“It’s the church’s job to take care of the poor!”
“Letting the market work unfettered from government regulations is the best way to raise the standard of living for everyone, including the poor.”
“Foreign aid works!”
“Government entitlement programs, while not perfect, have kept millions of people out of poverty.”
I’ve heard variations of each one of these soundbites numerous times over the past couple of months. It’s like the modern day mashup of the Corinthian argument of following Paul or Cephas or Apollos. “I follow the church!” “I follow the market!” “I follow the government!” And so we bitterly defend our ideological ground, create alliances with the lesser of the two evils, and demonize the third. The church thinks the government has appropriated its job, the market looks at both government and non-profit initiatives and thinks they’re largely irrelevant, and the government trusts neither individuals nor the marketplace to regulate themselves enough to ensure that no one is left behind. Everyone is looking to make sure that their team and their hero gets the credit and all the glory.
In the 4th century, Emperor Julian had a similar predicament. In a letter to a Hellenist high priest, Julian was incensed at the generosity of the Christians. “The impious Galileans support not only their own poor, but ours as well.” There was no logic in their religion to account for such behavior. No one takes care of anyone else other than their own people. The radical sacrifice, hospitality, and inclusivity of the early Christians were shaming their Greek gods. The way these Christians were taking care of the poor was taking away the glory that was due to his gods. So Julian ordered his government and his priests to out-do the generosity and hospitality of the Christians.
A couple of years ago I was reading about the low poverty rate of Denmark and the high levels of services and support that were offered to all. But this low poverty rate came at a high price tag with some of the highest rates of taxation in the world. Nevertheless, the Danes also enjoy one of the highest standards of living in the world. And I thought to myself: “Is Jesus disappointed by this? Is Jesus saddened that the Danish government has taken away the ‘church’s job’ and nearly eliminated poverty?” I was suddenly convicted with the realization that I was more concerned with the church’s reputation and with God’s glory than the well-being of God’s own children.
I was confronted with this again recently when I was asked to join an initiative of 30 prominent evangelical leaders in Kansas City who are working with city and school officials to help young children improve reading skills. Studies are showing that if students aren’t proficient in reading by 3rd grade, they’re likely never to catch up and will fall further and further behind in all subjects. So there it was: start a reading program. No strings attached. No Bible lessons. Not to save them. Just read with them. Will you do it? And I got to thinking about it. No, reading with kids isn’t saving them in the cosmic, eternal sense we’re used to talking about. But yeah, just reading with kids is saving them. It’s saving them from the unclear instructions on the standardized tests. It’s saving them from having to act out in class because its the only way they know how to draw attention to themselves and away from their educational incompetence. It’s saving them from having to drop out of school for some dead-end, minimum wage, clerical work. ‘Just reading’ is saving them from the fine print of a payday loan agreement. It’s saving them from the cheerless visits of renewing their Section 8 status. Is ‘just reading’ with kids saving them? Would God be pleased with this even though it isn’t overtly Christian? Does God get the glory regardless of how his children are taken care of? I think so.
Emperor Julian was concerned about his gods’ reputation because there was nothing within their character that would compel their followers to such acts of love and compassion. So he had to appropriate Christian practices simply to prop up a story about their gods’ so-called glory. The emperor’s gods had no clothes. The early Christians on the other hand didn’t take care of the poor as some kind of publicity stunt for God. They took care of the left out and forgotten of the empire because it is an outflow of the very generous, hospitable, and inclusive character of Jesus Christ himself. But neither did they give up preaching of God’s word because they knew that it was life. It was the only story that could animate and resurrect life eternal among broken religious, economic, and political institutions.
Out of exasperation for their jealousy and quarreling, Paul finally says to the Corinthians, “What, after all, is Apollos? And what is Paul? Only servants through whom you came to believe–as the Lord has assigned to each his task.” We might ask the same. What after all is the church? What is the market? What is the government? Only God’s servants through whom God takes care of each of his children. I came across this piece of church doctrine that captures these sentiments well. “It is undoubtedly an act of love, the work of mercy by which one responds here and now to a real and impelling need of one’s neighbor, but it is an equally indispensable act of love to strive to organize and structure society so that one’s neighbor will not find himself in poverty.” Whether the poor are fed through a volunteer church soup kitchen, through food stamps, or through a decent paying job–God is glorified. Whether children learn to read through Bible stories, in a supplemental summer reading program or public school kindergarten–God is glorified. In all things, God is glorified.
It’s not the church’s job to take care of the poor. It’s the church’s job to tell a story about a generous, hospitable God who is gathering up the whole world to himself and doesn’t want anyone to be left out of this community of divine love. It’s our job to enact that love in the world through the church and through markets and governments and to celebrate when someone takes our job away from us. I think if we take a good look around the world we’ll find that there’s plenty more good news to tell and plenty more jobs to do. So let’s read with some kids, shall we?