Saturday, May 16, 2015

Flirting with Fatalism

I read a column this morning by popular Christian blogger Ben Corey in which he makes a spirited defense of his support for government programs to help the poor on the basis that Christians simply don’t given enough voluntarily to make a meaningful dent in poverty.

It’s an interesting argument, but it begs one obvious question.

What do we do when the poor can’t be helped?

Disclaimer Time

Now you understand I’m not saying that we shouldn’t try. Scripture is very clear, Old Testament or New, that helping people genuinely in need is near to the heart of God. But there are indications in the word of God that, outside of the return of Christ to rule over this world, any expectation that we can ever meet all the material needs of a fallen world is sorely misplaced. Jesus said, “You will always have the poor with you”. Solomon looked at the condition of man and said, “What is crooked cannot be made straight, and what is lacking cannot be counted”.

Were they fatalists? I don’t think so. The Lord had the advantage of a heavenly view of worldly social conditions and the ultimate insight into the hearts of men. Solomon had the experience of trying to administrate a failed social experiment in Israel that, while it appeared outwardly glorious, depended on an onerous, unsustainable level of taxation that after his death became such a hot button issue that it divided his kingdom.

The ultimate worldling and the Man from Heaven agree on this: there is no “global fix” to be had under our present world order.

That’s not fatalism. It’s simply recognition that human government is neither morally nor materially equipped to deal with the issue of poverty.

The New Testament and the Poor

But let me pause for a moment here to observe that many a cursory reader of the New Testament enthusiastically and erroneously applies its teaching about poverty in the Church to the larger issue of poverty in the world. This article is a classic example. Ron McKenzie makes many good points and offers a number of solid, biblical recommendations with respect to poverty, but time after time he takes verses that clearly have to do with our obligation to meet the needs of fellow Christians with less than we have and applies them much more generally.

Ben Corey does this as well, mish-mashing the issues of tithes under the Mosaic Law, offerings taken up among Christians for various Christian causes, and the general moral obligation of citizens to take care of our fellows into one great “cause” which he believes Christians have failed at.

A Summary Defense for Big Government

Here’s Ben Corey’s summary defense for Big Government:
“We push back not because of an ideological difference, but because we know the idea of voluntary, radical giving to charity or a local church is relatively nonexistent. Instead of seeing Government as the best solution, we simply acknowledge that currently, government is filling the gap the Church will not fill. The fact that government is having to step in should trouble us — not because it means bigger government, but because it exposes American Christianity’s moral failure to be the Church.”
So to Mr. Corey, to “be the Church” in America today is to assume responsibility for the welfare of every poor person in the U.S. of A.

Ouch. That’s a tall order. Let me suggest that an absence of generosity in the churches, a failure to tithe or lack of interest in the poor are not really issues here. The issue is that by any metric, under even the most optimal conditions, the need absolutely dwarfs all available supply. The Church would have to be monolithic, with congregants both fully-employed and extraordinarily well-compensated, to make any appreciable difference in the standard of living of even the tiniest fraction of poor Americans, at least by the definition of poverty currently in vogue.

Sure, there are rich Christians and well-off congregations, but the Church characteristically is not materially wealthy, nor should we expect it to be. Many Christians are poor themselves, many are pensioners, some are disabled and quite a few are unable or unavailable to generate income for various reasons. Peter, living for and serving the risen Christ, had to tell a beggar “I have no silver and gold”. 

Should the apostle have rushed out to get a job?

If, pace Mr. Corey, the Church is to assume the moral obligation to care for all the poor of this world, it is surely doomed to fail, and to fail spectacularly.

Who Is My Neighbour?

We need to start by conceding that we will never solve the problem, though there are good reasons to do whatever we can. “Who is my neighbour?” the lawyer asked the Lord, seeking to justify himself. The Lord’s answer in the parable of the Good Samaritan is that my neighbour is anyone in front of me to whom I have opportunity to do good and show mercy. The Samaritan came to where the wounded traveler was, saw him and had compassion. If we cannot solve all the world’s problems, we can at least start where we are; with who and what we see around us. And since we cannot solve all the world’s problems, it is necessary to prioritize.

Setting Priorities

The Left sees all responsibility for a solution to poverty as institutional, whether the relevant institutions are government, business or the Church. Scripture has a little different twist on where some of this responsibility lies:

The Responsibility of the Poor. As a Christian, I cannot afford to be overly concerned about those who choose not to work. While there are people who are genuinely unemployable, an increasing number of those in need have arrived there and remain there by choice. A poster on Reddit writes:
“I refuse to be a part of this … ‘work’ thing by wasting my time to get paid to do things that technically don’t have to be done by humans anymore, and I certainly don’t feel bad about what I’m doing. In fact I feel I deserve this [welfare].”
Okay then. It’s certainly one point of view. But it’s a point of view arrived at while sitting in a taxpayer-funded, rent controlled apartment enjoying the benefits of an internet connection and enough food to not only subsist, but to want to continue indefinitely in that way of life. Paul says, “If anyone is not willing to work, let him not eat”.

If governments see fit to tax productive citizens to fund the lifestyles of folks who think like this, that is their prerogative; I suspect they will have trouble maintaining a functional economy as this sort of attitude becomes more prevalent. But as a Christian, I reserve the right to prioritize the needs of the genuinely needy with whatever funds are left to me.

The Responsibility of the Family. The apostle Paul says, “... if anyone does not provide for his own, and especially for those of his household, he has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever”. This is strong language, and suggests that even among the pagans of his day an innate sense of responsibility for relatives and especially immediate family members was widespread. Certainly among the churches it was unimaginable to leave a family member twisting in the wind in times of trouble.

Families have a moral responsibility to one another. The prevalence of institutional welfare programs has relieved us of much of our sense of urgency to help one another, but it should not be this way. Furthermore, the prevalence of institutional welfare programs has relieved many an unemployed person from any guilt or stigma associated with sponging off employed relatives, and thus any sense of urgency about looking for work.

Perhaps today only believers can be reasonably expected to shoulder the responsibility of relatives without any means of support, but Paul’s instructions to Timothy about such situations are pretty clear: if there are Christian relatives with the means to help available, “let the church not be burdened”.

The Responsibility of the Individual. Notwithstanding writers like Ben Corey and Ron McKenzie, the Church’s corporate responsibility toward the poor appears to me to begin and end with poor Christians. You will search in vain for a New Testament command that unequivocally directs communities of believers to gather and pool funds for the relief of poverty among the unsaved.

Of course that does not mean we should be uncaring about needs around us. But it is important to recognize where our primary obligations lie. Paul tells the Galatians, “as we have opportunity, let us do good to everyone, and especially to those who are of the household of faith”. Needy believers ought to be near the top of our list of concerns.

Doing Good to Everyone

Still, individual Christians historically have been deeply concerned about the unsaved poor both at home and abroad, and have engaged in many creative ways of trying to meet their physical needs along with their spiritual ones. This website lists over 500 Christian orphanages currently in operation around the world. Or take the example of Opportunity International, which provides small business loans, insurance and training to over five million of the poorest of the poor in the developing world; people who, unlike North Americans, have no access to welfare programs, unemployment insurance or food banks.

Many of these efforts have the regular support of local churches and denominations, but the energies behind them are primarily individual. Believers who take their giving seriously will look for and support the charitable entities that maximize results and minimize administrative costs and empire building.

A Bottomless Well

The world is one giant, bottomless well of need. Christendom cannot possibly address it all, and we cannot expect it to.

It is not flirting with fatalism to recognize this. It is an important first step in defining our responsibilities as individual believers in Christ and seeking to set godly priorities in giving.

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