Today is Blog Action Day, and though I didn’t get around to formally participating, I’m going to write a short post on dealing with poverty from a Christian perspective. I’m feeling idealistic, so beware!
Since I first started thinking about issues of poverty, way back when I was a teenager (and fish were just working on that “leg” thing) I have believed that ideally private charitable action would have priority over government action. I still think that as a general rule, what the government can do even poorly, private agencies can do better. The problem is whether private agencies will do it at all.
I recall having this discussion with someone a few years ago. He suggested to me that if the government would just get out of the welfare business, private charity would take over and there would be no problem. Personally I don’t believe that would happen. I do see a role for he government in providing that basic safety net, but I think that private agencies, privately funded can do much more.
One option is faith-based initiatives. I have a major problem with these myself, however, for two major reasons. The first is that when a religious agency, such as a Christian ministry gets in bed with the government, their distinctive focus is often blurred or even obliterated. My strongest reason for supporting separation of church and state is that I believe the church is better off without the state.
My second reason is that when the government provides the money, it can and indeed must regulate how that money is spent. As I will note below, one of the greatest benefits of private charity is its flexibility. That, combined with close access to the community in which aid is offered, helps a private agency to be more effective than a government agency.
What are some of the strengths of private charities?
- Close contact with the community means less fraud. If you go to your neighborhood church, you will find it more difficult to engage in repeated fraud, for example. I don’t mean you can’t defraud a church. In fact, I’ve dealt with people who were trying, and I doubtless made some wrong decisions in using a church’s money when it was my duty to make that call.
- A private organization can be more flexible in responding to actual needs, not according to a formula. There are situations that fit a boilerplate, but there are also individual situations that require a flexible response. This is where a faith-based, government funded program loses much of the benefit. Too many government programs are designed to keep people from starving rather than resolve poverty.
- A private organization is generally not the only option. A person can seek the program that fits.
I’d like to see an effort, especially on the part of Christians, to increase private charity before, not after, some mythical moment when the government will reduce its activities. Yes, I’m aware that there are many Christian and other private charities in action already, but I do not think that loving one another by our actions has a high enough priority.
I think this should start inside the church community. We should make a determination that nobody in the family (that is our church family) will be starving, without housing, or unable to get the necessary training to find a job, unless they make it impossible themselves. The early church did this, as recorded in Acts 4:32-37.
We would certainly have to take a look at some of Paul’s advice to the church in Corinth, and actually learn to police our own congregations, but that would be a good idea in any case. Let’s give this a priority over buildings. Let’s teach stewardship as hand in glove with charity. Let’s focus on making the time being helped by the church short and the time spent contributing great.
If a church congregation has a member who is in need, that church congregation could respond in a number of ways, including child care, opportunities for training, networking for jobs, and so forth.
I’m not saying we would succeed at all times. I also long for holiness of life, but the goal is a bit elusive! I’m not saying that we become a source of indefinite payments to support those who won’t support themselves. In fact, my suggest is exactly the opposite of that. The congregation makes wise decisions (we hope!) about what will be done and what won’t be done. The person who will not live up to the minimum expectations will be dealt with accordingly. If this idea was not combined with a return of some sort of congregational discipline, it would not be workable.
Why do this just for other Christians? I propose this as a start. I believe that if Christians as a group practiced stewardship on the one hand, and charity on the other, there would be no need for the scandal of church members unable to meet their basic needs.
Having demonstrated thus that we are different as a community, I suspect that we would have less trouble explaining who we are and why. Then when someone asks how it is done, we wouldn’t have to present theoretical models. We could point to our church congregations and say, “Like that.”
Idealistic? Obviously. Do I expect it to happen? Not really. But of all the things I read in Acts, it is the one I think would have the greatest impact on Christianity as a whole, and on the world as a result. I think it could stop short of holding everything in common, but it would certainly require a greater level of personal giving to the church, and better spending of that money with well-chosen priorities.