Three years ago the congregation I serve, Good Shepherd in Binghamton New York, was forced to relocate. We moved into a much larger, newer, nicer facility located, ironically, about a block away from a government housing project called Saratoga Heights which is perhaps the lowest income, highest crime neighborhood in the city.
Since then, a number of people with very low income have joined the congregation. Most of them are out of work altogether. Many are on some kind government assistance. This has given me the opportunity to see the results of secular assistance programs first hand.
Here are six results I’ve observed:
1. For many people, especially married couples and single parents with kids, it makes more financial sense to stay on assistance for as long as possible than to find a way off of it.
2. The longer someone is on assistance the more he or she tends to see assistance as the only – or at least the best possible – means to make ends meet.
3. Over time, the desire to find and/or create new ways to earn money ebbs away and is replaced by a desire to find new ways to access money from governmental and non-profit agencies.
4. Seeking support from assistance programs without, at the same time, trying to find ways to earn a living, over time, produces a sense of entitlement – a sense of being owed assistance not only by the government but by private agencies and individuals in general.
5. That sense of entitlement is frustrated when organizations or individuals believed to possess the financial resources necessary to provide assistance choose not to do so. A “no” is interpreted as an act of greed and/or unfairness. The fact that the money being sought was earned by and belongs to someone else is rarely taken into consideration.
6. The entitlement mindset, once developed, ripples outward. Family, friends, agencies, church all become sources either of nourishment and fulfillment for the individual or objects of resentment.
At this point something very interesting happens. The person seeking assistance becomes consumed with a particular kind of greed.
A wealthy person succumbs to greed when, recognizing he’s able to bend the world to his desires, he refuses to see his wealth as a means of glorifying God and serving others and instead uses it to serve and satisfy himself. He becomes the center of his universe. He does not work for anyone. There’s no one he must serve, no one to whom he must bend or give account. His soul shrinks as his wealth increases. He begins to see everyone and everything in orbit around himself.
But, cruelly, the very same thing can and often does happen to those on assistance. What begins as a needed helping hand produces over time a growing sense that all things and people revolve around and exist to serve and satisfy the “impoverished” self. The sense of entitlement that develops is for the most part identical to self-focused greed to which the rich person described above succumbs.
But it’s worse in two ways:
1. Because the person on assistance does not have the financial means to ensure that others bend to his demands, his greed, when fully developed, is exacerbated by frustrated envy which produces a deep-seated resentment the wealthy person may never know.
2. While the rich person has the means at his disposal to reverse the process by sacrifice and selfless giving, the poor person who succumbs to this kind of greed is economically trapped. Even should he repent, there is not much he can actively do to escape the cycle. He cannot give sacrificially because his food, shelter, clothing, and health care depend on receiving and the longer he has been out of work the more difficult it will be for him to find a job.
Well-meaning people sometimes assume that assistance programs help the impoverished and sometimes they do. But they can also lead to the same kind of moral and spiritual impoverishment that is more often associated with the lavishly wealthy.
So how might a Christian congregation deal with this problem?
Let’s look first at three fairly typical Christian responses to poverty.
1. Cheap grace: Give stuff away with no questions asked. Some congregations become a mirror image of the federal government; food, clothing, money is distributed without much in the way of accountability. The church in this case facilitates the cycle of entitlement and dependency by simply giving away free stuff without concern for the soul.
2. Legal Righteousness: The “get a job!” approach. Some congregations, especially those that tend toward political conservatism, think of the church in much the same way they think of the federal government. They recognize that giving away assistance creates dependence but use this truth to justify doing nothing. The poor are held in suspicion and derision. “Why doesn’t he have a job?” “Why should we help him if he’s not helping himself?
3. Abdication: That’s why we pay our taxes. This is perhaps the most common response. The federal government has largely usurped the task of caring for the poor and disabled and the church has all too happily let it happen. This allows us to feel generous and virtuous simply by paying our taxes or, worse, by voting for the candidate who will give the most tax money to assistance programs.
All three of these responses fail when set against biblical standards.
The “cheap grace” approach fails because scripture upholds work as one of the goods of life, linking sustenance and provision to labor. So long as health and strength allows, people are responsible to do all that they can to provide for themselves through hard work. Paul writes in 2nd Thessalonians 3:10-12:
“If anyone is not willing to work, let him not eat. For we hear that some among you walk in idleness, not busy at work, but busybodies. Now such persons we command and encourage in the Lord Jesus Christ to do their work quietly and to earn their own living”
God created human beings to be his image bearers. Part of the image of God in human beings is creative labor—to produce and sustain things. Idleness mars that image, veiling one of the most beautiful facets of God’s glory built into his human creatures.
The “legal righteousness” approach is somewhat worse. The labor laws God set out for his ideal state of Israel were designed to protect the freedom of the poor and enable them to get back on their feet as quickly as possible.
* All farmers had leave the edges of their fields and vineyards un-harvested so anyone who needed food could get it (Lev 19:9; Dt 24:19).
