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.

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The Bible calls the government to help the poor

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 André Johnson

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?

This question comes at an interesting time because we just completed our class titled Engaging the City: Urban Theology at Memphis Theological Seminary where we talked about this issue. While there maybe a debate among some politicians and some clergy about the role of government in helping the poor, for anyone engaged in the city for any length of time, there is no such debate. Not only should government help, but also the government is expected–and dare I even say called to help. With just a cursory reading of the Bible, one would be amazed at the many references that charge the government officials to take care of the poor. Matter of fact, one of the ways to draw the wrath and stir up the ire of God is no to take care of the poor!

In addition, a reading of the Bible will also demonstrate that the church; the body of Christ, is called to hold government officials accountable and making sure that the government is doing right by the poor and marginalized. In short, God expects the church to hold government officials accountable to how they treat the poor.

However, the reason why Bunker, Roland and others like them can have this chasm between faith and compassionate action is that like many, we have separated our proclamation from practice. If one is compassionate in church, one should not lose that compassion when she or he becomes an elected official. If the poor is an issue for churches and other faith organizations and the people make up those institutions, should people coming from those institutions lose their compassion practice when they become part of the government? The government is the people, the people are the government, and the people of faith should hold each other accountable to the biblical mandate that calls all of us to care for the “least of these.”

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Church and state need to work together

June 25, 2011 in Featured Question of the Week, Question of the Week, What is government's role in caring for the poor? Should churches and civic groups do more? by Earle J. Fisher

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?

In an attempt to be objective, not personally knowing these elected officials, I will try to make my reflections reflect a righteous indignation towards a systemic ideology and not a personal attack.  With blurred lines and mythical understandings of separating church and state, many people see corporate entities as structures that exist apart from the individuals who make them. Both Church and State (government) are comprised of a group of individuals who ought to be working together towards the common good of all people, with specific focus on the most vulnerable of us. According to the Preamble, WE THE PEOPLE have the charge to ‎”provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity…” Common.  General.  Blessings.  Sounds like “church” to me.

The church surely ought to do more. My critique of the church would be that it has modeled too closely a corporate, entrepreneurial ethic that minimizes the harsh realities of the administrative choices that are made in the name of “progress.”  Is it really progressive when the can of responsibility is kicked further and further down the road by people who are supposed to represent poor PEOPLE? Who is really progressing?  Maybe some of us don’t consider others of us to be included in common, general matters of blessings.

I posed the question of role’s that is fusing this article to a group of my constituents on Facebook.  I appreciated the myriad of responses I received (some in support, some opposition) because I perceived the comments to be made in the spirit of love.  I cannot view the comments made by these officials in the same light.

Social programs were/are incorporated to highlight and engage in the necessary efforts that display humanitarian concern for human beings.  But too often, some humans embrace the glamour of public office and ministerial platform without accepting the grit and grind that comes along with it.

Comments like those suggested by these officials smack of insensitivity and misappropriation of privilege.  It is interesting (to say the least) when the proverbial “passing of the buck” (pun intended) takes place in accepting responsibility of caring for the poor but it doesn’t take place when it comes to profiting from the poor.  Officials always accept the votes of poor people in their favor.  The city council just approved an 18 cent tax increase and there was no discrimination (poor people must pay too).  Shared responsibility is the order of the day when it benefits those in power; shouldn’t it work in reverse as well?  And please, let’s consider this; many legislative measures that have been incorporated and endorsed by such politicians are the CAUSE of the plight of the poor.

Ultimately, the government is comprised of people.  The church is comprised of people.  It is the responsibility of all people, to care for all people.  Service is the rent we pay to live.  Too many of us in privileged positions are living rent free.  If we can accept someone’s tithes/taxes (and their votes in our favor) we can accept responsibility to care for them.

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Government should serve the common good

June 25, 2011 in Featured Question of the Week, Question of the Week, What is government's role in caring for the poor? Should churches and civic groups do more? by Burton Carley

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

There is a responsive reading in our hymnal taken from Walt Whitman that has a line that reads: “Those who govern are there for you, it is not you who are there for them.” In a democracy the government by, for and of the people does not serve some of the people but all of the people. Taxes are paid not just to receive personal basic services but also for the common good. City and county budgets represent how the resources of the community are used for the quality of life for all citizens. This includes programs that benefit the poor. The health of a society is directly related to its moral concern for its citizens who are at risk and have few resources to command.

Faith communities are also called to serve the wider community outside of their walls. The Church Health Center, the Metropolitan Interfaith Association, and the Hospitality Hub are three examples of congregations representing the religious diversity of Memphis pooling resources to serve those in need. The response of congregations to the recent flood is another illustration. In addition individual congregations offer a variety of outreach ministries like soup kitchens, tutoring in the public schools, and repairing homes. The number of volunteer hours and financial resources involved are substantial.

In the Unitarian tradition faith is a matter of what ones does. In the Christian tradition the concern for justice is not separated from faith. Bringing the kingdom of God on earth, creating the beloved community, involves challenging social structures, economic systems and political arrangements that disadvantage the poor and vulnerable. Responsible budgeting and economic sacrifices in a challenging financial time brings clarity of purpose to how resources are employed. Programs that serve the vulnerable need to be examined for efficiency and effectiveness rather than dismissed as the proper concern of government.

