This past week, I posted a comment on Facebook decrying the $40 billion in cuts to the Food Stamp program, claiming it is not how Jesus wants us to treat each other.  I also posted this picture:

jimmy carter

A good friend from college, who I love and respect, asked me “Marci, help me out here…does the bible say help the poor? Or help widows and orphans?”

Another college classmate added, “And where does the bible say give to the government so they can set up huge, inefficient bureaucracies to help the poor? I am a firm believer in, and regularly practice, charitable giving of both my time and my money…. But I object to government imposed charity.”

I often have friends claim that government should not be feeding the poor, and that churches should be doing that instead. I’m not opposed to churches doing that, other than the minor detail of every church I know facing declining income streams.

Even churches that are doing well, like the one I’m privileged to serve, are not seeing huge surpluses. People’s giving patterns have changed, which is what it is, and churches have not benefited from these changes.

So, we’d love to be making up the $40 billion in cuts to the food stamp program, but we could use your help with that. Seriously, your donation to the faith community of your choosing or the food bank in your community would be helpful about now.

One of the supposed benefits of “trickle down” economics, where we cut taxes paid to government so people have more of their own money in their own pockets, is that people will choose to use their money to do what the government used to do–like feed the hungry.

Tax cuts took effect during the first GW Bush administration, but we’re still waiting for the trickle down.  (Here’s an article on tax rates over the years.)

This is an interesting video showing what has happened to the wealth in the United States in the past 40 years. This video is well worth 6 minutes of your time.

The wealth of the United States is trickling up, not down. And the trickle is more like a fire hose.

And so I’ve been thinking about Jesus and government. And the questions of my friends.

To the first question, I’m not sure Jesus would see a meaningful distinction between the “poor” and the “hungry”. Are the rich hungry? It seems the people likely to be hungry are also likely to be poor.

I may be wrong about this, of course. Here’s an article about who exactly is hungry in this country.

Poverty is mentioned over 2,000 times in the Bible. Here are just two citations.

Proverbs 28:27 says:

Whoever gives to the poor will lack nothing,
but one who turns a blind eye will get many a curse.

But I think Matt 25:31-46 is most instructive here:

‘When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory.All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, and he will put the sheep at his right hand and the goats at the left.
Then the king will say to those at his right hand, “Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.”
Then the righteous will answer him, “Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?”
And the king will answer them, “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.”
Then he will say to those at his left hand, “You that are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels; for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not give me clothing, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.”
Then they also will answer, “Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not take care of you?” Then he will answer them, “Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.” And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.’

I’ll get to the second question in a bit, but I just can’t read the Bible and think we aren’t supposed to be feeding the hungry–and Jesus doesn’t seem interested at all in how we go about the feeding. When he fed the 5,000, there were no drug tests or morality clauses. He just fed them.

It occurs to me how conflicted we are about where Jesus belongs in the government. I think we fall into two camps: Jesus of the Small Government and Jesus of the Big Government.

Jesus of the Small Government

For these proponents, Jesus is not to be found in the welfare department, or in any social services provided by the state, including health care.

Often, though, Jesus is found in even smaller government–the government small enough to fit in the bedrooms of private citizens and in the uteri (uteruses?) of women. Many people (not all) who claim Jesus wouldn’t be involved in food stamps have no problem suggesting Jesus is very involved in opposing same gender marriage and/or abortion.

Texas recently pulled all funding to Planned Parenthood, because they provide abortions to women. Planned Parenthood also provides primary care to women–women who are uninsured or who choose to go there for other reasons–like because Planned Parenthood had the only clinics that would see them.

Planned Parenthood accounted for about half of Women’s Health Program services last year—mostly in the form of cancer, diabetes, and STI treatment, plus high blood pressure screenings, contraception dispersement, and annual checkups. In many parts of Texas, Planned Parenthood served half of all low-income women enrolled in the Women’s Health Program; in certain areas, that number was as high as 80 percent. And having rejected Medicaid, which provided about $9 to the Women’s Health Program for every $1 the state spent, Texas is now challenged to come up with about $200 million for the program over the next five years.

And while I’m not a huge fan of abortion (see here), I find it interesting that many people who otherwise want Jesus separated from the work of the government,  have no qualms quoting him in this instance.

Jesus is apparently very interested in governmental involvement when it concerns what women do with their bodies.

Jesus was also cited as the reason that many religious groups were opposed to providing birth control through the new Affordable Care Act (or “Obamacare” if you prefer).

And “traditional Christian values” are often behind campaigns against same gender marriage.

Jesus of the Big Government

There are others who believe that if Jesus were here today, he’d be advocating supplemental governmental assistance programs as one of the many ways we are called to care for each other. While he spoke out against Rome, I don’t recall any instances of his speaking out against Rome’s program for feeding the hungry.

Oh right. That’s because the Roman government didn’t have a food stamp program. I’m sure, if they had, Jesus would have spoken out against graft and fraud. But if Rome had used the money they collected in taxes and used it to help their citizens instead of waging war, I wonder what Jesus would have said about it.

Many proponents of Jesus of the Big Government would argue that our war machine should be dismantled in the name of peace. There is also a branch of the Big Government Jesus followers who claim our faith in Jesus compels us to military action in the world, so we can be actively engaged in justice for the oppressed.

