Church should prod goverment toward justice, compassion

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 Steve Montgomery

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?

Certainly the idea that the business of feeding the hungry, caring for the homeless, and tending to the poor ought to be returned to the churches is shared by more than Commissioners Bunker and Roland.  But you’ll never catch me saying that.

To be sure, the church is the ordained agency of Christ’s compassion, but it is a betrayal of the tradition that I belong to, the Reformed tradition, to claim the charity belongs exclusively to the church. Rather, it is the role of the political order as well, to insure a just and free and humane society. And the particular responsibility of church folk like us is to prod the political system toward more compassion and more justice and more freedom, with special responsibility to be advocates of those without power and voice.

Our own U.S. Constitution, which the House of Representatives highlighted by reading it fully as its full order of business this year, calls for our government to “establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty…”  That promotion of the general welfare if first and foremost the responsibility not of the church, but of the political structures, because, as Reinhold Neibuhr taught us much later, “that is where the power to get things done resides.”

There is one other problem by simply depending upon the churches to do the work of helping the poor. The problems of poverty are so deep that there is no way we can do it by ourselves. And charity alone will not suffice. As I have said before, “when justice is the issue, charity is a sin.” We do acts of charity that are mandated in scripture, but remember that the prophet did not say “Let charity roll down like water and righteousness like an everlasting stream.”  Rather, it justice that rolls down. And that is the task of our politicians to ensure that it does.