Poverty: Is the Church on the Wrong Side?

The blog’s gotten pretty political lately, so let me steer the conversation back to something I tackled very early in this site’s life: What role, if any, do Christians have in a secular, often corrupt, never particularly efficient political process?

A USA Today article (h/t Scot McKnight) indicates that Christians are becoming increasingly disenchanted with the hope of using government action to pursue religious objectives.

In a refreshing departure from the culture war mind-set that has come to characterize this and other recent elections, some of evangelicalism’s leading thinkers and spokespeople are trumpeting an important insight: Christians too fixated on politics are bound to end up frustrated and tarnished. And politics is not the only way to create positive change.

I can’t speak much to being tarnished, but certainly anyone who follows politics will become frustrated. Listening to activist Supreme Court justices consider rejecting the two democratic branches of government and overturning 70 years of precedent – and, more importantly, removing the promise of health insurance to tens of millions of people currently without it – over the past three days has not been good for my blood pressure.

But I would argue that, frustration aside, it’s quite possible that religious and political conservatives – i.e., evangelical Christians – are losing interest in political fights for their religious values because the values they pushed were not, in fact, those of Christ, and that is becoming abundantly clear as they hemorrhage congregants among younger generations focused far more on social justice.

After all, what is the overriding message of the Bible?

From the prophets and the psalms to the gospels and the epistles, it is: God cares deeply for the poor and oppressed. In Isaiah and Amos, God rejects his followers’ worship practices because they are done without any concern for his justice or righteousness, which are virtues connected time and again with treatment of the poor and needy. When Jesus says who will be in and out of his kingdom, what are the criteria? How people treated the poor, the hungry, the homeless, the imprisoned, etc. What does James consider true and spotless religion? Taking care of orphans and widows. What was the one instruction the Jerusalem church gave to Paul as he went to evangelize the Gentiles? Remember the poor, which he did – intensely focusing in multiple letters on raising money to bring back for the poor of Jerusalem.

But what has the Christian political voice entailed? What have evangelicals been most connected with? Let’s consider what issues are the principal foci for today’s conservative churches.

Jay Howard, a professor at the University of Indiana-Perdue, analyzed the 77 most popular Christian worship songs sung in churches from 1989-2005 for the book The Message in the Music; these are the 77 songs to appear in the Top 25 lists in at least one of each of those years. Howard wanted to see how well the songs we sing in church match the worship priorities of God.

Of the 77 songs, Howard found exactly one that “addressed the ‘poor’ and the ‘weak’ as the object of God’s concern for justice and righteousness.” That song was “Give Thanks” by Henry Smith, written in 1978. Howard writes:

The [Christian worship music] in this study is sorely lacking in its attention to the very issues raised by the prophets who condemned the worshippers of ancient Israel. Evangelical Christians have largely limited their concern with righteousness and justice to their opposition to abortion and gay marriage.

So when we fight over music style in our churches, Howard argues, we’re missing the point. God didn’t condemn Israel through Amos because they weren’t using the right songbooks. He condemned them because their worship failed to reflect his priorities of justice and righteousness.

But perhaps the songs just haven’t kept up with the practices of the churches. You don’t have to sing about God’s concern for the poor to live out his priorities, right?

Well, in Congregations in America, Mark Chaves, a Harvard sociology professor, goes into great detail on what various studies show about the various congregations in America (imagine that). Here’s what Chaves reports:

  • Only 44 percent of American congregations report any kind of personal contact with the needy.
  • Just 9 percent of congregations report long-term, face-to-face contact with the needy.
  • The median dollar spent on social services by our churches is $1,200 – less than 3 percent of the average annual church budget.
  • But the more conservative your church is, the worse you’re likely to be. Just 7 percent of conservative evangelical congregations report engaging in long-term, face-to-face contact with the needy, compared to 11 percent of all others.
  • Thirty percent of conservangelical (I just made that up. I like it!) churches report short-term, fleeting contact with the needy, compared to 50 percent of all others.

As Chaves puts it:

Theologically liberal individuals and congregations are, in a variety of ways, more connected to their surrounding communities than are individuals and congregations associated with more evangelical or conservative traditions.

But it’s not just the poor. In other areas of community outreach, conservative Protestant churches report less involvement and engagement with their surroundings than moderate and liberal congregations.

