Not Saying Enough

Today is a day that ends in Y, so it must be time for another article about how Christians aren’t Christian if they don’t back the government’s attempt to usurp the Christian (and Muslim, and Jewish, and Buddhist, and Hindu) concept of charity.

Today’s article is courtesy of Amanda Marcotte and Salon.  Once again the charge is that arguing against Obamacare or Food Stamps or any of our government’s efforts to alleviate human suffering is de facto contrary to the words and work of Jesus.  Christians who insist that these government programs – which while helping many people have also been repeatedly demonstrated to be rife with abuse and misuse – must therefore be acting inconsistently with their faith.  
Unlike other articles, Ms. Marcotte does go on to offer an explanation for this puzzling behavior, explaining it through the psychological terminology of rationalization or motivated reasoning – pointing out that all of us are inclined to seek out defenses of our preferred ways of thinking and acting.  I agree that all of us are guilty of this in various ways, some more egregiously than others.  While it could be an explanation for why some Christians think that their positions on any number of issues are Biblical when they really aren’t.  Unfortunately for Ms. Marcotte this exact same phenomenon, utilized as she does in this article, calls her entire premise and line of reasoning into doubt as well.  She could just as easily be a victim of her own rationalization as the Christians she wishes to denigrate.  
But, that being said, she does have a point, though I don’t think it’s the point that she intends to make or necessarily even cares to make.  Christians who decry government poverty programs don’t tend to say enough to make it clear what they ought to mean about these things, which in turn can lead to a lot of confusion.  Politically or economically or socially, those who insist that these programs need to be overhauled or curtailed or even eliminated all together should continue on to say that the poor should be cared for by local and individual programs, rather than by a Federal program.  This should allow for better control and attention to detail, more of an assurance that assistance is going to people who actually need it and are using it for the correct purposes, thereby cutting down on waste and fraud.  This should also – hypothetically – assist such programs and efforts to move people towards self-sustaining lifestyles, rather than allowing people to remain on the dole for generations.  
But that’s a lot to say, and in an age of hyper-short attention spans (are you actually still reading this?  I didn’t think so.), you have to catch people’s attention.  You shorthand things.  What this can easily lead to is communicating the wrong message.  Rather than saying individuals need to be more individually responsible for the care of their neighbor, politicians simply say ‘cut government spending‘, ‘kick the lazy off food stamps‘.  These are highly charged statements that may convey the idea that the goal of such efforts is to put more money back in the pocket of the average taxpayer.  So it can be assumed by some, or inferred by others, that the goal of any criticism of government programs is to make sure I have a few more bucks in my pocket at the end of the day – and who cares who else suffers because of that.  
If a politician wishes to capitalize on Jesus and the Bible to advance their personal and public agendas, they need to say more.  Otherwise, I suspect that Jesus is going to have some harsh words for them when they meet face to face.  The Biblical way to articulate a position against government sponsored programs would sound more like this:
God wants you to take care of your neighbor.  Really.  Seriously.  The widow down the street who can’t keep her grass mowed.  The family the next apartment down who skips meals each day because they don’t have enough money.  The kids at your kids’ school that get made fun of because their clothes don’t match or fit.  The people with different colored skin and who speak a different language or have a strong accent – yeah, those people, too.  Not just the citizen but the foreigner in your midst.  It’s your job to help care for them.  

Jesus fed the poor and had others do the same thing.  Personally.  Not every meal of every day, mind you.  But there was feeding going on, and when his disciples wanted to pass off that responsibility to someone else, he suggested that since they were part of the reason there was a need, they ought to be involved with the solution (Matthew 14:13-17, loosely interpreted).  Caring for your neighbor is always a personal matter, and we do not have the luxury of outsourcing it even though this is our immediate inclination because of expediency and convenience and efficiency and a host of other very impressive sounding excuses.  They’re just that – excuses.  It’s your job, not somebody elses.

Your job.  Personally.  Not simply cutting a check to somebody else to do it because you don’t want to be bothered.  Not trusting it to the tax dollars that you try to minimize as much as possible in the first place, and that you have very little control over the spending of, and which your neighbor may not be able to access because of legal issues or ignorance or fear.  It is your job personally because whether or not you perform this job or not says a lot about how you are being shaped and formed, and God is very concerned with shaping and forming you for eternity.

Food Stamps supported by your Federal or state tax dollars are not the fulfillment of the Biblical mandate to love your neighbor as yourself.  These programs are not an expression of your faith life, regardless of how fervently you might believe in them.  These programs do not relieve you of your personal responsibility to care for those around you.  They may serve as supplements.  They may be defended on a variety of reasons ethically and practically.  But you aren’t off the hook.

I believe we should overhaul/curtail/eliminate Federal programs AND we need to take up the slack personally and locally.  That means that you and I need to figure out how we are going to help make a difference in these people’s lives once the checks stop coming from Uncle Sam.  How is our church going to do it, and how am I directly going to support that effort?  How are the people on our street or in our apartment complex going to do it, and how am I going to support that effort?  

I am not suggesting that we eliminate government programs to make me richer or you richer.  I suggest that we eliminate these programs so that we take a closer, harder look at those around us.  Those we don’t talk to because they dress differently or talk differently or cook differently.  Those we prefer not to make eye contact with on the street corner or the freeway offramp.  This is our Christian duty, and anything (and anyone) that offers to do this on our behalf so we don’t have to get our hands dirty or spend our time acting on it is ultimately doing a disservice.  To the people in need.  To you and I.  And to the Savior we claim to serve.
I want a government that does not reward laziness.  Not just my perceived or suspected laziness in others, but the actual laziness in myself regarding my neighbors.  Ultimately Christians who wish to make political arguments for social change based on their faith should admit and accept that this is going to create a lot more work for themselves – and that’s a good thing!  Not an easy thing, not even a fun thing, but a necessary thing.  That’s how we get shaped more like our Savior.  That’s how we remember our responsibility to love our neighbor as ourself rather than getting soft and lazy about it because they can get their help from Uncle Sam.  
Thanks to Ms. Marcotte for helping me remember that I am not being honest if I demand social or political change based on my faith, but don’t keep talking about (and working towards) how my faith is going to fill the gap that will be created.  

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