Jesus and the Government

This post was also published at The Pastoral is Political at Revgalblogpals.

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 there 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.

To the second question posed by my other friend–Would Jesus be upset at inefficiency and graft? I’m certain he would. Would it keep him from instructing us to feed the poor? I doubt it.

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.

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2 thoughts on “Jesus and the Government

  1. My only problem with expecting government to do such work is with your same commentary on the idea of “trickle down” economics. There are three main flaws in both having government do the work as well as in that trickle down.

    Flaw 1 – The assumption that, given the chance, people will do “the right thing” with money. For Trickle Down, you’ve already covered that. Not gonna happen. But the same thing holds true with government basically insisting and enforcing such programs. The assumption is that if there are enough laws, enough programs, etc., in place, that people will go along with it and good things will be done. Well, to be honest, people are a bunch of self-centered, bloody-minded bastards who will prefer to find their own way around having to comply to a law than simply going along for the ride. Yeah, not everyone is like this, but when you’re dealing with a nation, you deal with mob psychology and, for the most part, that’s the mob. The adage “you can’t legislate morality” cuts both ways, both in the morality of getting rid of abortions as well as in the morality of sharing the wealth with “the least of these”. People are going to find a way around it…and honestly, rich people, because they are rich, if they don’t like something… they’ll leave. They have the means to do it and so they’ll up and leave making it so the folks like me who basically live paycheck to paycheck (albeit not without luxeries I can cut) to take up the slack… and that’s no fun.

    Flaw 2 – The assumption that the Jesus way to do things is to enforce it from top down. It sorta goes along with Flaw 1. Flaw 1 is that the assumption is that given the opportunity, people will do the right thing. Flaw 2 assumes the self-centered, bloody-minded bastard and then basically says, “How can we twist their arms to do the right thing?” Somehow, I can’t see Jesus doing that. As good as government programs like SNAP and WIC and other such things are (and they ARE good programs and do a LOT of good for friends and family of mine), behind those programs is that general threat that if you don’t comply, there will be men with suits guarded by men with guns knocking at your door some day wanting to have a little chat. Just try NOT paying your taxes sometime. While I agree, it’s a good thing to have the government do good things, the means by which the government does those good things and actually makes them work… well… I have a problem with that.

    Flaw 3 – The assumption that if we can get the laws in place now, things will improve. That’s bologna because all it takes is a few years and the next jerk who gets into office will undo everything that was done. And this is ESPECIALLY true so long as people will vote for the guy who will “get them the most stuff”. If Joe Schmoe starts campaigning and promising stuff, folks will vote for him, he’ll get in there, and suddenly all that good that was done… out the window.

    So… what do we do? Well, at the heart of a nation, whether it is a representative republic or a dictatorship or a monarchy or whatever are the minds and hearts of the people who make up that nation. You see it in all three of these flaws, really. If the hearts and minds of the people aren’t aligned with Jesus’ purposes, each one of these flaws will line up and take apart anything good. if we want to actually do this kind of good stuff, I think there is a MUCH better way of doing it that is not a separation of “Let the church do it” nor is it a deep engagement in the government. It is simply a strategy I call “Starve the Beast”. And it starts small. It’s a matter of setting up alternative community support in a way that people are not beholden to government programs. It builds relationships, it changes people by bringing people in contact, directly, with the people in need. It meets the needs so that the government programs find themselves unnecessary and obsolete. No, it is not an immediate effect. There will still be stuff going on AROUND these communities of ugliness. But slowly, insidiously, Kingdom communities will start bringing people in touch with that amazing love of God. And, as a result, the government institutions with their corruption, waste, glut, graft, with their violently enforced laws, with their men and women in power who are more interested with keeping power than with caring for others… those institutions will have to react one of two ways… either shut down as redundant because the people have taken it over… or they will have to fight back in order to maintain their control over the needy.

    It’s neither small government… nor big government… it lets government do what government is going to do (and allows for folks to interact, giving voice if they feel led) but it sets up ALTERNATIVES to government that are more centered on the Kingdom and the wholistic work of changing lives. And the LONG term effects are that as more people become involved in this Kingdom type work…and they go out and start voting… and they run for office… etc… there will be a trickle UP effect where the policies will change because the hearts and minds of the people voting and the people making the decisions will have been fundamentally changed. I’m not talking getting everyone to say the Magic “Jesus Save Me” Prayer, I’m talking whole life change.

    I know, I know… I’m idealistic. It’s impractical. It will never work. But stranger things have happened… you know, dudes rising from the grave after being crucified… maybe we need more crazy, insane, idealistic stuff going on in our society… perhaps that’s what we need more than folks who are “realistic” and “pragmatic”.

    Sorry about the long rant… but you wrote a long post and any observations from such a long post will be long themselves. 🙂

    Anywho, God bless!

  2. Nicely done – just one thought to add. We always go the way of “what would Jesus do” but we also have an entire model in the Old Testament of God expecting that government’s job would to be protect the weak, feed the hungry, heal the hurting. Not a suggestion – its main job. Yes I’ll grant you Israel isn’t a republic founded on the separation of church and state, and no they aren’t any more successful at it than we are today. My point isn’t convincing to anyone outside of the Jewish family tree. But to those inside said tree? There is a great deal of clarity:

    “The word of the Lord came to me: Mortal, prophesy against the shepherds of Israel: prophesy, and say to them—to the shepherds: Thus says the Lord God: Ah, you shepherds of Israel who have been feeding yourselves! Should not shepherds feed the sheep?” Ezekiel 34:1-2

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