Disclaimer: Just to clarify, I’m not going to try and put forward any solution, any “true” answer, or definitive position on what Christians ought to be doing about poverty other than working to alleviate it. I’m not arguing for a particular political policy or party, or against a particular policy or party, despite what this may look like. I’m just trying to facilitate calmer, more empathetic, and Christ-like discussions within the Christian community by pointing a few things out.
Christians Should Care About Poverty
Let’s start with the obvious. I don’t know that I really have to argue for this–I hope I don’t–but the Bible is idiot-proof clear that God’s people ought to care for the poor, work to relieve their suffering, help, etc. Depending on who you read, there’s anywhere from 300 to 2000 verses on the poor and justice. I’ll give three from the Torah, the Psalms, and the Gospels:
Deut. 15:7. If there is a poor man among you, one of your brothers, in any of the towns of the land which the LORD your God is giving you, you shall not harden your heart, nor close your hand to your poor brother; but you shall freely open your hand to him, and generously lend him sufficient for his need in whatever he lacks.
Ps. 140:12. I know that the LORD will maintain the cause of the afflicted, and justice for the poor.
Luke 4:16-21. And He came to Nazareth, where He had been brought up; and as was His custom, He entered the synagogue on the Sabbath, and stood up to read… “The Spirit of the LORD is upon Me, because He appointed Me to preach the gospel to the poor. He has sent Me to proclaim release to the captives, and recovery of sight to the blind, to set free those who are downtrodden, to proclaim the favorable year of the LORD… Today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”
Clearly Jesus wants us to help the poor and he even sees his own mission having to do with that. Christians should want to help the poor–actually, not just want it, think nice thoughts about it, but actually do it. (Jas 2:14-17) The question becomes, “How?”
Typically the least controversial approach is through personal generosity, independent charity groups, and the direct involvement of the church in the fight against poverty. Even minimal historical digging and contemporary research will show that for 2,000 years the church has, for the most part, been known for its charity and benevolence to the most vulnerable in society. In fact, the name “charity” has its origin in the practice of Christian benevolence in connection with the Christian virtue of caritas. I don’t think anybody will argue that the local and global Church shouldn’t be directly helping the poor.
To many Christians (we’ll call them “Group A”) one equally obvious answer is to vote politicians into office who will act legislatively to create programs aimed at helping the poor through various redistribution and assistance programs. It really seems to be the obvious solution. That’s the quickest way to leverage goods and services on behalf of the poor at the national scale. So, when election time rolls around, they look, they read, and think about which party or politician seems most committed towards that end and they do their Christian duty and vote for her/him.
At the same time, there is a significant chunk of Christians (we’ll call them “Group B”) who apparently don’t buy that answer. This actually seems to be a significant chunk of the American church and probably a majority of American Evangelicals. They tend to vote against politicians who favor those sorts of long-term assistance and poverty-related legislation and generally are opposed the large-scale, governmental efforts in this regard–often-times quite passionately. Now, unsurprisingly this sort of voting behavior on the part of Group B leaves Group A scratching its collective head. “I thought Christians were supposed to care about the poor? How could you possibly be opposed to Politician X, or policy Y?”
What I’d like to do is just quickly point out three reasons (and there could easily be more) why a sane Christian, who has read all those verses about the poor, cares passionately about them, wants to relieve their suffering, and work for justice on their behalf, might still fall into Group B. I’m not necessarily endorsing these views, just trying to explain some of the thought process and logic of it so that Group A doesn’t immediately have to assume bad faith, or a hardness of heart against the poor on the part of Group B. So, here goes:
- Church Not Government– The first reason is that they might simply think that poverty-relief is not the job of the government, but rather that of the church. They read the Scriptures, see all of those injunctions to God’s people to care for the poor, and conclude that they are, in general, only for God’s people. The church should be taking care of the poor, working in the inner-cities, creating communities in which sharing is the rule and poverty-alleviating generosity is second nature. The government on the other hand is there to bear the sword, maintain legal justice, ensure the rule of law, and other such functions. In essence, it’s a difference in political theology, in their understanding of the role that God has ordained for the government and for the church. Some Group B Christians think that voting in extended-duration welfare-style legislation is a sort of unwarranted outsourcing, and maybe even an excuse for negligence on the part of the church in their call to serve the poor. The point is not to ignore the poor, but help them in the way they think God has called them.
- Government Okay But Ineffective– Another line of thinking might not make that sharp distinction between the church’s job and the state’s job, but might simply find the government ineffective at doing that job. This one shouldn’t be too hard to understand. Basically, the logic is that it’d be fine if the government helped out, but by and large it isn’t very good at doing that. In fact, often-times when you compare the effectiveness of government-run programs and that of church or independent non-profits, they just don’t line up well. Group B might cite cycles of dependence, the destruction of social structures, and various other side effects that are said to accompany government intervention. Now, this isn’t necessarily a specifically Christian way of thinking, but rather a pragmatic one that a Christian might be persuaded of. Again, the issue here is not whether Group B cares about the poor, but what they think will actually help the poor.
- Government But Not that Policy– This third reason is really kind of a special version of the second. You might find Christians who actually think that the government has a role to play in combating poverty, a strong one in fact, but still think that certain policies currently touted as main planks of a poverty-combating platform to be faulty and harmful. The recent big one I can think of is the Affordable Care Act. Now, correct or not, I know people who generally think the government should be involved in this sort of thing, actually want health care reform, but simply thought the Act was/is a bad way to go about it–that it might actually be detrimental in some respects. They want the poor to get health care, good health care, but they think this Act doesn’t do it in a sustainable or helpful fashion and so their opposition to it is, in fact, motivated precisely because of their concern for the poor. There are probably other examples, but this was the obvious one.
I fully acknowledge at this point that there are likely many Christians in Group B who don’t vote the way they do for these reasons, but rather for very selfish reasons unconnected to any principled theological concerns. (Actually, I’m planning on writing a post about reasons Christians should never use for opposing poverty legislation soon.) Still, these are three possible, plausible, non-poor-hating reasons for being a Group B Christian.
Now at this point you might be thinking this was one big apology for Christians voting conservative and Republican and really just a stealth argument against Democrats. You’re free to go ahead and think that. I mean, that’s not what I’m doing, but I have no control over your mental habits. Once again, in order to compensate for my incompetence as a communicator or the sheer perversity of some readers, I’m just trying to point out that there are processes of thought by which someone might arrive at a Group B voting pattern, while still having read all those verses about poverty with an aim to obey them.
Of course, it may be that all three of those stances are flawed whether in their approach to the scriptures, their understanding of the pragmatic situation, or their judgment about particular pieces of legislation. Who knows? Maybe the Affordable Care Act really is a great plan. (Please don’t argue either for or against in the comments. It’s not that I don’t care, but I kinda don’t for the purposes of this blog.) All I’m trying to do is ensure that Christians in Group A don’t immediately assume or accuse Christians in Group B of not caring about the poor. Instead, you should work to engage them theologically about the role of the government, or informationally about real effects about various programs or policies.
And really, it’s not even just this issue. Generally-speaking, assuming bad faith motives like “they just hate the poor”, as the only possible reason someone might disagree with you politically, or in any other area, is generally not a winning strategy, either for understanding or communicating. I guess what I’m trying to foster, in my own inadequate way, is the intellectual empathy Matthew Lee Anderson’s been talking about lately. If we’re going to have a real conversation about any of this, especially in the body of Christ, we need to be able to at least try to understand where the other person is coming from, even if you still end up thinking they’re wrong.
Well, this blog’s too long already and I don’t know how to end it so there.
Soli Deo Gloria