The Political Church: An Approach to the Problem, Part 1

Church StateI’ve found it hard to synthesize a concrete outcome from the studies I’ve done in the scriptures. I mean, it’s clear that a lot of attitudes and practices are wrong, but it’s hard to determine where we go from here.

I’m constantly drawn toward the usual, American model of power politics, but I know that can’t be the answer. And I’m equally certain that government isn’t the answer. On the other hand, I also know that the financial needs of the poor in this country are too great for the church to meet on its own.

So here’s where I am in my thinking.

1. The government is neither the solution nor the problem — but is part of the solution and part of the problem.

The government cannot fix poverty because poverty is about much more than the lack of money. Poverty is often associated with a lack of spiritual capital — the values and ethics that allow people to build strong marriages, raise good children, and live good lives. These are things like knowing how to be a good husband and wife and wanting to be a good husband and wife, how to be a good parent, how to be a good employee, how to defer gratification, and the value of and honor in hard work. Honesty, thrift, and even simplicity are all in there, too.

Even in my church, we see middle class families torn apart because the parents are selfish, short-sighted people who’ve grown up in dysfunctional families. Somewhere along the line, the values and skills of how to live as Christians didn’t get passed on to the next generation, and once those values are lost, they aren’t easily restored. And the government can’t fix this.

It’s true that welfare policies sometimes have led to the destruction of families, as the government at one point created financial incentives to have children out of wedlock or for mothers to remain unmarried. Of course, there was once a time when Christians would suffer torture and imprisonment rather than surrender their Christianity. Evidently, Rome should have tried taking away the Christians’ welfare checks — as many of us seem entirely willing to give up our values and principles for a government stipend.

So, yes, the government should never adopt anti-marriage policies, and while some have been repealed as a part of Clinton’s welfare reform, many remain. But the many Christians of prior generations who gave up their values for a welfare bowl of porridge show how thin our veneer of Christianity really was. Why would a Christian have an illegitimate child just to get a welfare check? Obviously, the church and the parents in the church have often done a very poor job to passing our values down to the next generation.

Today, following welfare reform, the problem isn’t so much the welfare system as the destruction of values that remains after a couple of generations of destructive welfare policies. And we are responsible for our own values. The government has tempted many a Christian to surrender his or her values, and many a Christian has succumbed. But that’s both the government’s fault and the church’s fault.

On the other hand, the financial cost of the welfare burden is too great for the church to take on at present. It’s frivolous to argue that the government is wrong to help people because the church should be doing this — when the church isn’t doing it and really can’t.

But the problem wouldn’t be as great as it is if generations of Christians past had simply passed their values to their children.

2. There will always be poor among us, but Jesus can eliminate the spiritual poverty and most of the financial poverty

There will always be the disabled and infirm who simply can’t support themselves. There will always be times of business contraction when jobs disappear. There will always be poor, and so there will always be a need for a system of some sort to care for the poor. And for the time being, an essential part of that system has to be governmental.

However, the church and the Christians within the church can, over time, reduce poverty in society by lifting up Jesus to the poor through service and good works — provided without condescension and at significant personal cost. Addicts can recover and get jobs when they find Jesus — and get the support and help they need. My church’s Celebrate Recovery program has members who’ve gone from eating out of dumpsters to self-sufficiency, by the power of Jesus working through devoted disciples.

We have a family who took in a drug addict — who had nowhere else to turn — and have helped her kick her addictions and recover. But this was at the cost of letting the addict live with them and their young daughters. The church has to once again learn the meaning of the sacrifice of Jesus by living the sacrifice of Jesus.

Many of the poor can learn job skills and become employable if someone will just take the time to teach them. I know of a church in Texas that has a job training center, offered to those in need without regard to religion. The majority find jobs, even in this economy, and nearly all find Jesus — and their spirituality helps them become self-sufficient, productive members of society. They escape both financial and spiritual poverty.

But transformation requires that Christians get involved in the lives of people out of the compassion of Jesus — not merely to baptize but out of unconditional love. We have to care so much that we’re willing to invite people into our churches and our homes and lives.

Christianity can well lead to economic prosperity in this country, because the values of strong families, strong communities, hard work, and thrift often lead to financial success in a free society. But Christianity does not lead to the American, comfortable, middle class lifestyle. Rather, real Christianity requires us to be co-crucified with Jesus and to live lives devoted to others. Self-satisfied comfort is not on the agenda.

Indeed, that’s exactly how we got into this mess. Society began to crumble when the church became about comfortable living and a merely intellectual and ceremonial Christianity. It cost us next to nothing to be a Christian, and we took the Christ-like-ness out of Christianity. It’s no wonder that so many of the children of the 1950s and 1960s rejected a Christianity that had so little to say about the racism of the day.

3. Therefore, the government and church must work together to fight poverty

For the time being, the government’s support is greatly needed. But it’s insufficient. The biggest need is for the church to truly commit to curing the spiritual poverty of its community. If the church could conquer Rome in 300 years, despite brutal persecution, today’s church should be able to overcome poverty in much less time. We have a huge head start!

