I recently spoke with a very conservative friend to get his thoughts on the idea of the government being involved in social justice issues. He, like many traditional, conservative Christians, believes the federal government should have extremely limited, if any, involvement in such issues. When I asked him why, his answers echoed that which I have heard many times before: 1) Why should we go into deeper debt to help other countries when our own country and people are struggling so much now? 2) Why should the government be allowed to tell me what and how I am to spend my money? I make my money, so I should be in charge of how and where I spend it. 3) America wasn’t always the great nation it is today; it had the same struggles and hardships that other poor countries today face. But over many years, with hard work and determination, we have emerged victorious and other poor countries should be able to do the same.
Especially considering today’s economy, it’s easy for people to feel that America needs to tighten up its belt, so to speak, and worry about ourselves first. And to be honest, it’s understandable, to a degree, why people would feel that way. However, it’s important to remember something: regardless of how bad things are here, for most people in the U.S., it’s still a lot better than the majority of the world, and as long as we have anything to share, in faith, we should do so. Deuteronomy 15:7 says, “If there is a poor man among you, one of your brothers, in any of the towns of the land which the LORD your God is giving you, you shall not harden your heart, nor close your hand to your poor brother; but you shall freely open your hand to him, and generously lend him sufficient for his need in whatever he lacks.” Additionally, God commanded tithes from His followers to help the poor, widow and orphan. He also commanded, among other things of the same nature, for the corners of the fields not to be harvested or the crops to be gleaned so that it would be left for the needy and the stranger. There will always be lean times, and I’m not about “guilting” people into giving. But in hard times, giving can become an act of faithfulness. And “giving” doesn’t have to necessarily equal “money.” Perhaps during those lean times, it might be easier to give of your time by serving a meal to the homeless or even cleaning out the closets to donate items. But my guess is, and this is a harsh judgment on my part I’ll admit, that for most of those people who are complaining about how, in such hard times, we should take care of “our own,” they are, in actuality, doing very little in the way of helping “our own” anyway. It has always amazed me how that some of the people who have the strongest opinions about how social justice should look (or rather not look) have not once stepped out of their house in any kind of service to the poor.
A much more difficult question to tackle is why should the government be allowed to spend “my” money on social justice issues? My conservative friend that I mentioned above put it this way, “If a single person makes the decision to put $10,000 on a credit card and go into debt to give it to the poor, well then, that’s their decision. But when the government gives money to foreign aid, furthering the U.S.’s debt, it’s no longer one person’s decision, but someone making a decision for all of us.” His logic is understandable to be sure, but with the huge sums of money the government spends on ridiculous things, I’m sure not about to argue about money they spend of social justice concerns. For Pete’s sake, I just read today that at a recent conference NASA spent $66 per person per day for “light refreshments” of soda, coffee, fruit, bagels and cookies. When confronted with spending $62,611 on snacks for 317 people for three days, NASA’s response was that they hadn’t “price shopped.” No kidding! If people are going to complain about how the government spends taxpayer money, they should start with a long list of other things before getting to aid for the poor.
Which brings us to the last point – the “if-people-just-worked-hard-enough-they-could-make-something-of-themselves-one-day-too” argument. In my opinion, this is such a narrow, (perhaps unknowingly) narcissistic worldview. Another conservative friend of mine recently reasoned another often heard argument (to paraphrase) that although God commanded His people to care for the poor He never said the government should do it, and additionally, people need to work for self worth and have a job and not just rely on federal funding. So, let’s tackle the government comment first. Originally, in the very beginning, God never intended for His people (the Jews specifically) to have a government, for the Church was to be their “government” and God, their King. However, because the Jews wanted an earthly king, God made provisions for them. In the book of Romans, we’re told that God has appointed all authority, and if the government is an extension of its people, then the government should also, in concern for the global community, make responsible decisions and policies to fight against injustices in the world. As I pointed out in the last article, this is not a call for Socialism, Communism, Name-your-ism. But rather it is a call for justice: people receiving what is due to them, what is right and proper, in the context of their own community and people.
I'll admit that I have a harder time politely discussing the “they-should-just-get-a-job” argument. I’ll start by making the assumption that people who say this aren’t talking about people who are starving to death and dying of treatable diseases in impoverished, developing countries. Although, if you recall my first friend that I mentioned really sees no difference in the ability of America (and thus Americans) to make herself great with hard work, values, morals, and good work ethic and any other developing country to do so, given enough time. I’ll only briefly pause here to mention that this logic only works with all things being equal – like availability of natural resources, a non-corrupt, non-oppressive government, security from warfare, readily available water, food, and shelter, etc. Suffice it to say that, in my opinion, all things considered are not equal, and it is unjust to say that these countries should simply be able to dig themselves out from the vice-like grips of generations of poverty with some good work ethic, morals and values.
Now certainly, in America, there are people who battle addictions and have made other poor choices that have directly or indirectly resulted in their poverty. And although I would argue that those people are just as much made in the image of God as you or I and therefore deserving of our love and service, it is somewhat comprehensible, I guess, that the general public would have little empathy for such individuals. But let me tell you this brief story: last Tuesday I had the remarkable opportunity to serve the homeless of Indianapolis at the Indy Homeless Connect event at the Convention Center (more on this experience in a later article.) About 1,000 of our homeless neighbors were served that day and of every volunteer I talked to who had spent the day talking with these people, the one thing we heard over and over again from everyone was this: “If I could just find a job, things would be better. I just wish I had a job.” Yes, there are people who abuse the welfare system, and I, like most people in the U.S. I would guess, believe it needs a serious reform overhaul. But should we really shut our eyes, and worse our hearts, to the poor simply because we believe that some people are abusing the system? Everyone has heard of Sodom and Gomorrah. It has gone down in history as a “shining” example of God’s wrath upon ungodly people, and the conservative folks have clasped onto it as proof of God’s disgust and punishment of homosexuality. And while it is true that there were many sins being committed by the people there, listen to what Ezekiel says about their sinfulness, “'Now this was the sin of your sister Sodom: She and her daughters were arrogant, overfed and unconcerned; they did not help the poor and needy” (Ezekiel 16:49). So many conservative Christians today are wholly (and many times only) concerned with the decline of morals and sexual immorality in our country. While those are certainly disheartening and troubling, the sexual impurity the Bible speaks against is mostly our own. A far more serious concern should be what will happen to us, our churches, our country, and our world if we don’t fulfill the sacred mandate that has been faithfully entrusted to us by God to care for the least of these.