Sunday, October 10, 2010

Romans 13 and Government Assistance

A Devotional Thought

I am not an economist, nor do I know the details of the health care legislation passed this year.  Although I am hopeful, I am not informed enough to speculate too much on whether it will improve the American situation in keeping with my values.  But I have discussed it with friends and family, with students and colleagues, with people on the web.  What I often hear is that the church should take care of the poor, that the government only mucks things up.

On the one hand, I'm thankful that people in my circles at least acknowledge that it is a Christian value to try to address poverty and those in need around the world.  This is at least one step beyond many out there who call themselves Christians who see poverty as a self-inflicted wound.  "Those people could get a job.  It's their own fault that they're in that situation, and they deserve whatever hardship they have as a punishment for being lazy."  When you consider that no more than six passages even mention homosexual sex and some 600 deal with God's concern for the poor, we at least have to be thankful that much of American Christianity is at least coming to grips with this fundamental biblical and Christian value!

I took away from the Wheaton Consultation on "Government, Foreign Assistance, and God's Mission in the World" some of my current response.  First, the church is not equipped to address the needs of the world to anything like the scope of the need or the capacity of governments.  Indeed, virtually all the Christian non-profit organizations involved in such ministry take significant money from the US governement (World Vision, World Hope, etc...).  Churches can help a few people they have connections with locally, regionally, and globally.  But the church is simply not equipped to meet the need.

And of course, the church mucks it up too--especially if by mucking it up you mean doing nothing.  Again, one of the take-aways from the previous consultation is that well-meaning but uninformed Christian individuals often do more harm than good.  The recent Haiti earthquake apparently provided a number of cases in point.  The "mission trip" phenomenon we are witnessing is often just a glorified vacation.  Thousands of dollars that could have fed thousands for a year instead buy a place to sit your rear on a plane for a few hours.

One of the interesting questions of the consultation was what biblical texts we might bring to bear on the question of church and government working together to address issues of poverty and global need.  While there are hundreds of texts on the Christian value of addressing the poor, orphans, and widows, this topic proved more challenging.  Sure, there are passages like Psalm 72 that urge the king to give social justice to his people.  Sure, there are passages like Psalm 82 where God foretells the fall of the gods of the nations because they have not brought social justice to their peoples.

But my theology resists any direct equation between Israel and the United States.  Whatever the rhetoric we hear today, the United States is not a Christian nation, even if its Constitution coheres well with Christian values, even if its people are mostly Christian.  Its Constitution explicitly says that the United States does not have an official religion, and that's the final answer on that question.  The model of our sojourn here is more like that of the New Testament in the Roman Empire.  We are strangers and aliens in the land (Heb. 11:13), even though we have the rights of citizenship.

So I have been more intrigued by Romans 13:4 in this regard: "[Authority] is God's servant for you, for the good."  To be sure, Paul is more talking here about worldly authorities--the Roman government in particular--in their role of punishing wrongdoing.  You don't need to worry about the government if you obey the law.

Of course Paul himself knew that the Romans often mucked it up.  He likely had a few scars on his back to show that worldly authorities often mucked up their job of punishing wrongdoing and promoting justice.  We should think of Romans 13 much more as a public policy statement, the way things are meant to be, than the way they often end up.  Paul no doubt had a few other things to say about Roman governance when the mic was off and he was chatting around the water cooler.

But let's do a thought experiment.  I am more of a Hebrews scholar but I have written a little on Paul a little too.  I've taught courses in Paul's writings for over 10 years.  I think I can get into Paul's head as well as most people.  Imagine that you were to come to Paul and say, "Guess what, Paul?  Caesar is starting a new program to feed the poor throughout the Roman empire.  He's going to end poverty in every province." 

What do you think he would say?  Do you think he would say?  "Oh no!  Caesar always mucks things up.  The church is the one that needs to help the poor and those in need around the empire and the government needs to keep out."  I almost laugh to think of Paul saying something like that.  It's a ludicrous suggestion from all I know of Paul.  I would expect him rather to say something like, "Amen and Amen!  God can use Cyrus, king of Persia to do His will, and God can use Caesar too."

Richard Mouw recently wrote a nice piece about the difference between clarifying our Christian values and the expertise usually needed to implement them.  One of the things I appreciate about organizations like Bread for the World, World Hope, and other organizations is the nuts and bolts expertise they bring to questions of how to implement Christian values in these areas.  It seems to me the values are pretty clear.  God cares for the weak, disempowered, and oppressed.  He desires His people and nations to address these needs.  If we can work together with worldly authorities to further this good news, we should.

There are the values. And the word to those with the skills to implement the values is "Go, go, go!"


Mike Mather said...

I wanted to respond to your comment: "Guess what, Paul? Caesar is starting a new program to feed the poor throughout the Roman empire. He's going to end poverty in every province." I struggle with these questions and have struggled with them for the past 25 years as I have served in all but one of those years as pastor in two low-income communities in cities. Ending poverty and feeding people are not the same thing (I don't think). A few years ago (after many, many years of running feeding programs) we asked ourselves "what is the problem" and then went and asked the area hospital - 'what do you see people for from our neighborhood for food related problems?' No starvation, very little malnutrition (limited to senior citizens living along who were forgetting to eat) - actually the number one problem was diabetes. And if people were eating from our food pantry we were not only not "helping" we were actively making them sicker (food pantries are notoriously bad for food that is good for diabetes). WE tend to believe that when Jesus says in Matthew 11 to tell John in prison that the poor hear good news that this means right here and right now. So we have built our ministry (and we think it has the possibility of ending poverty) around the idea of building up the gifts of God in the people of God. Instead of treating our neighbors as people who don't have anything but their emptiness to offer, we look for the gifts, talents, dream and passions that God has put inside each person and try to find ways to invest in that - to build up and upon that. We, in fact, hired a neighbor and congregant a few years ago, De'Amon Harges, to be what we all "The Roving Listener" to help us hear those gifts of God in the people of God. The question then arises about how to do that and what to do. We keep experimenting. I'm pretty sure we haven't figured it out -- but what I like is that we keep playing with it. Over and over again.