Moderate and liberal Protestant congregations are substantially more likely than other congregations to create and encourage connections between churches and their surrounding communities. … Theological liberalism enhances many kinds of civic engagement while theological conservatism suppresses that engagement.

I will hasten to add that although moderates and liberals come out looking better, it’s only by comparison. The overall numbers remain way too low for a body of people who claim to follow a homeless rabbi who spent his whole life engaging the desperate in long-term, face-to-face contact and building community with those around him.

This isn’t terribly surprising, as scholars have indicated consistently that the church’s focus in worship will reflect and drive its focus elsewhere.

A truly powerful and convicting book on this point is Nicholas Wolterstorff’s Until Justice & Peace Embrace, first published in 1983. Given the date, it’s quite prescient given the sea change churches are experiencing nearly 30 years later.

Wolterstorff has firm ideas about the role social justice should play in the church – active, prominent and unapologetic.

If the worship is performed, but the works of mercy and justice are missing, then a shadow is cast over the worship, and its authenticity is brought into question. … But can we not also say that if the works of mercy and justice are performed but the worship is missing, then a shadow is cast over those works, and their authenticity is brought into question? For this very same God, whom we are to heed by doing the works of mercy and justice in gratitude for those deeds of his that we remember and expect, also requires that we celebrate in memorial those deeds: work and worship are mutually authenticating.

“This world of ours,” Wolterstorff writes, “is a world of deep sorrows.” He names three:

  1. The sorrows of injustice – “Those who enjoy a vast range of choice in our world-system coexist with nearly a billion others who live in a state of perpetual poverty, and with hundreds of millions for whom terror, torture and tyranny are the ever-present context of their lives – their oppression often being perpetrated or supported by those governments whose own citizens enjoy great freedom.”
  2. The sorrows of misplaced values – “Hundreds of billions of dollars are spent each year on armaments to terrorize and kill our fellow human beings. Tens of billions more are stupidly spent each year by the well-to-do on outrageous luxuries.”
  3. The sorrows of undesired consequences – “all those miseries that result from our social order.”

Wolterstorff describes the desire of God for us to live in shalom – a deep and abiding peace with all of God’s creation.

Can the conclusion be avoided that not only is shalom God’s cause in the world but that all who believe in Jesus will, along with him, engage in the works of shalom? Shalom is both God’s cause in the world and our human calling. Even though the full incursion of shalom into our history will be a divine gift and not merely human achievement … nonetheless it is shalom that we are to work and struggle for. We are not to stand around, hands folded, waiting for shalom to arrive. We are workers in God’s cause, his peace-workers. The missio Dei is our mission.

“But why care?” Wolterstorff asks. “Why not simply teach the poor to cope? Why not praise the virtues of poverty? Why not preach a gospel of consolation as the church has done for centuries? Why try to change things? Why should poverty be on the agenda of the Christian, or of anyone else?

“Well, could it be that God cares? Could it be that God has taken the side of the poor?”

Wolterstorff then goes through a litany of Luke – the Magnificat (1:46-53), Christ’s citation of Isaiah (4:16-21), the Beatitudes (6:20-21) and Christ’s encouragement to John the Baptist (7:18-23) – each passage placing Christ in league with the poor.

God is not on the side of Dutch-speaking people versus those who do not speak Dutch; on that he is even-handed. God is not on the side of football players versus those who do not play football; on that, too, he is even-handed. But the poor are different. It is against his will that there be a society in which some are poor; in his perfected Kingdom, there will be none at all. It is even more against his will that there be a society in which some are poor while others are rich. When that happens, then he is on the side of the poor, for it is they, he says, who are being wronged. He is not on the side of the rich, and he is not even-handed.

Wow. That’s quite a shot at the quasi-imperial religiosity in which many Christians today have wrapped the United States and the free-market capitalist system.

Indeed, Wolterstorff, citing Abraham Kuyper, says the failure of our system to care for the poor means we as Christians have an obligation to reform that system – to work for social reforms, not simply do acts of charity. Wolterstorff, a Calvinist working in the tradition of Calvin himself, as well as Kuyper, argues all human beings have sustenance rights, which are on par with three others – rights to protection, freedom and participation. But because sustenance is necessary for life, without which all other rights are meaningless, he argues sustenance is the primary right of humanity.

Rights, he argues, are morally legitimate claims on others. If my rights are being violated, society has a duty to protect them. If the sustenance rights of our poor and needy are being violated, we as a society have a duty to uphold those rights.

