By Robert Mann
Imagine you’re walking along the Mississippi River with friends when you spy a figure bobbing in the water. It’s a child. There’s no time to summon the police, so you swim to save it. Later, another child floats by — and another and another. Each time, you and your friends jump in for a rescue.
That’s what many of us do so well: Dive in to help people in need or distress when the police, fire department or other authorities aren’t around.
Perhaps you’ve encountered some variation of this child rescue story. Only, it’s sometimes used to argue against government anti-poverty programs: “The government can’t do what individuals and churches once did, which is to save people who are drowning in poverty. The government should get out of that business and let churches and people do what they’re supposed to do.”
On its face, at least, the argument stands up. Charity is sometimes better delivered by individuals and small organizations, not big government. I see a person in desperate need, and I meet that need out of my compassion. This is what churches and caring people do every day.
The problem is that the needs of society’s poor and hurting have always outrun the ability or willingness of individuals to meet them. That doesn’t mean the romantic, nostalgic longing for a bygone era of community barn-raisings and neighborly charity isn’t appealing and well-intended. It’s just not realistic — and never was — as a comprehensive solution to poverty and suffering.
And now, some conservative Christians are even insisting charity should also apply to health care for the poor. There would be no need for government programs like the Affordable Care Act, they say, if the government encouraged individuals and churches do their benevolent work.
This appears to be the sentiment behind a recent tweet by a conservative columnist, Erick Erickson: “In Matt 25, when Jesus talks about caring for ‘the least of these,’ he isn’t talking about the poor in general, but fellow Christians.” Never mind that Christians didn’t exist when Jesus is quoted saying that. Erickson suggests that Jesus not only failed to insist the government address poverty; he also didn’t tell his followers to help non-believers.
That’s a narrow, perverted reading of the Bible. Still, I’m willing to concede Jesus might have been addressing the individual obligation we have to those in need. But concluding government has no role in reducing poverty, based on one scripture, requires a selective reading of Jesus. And it’s a distorted view of what it means to be a person of faith, whether of the Jewish, Christian, Muslim or other variety.
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