Rod got me pumped up this week. He was writing about poor people and I got to thinking about poverty too. Lyndon B. Johnson declared a war on poverty fifty years ago last week. So for five decadwa the leaders of the U.S. government have been making a concerted effort (if you can call it that) to fight poverty.
Christians have been doing this for thousands of years. The Bible is filled with passages on the subject and so many influential people before us cared deeply about it. It’s hard to be a Christian and not automatically be an advocate for the least of these. Jesus says he’s right there, in them. Serving them is serving him.
Of course, when the war on poverty met the war on drugs, Christians encountered a dilemma, and of course power-hungry politicians had an opportunity. If they managed to pair poverty with drug-use and other social problems, then we could make the argument that government aid (one of the main tools in the war on poverty) wouldn’t help and might actually make things worse.
On Nicholas Kristof’s Facebook page last week, one person wrote: “All the government aid/handouts in the world will not make people better parents. This is why the ideas from the left, although always made with the best of intentions, never work. … All of this aid is wasted.”
Paul Krugman, also of the New York Times, noted that the dominant narrative around the poor in the U.S. was just as cynical:
“The narrative went like this: Antipoverty programs hadn’t actually reduced poverty, because poverty in America was basically a social problem — a problem of broken families, crime and a culture of dependence that was only reinforced by government aid. And because this narrative was so widely accepted, bashing the poor was good politics, enthusiastically embraced by Republicans and some Democrats, too.”
Bill O’Reilly proved that Americans actually think like this on his popular talk show a few weeks ago. But Bill, this time, brought Jesus into the picture arguing that Jesus understood that we’d always have the poor with us.
Of course, Jesus wasn’t merely making some arbitrary social commentary—he was, again, talking about his death and resurrection, which would usher in the Kingdom of God and change the whole world. I’m not sure what O’Reilly’s doing, as usual. Of course, Jesus is quoting Deuteronomy, anyway. Here’s the whole passage:
There will always be poor people in the land. Therefore I command you to be openhanded toward your fellow Israelites who are poor and needy in your land. Deuteronomy 15:11
O’Reilly was making a point about why social justice and Christianity don’t match and why what the Pope is saying has been distorted (obviously) by the “far left.” I want to challenge that notion, and I want Christians to resist it.
Since the politicians have objectively denounced social programs as evil and ineffective (on both sides of the aisle) while praising austerity as good economic policy (which it isn’t), it’s important to note how effective they’ve actually been in reducing poverty.
Apparently, Census Bureau statistics show that poverty has decreased by nearly one-third since 1968. Morever, the poverty rate, in the middle of the Great Recession, would have increased to 31 percent in 2012 without the government benefits. In 1960, 35 percent of seniors were poor, in 2012, only nine percent were. That’s success, no matter which way you cut it. (Thanks to Kristof for these figures.)
There is loads of cynicism when it comes to this idea. The more government programs support people not working, the less likely they are to work—that’s a bad assumption. There might be some truth there, but even if there was, making harsh cuts to SNAP and food stamps isn’t really demonstrating the grace of Jesus. And ultimately we end up punishing children for their parents’ mistakes, and furthermore, putting poor people in worse situations doesn’t really stimulate the economy. You must believe that people are actually trying, and if you don’t, why do the rich get exonerated? Your instinct and nature must become more benevolent and hard-working after you pass a certain tax bracket.
In an ideal world, the church and Christians would be generous enough to make sure that no on in the U.S. was poor. I don’t think we should be relying on the state. It should be Christians specialty and maybe the government should give churches money to do it. James says that true Christian living is to look after widows and orphans. It’s not our specialty and it’s not getting done and poverty is still a major problem, so I want to utilize all the resources at my disposal. So I’m thankful that the myths around poverty are fading and there are people who are getting bold about income inequality and poverty in the U.S. I think God will bless us for that.
And the main reason I want fight in the war on poverty? For the sake of Jesus and the Great Commission. The Great Commandment (love God, love others) is a great tool to fulfill the Great Commission. To help people become Christians. I am more influential as an evangelist when I advocate for the poor. And the poor are more often receptive of Jesus’ hope and grace than the rich are. Doesn’t Jesus say that to the disciples after his confrontation with the rich young ruler in Mark 10?
Reducing suffering among the least of these is the Christian way. I want to do it and I want to be known for it too.