Alleviating suffering without fostering dependence

June 25, 2011 in Question of the Week, Spotlight Answers, What is government's role in caring for the poor? Should churches and civic groups do more? by Cole Huffman

On Monday, the Shelby County Commission restored funding for the Office of Early Childhood and Youth this week after first voting to cut the program, which works to reduce infant deaths and teen pregnancies.

Commissioners Wyatt Bunker and Terry Roland spoke against funding the program, arguing that churches and civic organizations — not government — should care for the poor.

“These type social programs should not and should never have existed in government,” Bunker said.

“I’m like my friend, Commissioner Bunker: This should be taken care of through the churches,” Roland said.

What is government’s role in caring for the poor in Memphis and Shelby County? Should churches and civic groups do more?

When Paul recounts to the Galatian Christians his meeting with the men who preceded him in apostleship (James, Peter, John), he says they asked him “to remember the poor,” which he adds was “the very thing I was eager to do” (Gal. 2:9-10). Paul’s choice of the word “eager” in this context is worth reflection. I’ve spent my lifetime among evangelical Christians and found most among us don’t get eagerly stoked about poor people and their needs. This is not to say I see no one among us doing anything. I see more advocacy for the poor in evangelical circles now than I ever have, in fact—even an eager advocacy. It is the felt passion of many younger evangelicals particularly to seek congruence between their theological and sociological consciousness. Looking back through church history, one sees renewal movements often induced a renewed concern to care for the poor. While the Americanized “social gospel” had/has its faults, the gospel is social in its implications and God often identifies Himself in Scripture as the ultimate advocate for the poor.

I can argue biblically, then, that care for the poor is part of the church’s original charter (read how the church responded to poor and marginalized people in the New Testament book of Acts, a continuation of care for the poor outlined for Israel in the Law of Moses). I can also argue biblically that a just social order is the government’s charter from God (Rom. 13). The question then is the extent of responsibility government has to its poorest citizens in achieving and maintaining a just social order. Social programs for the poor are not beyond the pale of government interest, as if the church only has a vested interest in improving people’s lives. Yes, we’ve all heard of social agencies wasting government funds due to mismanagement and unaccountability. And we know that some social services do not help the poor but finance an unhealthy dependence on the government dole.

Precisely along those lines is likely found the best standard for government’s role in providing a just social order for the poor: provide targeted services that effectively alleviate the worst suffering of citizens in poverty without servicing dependence. As for churches doing more: churches are doing many good things—from adopting impoverished schools to investing in troubled neighborhoods, from establishing medical clinics to participating in foster care—but there is always more to be done. I am enthusiastic about a strategic initiative called The Shalom Project, a multi-church effort under the auspices of Second Presbyterian Church. The Shalom Project has been giving careful study to all that is being done in our city and county for the poor. After the study stage is the consolidated deployment of people and resources to bring shalom (“peace”) to those neighborhoods most troubled and distressed, and all in Jesus’ name. I don’t think anything has been attempted before in Memphis quite to this scale, and I look forward with eagerness to what God does through it.