Sunday, October 9, 2011

A Sunday Morning Note to My Evangelical Family

Evangelicals have believed, from their beginning, that the sole criterion for “admission to heaven” is faith in Jesus Christ (Jesus the Messiah). There are many varieties of theological explanation of what that means and how much any mere human’s will and effort have to do with it. But it is, in its general form, a solidly Biblical theology, based primarily on Jesus’ own teachings: “Whoever believes in me will have everlasting life.”

But is it too much to say that one’s eternal destiny will be decided by the way one has treated the poor and helpless in our world? Jesus said, after all, that caring for the uncared-for – or not doing so – was the equivalent of caring for – or not caring for – him. And it is just possible that “believing in Jesus” means believing he meant what he said and attempting to do what his words reveal to be his will. “If you love me, keep my commandments.” That is a sobering thought; one that Timothy Keller addresses in his recent book Generous Justice.

(Don’t read Keller’s book if you happen to believe that Jesus really meant what he said; Keller will convince you that there are ways you can feed, cloth, heal the poor, and visit the persecuted in jail. He will leave you free to continue your unconcerned ways, but not without some fear of the spiritual consequence of doing so. Not without considerable guilt as you compare your own good life to that of the disadvantaged around you.)

Those who read my blog – it is possible that one or two friends do so – know that am hardest on those with whom I am most closely aligned theologically. I hope I am as hard on myself as I have been on my friends. The claim of Evangelical Christians to be believers in, and followers of Jesus, either has substantive meaning or we are as hypocritical as the Pharisee’s of Jesus day.

Keller insists, and I concur, that our faith in Jesus should be demonstrated in our actions and attitudes toward, and interactions with, those whom Jesus identified as the target of his ministry. Neither Keller nor anyone else is perfect in their fulfillment of Jesus’ wish that his followers feed the poor, cloth the naked, heal the sick, and visit the imprisoned. But Keller would have us be increasingly aware of their existence, first of all, but also their plight, and the ways that we can be of help to them.

It has always distressed me – as long as I have been politically aware – that the particular theological family with which I am associated (some call it “fundamentalist,” I prefer “Evangelical,” and believe it more accurately expresses my theological understandings)  has aligned itself with political forces that, in general, work to increase the power of the wealthy and decrease that of the poor, opposing such things as minimum wage laws, rights of workers to organize unions, government aid to the indigent and unemployed, social security, Medicare and Medicaid. (Many of them, now recipients of those programs, some wholly dependent upon them, conveniently forget that they voted for candidates who either opposed the adoption of those programs or pledged, if elected, to abolish them.)

And that is merely the short list of programs that those with whom I’ve worshipped over the last 75 years have fought against, labeled “communist,” and characterized as un-Christian and un-American. Granted, some in that theological tradition – but far from the majority – have devoted great energy and considerable wealth to meeting the material needs of the vulnerable around them. But sadly, in my experience, even most of them have opposed government assistance at tax-payer expense, imagining, one has to assume, that the sack of groceries they donated would somehow miraculously feed their family, pay the rent, cloth their kids, buy their medicines, until they found work.

The last thirty years has been the era of the Evangelical in American politics. It is my opinion that non-Evangelical politicians – avowing Evangelical sentiments, if not faith – have promised Evangelicals far more than they have ever delivered to them. Bluntly, they have used them for their own political gain. The result has been a widening of the gap between the rich and the poor and a hardening, among Evangelicals, of the resistance to government programs that feed, cloth, house, educate, and protect the poor. Evangelical leaders who have taken up the cause of the poor are marginalized within the Evangelical community, even labeled heretical because they “eat with publicans and sinners.” Rick Warren is an example of a man who is now the target of viscous attacks by fellow Evangelicals because of his willingness to reach out to the oppressed, even attempting to build bridges – if one can believe his audacity – to Muslims.

Early in the life of Evangelicalism in the United States much of the work to improve the plight of the poor, the imprisoned, the mentally ill, the immigrant, the working class, slaves and, after the Civil War, freedmen, was carried on by Evangelicals. Such work was seen as an extension of the Gospel message. But in the early to mid 20th century Evangelicals became wary of such a “social Gospel” and withdrew from such causes, stigmatizing them rather than helping them. And late in the 20th Century most Evangelicals – if the polling numbers are accurate – have concluded that their interests are best served by getting the government “out of people’s lives” and allowing the private sector, churches, and private charity to care for the needs of the poor.

Thank God for all the millions of dollars Christians and non-Christians contribute to charitable institutions, and thank God for the work they do. It is obvious, though, that only a tiny fraction of citizens contribute significantly to those causes – only a tiny fraction of Evangelical citizens as well. And thus, the needs we see around us in the United States, to say nothing of the rest of the world, are overwhelming.

I’m not into saying what Jesus would say or do if he were here today. But I can say that I’d be so proud of my theological family – the Evangelical world – if their attitude toward fulfilling Jesus’ expressed desire that the needy be served by us, extended to a willingness to support government programs that assist the poor among us; to be taxed so that our combined contributions could meet the needs of everyone. It would look something like a secular version of the model of charity in the earliest Christian community spoken of in the Book of Acts.

If we Evangelicals want the world to see Jesus in us, we need to think carefully about the public policies we support and oppose. If it looks like our allegiances to the interests of the rich and powerful are stronger than those to the poor and homeless it might just be concluded that we don’t look very Christian. Jesus said, “In as much as you have done it unto the least of these, my brothers, you have done it unto me.” He didn’t specify “how” we should do it. But good public policy is one efficient and fair way to spread the benefits of our society to all its Citizens. And a "cheerful giver" will hardly miss the few dollars a year it takes to do the job that way.

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