"If there is a poor man among your brothers in any of the towns of the land that the LORD your God is giving you, do not be hardhearted or tightfisted toward your poor brother. Rather be openhanded and freely lend him whatever he needs.... Give generously to him and do so without a grudging heart; then because of this the LORD your God will bless you in all your work and in everything you put your hand to. There will always be poor people in the land. Therefore I command you to be openhanded toward your brothers and toward the poor and needy in your land." (Deuteronomy 15:7-15 NIV)
Despite some encouraging signs of recovery, many people are still struggling in the wake of the current economic crisis. Unemployment numbers continue to rise, home foreclosures are at record highs, and investment portfolios remain ravaged by a volatile stock market. Relief is needed, and action is required. While economic relief and recovery continues to be the primary focus of our leaders in Washington, there is considerable disagreement over the best way for the government to address our economic woes.
It is apparent that the economic problems of the country—along with the resulting social problems—are being used as weapons of political warfare and packaged as evidence for or against various agendas, policies, and ideologies. Thus, while everyday Americans struggle to keep food on their tables and roofs over their heads, politicians and pundits debate the merits of the free market and engage in the blame game. Was the economic collapse the result of too much or too little regulation? Is it Bush's fault, or Barney Franks's? To nationalize or not to nationalize? These are certainly questions worthy of answers, and as we move forward as a nation we would do well to analyze how different responses to the economic crisis today might affect America tomorrow.
However, while the poohbahs on the Potomac dither about the nature and extent of government's role in helping those in need, there is one institution that has a clear and non-delegable duty to reach out and help those who are suffering. No new laws or regulations are required for this organization to do its good work and no new bureaucratic apparatus is required to administer it. In order to meet the challenges posed by these current woes, this non-governmental body need only embrace the principles of love, grace, and charity that have guided it for the last 2000 years. This great institution is the Church.
For Americans hurting now, abstract policy debates and partisan political warfare do little to change the reality on the ground. Government assistance programs—designed at the macro-level and administered by bureaucrats—often provide only cold comfort. Because of their size and the scope of their responsibilities, government agencies are often unable to relate to the recipients of their aid in a personal way. Furthermore, they are only equipped to address the material symptoms of a problem. The Church, on the other hand, is bound by a moral responsibility to provide material, emotional, and spiritual care to those in need.
The Bible is full of exhortations about the need for compassion and charity towards those struggling with economic adversity. Jesus repeatedly identifies himself with the poor and needy, reminding his followers that when they fail to care for the least among their fellow men, they are failing to care for Christ himself (Matthew 25:45). In the Old Testament, God warned his people of the consequences of hard-heartedness towards the needy: "He who mocks the poor shows contempt for their Maker; whoever gloats over disaster will not go unpunished." (Proverbs 17:5 NIV) God's clear affinity for the most vulnerable among his creation reflects his love and mercy. As he was willing to sacrifice his perfect Son to atone for our sin and weakness, so Christians are obligated to pour out this same spirit of love and grace upon our fellow human beings. Christians who turn their backs on the poor and needy are guilty of turning their backs on the Lord himself. In the apt words of Richard Land, president of the Southern Baptist Convention's Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, "it is... a denial of the incarnation to go preach the gospel and ignore the fact that people are hungry and thirsty and naked and homeless."
Providing material resources to those in need is one way of demonstrating brotherly love. Equally important, however, is the need for emotional and spiritual support and encouragement. When the future seems bleak and the walls are closing in, it is easy to succumb to hopelessness and despair. These difficult times provide the perfect opportunity for Christians to demonstrate love for their fellow man by opening their hands to their brothers and by sharing the Good News of the Gospel. This gift of love and hope helps people remain joyful in the face of adversity in ways that a check from Uncle Sam just can't match.
The moral obligations of the Christian faith challenge believers to give selflessly of their time, talent, and treasure—to step out of their comfort zones to share God's love and succor with those in need. There are no forms to fill out, no congressional guidelines to meet in order to establish eligibility; there are just people who are struggling and in need of help from those motivated by Christ's example of sacrifice, and his commandment to love our neighbors as ourselves.
Long before America's nanny state developed into the behemoth apparatus it has become, the Church was there, its members acting as the hands and feet of the Body of Christ to minister to the impoverished, the outcast, and the needy. Committed Christians undertake these works of love every day, all over the world. The outpouring of Christian charity in the aftermath of hurricane Katrina is recent evidence of the unique capacity of the Church to address social crises in a way the government—bogged down by red tape and burdened by bureaucracy—simply can't equal. Shattered lives were healed and broken communities restored because faithful men and women recognized their Christian duty to take action.
As our current economic and social woes deepen and Washington's efforts to meet this challenge flounder, America's hardest hit would undoubtedly benefit from some good old-fashioned Christian charity.