Private charity is no replacement for the public safety net (Guest post: Chris Moore)

Chris Moore is the senior minister at Fellowship Congregational United Church of Christ in Tulsa. Chris serves on the boards of JustHope, a non-profit that works to combat extreme poverty, and the Tulsa Sponsoring Committee, a community organizing effort.

Chris Moore

Chris Moore

Having just come through the season of Christmas I have witnessed how, more than any other time of the year, churches gather together to give charity to the poor, to hand out gift boxes and backpacks, serve meals and buy presents for families that can’t afford them during this holiday.  The generosity machine is in fifth gear as communities of Christians celebrate the birth of Jesus.  As a pastor, I have figured out two things.  First, this is unsustainable.  Such an outpouring does not last far beyond the holiday season, despite appeals to compassion, faithful practice, or even guilt.  And, second, all of this generosity is a drop in the bucket of what is actually needed.

Hunger is a huge problem in Oklahoma.  The statistics say that 1 in 4 Oklahoma children don’t have reliable access to enough affordable, nutritious food.  Those statistics are equal to the rates of death by cancer in the nation.  No one, of course, suggests that churches should take on the task of dealing with cancer, which is probably because they are not equipped to handle such a crisis.  Neither, I would argue, are they equipped to effectively deal with the crisis of hunger, or poverty or homelessness.

One does not have to search very far in the Bible to find verses that underscore the need for us to be charitable and giving.  But what is often not highlighted are the many ways that our scriptures also compel us to create sustainable, just economical systems. Deuteronomic law does not ask for all things to be equal, but instead asks that we build into our economic systems protections for the most vulnerable. (Deut 24:14)  The biblical laws forbid things like usury (Deut 23:19-20) and fraud (Deut 25:13, 27:17, 27:18), but they also set a standard of justice that asks the people of Israel to treat one another as God has treated them, with generosity, kindness and justice. While the Bible holds this to be an act of personal piety, this is also the action of people who understand the concept of the “common good”.

“It does us no good to try and save people drowning in a river if we never look upstream to see who is throwing them in the river in the first place.”

Critics of the safety net often argue that it should be the role of charity instead of the government to address the issues of the most vulnerable among us.  And while houses of worship, and many hard-working, underfunded non-profit agencies, do engage with this work, they cannot possibly keep up with policies and systems that continue to create income disparity and a lack of options, thereby creating more vulnerable people. Charity alone cannot resolve the issue of poverty. It does us no good to try and save people drowning in a river if we never look upstream to see who is throwing them in the river in the first place.

Even setting aside the economic foolishness that comes with the idea that churches alone could take on our immense social problems, there is a bigger issue.  As a Christian, I am clear that my faith calls me to something more than just charity as we define it. It calls me to justice. It calls me, in our democratic system, to advocate for policies that not only help people in need but also address the systemic causes of such need. It lays before me the moral value of the “common good” and compels me to advocate for that moral value in any and every way that I can, not as an act of politics, but as an act of faith.

The church has a role to play in creating systems that support those in need.  It also has a role to play in advocating for all of the systems that touch our daily lives – economic, political or otherwise – to be moral, to be compassionate and, most importantly, to be just. We may never have a society in which all things are equal. Perhaps that is not even a meaningful goal. But we must ensure that we create a society where everyone has enough.  Poverty cannot be eliminated with charity; it can only be eradicated with justice.

The opinions stated above are not necessarily those of OK Policy, its staff, or its board. This blog is a venue to help promote the discussion of ideas from various points of view and we invite your comments and contributions. To see our guidelines for blog submissions, click here.

Learn More // Do More

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

The opinions stated in guest articles are not necessarily those of OK Policy, its staff, or its board. To see our guidelines for blog submissions, click here.

4 thoughts on “Private charity is no replacement for the public safety net (Guest post: Chris Moore)

  1. Well said. We were members when Russ was alive and serving Fellowship. You continue a long, strong tradition of standing for peace and justice in the community. Thank you.

  2. Very nicely put, Chris. It is amazing to me to continue to hear so many representatives say that churches need to take over providing basic healthcare and food for our poor neighbors, when as you say so eloquently, that will never solve the problem. Thank you for this!

  3. Thanks, Chris! You “hit the nail on the head”. Members of faith communities like the “good feeling” they get from “helping” others, even though their charity efforts are only a drop in the bucket compared to the real needs. Unfortunately, too many members of faith communities do not want to engage in advocacy efforts or the “messiness” that doing justice often requires.

  4. You have spoken the truth so well and with such understanding of the complexity of these issues. I am so glad and proud to be a member of a church that does feed the hungry through our food pantry and partners with another organization to shelter homeless youth in our building. We do advocate for peace and justice issues in the community and beyond. What we do is good and right and helps many people in the community. And while there are a number of churches and religious organizations that have similar ministry and mission efforts in the Oklahoma City area, and in the country, there are so many more people who go without food, adequate shelter, health care, and struggle to just sustain their lives on a daily basis. What we provide are temporary band-aids and maybe a few stitches to stem the flow of blood, but we don’t have the resources to surgically repair the wounds or keep them from getting infected. They need systems of support to help them get out of the vicious cycle of poverty: pathways to physical and mental health evaluations and treatment, appropriate training, education, opportunities for jobs and the steps needed to get out of the systems that sustain poverty. Faith calls us to share what we have with those in need. That call includes feeding the hungry, clothing the naked and sheltering the homeless, but goes beyond those actions to addressing the issues that cause or allow anyone to go hungry, naked or homeless. We are called to do what is good and right and fair and just. Our families of faith have that understanding and vast resources in our people. We have a responsibility, on behalf of the weak, poor, vulnerable and downtrodden, to seek justice through our systems of government, to act and call out to our leaders and other members of society for fair and just practices in our communities, states, nation and world and to speak out and fight against injustice whenever and wherever it occurs. That being said, our faith-based houses of worship and charitable organizations cannot solve the complexity of the social issues we face today. We can and should do our part. But others must also do their part.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.