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by Kate Kooyman
My job is to talk to churches about social justice. So I’m no stranger to the argument that is so often levied against programs like welfare and food stamps: “Let’s let the church handle that.”
Along came the Trump budget, though, and now I feel less comfortable letting that argument go. I think it’s wrong.
If you hold this view — “the church should help the poor, the government should get out of the way” — you and I see this differently, to be sure. Maybe the “Trump era” is the time we stop politely disagreeing about the role of the church in the world, and we start a robust dialogue about what our faith compels us to believe about taxes, government, and the moral obligation bound up in our civic life.
I believe that the church is, mysteriously, the primary way that the Holy Spirit wants to work in the world. Sometimes I hate this, but I believe that it’s true. I’m convicted that this means we should be able to talk about important issues upon which we disagree. So let’s talk.
Biblically, theologically, and practically, I simply do not see a good argument for supporting the kind of public policy that is based on the belief that taxes should go to protect “us” with weapons but should not protect “them,” the rapidly rising population of people living in chronic poverty. I believe that this is an ideology that has no basis in fact, or in faith.
Just brass-tacks: the notion that the church will pick up the government’s slack, that we can just get back to the church doing the work of the church and getting the government out of it… it’s fiction. It won’t work. A new analysis from Bread for the World shows that the President’s proposed budget would cut so much from programs that are meant to keep hungry people fed and keep poor people from facing constant crisis that it will require every religious congregation in the country to raise $714,000 every year for 10 years to make up for the losses.
Your church, every year, would have to put $714,000 in the offering plate just for poverty-focused programs. That figure applies to my friend’s brand new church plant with 35 people, just as it does for Willow Creek and Saddleback. In short: what a farce. The church, even if it wanted to, could never do it. (And let’s get real: we don’t really want to.)
I think the argument also has holes from a Scriptural perspective. I believe Scripture is clear and unequivocal in its deep concern for the poor. God draws near to, dwells among, the poor. Jesus judges harshly, speaks boldly against those who would forget, exploit, or see themselves as superior to the poor. Jesus commanded a follower to give all his possessions to the poor. He turned over the tables of moneychangers who were exploiting the poor. He identified those who truly followed him by telling them, “I was hungry, and you gave me something to eat.” Regardless of our political views, we all believe that Jesus Christ redeemed us with his life and death; that this is a loving, sacrificial gift. We believe that this grace evokes from us a desire to live lives marked by this sacrificial love story. I cannot understand how we honor this Jesus through believing that our primary civic duties are to violent protectionism and economic vitality. Our primary aim in life is not to be safe, or to be wealthy. Our primary aim is to love.
Trump’s proposed budget will cost of the very lives and welfare of the “widow, the orphan, and the poor,” who are holy in the sight of our God. It cuts Meals on Wheels and afterschool programs and Americorps; it cuts funding for disaster response and famine prevention and countering human trafficking. It pours money into bombs, tanks, guns. Church, help me understand how we can defend this based on Scripture.
We are Reformed folk, who (at least nominally) claim the teachings of John Calvin as guiding for our understanding of faith. James Bratt taught me that Calvin’s vision was not that the church works in isolation from the government; instead, Calvin envisioned the two cooperating toward the good of the poor, “fruitfully joined.” Matthew Tuininga pointed out this example to me: the public hospital in Geneva, which was funded by the city government, was the primary place Calvin’s deacons carried out their mission to meet the pressing healthcare needs of those who had no other option: the orphan, the ill, the refugee. Public money, serving the poor.
I get that public welfare, foreign assistance, and government bureaucracy offer imperfect solutions to the wide-reaching problems of famine, disease, hunger, joblessness, addiction, poverty, and pain. But please, church: let it not be us who defend a budget which abandons those we are most explicitly called to love. Let it not be Christ’s followers who cheer for newly acquired weapons and sneer at the ones left bereft when those weapons leave them destitute. Let us follow, however imperfectly, the one who can be found most distinctly in the faces of those who depend on the SNAP card, the antiretrovirals, the bag of rice that your tax dollars helped provide.