.
I would draw a parallel to the church (even the Reformed) church, which has very often taught the principle of salvation by grace, but still given the impression that salvation and God’s blessings need to be earned (through repentance and pious living) rather than that they are instead the catalyst that incline our hearts towards repentance and ultimately allow us to live righteously.
We can say as a society that we value hard work, but when we don’t provide everyone with the resources to succeed, we can’t act like the end result has much broad significance regarding the character of those who “failed.”
Many parts of the church have fully embraced an incomplete perspective on fairness, welfare and work. 2 Thessalonians 3:10 (“The one who is unwilling to work shall not eat”) has had its context stripped, and is used as a justification to punish those who have been harmed by what the pope might call “unfettered capitalism.” The most commonly repeated translation of that verse says “He who does not work shall not eat.” This is used a serious indictment of our welfare system. Forget the basics of who Paul might have been specifically addressing in that letter, and what he was trying to get across. Forget the differences between that Grecian economy and ours. Do we really think that Paul did not want the disabled to eat?
Our economic system relies on unemployment. Einstein captured this well 65 years ago:
Production is carried on for profit, not for use. There is no provision that all those able and willing to work will always be in a position to find employment; an “army of unemployed” almost always exists. The worker is constantly in fear of losing his job. Since unemployed and poorly paid workers do not provide a profitable market, the production of consumers’ goods is restricted, and great hardship is the consequence.
I can understand Christians who encourage people to work – we know that there is value to the community in each of us being useful. But we live in an economy that will not allow everyone the opportunity to work (this is work for direct profit, which seems to be the only way to properly characterize work today. Housework, yard work, parenting, etc. don’t qualify because they are not recognized as having the same value as wage-earning labor). Again we see a one-sided response from conservative Christianity. If you see “work” as a Scriptural mandate, why not agitate for full employment so that everyone will have the opportunity to obey Scripture? Instead, the focus is often on judging those who have been harmed by the system. High unemployment is not a result of sloth, but of policy.
If as a Christian your critique is not aimed at the “working poor,” but at those whom you don’t see as contributing, there are two assumptions that need to clearly stated. First, as inequality grows, we have no reasonable context to judge anyone’s character based on their willingness to work. Not only is it true that not everyone is able to work in a system that relies on unemployment, but we are judging the results based on one factor when there are many (possibly more significant factors) that determine whether someone is “successful.” If one person has remained healthy in a society that promotes bankruptcy for serious illness, if one had parents that were fortunate enough to be present and actively involved in one’s life, if one had the good fortune to be born in an affluent community or neighborhood, can we compare that person’s employment status to someone in different circumstances and determine character?
The second assumption that needs to made clear is the monumental difference between working for the common good (or use), and working for a disembodied idea of “profit.” In a society where 70% of the workforce is disengaged and emotionally detached, we have to ask whether there is really any virtue in creating profits that we know will flow upwards and be consolidated rather than distributed and used to elevate or enrich the community. This effect is not often considered by those intent on judging the intents and character of the lower classes. It’s not as though most of today’s unemployed have just voluntarily dropped out of this dehumanizing system. But we should recognize the collective psychological impact of working to enrich a relatively small cross-section of society, and seeing no positive impact on one’s own community. As inequality grows, this effect will become more pronounced.
So if you are a Christian who believes that there should be no “handouts,” that everyone should earn the value they create, I won’t put up too much of a fight. I will just ask that you first create the kind of environment where that would be possible, and not act as if it already exists.
The kind of justice that I believe Christians are called to seek can not be composed entirely of feelings, or good thoughts towards the mistreated. And it certainly will not be created only through the actions of a few exceptional, generous souls. The entire body of Christ is required. We can discuss different solutions, but let’s do it with a clear, communal perspective on justice.
“We are not to simply bandage the wounds of victims beneath the wheels of injustice, we are to drive a spoke into the wheel itself.” – Dietrich Bonhoeffer