Can Churches do it all?

Pope Francis has repeatedly called for a church of the poor, for the poor. There are some who say government should stay out of caring for the poor, that’s the Church’s job. That was a big role of the Church of antiquity and the Middle Ages: caring for the poor, orphans and widows. This let rulers get on with the important matters.

I’m amazed any preacher says the Bible mandates this separation, and I have read of a couple that do. I wonder what they’re reading: the most common complaint of the prophets in the ancient kingdoms of Israel and Judah against their rulers was they weren’t doing their job taking care of widows and orphans. This was also an age of no separation between Church and State, so there was no independent sphere for Church to work in. It was also a time where any ruler absolutely didn’t care if any given individual lived or died. The value of a human life to an ancient monarch was in the work they could do, and if they couldn’t work, they could starve as far as the ruler cared. Temples generally didn’t worry about individual lives, either.

As a Pastor, I have been part of many church organizations tasked with helping the poor in different ways, even helped a couple get started. As Christians we help those in need because that’s part of fidelity to our identity, we help because we’re Christian. Similar ideas exist in other world religions, such as Judaism and Islam: no religion says it’s virtuous to let the poor die of neglect. We help because of who we are, because we are people of faith, and success or failure isn’t measured in what return we get. The sad thing was in the food pantry boards I sat on, our organization could only give a family of 4 a basic diet for one week, and it was limited to one such assistance every 6 months. Similar policies were in place for assisting with rent and bills, and we made sure the money went to the right place by paying the landlords or utilities directly.

We couldn’t afford to adopt any one poor family indefinitely: it just wasn’t possible financially. All we could do is figure out how to assist someone on a temporary basis as best we could while giving as many folks as we could a chance for help. In a short period of time, we had no problems finding new people to help.

There were churches that would only help people who joined their congregations. The results were predictable: someone would join, go through baptism or whatever initiation, take part in some programs for a while, and ask for more and more help. I’m sure some folks used the help to get out of poverty and remained as committed members of their churches, however many seemed to bounce from church to church, getting as much as they could and participating as minimally as they could until their appeals got wearysome and started falling on deaf ears. Don’t know if there are stats for that, but I’ve heard enough anecdotes to believe it happens.

In the Middle Ages, the churches were the sole support of the poor, and the problem was there were always too many poor who needed help. This would have been haphazard and inconsistent. There is no reasonable way the U. S. government could shift this burden onto the Churches: very quickly it would take all the church’s time and energy and still fall horrendously short. It would be difficult if churches were growing and enthusiastically committed; churches in America today are going through a steep decline, and there’s no guarantee the growing churches would be interested. Some Christians believe the poor deserve what they get and can be piously written off as hopeless cases in this life and the next. I’m not sure now many people would be energized to join a Church if it was taking care of the poor and the individual didn’t want to support that.

Even government assistance is a stopgap. Creating a just society means finding a balance where the poor are cared for while everyone has reasonable opportunities to accomplish whatever they’re called to do. People of faith can help, church can help, but although faith can help set priorities, it’s not set up to run the system. That’s a job for a universal kind of entity reaching across classes that oversees the common good, or a government, and any entity that tries to do this job should be called a government no matter what its name. I don’t think this country would want to discard the separation of Church and State to operate its economy, even if it would bring about some people’s ethical ideal.

As I’ve been saying over the past two weeks, I’m asking for something that provides bare bone basics, period. Food, clothing, housing and health care: working out this out is work that we seem to have been shirking for many years.  It seems blaming the poor for their own poverty hasn’t helped matters much, although I would question what moral high road exists for disqualifying anyone from God’s mercy or the basic needs of life.

The situation of the poor is a challenge for any society to deal with as a whole, and all must have a hand in the solution. This isn’t saying everyone needs to contribute money; everyone needs to sign on to a plan where all can share the basics of life. It is in our interest to do so, and would not only represent the best of our charitable impulses, but also have practical benefits in lessening violence, crime, despair, and general disrespect for the law and society as a whole. It would also be a freedom of religion: Churches would still help people in need without being crushed by the task of helping everyone.


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