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Your Church Isn’t Going to Fix Poverty

By July 6, 2017 13 Comments

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.

Kate Kooyman

Rev. Kate Kooyman is a minister of the Reformed Church in America who lives in Grand Rapids, Michigan.


  • Jim says:

    I would encourage you to take the time to read “The Hole in our Gospel” by Richard Stearns. President of World Vision.
    He puts forth a compelling argument with factual data, on what the North American church is and is not doing, as well as contrasting it with what other churches are doing elsewhere in the world. He also, very well describes the North American “Christians” move from accountability and what we are called to do as a Church.
    Our congregation used this book as a teaching series over 3 months. This teaching series, coupled with 2 others, has transformed our congregations view and has completed modified our execution of our Mission and Vision as a local congregation. Most importantly, we are collectively and individually responding differently to God’s call to action.
    Social Justice, and the lack thereof, is first a heart problem. It can be addressed, but never fully fixed, from a variety of viewpoints and approaches. If one is sensitive to the plight of the poor, It is a convicting – life changing read.

  • Peter says:

    Christian Smith and Michael Emerson wrote a book called Pass the Plate. They described how taking conservative estimate of committed Christians and imagining that they all donated a full 10% of post-tax income would result in an EXTRA $46 billion per year. Alas, Christians could do much more and perhaps all that is required but, “let’s get real, we don’t really want to.”

  • lizzy says:

    Amen, Kate! I will come back and read this many times over the course of this presidency. And probably apply it to the health care policy conversation I am trying to influence. Science, math, history, and scripture all convince me that our country needs universal health coverage, for many of the same reasons you outline above. Thank you for all that you do 🙂

  • Dan says:

    Kate, your calculator is busted.

    There are about 350,000 religious congregations in the U.S. Multiply that by $714,000. Multiply that by 10. That’s about $2.5 TRILLION.

    Trump’s one year budget cuts $2.5 trillion? You might want to double check that before you base a blog post on it.

    Also, your analysis assumes static response of welfare recipients, rather than the dynamic response that happens in real life. Necessity is the mother of invention, as the saying goes.

    Government welfare programs usurp the God-given authority of the Church. They are grossly immoral, ensure perpetual poverty, and create huge income inequality.

    You are causing and expanding the very problem you claim to want to end.

    • John says:

      Dan, the numbers quoted from the budget could be more clearly represented. To clarify, the cuts can be found in Trump’s federal fiscal year 2018 budget proposal, and amount to $2.5 trillion over 10 years — i.e., not all the cuts come in FY 2018; nevertheless they add up to $2.5 trillion over the next decade. So the math still adds up.

      I’m genuinely interested to know, for the sake of discussion, for what reason[s] you think these government programs are “grossly immoral” and how they create huge income inequality.

      I would agree that these programs are, in general, treating the symptoms and not the disease. To be truly effective, our efforts need to go beyond charity and focus on changing the structures and systems that cause poverty. But I’m not sure the government — or the church — has the will to do this, either. As Kate points out, though, that doesn’t absolve us from our responsibility to assist the poor or speak out against a budget which abandons those Christ calls us most explicitly to serve.

      • Jim says:

        I would like to thank the members of this forum for your comments and questions. I appreciate how this discussion has gone, with limited emotion, but rather acknowledgement of the core issues and a desire for accuracy of facts.
        I would argue that the church’s lack of will to work with the poor is the root of the problem. As the evangelical churches self report in a variety of studies, their constituency collectively tithe less than 3%. Potentially more important, they also report that a small minority of members dedicate time outside the church engaged with the poor and / or non-churched. (not trying to tie the two together, but rather illustrate how inward focused and / or non-motivated most are) As a parallel example, Richard Sterns reports that in the US alone more is spent on dog and cat care and provisions than on poverty. It is estimated that the amount spent on four legged friends is sufficient to end world poverty. I have a dog and cat, don’t get me wrong, I love my furry friends. But, I believe our issue lies in not understanding and accepting our mandate from God. I would like to propose that when the church, or people in general decided not to fulfill the call to love ad care for its fellow man – its mandate, governments had to step in.

        I think the church missing the point is what breaks my heart the most.

        The “immorality” statement referenced above may lie in the fact that the system is very flawed and inefficient. This side of heaven, all are “systems” are flawed and naturally inefficient. However, the government may be the biggest example of this – and easy to criticize because of their magnitude.

        I pray for the day when the government doesn’t need to be involved. My challenge and question to the church is: how do we lead by example? When we lead, others will follow and we can begin to work with the Spirit to transform lives and shape our world – for it all belongs to God.

