"You will always have the poor among you..." In those words Jesus stated a simple fact that has held true through the centuries. In every society, no matter how rich and bountiful, there have always been impoverished people. These people evoke our concern and sympathy. We want to help them, but how?
No society has ever overcome poverty. In the US today, the question of how to help the poor is particularly controversial, with two partisan sides struggling vigorously to promote their own answers. The liberal camp argues that government is the best entity to help the poor at home and abroad. They think that it is the responsibility of the nation, through the mechanism of government, to care for its people and to help the poor in other countries. Libertarian conservatives, on the other hand, believe that government has no place in helping the poor and needy. They think that the responsibility to care for the poor rests on the shoulders of individuals. The two camps are dramatically opposed. Both think that the other's solution cannot work.
Christians have an obligation to serve the poor and needy. Indeed, their service to the poor is a reflection of their respect for God. Proverbs 14:31 (NIV) declares, "He who oppresses the poor shows contempt for their Maker, but whoever is kind to the needy honors God." The question is, "How should they help?" Which of the two competing political solutions is the most "Christian"?
Michael Gerson recently wrote a column denouncing the idea of "The Libertarian Jesus." While he admits that government can be a flawed instrument for helping the poor, he goes on to declare that "the scale of these needs is sometimes overwhelming." He argues, "Private compassion cannot replace Medicaid or provide AIDS drugs to millions of people in Africa for the rest of their lives. In these cases, a role for government is necessary and compassionate..."
Gerson is trying to strike a balance between the liberal and libertarian solutions. His effort to induce compassion into the sometimes cold-hearted conservatism is to be commended, but he overreaches a bit in his assumptions.