Jesus Doesn’t Care or Why Liberals Need Christ

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.

Follow Rachel on twitter at @rachelnoelj

About Rachel Johnson

Rachel Johnson is an Associate with the Eleison Group, a consulting firm that specializes in faith-based outreach for Democrats and progressives. She also serves as Programs Director for the American Values Network, a faith-based non-profit advocacy group. Prior to Eleison, Rachel worked as Mississippi field director for Common Good Strategies doing faith outreach for Democratic candidates. She holds a bachelor’s degree from the University of Virginia and a MAR in Theology from Yale Divinity School. The daughter of two ministers, Rachel is an active member and deacon in her church in Washington, D.C.

  • Jesse Lava

    I’m not sure what’s sadder: the claim that poverty is unrelated to faith or that Obama has focused on poverty in any way whatsoever.

    • Gerry

      I view the Affordable Health Care Act (“ObamaCare”) a great action of genuine care for the elderly, for the poor, as well as for the middle class.

      • John R Huff Jr

        And so do I. Thanks.

        • Bobby B.

          Two wrongs don’t make a right.

  • Matthew B

    I am rather sympathetic to much of what you say. But while you are right to say that many Christian conservatives see their political advocacy as an attempt to encourage personal responsibility, it isn’t clear that this is always contrary to love. Otherwise, the apostolic command to refrain from enrolling those unwilling to work on the diaconal roles would be unloving. I think that sort of situation is often overstressed, but let’s not pretend that calling people to responsibility for themselves never makes an appearance in the Scriptures.

    Also, I would imagine NPR will always see poverty as a ‘secular’ issue, simply because it is an issue people in their office care about, and they are not very religious. So they might not be the most accurate source for the man on the street’s perception of Christian interest in poverty relief.

    • Rachel Johnson

      Matthew,

      Thanks for the comment. I do not believe that Christian conservatives see love and personal responsibility as an either or. In fact, conservatives have extremely high rates of charitable giving. My point is that our public discussions on poverty and social programs have centered around systems of merit that at their core rely on defining people by their worth and what they deserve. There may even be arguments to be made for why a pluralistic civic society should determine policy based on calculations of worth. But I think Christians are called to be the outlier. I think we are supposed to challenge the values implicit in those calculations and defend the worth and value of every human, not necessarily because of any merit they have in themselves, but because they are the image of Christ. Instead, I think we’ve been playing along with the terms of the debate set by others.

      You are right that Scripture does contain calls to personal responsibility, but as I stated, it’s not set as a pre-condition for charity, nor is it permitted to use the value of personal responsibility to deny charity.

      To your point about NPR, I hear you. When I first read that article, I nearly dismissed the whole thing b/c NPR is secular and this reporter probably just doesn’t know Christian teaching on poverty. But I don’t think that matters. If Christians were so strongly identified with caring for the poor as they are with other issues, then even secular reporters would have to acknowledge that it is an important issue to our faith. And as for the man on the street’s perception, while the NPR reporter may not speak to that, there have been a number of studies asking people what first comes to their mind when they think of Christians in the public sphere and caring for the poor is not high on the list. In fact, many of the responses are less than flattering.

      • Matthew B

        Thank you for the very thoughtful reply (I’m sorry I missed it earlier!). I’m a little confused by this statement:
        “You are right that Scripture does contain calls to personal responsibility, but as I stated, it’s not set as a pre-condition for charity, nor is it permitted to use the value of personal responsibility to deny charity.”

        I’m not sure what the command I alluded to (II Thess 3:10) could mean unless it is setting a precondition for a particular form of charity. Perhaps it doesn’t mean this is the way charity should always be done, but it is arguably relevant.

        • Rachel Johnson

          Matthew,

          My turn to apologize for missing your comment! I read II Thess as more about setting the rules for Christian community that commands to public charity. The context is Paul (and others) writing to a specific church in Thessalonica and I think it’s clear from the language in 3: 6-15 that Paul is talking about how a specific group of believers should address an issue within their community. That’s not to say that Paul’s admonition doesn’t have anything to say to us, but I think we have to consider what he was saying and why he was saying it to understand what lessons we can take for ourselves. This would be like saying that because the Rule of St. Benedict requires monks to work to be part of Benedictine communities, everyone at all times should be held to the standards of the Rule. I think how Christians structure our lives together and how we are called to care for others are two different things. One other point worth noting, in verse 8 Paul says that when he and his companions were visiting that community they did not eat without paying, but then in verse 9 he says “this was not because we do not have that right, but in order to give you an example to imitate.” The way I read that, it suggests that even though Paul is saying people in the community *should* not eat if they’re not willing to contribute to the community there could still be an expectation that the community is supposed to provide for them. Like other places, I think Paul is saying just because something is permissible does not mean you should do it.

          How do you read those verses?

  • Frank

    Yes we should take care of the poor, not Caesar, but us.

