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.