Small or Big Government Jesus?
A story on NPR today asked the question “What would Jesus do with the economy?” This is a topic of fierce debate among lawmakers and religious leaders. The question posed above is one that immediately makes me cringe and look for the closest exit, depending on the crowd I’m with. When Jesus and economics come up among Christians, we generally tend to advocate everything but Jesus’ approach to the topic.
Here’s how politicians and clergy are getting things wrong. In the article and the story aired on the radio, reactions to the House budget plan passed last week were gathered by reporters. The article online writes that, “…liberal religious leaders said the Republican plan, which lowered taxes and cut services to the poor, was an affront to the Gospel — and particularly Jesus’ command to care for the poor.” An interview with Dr. Richard Land of the Southern Baptist Convention recorded him saying, “The Bible tells us that socialism and neo-socialism never worked. Confiscatory tax rates never worked.” Surprisingly, no scripture references were given by the president of the SBC’s Ethics and Religious Liberties Commission.
The problem with both conservative and liberal Christians is their approach to politics. When it comes to matters of economic policy, individuals choose their political preference and then work to squeeze Jesus and the gospel in a tiny box neither fit in. Our approach should be the reverse, and we should examine how we live the gospel in our lives before adulterating scripture with our immaturity, like Dr. Land.
I do want to address conservative political ideology regarding economic policy. Why? Statistically, the vast majority of evangelical Christians are political conservative. If you were to poll Evangelicals in America today, most would favor cutting or doing away with social services to the poor. Many would agree with Republican congressman Paul Ryan (author of the budget) that it is the church’s, not the government’s, responsibility to care for the poor. While I agree, frankly we have failed. I’m sure you have heard the adage that there would be no need for welfare if the church did it’s job.
Here’s where I become frank and brutally honest. This is why I am calling out religious and political conservatives. Many of the people I hear this small-government, cut welfare rhetoric from are people that don’t know anyone who is poor. I grew up in a community called The Woodlands. If you don’t know what The Woodlands is, it is an affluent master-planned community north of Houston. A community with almost 100,000 residents making up the upper-class of society. The Interfaith page of The Woodlands website lists 34 Christian congregations, which means the real number is likely over 40. “The bubble” as many called it when I was in high school, holds a lot of potential for good.
These churches are filled with people who love God and passionately pursue Him. Many are generous and charitable givers. I don’t think anyone would say they don’t care about the poor. Caring about the poor doesn’t really mean much in my book. The real question is, do you care for the poor? I didn’t have poor friends growing up. I didn’t have anyone I would consider a friend, or anyone I spent time with weekly that had any experience with the welfare system. I didn’t have relationships with anyone that had spent time in prison, was going to prison, needed food stamps, or took Social Security until I was a senior in college and sought out that community. I was insulated and had to break out. I cannot tell you how I much have grown and been blessed by that community.
That’s when I realized the way most of us, liberal or conservative, approach caring for the poor is totally off the mark. Too many people live inside a bubble with people just like them. That’s why poor Christians don’t know rich Christians, and vice versa. Without realizing it, the church has become segregated politically, racially, and economically. As I have said before on this topic, let’s mix it up! Let’s not waste our time arguing too much over theologically inaccurate economics. Jesus’ economy was to give everything and love with reckless abandon. It sounds great, but we often hesitate because it’s really difficult in practice.
So, here’s the challenge, and I’m serious. I believe this is extremely important to expanding how we love our neighbor. If you don’t know someone who makes significantly more money than you, or significantly less money than you, fill the gap and make those relationships. Don’t worry, if you take the challenge, it will be difficult. It could very likely be awkward, take a lot of effort, and require that you sacrifice something. I also guarantee it will be worth it. There’s something my friend Dan Kiniry says at our potluck lunches in Neal Park. “This isn’t a project or a charity. This is family.” That, I believe, is Christ’s vision for the church.