Monday, June 01, 2009
Suburban Myths Part 2
'In the 60's the government fought a war on poverty and poverty won'. I'm pretty sure you've heard that one before. It's usually the prelude to a homily on how the church either abdicated its responsibility to care for the poor or the government usurped that role for themselves. The line of thinking behind such statements is that God charged the church to provide for the poor and that government has no business fishing in that pool.
I believe this thinking is faulty on a number of levels. That doesn't mean that the church as the church (I'll explain in a minute) shouldn't engage in consistent acts of mercy toward the poor along with advocating for justice for the poor and less powerful. What did I mean that the church as the church should commit to consistent mercy? Simply that the church (either denominationally or locally) acts as the body of Christ, representing her Lord in the capacity of witnessing of His mercy and justice to the community in which she serves. That's different from saying that individual believers should do acts of mercy with the conviction that the church only acts in an official capacity when she gathers for the formal worship of our Lord.
The fact that I'm for churches advocating for the poor and doing acts of mercy doesn't mean however that I believe that suburban churches and believers should assume the responsibility of reversing the cycle of poverty that's gripped several generations of poor people who live in America's large cities. Why is that? To begin with it's unlikely that suburban churches would really put the resources needed to tackle the problem which is deep and complex. Most churches (whether urban or suburban) follow the normal institutional sociological pattern of using their resources on themselves. As they grow and develop they tend to hire and expend resources on people and programs that for the most part serve the needs and desires of the church. I'm not saying if that's right or wrong, just that it is. Since that's the case it would be nearly impossible for a single church to commit resources to serve their needs and the needs of the poor. Could a group of churches or denomination do this? Perhaps, but think about this for a moment. Over forty years have passed since President Johnson initiated the Great Society and well over ten have slipped by since President Clinton declared that the era of big government is over. In all that time few if any evangelical denominations or group of churches has stepped forth to grapple with the challenges of the poor head on. This may be a difficult point for us to accept because it means that even if the government retired from caring for the poor tomorrow we know that the church wouldn't immediately step up to fill the gap.
The myriad of needs that challenge the poor and less powerful are a another reason that the church is not equipped to fully address this issue. A child born to an impoverished black family today will face a daunting maze of challenges to rise from that status. The church would have to find a way to connect with that child and his or her family and begin to see to the proper nutritional, social, emotional and intellectual needs even before they began formal education. Being that home schooling is an unlikely option some other type of academically challenging education must be sought and to give you an idea of what that could entail my son's private Christian school will charge nearly a thousand dollars per month to educate an elementary child in the coming school year. Take a breath for a moment. I've merely mentioned an avenue to begin helping one child out of one family. I haven't even dealt with health care needs, a stable home environment, setting aside money for college, developing non-academic interest etc. Nor have I delved into how to serve the rest of that family, their immediate neighbors and community.
Aside from directly serving the poor and less powerful there are the many factors that impact them that the church would have to at least consider. These factors involve the entrenched disinvestment in America's large cities, the ever changing world economic landscape, the complexity of large scale economic systems and the difficulty in addressing the effects of long-term, generational poverty among others. Addressing the needs of the poor is far, far more complex than giving a family a dinner basket on Thanksgiving or a child a toy on Christmas. A substantial portion of America's population was caught in the grip of cyclical poverty long before President Johnson suggested the Great Society. That will not be reversed in a season, year or even perhaps a decade.
One more thought on why the suburban church will most likely not ride to the rescue of the poor. The prevailing line of thought among of many evangelicals with respect to the poor is that they must do what is needed to lift themselves from poverty. Many evangelicals believe in less government (except for the military and law enforcement sectors) because of their convictions that government is by nature inefficient and ill-suited to do much more than the basics of protecting the country from outside harm and insuring a general degree of law and order within the land. Added to this is the evangelical conviction that the problems of the poor have much more to do with unwise choices and personal irresponsibility. While I don't want to debate these things now I do think it's helpful to highlight that the mindset that believes the poor should take much more responsibility for their own lives may be less likely to want the church of which he is a member to expend resources to assist them to do so. For them the issue isn't should the government or the church help the poor, it's why aren't the poor doing more to help themselves.
There does however remain a way the church could potentially make a substantial impact upon the poor, but that's for the next post.
To Him Who Loves Us...