Thursday, October 23, 2008

The Presidential Election That Almost Was... Or Why It's Difficult for Me to Vote, 4

"It's the economy, stupid."

That sentence--despite the rather impolite use of the final word--won a presidential election a few years back. And it's resurfaced from time to time in this election as well.

In fact, the last few elections have seemingly focused on this issue. Politicians spin out their tax proposals, health insurance plans, and bicker about who best serves the ever-present "middle class."

But for all their talk about the economy, do you ever really feel as if they are talking about you?

I don't. And if there was ever any doubts, the "bailout" plan should dispel them. Count the last several financial and corporation catastrophes. How many of them featured a bailout for the consumer or the citizen? There's this year's plan. Score one for the banks and executives. There's the Enron fiasco and the tech bubble that burst. Going back a little ways there is S&L, and so on. It seems the dominant economic philosophy isn't quite Republican or Democrat; as a brother at the church put it to me yesterday: it's "privatized profits and socialized debt." Which is another way of saying "the American people" (another oft-heard phrase too general to communicate) who end up holding the bag for economic greed and scandal.

This year Sen. Obama actually offered something of a definition of "rich". Turns out that if you make over $250,000 per year, you're probably rich. No one has yet offered a satisfactory definition of "poor." Kinda gives us a clue as to who is really protected and cared for in the economy. There is a preferential option for the rich, whether that's defined vaguely as "middle class" or "earners above $250,000."

As far as I can tell, fewer and fewer institutions and political types give any attention to the poor among us. And by "institutions," I'm including churches.

Among conservative types, here's how I've heard the conversation (which, admittedly, is my hearing as much as other's speaking):

"It's not government's job to fix poverty. Government programs don't work. Government needs to be out of that business."

"It's not the church's job to fix poverty. We are to care for the poor members of the church, but we're not responsible for all the ills of society. We must keep the focus on the gospel, the main mission of the church."

Here's what's true about those statements. Many government programs don't "work," if by work you mean solve the problems forever. And, without question, we must insist on the church keeping mercenary focus on the proclamation of the gospel. That's her mission, and no other group exists for that purpose in God's economy.

Having said that, though, don't these two positions in effect mean that no one cares for the poor, no one has responsibility to address them and their needs?

Another institution we could include would be the family. The family has responsibility, certainly. But chances are if you're a poor individual you're living in a poor family. So, asserting that families are responsible is tantamount to blaming the victim.

But that's really the source of the disagreement, isn't it? Can we call the poor "victims"? Are they sufferers of any injustice? Do they deserve the care and protection of government or the church?

The other way of putting it is: Is poverty a social or theological evil that should be combated? Is it an evil effect of the Fall to be resisted or a social commonplace to be accepted? It seems to me failure to address this question is what keeps us bickering about this or that tax policy or this or that program's effectiveness. We keep having the pragmatic discussion while it seems there is no stated theological consensus about the nature of the problem. The pragmatic conversation is second-order, down stream.

We won't make progress until the first conversation is held more widely, at least among God's people. Until then too many missional types will sound the trumpet in the cause of serving the poor while maintaining a loose grip on the truths that save. And too many folks with a firm grip on gospel truth will turn blinded eye to the poverty and need right on their doorsteps. I count myself in the latter group.

People become poor for a lot of reasons. We tend to think some of those reasons are "understandable" and others "blameworthy." There's a working theory in most people's minds about poverty. Oversimplified it states: "Help those who can help themselves. Help those who are the 'deserving poor.' If it's their fault, let them endure the consequences. If it's not their fault, extend a helping hand."

There's a certain logic to this. But there is a problem: Are we really that skilled at determining who the 'deserving poor' are or who is or isn't at fault? And if poverty is an evil to be resisted and with God's help overcome, then there is blood on our hands if we remain silent or inactive. Or in more biblical imagery, the blood of people made in God's image cries out from the ground against us.

Personally, I'm tired of political promises to serve "the middle class." I don't know why they should be catered to or treated as if their interests are more significant than others. Just like you, I've heard all the rhetoric about "a strong middle class" being the engine of growth, etc. But one gets the sense that all of this talk is simply polite speak for worldliness and selfishness and comfort-seeking and big-house-buying, SUV-driving, flat-screen-TV-watching gratification of the flesh. Bound up in that phrase, "the middle class," is a certain view of the "good life" that exalts worldly and passing comforts over the truly good life of faith in Christ, advancement of the gospel, sacrifice for the kingdom, and serving those in need. And you get the sense that many Christians have bitten and swallowed that bait and are hooked by the world's lure.

I wonder to what extent our "political philosophy" regarding poverty, work and wealth is simply a mask for our worldliness? And to what extent is our pragmatic and philosophical approaches to caring (if it can be called "caring") for the poor simply the veil we lay over a cold, indifferent, and unloving heart?


Anonymous said...

Interestingly, this morning I was reading Deuteronomy 15, which deals with the sabbatical year in Israel. In the middle of that chapter, Moses speaks against those who would not open their hand to the impoverished (v.7-8, 11). He is clear that the reason why a person will not reach out to the poor (7) or give begrudgingly (9-10) is the heart. They are selfish in their hearts, as exemplified in their own thoughts: "The seventh year, the year of release is near" (9).

How easy it is for us to make excuses, whether political or theological. Yet God still speaks, "Therefore I command you, 'You shall open wide your hand to your brother, to the needy and to the poor, in your land'" (11). This is the kind of message and lifestyle that displays the treasure of Christ.

Laura said...


Christopher Lake said...

Thank you for this post, brother! These things needed to be said (or written)! I completely agree that the primary focus of a local church needs to be the Gospel, and I do believe that the local church should help its poor and needy members-- but does that mean that the church is to have *no* corporate "mercy and justice" witness in the community, helping poor and needy lost people with at least the basics that they need to survive (definitely including, but *not* excluded to, the message of salvation through faith in Christ)? I think that some very "doctrinally sound," otherwise healthy churches have simply over-reacted here to the Social Gospel (minus the Gospel) movement.

Anonymous said...

If you look at the history of the Salem Witch Trials, they were actually a battle between the socio-economic groups of Salem Town (merchants) against Salem Village (farmers). Class warfare is the essence of politics. After all, politics is generally defined by political scientists as "the authoritative allocation of resources and values."

So, when Americans vote for someone to allocate resources and values, they are going to vote for someone to allocate their values to others and others resources to them. That is why the politicians speak about the "middle-class."

Incidentally, I am a libertarian because I think that is the best route to honoring the dignity of everyone. The government shouldn't be in the business of bailouts; local charities and churches should be that. There, I said it.

Hayden said...

Thank you my brother!

We must be active in our communities and I believe if we are to error, we are to error on the side of grace in helping the poor. We must be good stewards but also those who care for our communities.

The reason that I am so opposed to the government taking this over is not so much that they are ineffective, which they are much of the time, but because it lets the church 'off the hook' in doing the hard work of helping the poor. This is uncomfortable and we as the church like to be comfortable.We want our churches to be country clubs where we gather with people who are 'like me' not hospital wards where we invite those who are battered and bruised and many times not 'like me'.

Thanks for this series of articles my brother.

PS May no one read this and think that I am making 'helping the poor' the main issue of the church. I do not think that is the main mission, but I ask you, does the church you attend (or lead) participate in this mission at all? why or why not?