A friend who is politically the polar opposite from me asked me recently through a Facebook comment why I believed government should be in charge of social services, rather than people of faith living out their faith. I've sat with his question for the last couple weeks for several reasons. First, I've never seen it as an "either/or" kind of thing, so I found it hard to answer because the basic assumption didn't hold for me. But also, I realized the answer to the question was long and has many facets to it, so it could not be a simple or short answer: certainly it would not fit as a "comment" to a Facebook post. Third, I struggle at times with choosing to speak when I believe it won't matter, that opinions will not be changed. As I've listened to friends and parishioners express their different opinions on the current political issues, it's really come home to me that we don't start from the same place, we don't trust the same news sources or even the same recounting of history. How can you have a genuine discussion with someone when what you say they won't believe and what they say you "know" to be untrue (and yes, I put that in quotes. What we hear in news and in history is always told from the perspective of the teller. There is always bias. None of us ever hear or even witness complete truth because we always interpret even our own experiences through the lenses of our beliefs and perspectives)?
But at the same time, the question, and the answers that I have inside have continued to rattle around within me so I am answering the question here. While it may make no difference to his understanding, articulating my thoughts around this has the potential to make a difference for me. And there is always the hope that it may create more understanding of our differences even if it doesn't change where we both come out in the end.
With all of those caveats, here goes:
The scriptures in Matthew 25 that talk about finding Christ in the "least of these" are pretty central texts for me. In particular vs. 34-45: "Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’ “Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’ “The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’ “Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. For I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not invite me in, I needed clothes and you did not clothe me, I was sick and in prison and you did not look after me.’ “They also will answer, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or needing clothes or sick or in prison, and did not help you?’ “He will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.’"
These are vital descriptions to me of how we are to live out Jesus' two commandments to love God with all we are and to love our neighbors as ourselves. Tie that into his descriptions of who those neighbors are, (Matthew 5:43-48: "You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? And if you greet only your own people, what are you doing more than others? Do not even Gentiles do that?") and you get a very clear picture that we are to love everyone in the same way and to the same degree as we care for ourselves. This is THE message, the commandments, or, as Jesus put it in Matthew 22, "Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.”. We are to love even those people we fear, even those people we don't like, even those people from other countries and other ethnic backgrounds and other sexual orientations and other religions and other genders and ages and abilities, etc, etc, etc as we love ourselves. It's that simple. And it's that hard. And what that looks like is offering and helping them to have the same resources, opportunities, chances and choices, the same rights that we have.
So I begin there. Do I think then that the government has the sole responsibility for caring for others? Of course not. I believe we are called to share our talents and our resources in every possible way with those who do not have as much. We are to be stewards of what we have been lent by God. And that is how I see it. "My" house is not "my" house: it is a resource that belongs to God that has been lent to me to use for the good of all people. "My" income is not "my" income: it too is a resource that comes from God that has been lent to me to use for the good of all people. My talents, my gifts, my abilities: all are to be used to love God. Loving God means taking care of God's people, and, frankly, all of creation: all of God's earth, all of God's creatures, all of God's beauty. God loves it all. And when we use it for ourselves, when we abuse any of it for ourselves, or even for our "own" people, when we do this, I think it makes God incredibly sad. I don't think any of this has been given to us to create luxury for me and mine. I don't find in scripture or in my own experience of God a God who wants us to use the resources lent to us for our own over-indulgence while others suffer. My own experience is that the more I give, the more I find I have enough. Again and again and again. It has only been in the times when I have knuckled down out of fear and hoarded what has come my way that I have felt in need.
Getting back to the original question then, of shouldn't people of faith just do this without the help of the government, again, my answer is no. I don't believe God is asking us to care for each other just as a practice in faith, or as proof of our love for God. I genuinely believe that God loves all of God's people and all of God's creation. It hurts God to the core (and, just as was written in Matthew we are doing it to God-self!) when we fail to take care of each other. Therefore, we have a responsibility to do that by every single means possible. Individually? Yes. As faith communities? Yes. As countries? Absolutely.