Ken Schenck said...

I agree and think that poverty in the US is much more complicated than poverty was in the Roman Empire. The kind of expertise you mention is precisely the kind of expertise that implementation of our values requires. In the Roman Empire, the problem was that people needed fish. In America, part of impoverishment goes even beyond needing to know how to fish to needing to want to fish. This level of impoverishment is far more intractable than giving most of the world's impoverished the opportunity to fish, IMHO.

::athada:: said...

Give the man a genetically-engineered fish to boost his serotonin levels.

Thanks for this thoughtful analysis.

Another point (that I think you have already addressed somewhere in your archives) is whether we mean "church" as a specific denomination endorsing/carrying out gov't programs, and/or a specific local congregation, and/or non-profit Christian orgs, and/or simply Christians infiltrating the system and being salt and light, here and there, bending the resources & energy in the right direction, rather than trying to run the entire show.

JohnM said...

On the other hand Paul might have answered: "End poverty in every province? Caesar may well help lots of people, and that may be good, but bring an end to poverty? Caesar may have kidded himself, but don't you be kidded, he doesn't have that kind of control".

Paul might also have suspected Caesar's motives. After all, he could expect the end result to be the people looking up to Caesar as their supplier of needs and ever present help. No need for that loving God Christians liked to talk about. Maybe even some of those Christians would come to see it the way Caesar would wish.

In any case Paul might have foreseen that Caesar's program was just about the end of anything one could rightfully call Christian social ministry. Superfluous now, at best. Paul might have had to revise his letter to the Corinthians, the one where he made mention of giving cheerfully, and not under complulsion - moot issue, Caesar didn't ask, Caesar commanded. Even if Paul had been inclined to applaud Caesar's program there were hardly enough Christians to fund it, the money was going to have to come from pagans. Would Paul have supposed that his pagan neighbors's "giving" by order of Caesar amounted to Paul himself practicing Christian charity, just because he approved of the program?

Then again, Paul might have decided: "Good, now that Caesar has poverty covered the church can move on to other things".

Do any other things come to mind?

Angie Van De Merwe said...

I am going to be crassly honest...It is a personal offense when as a family we have chosen certain values over "making money", and have limited ourselves when it came to technological advances, or "gadgets" that others thought were "common place"...and then to have those on the 'poverty role" who have enought to buy cigarettes, and a cell phone for their 5 year old child (when my senior in high school didn't even have one)! Is that coveteousness? How does that affect the virtue in the poor?

My personal insult also has to do with my place in the family, etc. and I wonder how many others find themselves in the same place as me in their attitudes? Are we not responsbile for where our money goes and what it supports, and what about saving for the "rainy day", does it matter when it concerns the poor? Are we enabling those who do not want to change to better themselves?

Ken Schenck said...

Angie, you shouldn't assume that I endorse America's current welfare system. I'm talking about principles and values here. Their implementation is quite another thing. The insidious thing about poverty in America is that we have created a class of people who have no motivation to change. They are not free to want to change but are slaves to generational poverty.

John, just to lay bare how far afield current sentiments are from Paul, he goes on in Romans 13 to tell Christians to pay their taxes in a system that not only was far more abused and injust than today but in which there was absolute taxation without representation.

JohnM said...

Ken, you're right to emphasize Paul's instructions to pay one's taxes and it needs to be pointed out more often. I'm most definitely not anti-tax per se. Part of my point though is that neither the government or non-christians can practice Christin charity - by definition only Christians can do that. I can't pretend I am fulfilling any scriptural commandment when my tax dollars, not to mention somebody elses tax dollars, are used to take care of the poor. It may not be inherently wrong for the goverment to do this though you and Angie both note the problems that seem to attend - but it's not an imperative for the church to insist the government do so.

Marc said...

Maybe this is oversimplified but I think the Church is in a position to alleviate most poverty financially simply by investing in the agencies such as World Vision, Children International, Unicef, Caritas and IJM who are doing great work. What is a mistake is each Church trying to do this on its own.

If a third of the world (thinks it) is Christ-ian and 2 thirds of these are not impoverished then each of us only need assist and support two other people to cut poverty by a large chunk.

Stop tithing, start donating!

Mike Mather said...

Marc you wrote: "Maybe this is oversimplified but I think the Church is in a position to alleviate most poverty financially simply by investing in the agencies such as World Vision, Children International, Unicef, Caritas and IJM who are doing great work." I don't think it's oversimplified, I think it's wrong. Those organizations don't do bad work at all - but they don't (for the most part) alleviate poverty. They feed some people who are hungry (good thing) - they buy bore holes in Africa (not a bad thing - but when the expensive bore holes break down -- most communities can't afford to replace them - and if they do they drive themselves into debt). Again these groups don't do bad things - but what they really do is assist people in poverty. We Christians could really imagine this much differently - while Jesus doesn't run any soup kitchens he does seem to spend time eating and drinking with people who live in poverty and those who don't (something Isaiah seemed to think was a good idea, as well). Jesus said "good news to the poor" was, in fact, announced. I assume that good news would look more like "you and your children are much more unlikely to die early..." rather than "here's an extra bag of rice."

We truly can help alleviate poverty - but it must go far beyond what those organizations are doing. It won't be easy. But it can be fun - big fun. But probably not if we just keep doing the same old thing.