* No Israelite could charge interest on a loan to another Israelite. And Israelites could not sell food for profit to poor Israelites. All food sales to poor people had to be at cost (Lev 25:36-37).
* Every seven years all debts were cancelled (Dt 15:1-2)
* Every 50 years all sold land was returned to its original owner (Lev 25:8-15).
* Every seven years all fields were left un-harvested so the poor and the sojourners might take what they wanted (Lev 25:1-7).
* Every three years, the full tithe of the harvest was given freely to the poor, and the sojourner (Dt 26:12).
Under God’s law, you’d have to really try to be poor. In fact, poverty was outlawed
“There shall be no poor among you…If among you, one of your brothers should become poor, in any of your towns within your land that the Lord your God is giving you, you shall not harden your heart or shut your hand against your poor brother, but you shall open your hand to him and lend him sufficient for his need, whatever it may be. (Dt. 15:4, 7-8)
The hardest part of the plan is the radical generosity it calls for.
When you turn to the New Testament you find these anti-poverty principles affirmed and carried forward. Jesus commands:
“Give to the one who begs from you, and do not refuse the one who would borrow from you.” (Matt 5:42)
And his half-brother James writes:
“Show no partiality as you hold the faith in our Lord Jesus Christ, the Lord of glory. 2 For if a man wearing gold ring and fine clothing comes into your assembly, and a poor man in shabby clothing also comes in, 3 and if you pay attention to the one who wears the fine clothing and say, “You sit here in a good place,” while you say to the poor man, “You stand over there,” or, “Sit down at my feet,” 4 have you not then made distinctions among yourselves and become judges with evil thoughts? 5 Listen, my beloved brothers, has not God chosen those who are poor in the world to be rich in faith and heirs of the kingdom, which he has promised to those who love him? 6 But you have dishonored the poor man.” (James 2:1-5)
And much of the apostolic activity recorded in the book of Acts and in the Epistles centers on raising and distributing money for the poor.
There is no justification in the New Testament for the sneering “get a job” attitude. Instead, there are to be “no poor among us”.
The third option, abdication, likewise, fails to meet biblical standards. Jesus doesn’t call us to give generously to large governmental agencies which in turn pay lots of government employees who in turn decide how to give money to the poor in ways that mostly suit the purposes and politics of our secular leaders. He calls us rather to give directly and generously to the poor for the purpose of enabling them to rise out of poverty rather than remain bound to it. The church, the body of Christ, must be at the forefront of the fight against poverty.
Ministries of Mercy
So how does a local church achieve that? How do we balance the command to serve the poor, especially the poor within our own congregations, without enabling idleness and ultimately producing greed?
There are no easy answers to that question. In my congregation we’ve begun to consider a three stage approach inspired by Tim Keller’s outstanding book, “Ministries of Mercy”.
The basic idea is to link assistance to accountability in increasing degrees. People with no connection to the church who need food and clothing are on the ground level. From there levels of assistance and involvement increase until the church is intimately involved in assisting a person (or family) manage his finances and find a way to earn a living in exchange for ongoing financial support. The closer the relationship, the greater the need, the more accountability is required.
In closing, here’s a basic sketch of how I hope this will work out in the future at Good Shepherd.
Ground level: Non-members in need of assistance: Through the community relationships we’ve built through our weekly soup kitchen, meals, foodstuffs, clothing and sometimes monthly bus passes are given without question to those in need. We do not give out money directly except in very rare circumstances when we know the person in need and have established procedures to verify how the money will be spent. There is no limit, however, other than the extent of our own resources, to the distribution of food and clothing.
Intermediate Level: Some people we meet at the soup kitchen and through other community outreach events, decide to join the church. When that happens they are given immediate access to a members-only parish pantry stocked with donated food and household supplies in addition to whatever assistance they receive at the soup kitchen. When and if they come to us for financial support to pay a bill or buy groceries, we’ll verify the need and then, if we have the resources, either cut a check directly to the institution or buy a card from the grocery store that will allow for purchases. This initial financial gift is free with no strings attached.
Top level: Some members of the congregation need occasional or ongoing financial assistance. When someone seeks financial help from the church more than once we want to make sure that, while we are helping them with an immediate problem, we’re not at the same time fostering or enabling the much deeper problem of chronic economic dependency. So far as our resources allow, the church agrees to provide assistance so long as the parishioner commits to:
1. Provide evidence he is employed or actively seeking employment.
2. Serve the church in some way—making calls, making copies, cleaning etc—in exchange for assistance (if unable for physical/mental reasons to gain secular employment).
3. Give the church full access to monthly expenditures and bills, allowing certain discrete and trained members of the church to provide accountability, advice and input on budget management.
4. Take a free 14 week biblically-grounded financial planning course that provides principles for managing limited budgets and staying out of debt.
The hope is that those who reach the top level will not be there for long. Because both the assistance and the accountability comes from brothers and sisters in Christ who are themselves accountable to God and to others in the church, there should be a level of personal investment and self-less love that is impossible to find at the Department of Social and Health Services. I pray this combination of love, assistance and accountability will, with God’s help, lift up the needy and break the habit of entitlement.