Choosing Against The Poor

I admit it. I have decidedly statist tendencies.

Living in a house with a very vocal anarcho-mutualist son whose grasp of economics far exceeds my own makes for some spirited discussions, the kind of debate that has my husband retreating to his office or workshop while the woman of his dreams and the fruit of his loins hash out the problems of rich vs. poor, injustice vs. justice, capitalism vs. socialism, and how buying Fair Trade coffee, while a good start, cannot be the strongest stand the Christian takes on issues of economic justice.

And while I’m not a socialist, I do believe that government has a Biblical role in establishing, however imperfectly, the righteousness of God in its dealing with poverty. People are too important, too precious to a holy God, to be held hostage to the free market and to legislation that protects inequality; government can be a tempering force that protects the needy from the impersonal capriciousness of the market and a means of providing for a taxpaying public whose disenfranchisement nonetheless subjects them and their families to injustice. What individuals in government today may or may not recognize as their part of a mandate from God, the Church surely must.

That mandate has been watered down, explained away, and in some parts forgotten, but it exists nonetheless, ringing out with undeniable clarity in the pages of Scripture. The Lord clearly has never made the care of poor people solely the job of government; the Church is God’s chosen vessel to call for and itself demonstrate sacrificial giving for society’s outcasts. Still, there are things government simply can do better, on a larger scale and with more cohesiveness, and God’s people should encourage its rightful efforts while at the same time giving itself in unabashed advocacy and provision for those government also seeks to help, in ways that government can’t — namely to glorify our Lord Jesus in service to his people. Government can’t worship our God nor any other, even though it has a part in the things that he has ordained.

But social programs for the poor seem to be utterly in line with the authority God has given to the State, beginning, perhaps, with Joseph’s efforts in Pharaoh’s government in Egypt, an event described in the Old Testament as a “secular” government — certainly a government more hostile to the righteousness of God than today’s Congress — providing for the poor inside the Covenant as well as outside of it. And while the people of God should devote themselves to the care, empowerment, service and uplifting of the poor around them — which apparently, tragically, still needs to be argued — there simply are things that government can do that individual congregations can’t.

But the Church in the United States has what I would generously describe as an inconsistent view of what government should and shouldn’t do. I won’t be generous in labeling that as anything other than the result of its prostituting itself with a political party and social movement that looks less like Jesus than it does Ayn Rand. Either way, the consequence is the crippling of our Gospel witness and the deaths of real people — the “least of these” the Author of that Gospel calls his very own.

The evangelical community has a seemingly unquenchable desire for secular government to ensure that society reflects the righteousness of God, as they see it, in reproductive, sexual, marriage and other arenas — but it expends tremendous energy in trying to squelch the State’s efforts in remedying economic injustice and caring for the poor. It’s an odd hermeneutic, indeed. The Church sees tremendous Scriptural support for the State to legislate personal morality while denying any Scriptural imperative for it to legislate economic justice and provision for poor people. The Church knows it cannot have it both ways, and so it seems to have chosen against the poor, enthusiastically calling for the State to “reflect Biblical values” by discriminating against gay people, for example, while vehemently arguing against any justification for the State to reflect moral values in providing for the needy.

There’s a lot of loss in that equation, but the loss of civil liberties pales next to the loss of life. Theories and arguments don’t feed hungry children; theories and arguments seeking to show that the Bible would have the State not expend its efforts in helping the poor can kill them. And it’s not hyperbole to note that this peculiar exegesis does result in death. The effect of economic injustice and legislation that protects it isn’t simply that the rich get richer — it’s the enshrinement of the perverse belief that the poor are poor because of lifestyle choices government simply can’t address and shouldn’t be allowed to try to. When that belief, demonstrated either as blithe disregard or sheer contempt, is reflected in legislation, real children who then can’t get medical care, or food, or shelter, die. So do the elderly, the addicted, the unemployed, the cheated and abandoned, and everyone else whose poverty is deemed the result of “personal choices” or otherwise subject to a free market they say Scripture upholds unequivocally — laissez-faire economics as the pinnacle of Christian social endeavor and disdain for the poor as a fruit of the Holy Spirit, it seems.

Not even the most die-hard “libertarian Christian” would suggest that the Church has no responsibility for the poor, although they often define the “right kind of poor” in such a way that very few of the needy would actually receive any benevolence from it. But a hermeneutic that concludes that the State should reflect a “Biblical” moral agenda tends too often to be one that defines poverty as a moral issue only in terms of judging the morality of the poor. With a fervor for the free market that far exceeds any fervor for true righteousness, these “libertarian Christians” sacrifice the needs of real people on the altar of the market, considering the resulting devastation no concern of theirs. Some of them have found a home in the GOP; others hold the Republicans in disdain but nevertheless stand with them in condemning sentimentalist liberals and soft-hearted, thick-headed Christians who see a Biblical role for government to aid the poor. Either way, they’ve made their choice, and it isn’t in favor of the poor.

And, as conservatives love to remind us, “choices have consequences.” An embrace of the market at the expense of the Gospel and a hermeneutic that calls for government involvement in the bedroom but not in the soup kitchen has some dire consequences, the unveiling of which will have an eternity’s worth of surprises for all of us.

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