  • Walt Ackerman says:

    What a great sermon. My response is Amen as well. As a volunteer for World Renew Disaster Response I sit in unbelief as I talk to people who have lost everything including their job. It is wonderful to see how local churches fill in the gaps. But they only have a limited amount of income. We need the tax-payers money to help get people back on their feet. But things change when you have a President who has no idea what it means to show mercy, grace and kindness. Without these attributes all the poor and needy are at a loss for help. That is the world we live in now. Sad but True. I urge everyone, including churches, to do what you can do. Every thing each of us does makes a difference in the life for someone whom God has given to us to help. Remember Jesus’ comment ” What you for them you do for me.” And pray for those who are helping the poor around the world.

  • David says:

    John, well stated. Although we often criticize social support programs as a Band-Aid, in my line of work as a physician, we use Band-Aids all the time while we allow the body to heal. A more important government role, however, is to legislate policies that promote equality so that less government aid is needed. Important examples include universal healthcare coverage (Since healthcare bankruptcy is a leading cause of poverty), housing policy and zoning reform (since housing inquality is a leading cause of income inequality), and educational funding reform to unlink educational quality from class related property values. Despite all this, there will remain vulnerable citizens who need aid. 80% of Medicaid recipients are essentially unemployable; and yes, I know that some of it is due to poor choices, but I can’t find a verse that says Grace is only due to those who make good choices.

  • Rowland Van Es Jr says:

    Jesus said “Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s and give to God what is God’s” so pay your federal, state, and local taxes, and pay at least a tithe to the church and what is leftover is still not your money but God’s money as we are called to be accountable for everything we have been given: time, talents, and treasure.

    BFW is right that the job of feeding hungry people locally and globally is too big for just the church. We can also think about the morality of a budget that spends so much on the military and so little on the poor. Write letters to your representative and your senator and tell them we need to do more not less for the vulnerable. Most people on Medicare are elderly in nursing homes. Most people on food stamps are women & children.

  • Steve says:

    Since when is it our governments job to take care of anyone who can’t or won’t take care of themselves. Jesus said we should help the poor but passing that task of to some government department can hardly be what Jesus was saying. When I see the Lord in heaven, telling him I helped the poor because I paid my taxes does not seem like the answer He would be looking for.

  • Dan says:

    Anything that violates Scripture is immoral. The Bible gives governments very clear responsibilities, and wealth redistribution is not one of them.

    A theme I see often goes like this…”Yes, I admit that Scripture gives INDIVIDUALS and THE CHURCH the responsibility to dispense charity to the needy, but they aren’t doing an adequate job. So then the GOVERNMENT should step in…it’s the moral thing to do.”

    Am I correct that this sentiment is being expressed here?

  • Bruce Garner says:

    Thanks for this. One part of the narrative that is almost always distorted is the part that decries the “fact” that undocumented immigrants don’t pay taxes, sap the funds from Social Security, drain the resources of the Food Stamp/SNAP program or some iteration of these so called facts. It doesn’t take much research to learn that one must be a US Citizen or an immigrant admitted for permanent residence to qualify for SNAP, Medicaid, Supplemental Security Income, or TANF. Documentation is required and checked for accuracy. You don’t meet the requirement, you don’t get the benefits of the program.

    Social Security benefits are only paid to those who have paid FICA taxes into the system through being an employee or self-employed. Without a valid Social Security Number that does not happen. And those who “borrow” someone else’s number are only contributing to the future benefits of that number holder….they will never draw benefits from that number. If a fake number is used, the taxes go into a special fund that represents payments that cannot be linked to a valid number. That fund is now into the millions and millions of dollars.

    As to “those people” not paying taxes. That may be the biggest lie of all. They pay sales taxes on every purchase made. If they own a home they pay property taxes (I doubt that the taxing authorities question documentation when they accept a check for property taxes!)

    I generally rely on the sections near the end of the 25th Chapter of Matthew’s Gospel where Jesus is clear that we are to feed the hungry, water the thirsty, clothe the naked, visit the sick and imprisoned AND when we fail at that we have FAILED to do those things for Him. Nowhere can I find where Jesus tells us that our obligations can only be met through organized religion. I’m not sure if Jesus cares whether we fulfil these obligations through our faith communities, our government obligations or any combination we can come up with to use. I honestly think Jesus’ only concern is that we fulfil those obligations to our kindred and that failing to do so we have failed to fulfil them to Him as well. Jesus comment that we would always have the poor with us was an observation, not a commandment.

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