"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.
Private citizens, churches and charities have more capacity to provide for the poor and needy, both at home and abroad, than is currently being utilized. Sadly, too many Christians have neglected their personal and corporate obligations to help the poor. They have not heeded the admonitions of Scripture to help the poor and they have lost sight of the implications of their failure to do so. There is no ambiguity in the Scripture about these matters: "He who is kind to the poor lends to the Lord, and he will reward him for what he has done." (Prov.19:17 NIV) "If a man shuts his ears to the cry of the poor, he too will cry out and not be answered." (Prov. 21:13 NIV) "A generous man will himself be blessed, for he shares his food with the poor." (Prov. 22:9 NIV) "He who gives to the poor will lack nothing, but he who closes his eyes to them receives many curses." (Prov. 28:27 NIV)Many Christians fear their resources will be diminished by giving some of them away. God's economy, however, does not operate on a zero-sum principle, but rather on the principle of sowing and reaping (i.e., you reap what you sow). Furthermore, the Scriptures make it abundantly clear that our service to the poor is service to God himself ("… whatever you do for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me." Matt. 25:40 NIV). The converse is also true ("… whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me." Matt. 25:45).
Christians need to be reminded of their responsibility to help the poor. Too often in America, Christians view private charity as an optional use of their money. As a result, many members of the Body of Christ choose not to give. Consequently, government steps in and coerces charity by levying taxes to help the poor. The government, of course, is notorious for its inefficiency. Government charity programs are scarcely ever as effective as well-run private charities or church programs. Moreover, all too often, government uses charity as a political device to "buy" constituencies for politicians or their parties.
Marvin Olasky examines the contrast between private and government aid in his book, "The Tragedy of American Compassion." Olasky identifies seven principles which undergird any successful charity: charity should encourage affiliation with the needy person's local community, church and family; it should form a bond between the needy and the charitable; it should organize the needy into different groups depending on their type of need; it should seek to establish the needy person in a long-term job; it should emphasize the freedom of being able to provide for oneself; and it should recognize the spiritual and not just material needs of the poor. These principles require the kind of personalized, individual, local and spiritual care which the government simply cannot provide.
Gerson admits that private charity is often superior to government charity, but he still maintains that government is necessary. While there is merit to what he says, Gerson misses the immense potential of private giving to meet the needs of the poor. Government has had to step into the role of provider because private citizens, and particularly the church, have failed to help the needy. Instead of passively accepting expanded government to fulfill charitable needs, we ought to aggressively encourage private giving and call ourselves, our churches and our neighbors to account for our lack of charity to the poor and needy.
Make no mistake about it, however: government does have an obligation to the poor. There are poor people in our midst and a government of the people, by the people and for the people should not ignore their needs. Government should not be merely an instrument for the rich and powerful. The tension is finding the right balance between public and private charity. That tension will be more easily resolved if Christians will step up and meet their obligation to help the poor.