Sometimes you have to hit me upside the head to get my attention.
At least, that's how today has seemed.
This morning, I came across a Bible passage from Ezekiel 16:49, which carries a stiff warning: " 'Now this was the sin of your sister Sodom: She and her daughters were arrogant, overfed and unconcerned; they did not help the poor and needy...'"
Then I read an interview on ChristianityToday.com with Redeemer Presbyterian's Tim Keller, in which he bluntly states, "It's biblical that we owe the poor as much of our money as we can possibly give away."
But still, I cluelessly trolled the Internet in search of a suitable topic for today's essay. I didn't think I had found anything, and began sinking into a gathering cloud of discouragement as the afternoon wore on. Then, a longtime friend contacted me about something we had discussed a while ago, and mentioned that their pastor yesterday reminded the congregation that Christ wasn't born so we could lavish ourselves with stuff.
Lavish ourselves with stuff.
And that was the *whomp!* upside my head.
Who is Teaching You About Wealth?
I've written about North American Christians and poverty before, and spent some time evaluating Keller's convictions about lavish charity. But that all sounded too counter-cultural to be practical. Instead, we've been bombarded by political hyperbole from conservatives furious that entitlement programs continue to sap them dry so lazy pigs can wallow at the trough of liberal wealth redistribution. And that has made a lot more sense to us pragmatists.
While most of this rhetoric has come from some of the most Biblically illiterate people in the United States, namely our conservative talk radio stars, some religious conservatives have also jumped on the social-welfare-as-socialist-propaganda bandwagon. Combined, these right-wing pundits have succeeded in crafting the illusion that poor people deserve to be poor, and rich people deserve to be free from worrying about poor people.
Now, if you need Biblical references for proof of this fallacy, then maybe you should read your Bible more than you listen to Rush, Beck, Hannity, and the other peddlers of financial idolatry. You're not going to get God's perspective of money by listening to guys who've made their wealth sitting in radio studios, swaddled in leather chairs, feeding their listeners a daily diet of testosterone-fueled vitriol against anybody who dares to think before they vote.
Then again, they wouldn't be making their millions if they didn't have millions of listeners across the country who enjoyed being spoon-fed this pablum. Rush and his ilk get some stuff right, yet their credibility gets washed away by the flood of stuff they get wrong.
But I digress.
Nobody is saying that to be a good follower of Christ you need to give away everything you have and check in to your local homeless shelter. How does that really help anybody? Christ never tells us to become dirt poor, but His Gospel expects us to pursue a healthy economic balance between those who have abundance and those in need.
He tells us to give our redundant possessions to those who lack; for example, people with two coats should give one to the person who can't afford to buy any. If that's wealth redistribution, then I guess wealth redistribution is a Biblical concept, isn't it?
Not that when it comes to our government, all of our taxes should go to propping up what has become a wasteful, corrupt welfare system. Since we live in a close approximation of a democracy, we have the right and - hopefully - ability to work towards equitable support for people who may be experiencing some sort of disadvantage, and to advocate for change when bureaucratic systems actually harm society by perpetuating poverty.
I'll even go as far as to claim that some political liberals have actually abused poverty to subjugate classes of Americans and trick them into voter servitude by denying them chances to advance themselves. If black Americans still in our country's ghettos could see how their Maxine Waters' and Charles Rangel's have manipulated them for personal gain, we would have a breakthrough in race relations and economic opportunity. But here, too; if the evangelical church was carrying more of this social welfare burden instead of the government, we would be in a better position to direct the money we're spending towards programs we believe will yield better results.
For example, by the way our government has handled welfare programs, a lot of people have come to expect such benefits, and have cultivated the attitude of entitlement which grates against taxpayers. Generational poverty has evolved from this constant spoon-feeding of benefits which oftentimes rewards the lack of motivation and perpetuates sexual activity which, frankly, breeds more people who cyclically become dependants of the welfare state. This type of deliberate slothfulness is unbiblical, and if churches exercised their proper role in the funding of social programming, we could more effectively teach against such unethical behavior. Being poor is not morally or ethically wrong in and of itself; but when you decide to choose entitlement over initiative, you are not honoring Christ. The writers of Proverbs repeatedly say that if you don't work, you don't eat.
We Can't Let Go of the Money
Yet, even after we did all we could to reasonably insure that money going to poor people was being well-spent, how upset should we become when we learn that people are still abusing the system, and wrangling for entitlements they don't deserve?
With our current system, conservatives get all bent out of shape, furious at the injustice of working people paying taxes that are squandered on lazy poor people. But are we really upset about the perceived moral inequity, or are we upset about... the MONEY?
Does it all still come down to our love of money? Does it all still boil down to our desire to keep as much of it for ourselves as possible? Do we forget that whatever we claim to have "earned" in our jobs, through an inheritance, or even by marriage, comes from God Himself? If it's all His money to begin with, and we're simply taking advantage of an earthly system which rewards people based on jobs our society is willing to pay for, how mad should we get if we see poor people using money we've given them in inefficient and ineffective ways? How much does our own squandering of money sadden our God Who gave it to us in the first place? Are we trying to get the speck out of somebody else's eye when we've got a 2x4 sticking out of ours?
I'm not saying we should give money to people we know will, by their ingratitude, automatically flush it down the toilet. But on the Day of Judgment, those people will be held accountable for how they spent that money. And when we get to Heaven, we'll be evaluated by how we treated them - and with what attitude.
After all, the reward for us isn't the bigger house and the comfortable retirement here on Earth. It's the reward waiting for us in Heaven.
Maybe it's not only the squanderers of entitlement programs who are wasting their opportunities.
Tomorrow: Part 2