Waging a War on Poverty

No Progressive Christian and very few others for that matter need convincing that poverty in America is a Christian issue. The focus of Old Testament Law, the preaching of the prophets, and the teachings of Jesus all speak to the importance of economic justice for the poor, the weak, and the vulnerable. This theme plays a dominant role in the Bible from Genesis 1 through the Book of Revelation.

For the most part, Christians have responded. The churches I am familiar with are actively engaged in supporting food banks and homeless shelters, providing supplemental financial help for various household expenses such as high energy bills, building and repairing houses, and many other charitable activities. Faith-based nonprofit organizations are similarly involved. There is no question that these efforts are making a difference, but much more needs to be done. The key need is money which only the government has the resources to provide. Programs to improve health care, insure high quality public schools, provide job training, fund day care centers for low income families, construct affordable housing are starved for adequate funding.

The problem is that governments at all three levels have limited funds and have a history of being stingy when it comes to such programs. Poor people have low voter turnout rates and lack the resources to hire skilled lobbyists to advocate for them which makes them easy to ignore. The political system with its many hurdles and shoals to navigate makes it difficult to pass any innovative legislation especially when significant funding is in play.

So what are Christians who are concerned with this issue to do? The first thing not to do is to partner with one of the political parties. Conservative evangelicals have done that with the Republican Party and have achieved very little in return. The alliance began in the 1980s with Jerry Falwell’s Moral Majority. The key issues were abortion, gay marriage, and school prayer. It’s hard to find significant victories on any of these issues over the last forty years. I am also convinced that many evangelicals will eventually conclude they have been burned with Trump.

Many people feel they have been burned by politicians who talk a good game, but rarely deliver. President George W. Bush loved to include Christian rhetoric in his speeches. He even established the Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives at the beginning of his first term to channel federal money to faith-based nonprofits working to ameliorate poverty. Unfortunately, when push came to shove, the Bush Administration preferred fighting two wars and providing a tax cut to the rich which left no money for faith-based nonprofits. Politicians prefer to stick their finger in the air to see which way the wind is blowing rather than take a stand on a controversial issue. Jim Wallis in God’s Politics suggests that what Christians need to do is change the direction of the wind.

That’s exactly what Martin Luther King Jr. did when he established a spiritual movement to end the pernicious disease of racism and discrimination. Dr. King began his biblically based movement in the 1950s by organizing black churches in the deep South. He led carefully targeted protest movements designed to educate the country on the problems of racial discrimination. As a result of electrifying moral speeches and inspirational acts of courage, his movement grew. By educating the larger society on the brutality of racial injustice and the crippling economic consequences that followed from it, he changed the climate of opinion on that issue. He provided the country with a new vision of what America could be in a society in which people were judged by the content of their character rather than the color of their skin. The result was the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

The time is right to do something similar with poverty in America. The enormous and growing gap in wealth between the rich and the poor is becoming ever so apparent. It has in fact become impossible to ignore. We have the resources to end poverty in America. What we need is the will and the moral energy to light a fire under our political systems. That’s what I’m asking Christians to do: to light that fire. This is an issue we all agree on. Bridging our doctrinal divisions with unified action would prove to the world that the teachings of Jesus are alive and well. So let’s do it!

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