Of course, when you look at it, we all seem convinced (I’m including myself in this) Jesus agrees with our particular viewpoints. I know that isn’t true. I know the Kingdom of God of which he spoke is bigger than any human understanding of government. But the Biblical record seems clear that helping the hungry, the oppressed, and the downtrodden is God’s desire for us.

colbert-jesus-help-the-poor

Which brings me to the nature of government.

Governments don’t exist apart from the people who create, support, and inhabit them. Government is not separate from us–a being with its own separate existence. We are the government. We vote for our representatives and senators. We pay our taxes to support the common welfare. We raise up from among us people who are willing to serve in local, state, and national office. We have access to them and can make our thoughts known to them. If we don’t like how they govern, we can elect other people the next election cycle.

Are the problems with our government? Surely. There has been gerrymandering of districts, making one party or the other more likely to be elected in particular areas. There are bureaucratic boondoggles. There are people who seek to purchase elections with their contributions to candidates and causes.

But am I thankful for our government? You bet I am. Is it better than most every other system out there? I think so.

I’m thankful to pay taxes. It means the local highway district will pave the roads on which I drive so I don’t have to do that. It means schools will be available for the education of my community. It means regulation will keep working conditions safe and the food supply healthy and clean. Historically, it has also meant that there was money available so hungry children would have food. The list of benefits we receive from the way we join together in governance is too long to list.

And so I find it bizarre when people who have been elected to Congress start complaining about “the government” as if they aren’t sitting in the middle of the halls of power. This week, Ted Cruz (US Senator from Texas) spoke out against government in a long tirade against the Affordable Care Act. And he did it as he was benefiting from access to a government salary and government funded health care.

I don’t begrudge him his salary or his access to healthcare, but I don’t understand when he and others try to locate the government apart from us.

I thought I had forgotten all I learned much of what I learned in college, but this past week, while watching the debacle in congress, I’ve been remembering bits of Rousseau and Montesquieu. Even fragments of Locke. In the Social Contract, Rousseau argued that government needed active engagement by all of its citizens in order for it to function well.

As soon as any person says of the affairs of the State ‘What does it matter to me?’ the State may be given up for lost.

And while I remember thinking Rousseau and Locke were important partners in the conversation about the nature of government, it was Montesquieu I loved. Like this, from The Spirit of the Laws:

The love of equality in a democracy limits ambition to the sole desire, to the sole happiness, of doing greater services to our country than the rest of our fellow-citizens. They cannot all render her equal services, but they all ought to serve her with equal alacrity. At our coming into the world, we contract an immense debt to our country, which we can never discharge.

Where is that sentiment in our political discourse today? When do we pause to give thanks for the gifts we’ve received as citizens of this nation? When do we pause to consider how we can support the common welfare and make sure the same gifts are available to the generations to come?

So, I don’t know what Jesus would say about the way we govern ourselves, but I think that after he chastised us for creating a culture where children are hungry in the first place, he’d likely be an advocate for the government to be actively securing the benefit, welfare, and security of all her citizens.

If you’re still here at the end of this long post, thank you, o tenacious reader. Please add your observations to the comments.

8 thoughts on “Jesus and the Government

  1. I am going to steal a bit of this for my sermon this week, Marci. I do not understand how anyone who has been a Christian for any amount of time or has read the Bible can wonder that part of the role of the Christian or Jew is to share their wealth. You can’t read Acts, you can’ read the Gospels and you can’t read either the Mosaic Law or the prophets without coming to the conclusion that it is part of the work of those who have is to help those who have not. This does not mean that I support socialism. It does mean, however, that it is part of the Christian’s or the Jews moral fabric to give to the poor.

    It is also part of government to see to the needs of the common weal–that means everyone. All too often we allow our government to forget that they use our monies to serve all people. It is when government proceeds to serve only segments of our population that we have the Dives and Lazarus situations that we see in our cities and federal government today.

    I remember during Integration back in the late 60’s in Dallas, the public school system had enough for the wealthy area schools in the system to excell. But I taught in the Black and Hispanic part of town and we didn’t even have text books! And when we did get texts they were ratty and torn, the new ones went across town. It is this kind of institutionalized discrimination that we need to speak to when we are dealing with the Gospel of this weekend. We have allowed this to happen in our nation by allowing big business to sponsor our elections, give to candidates, etc.

    There is nothing in the story about Lazarus that says that God hates the rich…but it does say that we have responsibility to the poor, the disenfranchised and outcast.

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  2. BTW – Rome didn’t have food stamps, but they did spend a lot of money buying grain that they would distribute to the poor (in Rome). Of course, it wasn’t from a noble desire to feed the poor. It was a strategy of the Pax Romana – keep the poor fed and they would be less likely to riot.

    The same strategy was behind the Roman public entertainment events (circuses).

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  3. Thank you for such a wide-ranging, thoughtful, and humble deconstruction of what is wrong with the self-righteous claims that helping the poor is not the govetnment’s job. I agree with you that none of us can hope to nail down the will of God, but I think God is honored by your attempt and I am encouraged by reading it.

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