Monday, May 3, 2010

Who Is Responsible for the Poor?

During the early history of the Christian church and even well into the Middle Ages and beyond, Christians assumed the burden for helping the poor. Government aid, as we understand it today, simply did not exist, and the church would not have expected it otherwise. However, with the so-called "war on poverty" that began in the Johnson years, the general assumption now is that the government has a primary responsibility to care and support the poor. As the years have gone by the church has taken a step back and like everyone else looked to the government more and more for answers and solutions.

According to a ChildFund International Survey, Americans believe that childhood poverty is an urgent problem needing to be addressed, yet they rank faith-based groups last when asked who should be responsible for meeting that need. 66% of those surveyed believe that the U.S. has an obligation to help poverty-stricken children around the world. Almost 3 in 10 of those surveyed felt that international nonprofit organizations should offer relief, followed by 25% who looked to the governments where these children live, and 19% looked specifically to the developed nations. Only 16% felt that faith-based organizations should be tapped for this need.

Should the church reevaluate its own participation in this area and possibly contribute more of its own resources so as to relieve other organizations, thus reassuming again our traditional role? And how should we evaluate poverty as a need? Different definitions exist, not to mention measurements. Should we concentrate only on abject poverty, or do we have an obligation to those who are simply among the "working poor"? And to what extent to we assist? It would appear that the modern approach to this problem has largely made the issue worse by creating a virtually permanent "poverty class," left dependent on government handouts. Ancient aid was just that, "aid," not a substitute for that person's own efforts. The goal was to assist people through a difficult part of their lives, not leave them dependent on the aid they received. Many questions remain here to be answered. What do you think the church should do?


Lutheranfan said...

If I may? While having conversations about the poor in our church most believe that the problem is somewhere else. Almost as if there were no poor people around; especially, in our city or state. The attitude seems to be within the church that if people are poor then they are lazy and unwilling to keep a job. People tend to sight Paul in 2 Thess. 3:10, “If anyone is not willing to work, let him not eat.” Then give a psychological examination on that individual of why they cannot work. One cannot blame them. I remember a time when I struggled financially and often visited the church for financial help, all while smoking two packs of cigs a day. Was I poor? No, but I needed God’s wisdom in understanding financial stewardship. This took a relationship with someone who was more spiritual. She provided both Law and Gospel to me. Poverty and hunger must be dealt with, but we must be willing to build a relationship with people who are struggling. Other church members appear ignorant on what to do about the poor or they just don’t want to get involved. Apparently, poverty is like the flu someone could catch. Here, I believe, Law and Gospel must be present, the Law given to the sluggard then the Gospel. A relationship must be present to instruct and correct poor decisions. Just my two cents.

Don Engebretson said...

Dear Lutheranfan,

Thank you for your comments. Poverty is a complex issue, to be sure, and perceptions of the poor are not always accurate or well-informed. I appreciate your point of applying both Law and Gospel to the issue. Unfortunately, I fear that too much work on poverty is either all Law, which sets people up for failure and possible despair, or all Gospel where this is no accountability and no effort to help people learn, grown and change. In my first pastorate my church was located in one of the poorest counties in Michigan. I watched as the government handed out welfare checks with one hand, and then collected it again at the "Lotto" dispensary. But no teaching was offered to help the poor move into a place where they could be self-sufficient and productive.

Thank you again for your insights!