Is poverty a “secular” issue? That’s at least how one NPR reporter defined it in a piece addressing how faith has not been a prominent focus of either presidential campaign. Instead, the author argues, President Obama has focused on “more secular issues like poverty.” There’s a lot worth discussing in the NPR article, so take a read, but I find myself unable to move past that statement. What has happened to the Christian public witness if concern for the poor is not a fruit we are known for?
The Culture Wars have undoubtedly played a part, and I would be remiss if I went any further without saying that there are countless Christians, conservative and progressive, who are doing remarkable work every day to alleviate poverty. But the fact remains that our actions are not speaking louder than our words, and our words are presenting a distorted Christian witness. Why?
Here’s one theory: Christian voices have failed to challenge head on the lie that human value is based on a system of merit.
This is what I mean. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve seen debates over policy issues come down to a competition between the values of compassion (championed by progressives) vs personal responsibility (popular among conservatives). And inevitably when this happens, Jesus will be invoked and biblical arguments will be made on both sides. Here’s the problem, theologically there is no debate. This is a classic example of political frameworks being grafted on to theological discussions, because the simple fact is, Jesus never set personal responsibility has a pre-condition for extending compassion or charity.
As Christians, it does not matter if a person deserves our help or not. We are commanded to give it, no matter what. Jesus did not say, “whatever you’ve done for the least of these who deserve help, you’ve done for me.” He did not command, “feed my sheep who are hungry through no fault of their own.” Do. Love. Serve. No qualifications, no exceptions. (Do you know who did say we should only love those who deserve it? Ayn Rand). The reason we do this is because every single person bears the image and likeness of God. We don’t love people because of what they have or haven’t done; we love the Christ that is within them.
And thanks be to God this is so, because another basic Christian tenet is that all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God. We all are in need of grace. Jesus may not have placed conditions of merit on compassion, but he had plenty to say about those who did (see the parable of the unforgiving servant), and those who would take it upon themselves to judge the righteousness of another (remove the beam from your own eye first). Being more righteous than the Pharisees means we are supposed to take personal responsibility for ourselves, not that we get to sit in judgment over the personal responsibility of others.
As a person who works in messaging and communications, I’ll be the first to tell you that this message isn’t going to win you votes on the campaign trail. Americans have a built in sense of fairness that is laudable in many circumstances, but means at times we can react negatively to the idea of people getting “hand outs.” And so, in arguing for social policy, progressives will often take the tact of arguing for why people deserve what they get, or conversely, why they deserve more than the raw deal they are getting.
The good news is, this is a pretty straightforward task because the vast majority of people maligned as lazy or moochers are anything but. There are 26 million Americans who are paid so little that even working full-time they still live below the poverty line. The 47% of Americans who Mitt Romney said will never “take personal care and responsibility for their lives” are working parents, students, soldiers in combat zones, and the elderly living off the benefits they built from a lifetime of work. Tell me that any of these people are lazy or that basic fairness doesn’t dictate that we try to give them a hand.
But without Jesus this progressive narrative can become self-defeating because it perpetuates the argument that we should judge people based on the value of their work and not their value as the image of Christ. An appeal to fairness is a good argument to make in a pluralistic or secular setting. It’s a good standard for determining public policy, and it’ll win elections. But for Christians I don’t think it can be the be-all-and-end-all. Jesus wasn’t fair and he wasn’t out to win elections. Jesus doesn’t care who you are or what you’ve done; he cares only that you’re a child of God.
Taking us back to my original question, what does this have to do with why an NPR reporter doesn’t think poverty is a Christian issue? It tells us what the public fruits of our witness are. We’ve allowed our values to be framed in secular terms that strip the poor of the inherent dignity given to them by God and willingly entered in to discussions over who deserves a helping hand and why. We haven’t drawn a line in the sand and said poverty is a moral issue that must be addressed. We’ve allowed secular groups to carry the mantle of concern for the poor while we capitulate and mitigate our witness. And we shouldn’t be surprised that the world – and NPR – has noticed.
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