Until then, the church’s primary focus has to be on more than converting the lost. In fact, the church in the early 20th Century certainly sought to convert the lost, but we converted the lost to a system of doctrine and church attendance. We didn’t convert the lost to Jesus and him crucified. We didn’t ask our members to give up anything.

No, it’s joining Jesus on the cross that will change the world at every conceivable level. My church has families putting their houses on the market (in this terrible market) so they can move next to a high crime housing project and pour themselves into the people there. They’ll measure themselves not only in baptisms, but in changed lives. It’s not about a hell-fire and brimstone sermon to induce walks down the aisle for baptism. It’s about showing the beauty of Jesus by living the sacrifice of Jesus, and encouraging others to follow your example — both in the church and outside the church.

4. Therefore, the church must unite

The task of extending the borders of the kingdom of God is too large for a Christian or a congregation or a denomination or a nonprofit. It’s a task so large that the churches must do it together. And this means that congregations must come together, join hands, share ideas and stories and victories and defeats, and take Satan on as one.

This cannot be done at the ecumenical level. Been tried. Hasn’t accomplished very much. Rather, it’s as simple as the churches in a town joining together to take on the town’s spiritual poverty together. They just need meet, talk, share, and coordinate. It’s not complicated. and if a Church of Christ preacher were to initiate the discussion, how could they say no?

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8 Responses

  1. Powerful stuff.

  2. I think you’ve boiled the problem down to its essence. The church plays an important role that government cannot play, in addressing the moral / spiritual side of poverty. And the church can be a light to the world by setting an example, and setting the pace, in making personal, physical sacrifices to help the poor. That’s what the scriptures call us to do. Count me in.

  3. What is the church but individual christians. If those individuals want to help folks through their church, that’s fine, let it be a church effort, but, don’t lose sight it is still an individual job.

    Its too easy to let the organization do it. Mind set must be let me do something, but, through the organization selected.

    A Church of Christ would be a great place to start!!!!

    Great post Jay. Thank you.

  4. The government will never be the church, nor vice versa. But the biggest difference is that the church is (or should) be pointing to a better life, while the govenrment feeds an addiction of dependency (in some ways, modern day slavery) with no expectation of everyone pulling their share of the load. In a system where 1/2 of the adult population pay no income taxes at all, and the top 5% of wage earners in the adult population foot over 60%, there is no incentive to break this addiction.

  5. The day the church becomes the government is the day I leave this country.

  6. Again, great post.

    Thought #1: I go to Celebrate Recovery, and IMO, it is the most powerful program a church can offer. I’d recommend any COC try and get this program for your community. For me and my life, it has been an absolute game-changer. So glad your church takes part in this incredible program, Jay.

    Thought #2: Maybe one day you can do a blog posting solely about the families at your church that are moving to the ‘hood. You’ve mentioned it several times now, and frankly, I’d like to know more. God bless them and their ministry!

    Thanks Jay, have a good time on your vacation!

  7. Although I agree with the premise there is somethings not explainable in this model. A couple of them are debilitating disease both mental or physical and disaster. Both of these things cause poverty too.
    What this means is spiritually strong people can be devastated by acts of God. What then? Something tells me (call me prophetic) that some of the mortgage foreclosures are not the conspiracy of the government or business or the greed or ignorance of American people but rather the hand of God! Perhaps poverty is a God send that brings us to the grace and mercy of our Lord.

  8. Here is a great book that deals with this. A must read.
    Dan

    To Change the World: THE IRONY, TRAGEDY & POSSIBILITY OF CHRISTIANITY IN THE LATE MODERN WORLD.
    James Davison Hunter (Oxford University Press, 2010)

    From jacket flap:
    THE CALL to make the world a better place is inherent in Christian belief and practice. But why have efforts to change the world by Christians so often failed or gone tragically awry? And how might Christians in the twenty-first century live in ways that have integrity with their traditions and are more truly transformative? In To Change the World, James Davison Hunter offers persuasive—and provocative—answers to these questions.

    Hunter begins with a penetrating appraisal of the most popular models of world-changing among Christians today, highlighting the ways they are inherently flawed and therefore incapable of generating the change to which they aspire. Because change implies power, all Christians eventually embrace strategies of political engagement. Hunter offers a trenchant critique of the political theologies of the Christian Right and Left and the Neo-Anabaptists, taking on many respected leaders, from Charles Colson to Jim Wallis and Stanley Hauerwas. Hunter argues that all too often these political theologies worsen the very problems they are designed to solve. What is really needed is a different paradigm of Christian engagement with the world, one that Hunter calls “faithful presence”—an ideal of Christian practice that is not only individual but institutional; a model that plays out not only in all relationships but in our work and all spheres of social life. He offers real-life examples, large and small, of what can be accomplished through the practice of “faithful presence.” Such practices will be more fruitful, Hunter argues, more exemplary, and more deeply transfiguring than any more overtly ambitious attempts can ever be.

    Written with keen insight, deep faith, and profound historical gtasp, To Change the World will forever change the way Christians view and talk about their role in the modern world.

    JAMES DAVISON HUNTERis LaBrosse-Levinson Distinguished Professor of Religion, Culture, and Social Theory at the University of Virginia and Director of the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture. He is the author of Culture Wars and The Death of Character.

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