Every time the subject of government social programs come up, my conservative friends tell me that supporting such things isn’t what Jesus would have us do. After all, they say, Jesus said to give your money to the poor, not the government so they can give it the poor. And, they’re right, as far as that goes. Neither Jesus, Peter, Paul or anyone else connected with this group made even a veiled suggestion about such an idea. Kinda makes you wonder about all the hoopla over a moral budget coming from the Christian Left, doesn’t it?
While it’s true that no one connected with Jesus or his message ever said we should expect the government to do anything to help those in need, it’s not the whole truth. To get to that, I think we need to examine the government and culture that dominated the Mediterranean region of the first century. Greco-Roman society of the time was incredibly stratified; people were either incredibly wealthy or incredibly poor. You were either in or you were out. And, if you were poor, you were most definitely out. As for the government, something a friend said recently brings a great deal of perspective to this: “Every system exists to perpetuate itself”, and the government of Rome in the first century is a classic example of this. Everything it did was to the benefit of Rome and her leaders, those that were “in”. From collecting taxes to dealing with unrest, it was all about how Rome might benefit. And, because the poor were “out”caring for them was pointless. This, then, is the context in which all early Christian instruction about caring for needy was given. The idea that government could operate in such a capacity was utterly foreign. Personally, I find it hard to believe that if government social programs had been available during His ministry, Jesus wouldn’t have embraced them. I say that because, while it didn’t provide programs, Jewish law instructed everyone to make sure no one went in need and this was the major part of His message. Saying that Jesus would have rejected government help is, in my opinion, rather disingenuous
For all my support of these programs, I’m not unaware of their shortcomings. In too many cases, the deck is stacked against those receiving government help ever getting off of it. And, instead of offering some help to prevent people from finding themselves stuck, it sometimes seems that it’s preferable to let them crash and then help. Not to mention, being on the public dole is soul-crushing. Imagine what a father feels like when he has to admit he can’t provide for his family. Is it any wonder that people in these situations give up? If you’re slapped down every time you try to better yourself, eventually you stop trying. Then, there’s the attitude of all too many people in less dire straits that they don’t need to worry about helping these folks because the government is already doing it. At their height, government sponsored social programs barely scratched the surface of providing what people need. Government can provide shelter, sustenance and (very) basic medical care and that’s about it. The essentials of survival, in other words. What’s missing from this equation is a human touch, an acknowledgement that they matter, that we haven’t forgotten them. That they are our neighbors and we love them, all of them.
Those on the right make much of private citizens and organizations providing assistance. Please understand, I’m not against that. But the problem facing us in matters of economic and social justice are just to massive to tackled on that basis alone. If these issues could be solved by churches, individuals and organizations by themselves, government assistance would never have come into being. But, unfortunately, we’re broken people who live in a broken world and tend to be more concerned with our own safety, comfort and security than that of our neighbor. Because of that self-centeredness, it’s all too easy for us to ignore our brothers and sisters in need. In reality, we are the reason that the social programs so despised by conservatives exist. If those of us who are blessed with an abundance would share that abundance with others, such programs wouldn’t be needed. While Jesus may not have said let the government help, that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t do it.