Not too long ago one of my conservative Christian friends brought up the subject of who is responsible for attending to the needs of the poor. His take, widely shared by many in our area, is that it is not the responsibility of government but of the Church (and other NGOs?). After all, he asserted, the bible says nothing about what government should do, and what it does say about our responsibility to the poor is laid at the doorstep of the Church.
He was not impressed with my opening rebuttal about the many things that scripture has to say about government. I think it was because I didn’t make a connection between his idea of government and what is written about the obligations and sins of society in general and kings in particular. I thought the connection was obvious, but it wasn’t to him. After all, what do David or Nebuchadnezzar have to do with democratically elected American presidents, governors and mayors? What do councils of elders, the Sanhedrin, or Roman authorities have to do with today’s legislatures and courts?
Perhaps we will have a chance to go over that again, but in the meantime I was puzzled by his laying the obligation to the poor at the doorstep of the Church. From what I can tell about Jesus’ teaching, that obligation is laid at the foot of every follower of Christ, not at the doorstep of an institution. Saying that the Church is responsible is just a way to avoid one’s particular obligation as a professed Christian. That came to mind in an especially powerful way in a recent morning’s prayer and meditation remembering the work of Fr. Damien among the lepers on Molokai. It was not the Church that took responsibility for that work, but Damien the priest who acted against the better judgment of his superiors.
To be sure, the Church is a vessel from which followers of Christ emerge into the world to take up their work, but the Church itself, as an institution, has limited abilities to be an agency of support and relief to the poor, sick, and oppressed. The Church may nurture, train, and send out persons to continue the healing and reconciling work of Christ, but that is not the same thing as being an operating agency engaged in that work.
The romantic ideal of individual Christians lovingly giving of themselves and their treasures to meet the needs of those who are desperately poor, oppressed, systemically disadvantaged by society, and so on is not a myth, it is a corrupting deception that effectively shields selfishness and prejudice. There are very few Damiens among us. Disciples continuing Christ’s healing and reconciling work are called upon to do what they can, and what they can do best is organize local resources for action while influencing the public policies of the societies in which they live to turn toward justice.
As an example, about fifteen years ago a new organization was created in our community to address the needs of the desperately poor. Called Helpline, it was given birth by committed persons from a number of congregations. Without those individuals taking up the obligation of doing Christ’s work in the world, it would not have happened. They had the (sometimes shaky) support of their congregations, but it was their individual effort brought together in collective action that made Helpline a success as an agency that helps the desperate poor successfully access social services that will help them avoid homelessness, recover wholeness of life, and become more productive members of society than they had been. The social services themselves are, for the most part, functions of or largely supported by government, which is not an alien agency forced upon the people, but the agency of the people.
It is that idea of individual efforts brought together in collective action that brings me to my next point. The cult of extreme individualism fails to recognize that the communities we live in are a function of individuals gathered for collective action for the good of society, or community if you prefer. Government is not an foreign overlord imposed on us from above, but our own invention of how best to create and sustain community. It is individual effort brought together in collective action for the good of society. One form of that action is to require, if nothing else, that individuals pay their fair share of creating and sustaining community, which we accomplish through taxation. We make collective decisions about what those taxes should be used for, and, at least for the last seventy years, we have decided that a significant portion of them should be used to mediate problems of poverty, hunger and health.
It’s an imperfect system of elements cobbled together by elected representatives who find it difficult to cooperate with each other and are often unduly influenced by narrowly focussed “special” interests. It may be ugly, but it’s not the enemy. We Christians are called to help make it better, not destroy it.