It never fails. Just about every time I write about the responsibility we have not only as Christians but also as citizens to provide a viable social safety net for the poor in our midst, someone will fire back to let me know that it is not the job of government to help the poor.
It is frustrating how the idea has taken hold that government is somehow over against us, that it is an entity not a part of us. This silly notion has roots at least as far back as the Civil War and in the civil rights movement, where federal law was imposed on states. But it is not true. As Lincoln said at Gettysburg, ours is a government of the people, by the people, for the people.
It is sad that we have lost this ideal of collective responsibility. We lived for so long with the fear that communism would find a way to triumph over our way of life that we now flee from any collaborative endeavor. Notice how President Obama’s adversaries keep trying to taint him as a socialist.
And while the ideal of voluntary charity is noble and certainly appeals to our higher angels, charity alone cannot fix what is broken systemically. Charity can relieve the pain of the moment, and can even serve as a prophetic witness to what causes poverty, but charity alone cannot solve the problem.
Charity cannot affect economies. Charity cannot influence policies that create or destroy jobs. Charity cannot supervise the marketplace, making sure it is fair and honest. These tasks call for justice, and it takes a whole people for justice to thrive.
But even if we were not constituted as Lincoln described us, there would still be a biblical mandate for us to collectively take care of each other. Who were the prophets talking to when they thundered their message of economic justice for the widow and the orphan? They were talking to the people. If there is not justice in the land, we are all at fault.
There are many biblical principles that have application beyond the walls of houses of worship. When Jesus said that to whom much is given much is required, he could have been talking about church leadership or the management of economies.
The first Christians took to heart what Jesus said about the poor. In the early days of the church we find the disciples living together in a radical communal arrangement. They held all things in common and no one regarded their possessions as something to hoard privately.
Unfortunately, that kind of approach did not work then, and will not work now. But their failure does not mean the ideal was wrong, just their idea for meeting the ideal. We have the resources and the intelligence to do what it will take to create jobs that offer sustainable wages, health care especially for children, and a fair system of taxation where those who have the most pay the most, not the other way around.
So long as we persist in holding on to the idea that government is some sort of alien power, is in fact our adversary, we will live as a nation divided against itself.
Lincoln’s ideal is worth pursuing, and much of it is already in place if we would only acknowledge it. A government of the people, by the people can become a government for the people.
James L. Evans is pastor of Auburn First Baptist Church in Auburn, Ala.