    • L

      Well since “We” either can’t or won’t, then
      “we” should get out of the way of government of, by, and FOR the people doing so. (which is a far cry from Caesar)

      • Frank

        I know many churches and Christians who do.

        Welfare is not the answer.

  • Rick

    But Frank, in a Democracy we are Ceasar! (Supposedly anyway!)

    I would also add that when the government (ourselves, Ceasar or anyone else) sets up governmental structures which favour the rich over the poor, it is a Christian’s clear duty to address that systemic imbalance at the political level, not just at an individual level.

  • Mary

    Thank you for this article. It so saddens me that I see so little of poverty mentioned anywhere among conservative “Christians,” and when it is, it’s usually a “us vs them” mentality and this thing of God helping those who help themselves. It is called Christianity, but it is so far removed from the actual teachings of Christ it’s like another religion altogether. Thank you for this beautiful article.

    • Rachel Johnson

      Mary,
      Thank you so much for these kind, encouraging words.

    • CNH Johnson

      I’ve heard it expressed this way: If one who confesses to believe in Christ behaves in a way that is far removed from the actual teachings of Christ , that person is a fan of Jesus, not a follower of Jesus.

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  • Ruby

    Editorial question: in the first line of paragraph 5, do you mean, “basic Christian tenet” rather than “tenant”?

    I agree with you that Jesus never preached on personal responsibility, and my highest ideals tell me that everyone, every single body, deserves love, compassion, and help. The thing that we don’t talk about in many loving and giving Christian communities is how to keep giving that help in a way that is healthy for the giver and the receiver. I realize that my use of “healthy” in that previous statement comes from the recovery movement, not the Gospels (or even the Epistles) – but one of the problems in many well-intentioned Christian communities is that caritas is set up in opposition to providing support or community to the pledging members. Many Christians think of either giving to the poor or growing in spiritual knowledge, but not both. Or a community may want to give, give, give to all who ask — but lack the underpinnings to deal with the stress of dealing with people whose lives have been a hell of deprivation and abuse. I’m often struck by the naiveté with which good people start good programs, and then get burned out a couple of years later because they never anticipated the magnitude of need, pain, and misplaced acting-out they would have to deal with. If the Church is going to be a force for good and justice in the world, it has to do more to provide support and hope for those it serves *and* for those it sends out to be missionaries of Christ’s love.

    • Rachel Johnson

      Ruby,

      Thank you for this really important point. You’re right that a lot of times we forget to provide care and support for the care-givers themselves, and that is a deeply problematic oversight. I love the phrase “inward journey, outward journey” to describe what I believe is supposed to the the constant movement of the Christian life – spiritual discipline and practices draw us to care for our internal lives, which in turn leads to insights and renewals of strength that direct us outward. I think there needs to be similar movement within our communities, drawing in to care for one another so that we are in turn empowered to go out and care for the world. I so appreciate you raising this often overlooked issue.

      Thanks also for catching that typo!

  • http://friendsofjustice.wordpress.net Alan Bean

    I love this post! The fight between compassion and personal responsibility really is a theological no-brainer for precisely the reasons you suggest.

    • Rachel Johnson

      Thank you Alan!

  • Ted Seeber

    We’ve abdicated concern for the poor to Federal Welfare Programs. That’s why they are considered secular.

    • John R Huff Jr

      No, I don’t think so Ted. This statement by you bespeaks of how republicans view poverty. I don’t believe you should call the Federal Welfare program secular in and of itself. Take note that what they are doing is a form of charity that can be seen as morally imperative and in retrospect can be called religious or Christian.
      Just because government is involved doesn’t negate the good it does. So, in conclusion, Get off your Romney/Ryan band wagon approach and show some real compassion.

  • Hau Tzeng

    2 Thessalonians 3:6-14
    “Now we command you, brothers, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that you keep away from any brother who is walking in idleness…. For you yourselves know how you ought to imitate us, because we were not idle when we were with you, nor did we eat anyone’s bread without paying for it, but with toil and labor we worked night and day, that we might not be a burden to any of you… we would give you this command: If anyone is not willing to work, let him not eat. For we hear that some among you walk in idleness, not busy at work, but busybodies. Now such persons we command and encourage in the Lord Jesus Christ to do their work quietly and to earn their own living. As for you, brothers, do not grow weary in doing good. If anyone does not obey what we say in this letter, take note of that person, and have nothing to do with him, that he may be ashamed.”

  • Hau Tzeng

    2 Thessalonians 3:6-14
    “Now we command you, brothers, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that you keep away from any brother who is walking in idleness… because we were not idle when we were with you, nor did we eat anyone’s bread without paying for it, but with toil and labor we worked night and day, that we might not be a burden to any of you…. For even when we were with you, we would give you this command: If anyone is not willing to work, let him not eat. For we hear that some among you walk in idleness, not busy at work, but busybodies. Now such persons we command and encourage in the Lord Jesus Christ to do their work quietly and to earn their own living…. If anyone does not obey what we say in this letter, take note of that person, and have nothing to do with him, that he may be ashamed.”

