My friends Eric Teetsel and Timothy Dalrymple have assembled a crew of thoughtful folks to respond to the Circle of Protection, a coalition of Christians who have been putting pressure on politicians to not reduce the budgets of those programs aimed at reducing poverty.

Here’s Tim’s description of the issue:

One of the great difficulties of this issue, for Christians, is that the morality of spending and debt has been so thoroughly demagogued that it’s impossible to advocate cuts in government spending without being accused of hatred for the poor and needy.  A group calling itself the “Circle of Protection” recently promoted a statement on “Why We Need to Protect Programs for the Poor.”  But we don’t need to protect the programs.  We need to protect the poor.  Indeed, sometimes we need to protect the poor from the programs.  Too many anti-poverty programs are beneficial for the politicians that pass them, and veritable boondoggles for the government bureaucracy that administers them, but they actually serve to rob the poor of their dignity and their initiative, they undermine the family structures that help the poor build prosperous lives, and ultimately mire the poor in poverty for generations.  Does anyone actually believe that the welfare state has served the poor well?

Political statements serve a limited, short-term purpose, which is partly why I struggle to bring myself to get excited about them.  I’m not much of an activist, and when I read a statement by the Circle of Protection or CASE I find my thoughts wandering to the missing premises that stand beneath the rhetoric or the peculiar habits of mind that the rhetoric depends upon and reinforces.

That’s particularly the case when the question gets framed as, “What would Jesus [x]?” as the Circle of Protection (following Sojourner’s lead) did.  More often than not, the question presumes a certain architecture of the state and then projects that backward, as though the trail between the text and our context is both flat and smooth.  But it’s just not that easy.  As Peter Leithart pointed out in First Things, the form of social justice in Torah is built on an agrarian economy:

Especially in Deuteronomy, generosity to the poor is coupled with festivity. When Israelites bring the tithe (tenth) of their harvest to the Lord’s house, they celebrate with meat and strong drink, but are exhorted to remember the Levites, who have no land of their own (Deuteronomy 14:27). Every third year, a portion of the tithe is given to the alien, orphan, and widow who “shall come and eat and be satisfied” (Deuteronomy 14:28-29). At the annual feasts of Pentecost and Booths, too, the celebrants welcome those with no resources of their own (Deuteronomy 16:10-11, 13-14). Again, the rights of both owners and non-owners are honored. Landowners rejoice in their abundance, but the landless poor share the abundance. The successful are not pilloried or punished, but the Lord commands them to open their hearts and their tables to the unsuccessful.

Which is to say, the gap between rich and poor that Torah collapses is not simply an economic one, but a social one.  In the festivals, the rich and needy share a table together and throughout the year they share, though perhaps at different times, the same fields of harvest.  Boaz meets Ruth precisely because he sees her gleaning his fields.

I’m skeptical about whether long term economic transformation is possible without an accompanying social transformation, one which would bring the wealthy and poor into close contact in the normal spheres of life (this is, I think, at the heart of James’ stern warnings against partiality).

But I’m also skeptical that preserving the mediating institution of the federal government will be an effective relief for poverty long into the future.  It’s difficult to consider cutting government programs for the poor now because we feel they meet a short term need.  As Michael Gerson pointed out in the Washington Post this morning:

But the Circle’s approach is more urgent. Public spending on poverty and global health programs is a sliver of discretionary spending and essentially irrelevant to America’s long-term debt. A political argument giving equal weight to cuts in poverty programs and reductions in entitlement spending is uninformed about the nature of the budget crisis, which is largely a health-entitlement crisis.

Gerson’s right that the central issue is health entitlements.  But the counterpoint is that it’s the tyranny of the urgent that creates dependency states, as people repeatedly meet short term needs without consideration for long term goods.  In a weird way, then, defending programs that protect the poor risks deepening the mentality that caused the budget crises, namely an inability to look far enough into the future and to imagine alternative possibilities and carve out new paths toward those possibilities that don’t depend upon the support of the federal government.

And the failure of courage in our political leaders to deal with the programs that are at the heart of the crisis is grounded in its own logic of urgency, namely the need to be reelected so that (charitably) they can deal with the problems in their next term.  But, we should also not shrink from the language of cowardice in speaking of our politician’s failure to look to the future.

But any debate over Christians and programs for the poor that starts from whether existing programs should be cut is off on the wrong foot.  There are structural questions about the relationship between the Gospels and our government, between the Christian and his neighbor, and between the present and the future.  I suspect on some level no one really disagrees with this, but the tyranny of the politically urgent impels us to organize and act to preserve what we have already concluded needs to be done now, and let the future take care of itself.


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Posted by Matthew Lee Anderson

Matthew Lee Anderson is the Founder and Lead Writer of Mere Orthodoxy. He is the author of Earthen Vessels: Why Our Bodies Matter to our Faith and The End of Our Exploring: A Book about Questioning and the Confidence of Faith. Follow him on Twitter or on Facebook.


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