At the heart of the Christian Gospel is an unequivocal mandate to care for the poor, the marginalized and the disenfranchised. We are to be both stewards and advocates, companions and champions for those who lack the voice and privileges from which we benefit.
Most Christian church communities respond, at least to some degree, to this call. We donate a portion of our budget to mission giving. We serve meals at a local soup kitchen. Maybe we even open a food pantry in our church or welcome people in on occasion for a much-needed meal.
But it's not enough. In fact, there's evidence that, despite these well-intended efforts, that it's tantamount to placing a bandage on a gaping wound. And the fact it, we Christians seem less committed to healing the deeper, systemic wound when it comes down to it.
I know it seems counter-intuitive to suggest that the very people offering some charitable assistance to the poor and hungry are, at the same time, contributing to the larger problem.
First, there's the matter of how we use the rest of our money. Certainly simply allocating a portion of our abundance to those less fortunate doesn't exempt us from the responsibility for the other ways we consume. From clothes and food produced under exploitive labor practices to the gas we put in our cars, the lifestyle we have so widely normalized is, too often, at the expense of the freedom, wellbeing or even lives of others.
There are more direct examples of willful exploitation too. In my book, "postChristian: What's Left? Can we fix it? Do we care?" I explain how collusion between prosperity gospel preachers and subprime mortgage lenders has led to many taking on debt they weren't able to maintain. Some have even led to criminal investigation, says Hanna Rosin in her Atlantic article, 'Did Christianity Cause the Crash?' "One theme emerging in these suits (against banks for illegal subprime lending)," she writes, "is how banks teamed up with pastors to win over new customers for subprime loans."
In short, bank lenders would promise to donate $350 back to a pastor's ministry from every loan resulting from "wealth building seminars" hosted in their churches. Rosin asked a pastor she interviewed for her article about the practice. This, from postChristian: "Ten Christians will say that God told them to buy a house,' says the pastor. 'In nine of the cases, it will go bad. The tenth one is the real Christian.' " As for the nine for whom it doesn't work out as well, he offers a gambler's consolation. "'For them, there's always another house.'"
Other pastors have faced prison time for engaging their flock in what amounted to ponzi schemes, into which they poured and lost significant sums of money. In most cases, these seminars and scams prey specifically on non-Anglo Christians in heavily economically depressed areas.
Though these are somewhat anecdotal, and exceptions can be found to every case of wrongdoing, there's a broader indictment that reaches all of us. Consider this quote from 'postChristian' about the economics of hunger:
The United Nations estimates that the entirety of the world's hunger problems could be solved with an annual budget of approximately $30 billion. Meanwhile, a recent study by The Economist magazine estimated that the Catholic Church in the United States alone had an annual combined budget of $170 billion in 2010, when all of the assets of the Church are considered together. So in theory, by allocating about one-sixth of the total budget of the Catholic Church in the United States to solving hunger (not counting any other denominations, religions, or even Catholic institutions outside the United States), hunger could conceivably disappear from the face of the earth.
We claim to have a heart for the poor, for changing the world to more closely reflect the divinely inspired kingdom vision offered to us by Jesus. And yet, the tools required to make the changes are right before us. It's how we're choosing to employ them that betrays the darker nature of our all-too-human hearts.
Food pantries, mission offerings and soup kitchens are important, noble things. But it's hardly enough, especially for those of us who claim to want to be more like the Jesus we claim. It should occupy our days and haunt our dreams. The call to make right the profound brokenness should be so central to our identities as Christians that we're beset by our unfinished work.
The good news is that, by working together, we can change it. It simply has to be important enough for us to put everything else aside in the spirit of service. It comes at a cost, but then again, Jesus told us as much.