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!"