[Annapolis Rock Sunset, Texture Added, 2010]
Matthew 26:11 (NKJV)
11 For you have the poor with you always, but Me you do not have always.
See Background Article HERE
The New York Times article by Eduardo Porter sets a hopeful but cautious tone.
It appears that a bi-partisan (Liberals/Conservatives) committee issued a report in December1 where some agreement was reached about things we can do to alleviate some of the poverty in these United States. Mr. Porter calls the poverty problem "entrenched" and provides a link to a data base which supports his claim that it is deepest in American "among advanced industrialized nations."
It is good to hear that thinkers are talking across ideological lines and I hope that some of the things that he reports are taken further in the discussion. There are subjective caveats applied on the left and right but the willingness to find common ground is good..
Here, as always though, I wonder if the unspoken presuppositions that underlie the conclusions should give us pause.
For example... the idea that the US has the most entrenched poverty among all industrialized nations. If we read the "small print," the measure is against the poverty line for each individual country, not against a common standard. It is " taken as half the median household income of the total population." (HERE) Clearly that number would make the threshold for poverty in the United States at a significantly higher total value (in comparative purchasing power) than in other nations. It comes out to about $23K for a family with two adults and four kids. I agree that this is not a lot of money but given the social situation in this country, does it reflect the associated despair that a similar situation in another country might engender? I am a bit uncomfortable with how "poverty" is defined.
But of far greater concern to me is the unspoken presupposition reported by Mr. Porter, that the government has the primary responsibility to "fix it." Here conservatives and liberals seem to be agreeing on the "who" and only differing on the "how." This is the crux of the issue.
As a Christian, before we start talking about "what to do about poverty", I think we need to ask "why does poverty exist?"
This, of course, falls under the over-arching heading: "Why does God allow evil to exist?" The only pious answer to that question is "because it serves His good purposes to do so." Once we get beyond that over-arching question and answer though, we recognize that each form of evil serves God's good purposes in its own way. "Poverty" is not a moral evil in the experience of it. Inflicting poverty on others through unjust treatment certainly is a moral evil. Bringing poverty on one's self through laziness or through gambling addiction or something similar, certainly is a moral evil. But, in and of itself, poverty is not a moral evil and therefore does not contaminate the individuals who are subjected to it.
Christians are prone to error here in assuming that, in a country like ours, if someone is poor it is because they are morally responsible for it. This just ain't so and we need to guard against it.
Next, if poverty is present and we believe it serves God's good purposes, what then are those purposes? I think that here is where we also begin to address the issue of whether it is the government that is primarily responsible to deal with it. The Scriptures call for the people of God to strive for economic justice in the world about them. That is a broad statement and I simply cannot go beyond the immediate question of poverty here. But I believe that God has ordained the "poor to be with us" as a proving ground for the Kingdom of God. Jesus said that He came to preach good news to the poor (Luke 4:18). Throughout Scripture God has a special interest in the unjustly deprived, the widow, the orphan, the defenseless among His people. I believe God intends for His people to shine as stars among the fallen generations of this world by the way that they care for the poor among them. Paul teaches us in Galatians that we are to do good things for all people but especially for the household of God. Our care for the poor "of the world" should just be a side benefit for our first duty to care for the poor among our Christian brothers and sisters. We are not to be haughty nor are we to be harshly discriminatory in this, but the witness of the Christian church ought to be that "there are no poor" among us. (Deut. 15:4)
What kind of witness would it be to the world if the local church took on a larger role in immediate loving assistance to those, within its membership, who are struggling to make ends meet. If one of our brothers or sisters is in a family with a total income of $23k or less, what kind of witness would it be if the church (perhaps through its deacons): was able to get them off food stamps?... would seriously undertake to network through the denomination or sister churches in the region, to find job opportunities? ... would be able to provide child care so that both parents could work if absolutely necessary?
It is so easy to "let the government do it." It has become so ingrained in our culture that the mere contemplation of an alternative approach seems silly. Why not let them use food stamps? They're available... the family qualifies... why not?
Why not? First, and most importantly, we should question whether or not this is what God wants. Does He allow the poor "to be always" with us so that the government gets all the glory for meeting their physical needs? Second, where is the Christian witness if we neglect the opportunity? Does this not make us just like every other benevolent organization? What commends the Christian Church over other groups of people then? Third, how can the gospel be preached to the poor if the government has a more important relationship with them than does the Church? The most important way we can help an individual in need is to combine our physical assistance with the offer of a discipling relationship. This is most possible when the poor are within the Church, but it can be extended in an evangelistic setting also.
The point is this. This article sees hope in a possible consensus among conservatives and liberals regarding what to do about the poor. It's good for conservatives and liberals to talk... I am all for it. But as long as the talk always assumes that the government is the first responder to the needs of the poor... we are throwing the baby out with the bathwater.