In watching the church assist the poor, I have noticed that there is always a substantial number of people who surface, over and over again. Their circumstances never change. They seemingly make little or no progress in rebuilding their lives or in moving forward.
This troubles me.
It feels right and good to help people who are struggling to meet their basic needs. But when people become dependent upon that help and fail to make progress in transcending their circumstances a pattern of co-dependency emerges and I find myself asking: Are we assuage our consciences without asking hard questions about the real value of our efforts?
The church is not the only place this problem surfaces. The same dynamic no doubt explains why Lyndon Johnson’s war on poverty, launched 60 years ago, has failed to put an end to poverty. And the same pattern is in evidence everywhere you look. California has spent 17 billion dollars in an effort to address homelessness, all to no effect.
I am not a public policy specialist. But watching both patterns has convinced me that material aid without efforts to address the deeper need that people have for connection, community, purpose, and meaning is of limited value.
This is not to suggest that poverty and deprivation are of no consequence, and it is not to suggest that material aid is of no value. But it is to suggest that material well-being is a necessary but insufficient key to human flourishing.
This is undoubtedly why the prophets and Jesus himself often critique the marginalization of the widowed, and the orphaned. They represent groups in the ancient world that not only faced material deprivation but lacked connections to the community that were essential to their deeper well being.
Ezekiel 34 offers a telling example:
The word of the Lord came to me: 2 “Son of man, prophesy against the shepherds of Israel; prophesy, and say to them, even to the shepherds, Thus says the Lord God: Ah, shepherds of Israel who have been feeding yourselves! Should not shepherds feed the sheep? 3 You eat the fat, you clothe yourselves with the wool, you slaughter the fat ones, but you do not feed the sheep. 4 The weak you have not strengthened, the sick you have not healed, the injured you have not bound up, the strayed you have not brought back, the lost you have not sought, and with force and harshness you have ruled them. 5 So they were scattered, because there was no shepherd, and they became food for all the wild beasts. My sheep were scattered; 6 they wandered over all the mountains and on every high hill. My sheep were scattered over all the face of the earth, with none to search or seek for them.
7 “Therefore, you shepherds, hear the word of the Lord: 8 As I live, declares the Lord God, surely because my sheep have become a prey, and my sheep have become food for all the wild beasts, since there was no shepherd, and because my shepherds have not searched for my sheep, but the shepherds have fed themselves, and have not fed my sheep, 9 therefore, you shepherds, hear the word of the Lord: 10 Thus says the Lord God, Behold, I am against the shepherds, and I will require my sheep at their hand and put a stop to their feeding the sheep. No longer shall the shepherds feed themselves. I will rescue my sheep from their mouths, that they may not be food for them. (ESV)
As Walter Brueggemann notes, there is clearly an emphasis here on material well being, and that emphasis drives the contrast between the plight of the people and the lifestyle of their leaders. But the passage also emphasizes the resulting isolation and exposure that God’s scattered sheep suffer – suggesting that there is more at stake.
This should not surprise us. The healing of both our relationship with God and with one another entails far more than our material needs. But if that is the case, then the church’s ministry should reflect that understanding as well.
In recent years we have lost track of that dimension of the work that we do. Too many of us were afraid that if we articulated the deeper spiritual needs we felt were at stake, then people would feel we were exploiting the exigencies of their lives to “get them to go to church”. Articulating that deeper need does not – by definition – entail that move and the effort to meet not just physical needs, but the need for connection, community, purpose, and meaning does mean that we need to gang-press people into going to church.
But if we hope to accomplish more than prolong a form of institutionalized co-dependency, we will need to look for new ways to address those deeper spiritual needs. Ideas about how you have addressed that issue welcome in the comment section below.