Monday, March 17, 2014

Some Things Your Church May Not Be Telling You


It isn’t just the Evangelical community – often associated in the popular press with Tea Party ideas – that holds latent animosity toward the poor. I’ve heard pastors and laypersons from “mainline” churches using the same code language as their evangelical and fundamentalist brethren when expressing their disdain for Progressivism or Liberalism. And it must be said that the same animosity is widespread in the community at large, whether those speaking are church affiliated on not. The poor are too often the target of such contempt; the whipping boys of popular discourse, welfare cheats, lazy moochers with their hands out, those unwilling to do better or to be better. It has amused me for years (a wry amusement) that Christians recognize the poor of Jesus’ day as deserving of assistance, and they will send thousands of dollars to foreign lands to assist the poor there, but stoutly resist paying one dime more in taxes to support the poor in our own communities. 
 
No doubt the reason much of the evangelical community has embraced the Republican Party stems from the church’s belief that the Republicans share their Biblical understandings regarding marriage, the sanctity of life, and ideas peripheral to their long-held beliefs regarding these issues. The Republican party, eager to have the church on its side, has encouraged the belief that it is the champion and protector of the church’s sacred trusts.  I believe the church’s right to maintain its core doctrinal beliefs must be protected (is already Constitutionally protected) except in certain dire life and death situations. 
 
However, since its inception, the church universal has encouraged attitudes toward the poor that are in essential harmony with the principles that guide liberalism and, in our day, inform many of the social policies advocated by the Democratic Party. In previous eras, evangelical Christians were in the vanguard of liberal movements on behalf of the poor, mentally ill, imprisoned, dispossessed, and disadvantaged.  Note that I did not say that the leadership or the laity of the church at any particular time responded sympathetically to the needs of the poor and disadvantaged. Even in historic moments of liberal enthusiasm, it was often key laypersons who, at great personal sacrifice, rallied the church in opposition to the wishes of the clergy, calling the church to honor the Biblical injunctions about the care of the needy.  
 
And that is the point of this essay. There are certain things that many Christians will never hear discussed or assented to in their Christian church because, in our day, the evangelical church is essentially a tool of the Republican Party. (In the last election eighty percent of evangelical Christians voted for Mitt Romney, a Mormon, rather than for an acknowledged Christian believer, Barack Obama.) 
 
You will seldom – perhaps never – hear your Pastor or church leadership tell you: 
 
1)      “our church isn’t capable of meeting the needs, of its own members; they need to be encouraged to look to the government for additional assistance, especially for long-term problems.”
 
a)      rather you will hear, too often, that if Christians will practice generosity in giving, all the needs of the congregation can be met. Perhaps, but only if the demographics of the congregation meets certain very specific criteria – plenty of well-off members associated with the church, and few of the desperately needy. (In reality one or two very needy families could stretch the voluntary generosity of a relatively large and affluent congregation to the breaking point. And no church I know of is capable of providing comprehensive, indefinite support for those in need of life-long assistance. I am not aware of a church that budgets specifically for the care of the needy, either in their congregation or outside of it. Periodic one-off campaigns may be mounted to raise off-budget moneys for special needs.) 
 
b)      or you may hear that the church, in conjunction with other community charitable organizations can meet the needs of the poor without the necessity of “big” government programs. Again the demographics of the community would need to be very favorable and the generosity of the community exponentially enhanced over current levels. 
 
c)      or you may hear that, in reality, there are very few families or individuals who are truly needy, who are incapable of improving their lot if they would only accept a little help and then exercise the same initiative all the successful people in the community do. 
 
d)     or you may hear that the needs of the poor could be taken care of if the families of the needy would step forward and do their duty in caring for them. “Charity begins at home.” “He who does not care for his own is worse than an infidel.” 
 
2)      You will seldom be told that a significant share of every congregation falls into one or more of the following categories, dependent upon government programs for some portion of their financial and/or physical wellbeing: 
 
a)      children of church members or attendees are receiving free or reduced lunches at school
b)      families associated with the church are receiving food stamps or WIK assistance
c)      some families are visiting food kitchens partially supplied by government surplus items
d)     family members are attending colleges and technical schools on government scholarships or with government guaranteed and subsidized loans
e)      children are enrolled in religious charter schools using government supplied scholarships
f)       developmentally disabled children and adults are receiving SSI payments and Medicaid assistance
g)      Families have their medical needs met through  Badger Care
h)      elderly members are living in low income government subsidized housing
i)        elderly parents have exhausted all their life’s savings and other resources and are now being cared for by the state using Medicaid funds.
j)        Individuals and families are receiving regular medical care for the first time in their lives through the ACA (Obamacare)
k)      businesses owned and/or operated by church members benefit from tax relief or tax credits specially targeted to help them succeed
l)        businesses owned and/or operated by church members have employees whose compensation is so low that they qualify to receive food stamps, Badger Care, Obamacare, or free or partially paid school lunches for their children 
 
So why the silence about these embarrassing facts? (Why should they be embarrassing facts?) 
 
I believe it is because the church has been essentially co-opted by the Republican Party; that it dares not venture away from the Party’s anti-Christian stance on government assistance to the poor. And any shame the church might feel when considering the facts listed above is also the result of having imbibed the Republican elixir that such conditions only exist where liberalism has run rampant.  Even though the Bible, which the church correctly quotes on the issues of great importance to it – marriage and sanctity of life – is filled from cover to cover with admonitions to support the poor, and warnings of the dire consequences of neglecting to do so, the church has chosen, at best, to resist the most powerful tool at our society’s disposal to assist the poor or, at worst, to join in the chorus of those demeaning them. 
 
There is a better way, and that is for Christians, and the church in general, to divorce themselves from any particular political party and begin to select policies to support that are consistent with Biblical teachings regarding the issues being debated in our society. That will allow the church to be pro family, pro marriage, pro life, AND compassionate toward the poor. For too long it has been muzzled in the area of compassion for the weak and poor among us by its perceived need to hew to the Republican line.
 
By standing outside of partisan politics, neither wearing their colors or waving their flag, the church can put pressure on all parties to enact legislation that helps, in a small way, to accomplish the will of God “on earth as it is in heaven.” You might even hear some day, a churchman suggesting that the taxes paid to support the needs of the downtrodden in our society helps to fulfill the Christian’s obligation to feed and clothe the poor, to provide for the sick and to minister to those in prison. You might even hear some day, a churchman suggest that raising the minimum wage is a small gesture that our society can make toward improving the lives of our poorest citizens. You might even hear a churchman argue in favor of allowing workers to bargain collectively with their employers so as to give them power equal to that of the moneyed interests for whom they work. You might hear a churchman argue that government programs that assist the poor are a way that Christians can meet needs in our society that are beyond the means of the local church or individual charity. 
 
But the church can never authentically make those arguments while captive to EITHER party. Its voice will always be suspect as long as it allies itself to one or the other party. Only when it speaks as the prophet of God; only when its authority rests on its own Biblical underpinnings, will it begin to be that prophetic voice that God placed it in the world to be; the salt and light that Jesus said it would be.
 

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