Lanterns: The Problem of Charity

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The Problem of Charity

Several years ago, I had the pleasure of witnessing a debate between two Christians about whether tithing is an obligation of today’s Christians. Both men relied upon scripture to make their cases. Both men were convinced they were correct. Both men made valid points in defense of their claim.

The first fellow believed as most of us do that tithing is a command for Christians, and that it is every bit as relevant today as it was two thousand years ago. The second fellow agreed that a tithe may be relevant, but once we moved into the New Testamental period, there was a shift from law to grace, and while the law might require a tithe, grace requires the generosity that comes from love.

I chewed on the matter for quite some time. While I did not (and still do not) believe that the transition from law to grace allows us the freedom to disregard the law, I do believe that many of us miss the point, particularly in areas dealing with our fellow man. The gentleman’s point was that a tithe actually allows us a parameter by which we can say, “I’ve done my duty; I’ve given what is required of me,” when actually, the grace exhibited in the life and death of Jesus is a generosity that exceeds all limit.

As Christians, we are called to live in like manner—giving more than is comfortable, loving when it breaks our hearts, and showing mercy where it is not appreciated. I’ve been thinking about this idea again the last several days.

On Sunday, I read an article in The Atlantic about whether or not, in light of President Trump’s proposed budget cuts, Christians (and churches) in America can actually provide the charity we’ve delegated to our government in recent years. I won’t lie to you, and I won’t pretend I know the answer. The truth is that there are many areas in which I see American Christianity in decline— many areas in which it stands in ridiculous failure. So yes, there is a part of me that truly believes it’s necessary to fund government programs and allow them to act charitably on our behalf.

And yet, I have to be forthright with you. As a child, I lived in poverty. I know, I know—trust me, I know—American poverty is nothing like Third World poverty. I don’t use the word lightly, and I don’t use it as a means of garnering sympathy for my opinions. It is simply true: We lived in poverty. We lived in a type of poverty that many Americans would not be comfortable recognizing in our wealthy nation. And I have to tell you, there were always Christians who reached out—not because we asked for help, but because they knew we were in need.

Some years ago, I learned that the church I attend currently, played a significant role in caring for us when I was a child, and so in some ways, I feel that my faith has come full-circle. Now that I am there, I see just how involved my church is in the community and in the world, caring for those in need. Can we solve every crisis? Unfortunately, we cannot. But we are involved.

So, if the question is whether the government or my church is better positioned and better equipped to help the vulnerable in my community, the answer is simple: It is not the government. But if the question, as posed in the article above, is whether religious organizations (or specifically, my church) could take the place of the welfare state, then I have to tell you—the answer is no, we cannot. And the reason is simple: My church does not encourage consistent dependence upon its charity.

In a recent conversation with my pastor, we were discussing a person in my life who needed help and how he or the church could be involved. He was happy to enlist the support of the church, but he spoke of the importance of the individual having a plan. Crises happen, he said, but if we help the person today, what is the person going to do tomorrow? Maybe the answer is that the person needs help tomorrow, and all next week, and the rest of the year, and long-term; but if the answer is simply that the person doesn’t know what to do and is depending on the church to constantly bail him out, then there’s something more happening that needs to be addressed.

So, where the welfare state, in many regards, encourages dependence on the journey (my opinion), my pastor and church encourage independence while providing assistance along the journey. So no—we cannot replace the welfare state because we do not have the same objectives.

Many churches in my town are involved, and I know they don’t all have exactly the same view as my church. Still, I’ve been blessed to witness over the past several years the growth of a ministry to the homeless in our area. While it does, I’m sure, depend upon some funding or breaks from the government, the real cogs in the machine are the churches and the people locally who have opened their hearts, their wallets, and their church buildings because they see the need and refuse to sit in silence. We went from a town where the homeless were virtually unacknowledged to a town that is working diligently to keep them safe and assure them of their value.

If we can do that locally, why can’t we do that on a larger scale? Do we have so little faith in ourselves?

The question is not whether we are doing what we believe is required (like giving a non-negotiable percentage of our income to the government to fund programs of their choosing); the question is whether, as Christians, the love of Christ dwells richly in us so much so, that we are able and willing and eager to give generously to those in need. For myself, I much more trust the judgment of my pastor and our synod to know where and how to minister to the needs of “the least of these” in our communities and in our world. And for myself, I much more trust the hearts of individuals, when they know about a need, to get involved and love those who have nothing to give in return.

Let it never be said that Christians in America failed to care for the most vulnerable in the world because the federal government couldn’t make the pennies add up.

Let it never be said that Christians in America justified our lack of charity by blaming a president… a party… a government… or even our own struggles. 

Written by Sarah Moore

Sarah lives and works in the beautiful Upper Peninsula of Michigan.

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