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.
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.
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