All Christians agree that we are called to care for those who are poor and vulnerable: the Scriptures are replete with statements both of God’s love for the poor and of his explicit command that his people love, protect, and seek justice for those who are impoverished or oppressed. Christians do not uniformly agree, though, on what role the government ought to have in caring for the poor, as evidenced by recent dueling campaigns between a group called the “Circle of Protection”—Christians advocating for programs for the poor to be protected in the federal budget—and “Christians for a Sustainable America,” which has been organized in response, arguing for minimized funding for some of these programs.
Many individuals who take a conservative view of the role of government argue that is the primarily the role of the Church, not the State, to provide assistance to the poor. Nowhere in the New Testament, they would note, does it suggest that Christ-followers should lobby the government for increased spending for the poor: the repeated command to Christ’s followers is that we—the Church, not necessarily a secular government—“should continue to remember the poor” (Galatians 2:10). When Jesus explains what it means to love our neighbor, he tells the story of a Samaritan who assists a man who had been assaulted on the side of the road to Jericho and offers his own financial resources to the innkeeper to care for him (Luke 10); the exemplary good neighbor does not call the governor and ask for a hospital to be built at taxpayer expense. And when Paul makes his appeal for generosity toward the church at Jerusalem, saying that “our desire is not that others might be relieved while you are hard pressed, but that there might be equality,” the redistribution of wealth that he is advocating is the result of voluntary giving by Christians, not government coercion (2 Corinthians 8:13).
Some have argued that by increasing assistance to the poor available from the U.S. government over the last half century or so in an attempt to win a “war on poverty”—with programs such as food stamps, welfare checks, Medicaid, and subsidized housing, amongst others—we “actually demean the poor, undermine their family structures and trap them in poverty, dependency and despair for generations.” They would note that the poverty rate in the United States has not significantly improved since the advent of these programs, despite substantial expenditures of governmental funding. But what is perhaps more concerning, from a Christian perspective, is the argument that these programs have led the Church to abdicate its God-given responsibilities to care for the poor to governmental programs.
I’m sympathetic to some of these arguments theoretically, but I’d be wary to see the government eliminate or minimize a “social safety net” because I’m not convinced that the Church would step up to the plate. Sociologists Christian Smith and Michael Emerson, in their fascinating book Passing the Plate: Why American Christians Don’t Give Away More Money , show that the average American Christian gives less than 3% of their income to the Church or to any non-profit organization. If just the committed Christians of this country—those who actually attend church on a regular basis—would raise their giving to 10% as a biblical mandate-the Church would have $46 billion with which it could fund holistic programs to lift millions out of poverty. This could be done without governmental funds and without compromising their mission. In a wealthy country like the U.S., many (if not most) American Christians could give significantly more than 10% and still live very comfortably.
Some might say that the reason that Christians do not give more to care for the poor is because the government is already doing so. But there is at least one category of people in our society who are not eligible for governmental assistance, but whom the Church has not, for the most part, decided to assist. Undocumented immigrants are (contrary to popular misperception) ineligible for federal means-tested public benefits such as welfare (Temporary Aid for Needy Families), food stamps, or public housing, and even (though they pay and file taxes with an Individual Taxpayer Identification Number) for the Earned Income Tax Credit. The undocumented immigrant in need of assistance cannot turn to the government. The Church (or other non-governmental organizations), then, becomes the only option. While there are some great exceptions, though—local churches providing food assistance, occasional rental assistance, access to legal advice—churches have not come anywhere near to approximating the level of assistance available from government to U.S. citizens. The situation of undocumented immigrants in a time of economic hardship provides a perfect opportunity for conservatives who believe that the Church, not the government, should care for the poor to put their convictions into action—because the undocumented poor are one category whom the government is not going to help.
If you’re looking where to start, I’d recommend to you World Relief, the organization where I work, whose mission is to empower the local church to serve the most vulnerable. In DuPage County, Illinois, where I live, as in cities around the United States, World Relief partners with local churches to resettle, find employment for, and offer counseling to refugees (who do have legal status) and to provide church-based English instruction and authorized, competent, and affordable legal services to immigrants of all kinds, regardless of their legal status. My wife and I will be participating in a bicycle Ride for Refuge this Saturday to raise funds for World Relief DuPage’s local ministries, and we’d love your support. You can make an online donation, or register to ride yourself, at the Ride for Refuge website.
Matthew Soerens is the co-author of Welcoming the Stranger: Justice, Compassion & Truth in the Immigration Debate (InterVarsity Press, 2009) and the US Church Training Specialist atWorld Relief. His blogs appear here on Mondays.
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