The best way to preserve the sustenance rights of the poor would be to attack the causes of poverty, but if that proves too lengthy or difficult a process, then “we have a duty to the impoverished of the world – a duty to aid them.”

The rich man who does not know how to prevent poverty and uses that as an excuse for not aiding the poor is nonetheless trampling on the rights of the poor man and thereby, as Calvin would say, violating God himself in his image. The United States in its fiscal 1981 budget proposed to spend $160.4 billion on armaments for itself and $6.2 billion on economic aid to other countries … . All this is a violation of sustenance rights of such proportions as to cry out to heaven for recompense.

So, Nick, what should we do about poverty?

What must be done is elementary: We must work patiently and persistently to show people the causes of mass poverty, and we must do what we can to convince them that one of the fundamental criteria by which all political and economic institutions and practices must be judged is this: What do they do to the poor? If they perpetuate poverty, they fail the most important test of legitimacy, and in that case we must struggle to alter them. In God’s Kingdom of shalom, there are no poor and there is no tyranny.

In essence, Wolterstorff writes we are enslaved to economic progress and national loyalty. These misplaced values are clouding the church’s vision to see the things that truly matter: How our political and economic systems are propagating poverty and how our ideologies sustain the status quo.

Will the church, once it sees clearly that its calling is not to turn away from the social world but to work for its reformation, become an active agent of resistance to injustice and tyranny and deprivation?

Wolterstorff’s argument is not that Christians are too involved in politics, but that we are not involved enough. We hold the power in this country. As Timothy Noah reminds us, Christians aren’t some politically impotent minority group – we make up nearly 80 percent of the country. If our government is accurately representing us, it should be representing our values.

Unfortunately, I fear that is exactly the case. Our government represents the modern American Christian values of individual liberty and lasseiz-faire economics. We, especially conservatives, have bought into the Enlightenment idea of individual rights for ourselves while sacrificing the rights of the poor and powerless.

Libertarians and conservatives argue that they are on board with helping the poor, but that the church, not the government, should be the one to do it. Fair enough. But the economies of scale regarding poverty are so great, it is not clear the church could solve them. Further, as we saw earlier, the church is doing a pretty terrible job – and the conservative churches most likely to advance this argument are doing the worst!

Others argue that government is so corrupt or so imbued with secularism that Christians should not participate in it. But this is not an argument for apathetic inaction; if the system is broken in this way, then shouldn’t we change that, as well? Or, yet another argument goes, this world is not our home. We’ll all be equal in heaven, so no need to work for equality here.

“Obedience to Jesus Christ requires that one not acquiesce in the social world as one finds it, turning away whenever possible toward some supposedly higher world of religious truth or cultural delight,” Wolterstorff writes, “but rather that one must struggle for reform, doing what one can to introduce justice and shalom.

This idea is supported by Craig Nessan, academic dean of Wartburg Theological Seminary in Dubuque, Iowa, in his book Beyond Maintenance to Mission: A Theology of the Congregation. In it he writes of the “justice trajectory” of scripture “that warrants the church’s involvement in advocacy on behalf of the poor, victims of violence, the marginalized and the oppressed.”

Nessan, too, speaks of shalom, which “expresses the conviction that the divine purpose for this world is that all created beings live together in justice, righteousness and peace.”

If working toward shalom means not just caring about but advocating for the poor, then that requires a reassessment of our place as Christians on the political spectrum. If God is truly not neutral in the cause of rich vs. poor, then perhaps we should be asking harder questions of our politicians who propose making the poor pay the cost of tax cuts for the rich.

The church has been a strong advocate against abortion, which is also a topic of those with power taking advantage of the voiceless, and we should continue to seek ways to reduce the number of abortions in our society (hint: poverty is a major player there, too). But our silence on virtually every other issue affecting the poor and powerless is ringing in God’s ears. If evangelicals look at the damage three decades of culture warring has brought and determine Christians should abandon the political arena, they will be compounding their own mistakes.

Christians should not abandon political advocacy; rather, they should increase it – but do so in a way that truly fulfills the priorities of the Jesus we follow. Rather than supporting the systems and policies that cause, propagate and exacerbate poverty, we should fight to change them, and if that means supporting a different political party than we’re used to, well, worse things have happened to the church than being on the side of the poor.

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