Each week in Citizenship Confusion, Alan Noble discusses how we confuse our heavenly citizenship with citizenship to the state, culture, and world.
The number of food stamp and welfare recipients in the United States has grown dramatically in the past few years. Liberals interpret this as a reflection of how well the State is caring for those in need. How would these families eat if they didn’t have aid? Conservatives tend to interpret these figures as evidence of out-of-control government entitlement spending, increased dependence upon the State, and another part of our debt crisis. Both perspectives are probably correct. It’s good that our country is able to provide for the millions who need assistance, and it’s also unsustainable in these amounts.
For conservative evangelicals, our response to out-of-control entitlement spending has been varied, but strongly critical—for the most part. High levels of entitlement spending is inefficient and culturally harmful. Whether it is government subsidized health care, or food stamps, or section 8 housing, we have tended to be very vocal about opposing government “handouts.” And to some extent, and in some situations, I think this opposition has been good. If we believe a government policy is harmful, then it is loving to our neighbors and honoring to God for us to oppose it. However, the long conservative opposition to entitlement spending has had several negative consequences.
In some cases, opposition to entitlement spending has helped to cultivate animosity toward those who accept government aid, so that we end up viewing many people who use food stamps as lazy, ghetto druggies who make bad choices and force tax payers to pay for their mistakes. Soon we can justify cutting any programs because we are convinced they don’t deserve our aid, which is wrong, as I have previously argued.
It also affects our witness to the world. When Christians are most vocal about cutting government support to the needy, it gives the appearance that Christians simply don’t care for the least of these. Now, statistically, Christians in the United States give tremendous amounts to charity each year and volunteer a great deal of their time. But if what the world hears is us calling for an end to welfare and health care for the poor, then it is reasonable for them to assume that we really aren’t following Christ’s commands concerning social justice.
Our culture teaches us that the way to change things in this world is through political action. And some pockets of our evangelical culture teach us that the way to change this world is through spiritual action—praying and witnessing. A more realistic perspective recognizes our embodiedness, our culture, and our need for a Savior, so that change involves political action, spiritual action, but also non-political social action. If Christians desire to see an end to the monopoly of the State on caring for the poor and oppressed, and if we desire to live in a way that testifies to the world about how the Gospel radically transforms us, then we need to be known more for advocating private and nonprofit charity work and less for condemning government work. We need to be known for our passion for caring for the poor and needy rather than our hatred of the State caring for them. We need to evidence an alternative to the State as the answer to all our problems. We need to out compete the government in providing aid.
One major way I believe Christians can accomplish this is through the funding of church-run early childhood intervention programs for at-risk young children. The cover feature of Issue #4 of CaPCMag argues that such programs are needed in our country to address a widening gap between the opportunity- and resource-rich upper classes and the opportunity- and resource-poor lower classes. If this trend continues, our country is headed for an ever-more unemployable and more criminal lower class. Many policy makers and economists argue that ECI programs are exactly what we need to address skill deficiencies among the lower classes, but in the feature article I argue that this is a perfect mission for local churches. Supporting and running projects like this, I believe, will go a long way in making our hearts more sensitive to our disadvantaged neighbors, in fulfilling our obligation to their physical needs, and in our witness to the watching world. I’d encourage you, if you haven’t already, to download and read my feature, “The Coming Class Crisis,” and to consider how you can be a more public advocate for non-governmental aid, rather than being primarily or exclusively a public critic of government aid.