    You might probably already have had a “conservative” quote that to you before. But I do hope you truly do take God’s Word as the final authority, no matter what I or anyone else says, and see that we are responsible BOTH to care for the poor, and to ensure personal responsibility. I believe Christians should refuse to play partisan politics on these matters. We need to stop talking about what THEY, liberal or conservative are doing. We need to repent for US and cry out to God and to the church that we have neglected OUR duties, and start doing them. How about taking personal responsibility FOR our poorer neighbors? How about we start selling our possessions and giving them to the poor today? To put our trust in the state, or worse, a president, to take over the church’s responsibilities is to abdicate our stewardship of God’s kingdom. It is unacceptable and sinful, unfit for those who bear Christ’s name.

    • Rachel Johnson

      Hau,

      I agree, the Church isn’t doing the job its called to and we need to start doing it. The simple fact is, the government wouldn’t need to provide Section 8 housing if there were enough Habitat homes. But as long as the Church isn’t fulfilling its responsibility, I don’t think its consistent with Christian teaching to argue for cuts to government programs that are providing a vital safety net to millions. If we want government to get out of the business of caring for the poor, then we need to make social programs obsolete not cut them and then hope the Church finally starts doing what it’s supposed to. That’s where my concern comes in.

  • Jeff

    God, in His form of socialism, stated in Leviticus 23:22 “when you reap the harvest of your land, moreover, you shall not reap to the very corners of your field nor gather the gleaning of your harvest; you are to leave them for the needy and the alien. I am the Lord your God.”

    The crop was not harvested and then delivered to the needy’s doorstop. If the needy was hungry, then the needy worked. Also, notice that God never said that all people should be the same economically. There were wealthy, there were poor. But, provision was made to help the poor but in such a way that they still had dignity. There is great dignity in a man who works, who earns what he is paid. Why are we so quick to damn the rich? Let them be rich. Or is it that in the quiet corners of our minds we wish we were rich? Here’s a newsflash, the poorest American is wealthier than probably 90% of the world. We are the rich. So, now the question falls to you, o middle class, what will you do with your wealth? Run your air conditioner yesterday? Drive your vehicle to pick up ice cream? Sleep in your cotton PJ’s on your cotton sheets in your heated home? Get up in the middle of the night to use your indoor plumbing and then get a drink of clean water? What will you do Church?

    • Rachel Johnson

      Jeff,

      You’re absolutely correct that the real question is, what do we do with our wealth. Are we using our wealth – individually and as a nation – to make provisions for the poor, or are we cutting the legs out from under them? It is hard work to be poor in America, let alone the rest of the world. Here at home there are 7 million Americans working 2 or more jobs just to make ends meet. One out of four working families in the U.S. is low-income despite the fact that 70% of that number is working full time, or more. Struggling families and people fighting to stay afloat have dignity; they don’t need us to give it to them. What they do need is for us to stop perpetuating the myth that people are poor because they are lazy “takers” and to look at whether the policies and systems we support are creating a society in which everyone has a fair shot. To your last question, I think its the job of the politicians and policy makers, and entrepreneurs to talk about what is fair. I think the church has a different, harder job of proclaiming that we aren’t called to fairness, what we’re called to is incredibly unfair grace, mercy, and love.

  • http://none Robert

    DOES EVERYTHING YOU SAY IN YOUR “JESUS DOESN’T CARE – OR WHY LIBERALS NEED CHRIST” APPLY TO THE UNBORN WHO ARE IN DANGER OF ABORTION?

    Does this apply to ALL the unborn? “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.”

  • Virginia

    Ok, just why do we liberals need christ? “Jesus Doesn’t Care or Why Liberals Need Christ”, doesn’t address the issue it raises on just why we liberals need christ and it doesn’t clearly explain why poverty can’t/shouldn’t be debated as a secular issue.

    Poverty isn’t a religious issue, it doesn’t just affect believers, and it has to be taken up by every caring person, no matter their religion if or lack there of, to solve.

    Virginia

    • Rachel Johnson

      Hi Virginia,

      I would say poverty isn’t *just* a religious issue. Of course there are people of a different or no faith who are impacted by poverty, and who care very deeply about the poor. There are a lot of reasons from a purely secular perspective for why we should be addressing poverty. But to keep those conversations from devolving to pure utilitarian calculations (which is what happens with Ayn Rand), there needs to be a common consensus that all life has inherent equality, worth, and dignity. That directly enters in to the realm of faith and beliefs. Stating that all life has worth is a statement of belief. Christianity is certainly not the only religion to embrace this article of faith, but it is the faith tradition I’m speaking from and to. For Christians, every life has value because of Christ. When Christian liberals ascent to frameworks that evaluate people based on what they do or don’t deserve, we’re removing our foundational beliefs from the conversation and they lose much of their moral grounding and force. At the heart of all our discussions on social safety nets and social compact is the question, “why should I care?” The answer for Christians has to be Christ.


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