Let’s all lend a hand

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 Chris Altrock

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?

The recent debate in the Shelby County Commission regarding funding for the Office of Early Childhood and Youth (OECY) centered around two opposing paradigms regarding the role of government. One paradigm, that which presumably led to the original funding for the OECY, asserted that government has an important role to play in social service. The other paradigm, that which was partly responsible for some of the opposition to continued funding for the OECY, asserted that government should not pay for social programs. Instead churches and other organizations should carry this load.

Indeed, churches have long fulfilled a dominant role in society for caring for the poor and the weak. The pagan skeptic Julian is believed to have famously confessed, “the godless Galileans feed not only their poor but ours as well.” In his book Poverty and Leadership in the Later Roman Empire Peter Brown explores how pervasive the church’s ministry to the poor was and how this ministry influenced the larger society. He contrasts how two groups—the “middling persons” in the church and the wealthy within society—gave. The civic norm in the fourth and fifth centuries was this: wealthy people giving large gifts to fund general needs within society. The norm within the church, however, was this: people of modest means giving what they could to specifically support the poor. Brown argues that the church put the poor “on the radar” of society because of its persistent and regular giving for the deprived. This passion for the poor began to influence the larger society. The church’s example, Brown suggests, created a larger social awareness that all the wealthy and powerful have an obligation toward the poor and the weak.

Thus, the church should still be the loudest champion for the poor within any society. Because of the teaching of Scripture and the example of Jesus, the church has the greatest motivation to be involved with the deprived. However, the church’s example ought to continue to inspire the larger community — including the government — to realize its own obligation toward the poor and the weak. Ultimately our common humanity — the fact that we are all made in the image of a God who cares for the poor — ought to lead us all to lend a hand.