Looking at history (and again, recognizing we don't read the same interpretations of that history), the number of people who were in extreme poverty before FDR put his welfare and social systems into place was astonishing. The number of people he helped by setting government aid into place was extraordinary, and that has continued to be the case. Were there individuals at the time who could have ended poverty in this country on their own? Probably. But the point is, they didn't. When we look at the wealth discrepancy in our country now, it is far greater than it was then or ever. And it remains true that the wealthiest people give the least amount in terms of percentage of their incomes towards helping others. The poorest give the most, consistently. This is statistically true (see The Charitable Giving ), and it is also my own personal experience. I never experienced as much generosity as when I have been and when I am with poorer people, both abroad and in this country. While the giving of wealthy individuals in this country could wipe out hunger and homelessness, it doesn't, because those with the resources don't share them as they should.
This isn't just my experience in the United States. When I have spent time in other countries that do not offer the same kind of aid, the poverty is extreme. I spent a summer doing mission work in Brazil in the early 90's. The amount of people living in cardboard boxes, the children who were so skinny you could almost see through them was beyond belief. Their implementation of social programs has also made a huge difference in that country. (see Social Welfare Programs Worked). Since I was working there with some of these extremely poor children, I heard their stories, I lived their stories with them. I cannot begin to believe in a God that would be happier to have those children suffer than to have them supported by government help. The government reflects us and our values. I would hope that our values would strongly reflect care and love for one another.
I realize that people fear that the resources the government gives to those on welfare are misused.
I know this is a great fear, despite the fact that statistics tell a very different story (welfare chart, cheating welfare). Conservative estimates give a percentage of about 10% cheating the system. Other sources say as low as 2%. To me, that's still worth it. It means 90% or more are not cheating the system. Is this help necessary? Again, if you want to return to the days before FDR set his system in place, we can cancel our welfare programs to find out. But I'll tell you as someone who has volunteered for years with homeless families, in shelters, with emergency assistance programs and with feeding programs that when you know these families' stories, it is easy to see that they would not survive without BOTH the government programs and faith community help. There are members of my own family who almost fell through the cracks completely, and who would not have survived without this help.
One story in particular: I am very close to someone (whom I will not embarrass by naming in this public place) who grew up in extreme poverty here in the United States. His family lived on food stamps and welfare help for a few years. The local church also helped them to survive with food bags on a monthly basis. But still, there were many kids in the family, many little people who needed watching after, and a single mom who could only get work that would pay her about as much as she would have had to pay for child care. This person has shared with me stories of outgrowing the one pair of shoes he would receive each year and then simply going barefoot or cutting holes in the shoes so his toes could stick out. He has told me about stolen food being the only thing they would eat sometimes, and he has also shared times of pure hunger. Without the checks that family received, they simply would have died. I have no doubt of this after having seen children die in Brazil in similar situations before there were social service programs there. Was his family taking advantage of the system? I do not believe so. The mother now has an education, has worked very successfully and the entire family has moved into a middle class economy. But they needed that help for those few years after the father of the family had died and there was no real way to support these little children. Again, volunteering and working in interfaith emergency programs, I have heard and seen this story playing out again and again. And the great majority of the time, that assistance is temporary, despite what some would tell you. It gets a family through during a rough patch until they can get back on their feet. But without both the faith community help and the emergency assistance from the government, I know these families would not make it.
Finally, we know that in countries where there is less poverty and more education and health care, crime rates and mortality rates are much lower. There is less disease for everyone because there are less severely sick people spreading that disease. There is less crime because there is not the desperation and need that pushes people to steal what they need or to act out in rage at a country full of people who don't care. There is a much more general sense of well being because people are making educated, informed decisions about what is best for everyone. It benefits everyone in the country when the country cares about the people, all the people, within its bounds and takes part in ensuring that people have their basic needs met.
I deeply believe that we are all connected. I deeply believe that everyone around me really is my brother and my sister. I believe beyond a doubt that somehow we are all one (John 17). I know that if my child or my sister were in need, I would want to bring every resource available to help that person. And when I see people in need, it feels like it is my child or my sister who is hurting. I can't help everyone on my own. But I will do whatever needs to be done to assure that all of my siblings (everyone) has what they need.
I want to be part of a place that cares about its people, that recognizes that we all are less when even one of us is suffering and that is focused on taking care of its own so that each of us, and therefore all of us, have what we need to live whole lives. This mirrors my faith beliefs but also mirrors my hopes for a country that is more loving than hating, more compassionate than afraid, and more giving than hoarding. Again, our government should reflect us and our values. And those are the values I would hope would be central for all of us.