Adequately caring for the least of these requires government support. It always has, even in Old Testament times. But, maybe more now than ever. That is, unless you can tell me where I can send my homeless friend to get the heart bypass surgery he needs.
All christians believe they are committed to proclaiming and furthering the gospel of Jesus Christ. The disagreement is over what the gospel is and strongly over whether, and if so, how, the gospel impacts our view of government.
The conservative view is that both the government and the gospel should be small, limited and unrelated. Many conservative christians believe the gospel is only about individual, spiritual salvation and that's it. Some will expand the gospel a bit and allow that it requires those who proclaim it to "live it" by loving others; doing charitable things for the poor and needy, etc.
But, they will draw the line at community or government [I use the terms "community" and "government" nearly interchangeably] action to help the poor and needy. They will say the gospel is only about individual, personal, charity; not the government. I've never met a conservative (christian or otherwise) who thought the gospel had anything to do with community and/or government action to help the poor and needy. Some conservative politicians have gone so far as to encourage Christians to flee from churches that even mention social justice.
Conservative Christians, like Rick Warren, commonly emphasize personal charity and downplay biblical commands about obligations to make our society more just, righteous and supportive of the less fortunate.
Liberal Christians, on the other hand, think the gospel is big and related to everything. Certainly, "living out" the gospel involves personal, individual charity and loving acts toward others. But, the liberal will say, "living out" the gospel also requires advocacy on behalf of the poor and needy. This necessarily includes supporting and encouraging government laws and policies to promote social and economic justice.
The liberal view is that our government is a reflection of us. In America, the government is made up of citizens and the people have the ultimate authority over the government. Liberals want the government of the people to reflect our gospel (Jesus) values and thus to positively impact the world; helping the poor and needy; promoting health and creation care.
Liberals also believe the government/community can be effectively used to restrain the selfish, greedy, even sinful aspects of individual human nature. As a community, we can enforce standards that promote morality and unselfish behavior.
The issue is what is the gospel and particularly how big is it? Is the gospel relevant to all parts of our life and world or is it to be fenced out of certain areas? The particular issue for this page is: Does the gospel impact our view of government? Does the gospel say anything about what role the government should play in society and our lives?
If you've spent any time on this site, you won't be surprised to find that we support the liberal view. Here's our thought process:
The bible is where a Christian must always look first for guidance. The bible is full of God-directed mandates to governmental entities, requiring them to ensure that our economic and social systems are fair and equitable. This is why we should be concerned as well about this.
Deuteronomy is foundational in presenting God's standard for our economic, religious, and political systems. Each are expected by God to act in a just and equitable way. Robert Linthicum provides insight at The Meaning of Shalom and in his excellent book Building a People of Power
Steve Neal, pastor of First Baptist Church of Turner, Kansas puts it this way:
I believe it has always been a shared effort - the political, economic, and religious systems are given guidelines by God - we as individual citizens are to live out those principles and influence as well as hold the sytems accountable to do the same.
Here are other relevant scriptures:
A ruler who oppresses the poor is like a driving rain that leaves no crops.
If a king judges the poor with fairness, his throne will always be secure.
The LORD enters into judgment against the elders and leaders of his people: It is you who have ruined my vineyard; the plunder from the poor is in your houses.
Therefore, O king, be pleased to accept my advice: Renounce your sins by doing what is right, and your wickedness by being kind to the oppressed. It may be that then your prosperity will continue.
Among my people are the wicked who lie in wait like men who snare birds and like those who set traps to catch people. Like cages full of birds, their houses are full of deceit; they have become rich and powerful and have grown fat and sleek. Their evil deeds have no limit; they do not seek justice. They do not promote the case of the fatherless; they do not defend the just cause of the poor. Should I not punish them for this? declares the LORD. Should I not avenge myself on such a nation as this?
However, the thing that really convinces me that christians should favor using the government to promote the Kingdom is not so much theology as it is the reality of the world we live in. The reality is that people who live in our world (including in the U.S.) have many very real needs.
Unemployment, food stamps, foreclosures, poverty rates, etc are all at record, or near record, highs. The conservative idea that individual charity or the church should take care of these things is ridiculous. Truly.
First, it's only common sense that more good can be done for the poor through community than through simply individual, action. After all, how many of us can afford to pay for an uninsured person to have a heart transplant? In truth, in the vast majority of cases that kind of help can (and will) only be done through community support.
It is a cop-out to say -- well, let the Church deal with it or let rich individuals do it. They can't and/or won't. That is the truth and everyone knows it. To deny the poor because (allegedly) we don't like who is helping them isn't love and doesn't reflect Jesus values. It really is simply political manipulation to ensure that we don't have to help the poor. As good and noble as private charity can be; that good is easily washed away by the bad that can be done through support of selfish and greedy politics that get reflected in government policies.
When the needs of the poor are being met by the church and private individuals, then come back and talk to me. Until then, to support politicians who want to cut community support to the poor and needy, is simply unChristian and unGodly.
Some like to blame it on the government. You've heard lot's of that I'm sure. But, the truth is we don't have the luxury of blaming it on our government. In most Western countries, certainly in the United States, our government is simply a reflection of us. We elect our representatives who control the government. So, if the government is "bad" or "sinful" than it is our collective fault. That's certainly not something we are free to ignore. We must work to make our government (and maybe ourselves first) better, more Christlike.
So, if our government allows, even worse, promotes social and economic inequality, mistreatment of the poor, degradation of God's creation -- then that is a reflection of us -- and particularly of those of us who support those unGodly policies -- as polls show most "Christians" in America do.
As Steve Kimes has said:
It is the individual Christian's responsibility to respond to Jesus. So if the individual is involved in forming the State (voting) or the Church (membership), they have the responsibility to the degree they can, to help conform those institutions to the standards of Jesus. Jesus commissioned his disciples to care for the poor. Right now, the church (whether disciples or not) is not doing that, nor are they prepared to do that. The state, while doing an inadequate job, is doing the job. If we, as disciples, block the state from doing the job that needs doing we are commissioning, then we are making sure the poor are not cared for, thus disobeying Jesus.
I wonder sometimes if people who say the government shouldn’t be involved in helping the needy because the church can do it are serious. If so, tell me where the thousands of homeless people in every city in America can go to live. Tell me where the poor can go when they need serious medical help (i.e. procedures that cost $100,000 or more). To a church? Really? Which one? You can use the form below to give me the address.
[Along these lines, here's a great comment about the true purpose of a biblical tithe.]
Whether these needs can theoretically be met by private or church charity is irrelevant actually. They are not being met. The government of the people is the only place most of these people can possibly hope to get help. Yet, conservatives, even "christian" conservatives seem to want to shut down even government assistance to those in need. And, those same conservatives support further tax cuts for the wealthy.
And, all this in the richest country the world has ever known; a land where the rich have never had it better.
Frankly, it's disgraceful. That's why, when people ask me if I'm a liberal christian, I say: "naturally."
The gospel of Jesus Christ is relevant to all areas of our lives -- including our view of our community and the role of government.
What do you think about this? We'd love to hear your opinion, comments or questions. So, please post them here. No e-mail address is required. Thanks.
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