It takes government, faith-based communities and civic groups to respond to the many needs of people especially in a large metropolitan area with a significant population of citizens at the poverty line. Some projects like the Nehemiah housing project are only made possible by the pooling of state, local and faith-based resources. No one agency or religious institution or government body command sufficient resources to provide all the needed services for our most vulnerable citizens. All are called to do their part, and to be wise partners when possible. We can only be a city of good abode when we are in right relationship with the least among us.

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Of the people, by the people, for the people

June 25, 2011 in Featured Question of the Week, Question of the Week, What is government's role in caring for the poor? Should churches and civic groups do more? by Prasad Duggirala

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?

We must not forget Abraham Lincoln’s definition of Government: Of the people, By the people, For the people. The government is collecting taxes to provide services to its citizens and it is obligated to provide these services morally, fiscally and legally. Reduction in infant mortality and teen pregnancies benefits the community in long run. Although the religious institutions provide many services to the community in the spirit of service to the fellow man, it is not their obligation.

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Great need, great generosity

June 25, 2011 in Featured Question of the Week, Question of the Week, What is government's role in caring for the poor? Should churches and civic groups do more? by Nicholas Vieron

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?

I am confident that the Commissioners who object have a sensitive spot in their hearts for the poor and probably are very generous, via their respective churches, in funding help for those in need, I am also mindful that it has been the Church that historically has initiated the program for philanthropy from the days of St. Basil (330-379). And as people of God we should continue and perhaps do more. That is why one of the favorite programs of my church is the Ladies Philoptochos Society, one of the largest philanthropic organizations of America.

However, the conditions that prevail today call out that we must ALL participate in caring for those in need. In what way and to what extent, I do not know. We offer help to those in foreign countries – something we should remain humbly proud of – but to ignore those in close proximity seems callous. We Americans have manifested a generosity as a nation through the years for those in need. Let us not stop now, especially now that the need is greater than it has been since the great depression.

P.S. I hope my Social Security check is not cancelled. I hope it is not considered government intervention! It would create a hardship on many of us.

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Making Pilate proud

June 21, 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 Peter Gathje

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?

Like Pilate washing his hands of the execution of Jesus, Commissioners Wyatt Bunker and Terry Roland want to wash their hands of the execution of the poor.  Pilate wanted to defer his responsibility as governor for Jesus’ execution, and these two Commissioners want to defer their responsibility as government officials for the neglect of the poor.  The Commissioners want to wash their hands by making a false pious sounding call to the churches to do more.  In making this call they reflect both biblical illiteracy and a good old American individualism.

Jesus and the Prophets are clear: a government is judged by its care for the poor.  In chapter 25 of Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus speaks of the judgment of the nations, and tells his listeners that this judgment is based upon how the basic needs of the least of these are met.  In Isaiah chapter 58, the prophet condemns a society that neglects the poor and urges a renewal of society based upon care for the poor.  Isaiah in forming this judgment drew upon God’s law that clearly established care for the poor as a basic requirement for government in Israel.  All of the other prophets reflect Isaiah’s judgment.

One of the reasons the Bible holds government responsible for care for the poor is because it recognizes that poverty is something that is created and sustained by public policy, by economic and political institutions.  Contrary to individualistic assumptions in American culture that blame the poor for poverty, the Bible sees that poverty is the result of the policies and institutional arrangements of the powerful that oppress and exploit the poor.

The Bible does not blame the poor for poverty, nor does it see poverty as primarily resulting from individual bad choices. Rather the Bible urges that society be structured in such a way that the poor are cared for and those with economic and political power recognize their continuous responsibility for the poor. Biblical justice is concerned with how economic and political power is structured and says that both are judged by how they treat the poor.

This biblical view of the government’s responsibility to address poverty and care for the poor is also present in centuries of Christian tradition. A quick read of John Wesley or John Calvin or Martin Luther or Thomas Aquinas, among others in Christian history, show an ongoing concern for the government to make sure that all members of a society have access to the basic necessities for life.

Commissioners Bunker and Roland’s commitment to individualism over a biblically based Christian commitment to shared well being is also evident in their call for the churches to be solely responsible for aiding the poor. Addressing poverty in their view is simply a matter of charity, of individuals giving to individuals in need. Yet the biblical view is that addressing poverty is a matter of justice concerned with the institutional arrangements that cause poverty. Commissioners Bunker and Roland are shirking the responsibility of the government to do justice, to create conditions which reflect a just distribution of a community’s goods.

No doubt, churches and all people of faith have a responsibility to care for the poor.  And, no doubt, they have not done all that they could to aid the poor. But churches do not have the power to shape the conditions of economic life to ensure a just distribution of goods.  Churches do not have the power to establish or influence basic economic and political policies that keep poverty going.  Government does have that power, and right now that power is being used to aid the wealthier members of society instead of seriously addressing the root causes of poverty.

So, when folks like Commissioners Bunker and Roland urge that government get out of the business of helping the poor, what they are really urging is that government stand idly by claiming its innocence while the poor are executed. Pilate would indeed be proud.

 

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