08/06/2013 05:54 pm ET Updated Oct 06, 2013

Why the Church and Charity Aren't Enough

I’m talking to this guy the other day, as we both sit on overstuffed chairs, waiting to go into a meeting. He’s a Christian, and so am I. So, you’d think we might find more common ground. But alas, we occupy different schools of thought on almost everything, especially politics.

As we sit in the lobby, something comes on the TV about the sequester, and spending cuts, and congressional gridlock. Now he starts taking great pains to explain to me why Christians should oppose what he calls the “welfare state.”

My friend argues that taking care of the poor is the church’s responsibility -- that people who work hard shouldn’t have to give so much of what they earn back to the government in taxes. Government is notoriously inefficient and sloppy.

So, I tell him that all of that might be true, but to people on the outside looking in, to folks who don’t share his strong faith in the church’s ability to get it right either, such a theology of social organization looks suspiciously like a dodge -- a flimsy attempt to baptize selfishness. To them it sounds like “I got mine … through a paradoxical admixture of my hard work and God’s blessing, which means God wants me to have all this stuff; and conversely, it means God doesn’t want poor people to have any stuff, let alone my stuff.”

A lot of people who criticize Christians tell me that that’s exactly what they hear in the “government/taxes = bad; church/charity = good” debate.

He’s not buying it. In fact, he thinks I’m saying he’s only looking out for himself.

I say, “It doesn’t really matter what I think of you. When people who happen not be Christians hear you say that you won’t support expanded social programs for the poor because you think the church is the rightful place for that kind of work--and then they don’t see you out selling everything you have and giving to the poor like they remember Jesus telling the rich young man to do--all they hear is another Christian rationalizing having plenty, while others suffer without.”

The whole conversation ends awkwardly when our host calls us into the meeting. But that little exchange in the lobby has me thinking about the shape of the responsibility Christians have for doing our best to occupy the world God envisions.

To be clear: There certainly are people who work tirelessly to hone their craft or build a business. Nobody is saying that they shouldn’t enjoy the fruits of their labor. All I’m saying is that if you happen to follow Jesus, they’re not your fruits, over which nobody else has any rightful claim.

If you’re interested at all in this conversation, and if you share my friend’s distaste for taxes and social programs, you may say: All right, then. But I prefer to do my sharing through the church. I don’t trust the government.

Fine. I’m with you. But at present the church can’t do enough to feed all the people who need food. The church can’t provide healthcare to all the people who need healing. The church can’t teach Calculus and Physics to all the people who need to know them. The church doesn’t have the capacity to tend to all the elderly and disabled who can’t afford to take care of themselves.

You might respond by saying: Well, the church used to do those things before the government took them over.

Again. You’re right. But the indisputable truth of the matter is that the church is no longer in any position to do those things on the scale necessary now. So, until the church erects the infrastructure capable of meeting all those needs, we’re just going to have to run the fruits of those labors through the only apparatus even closet to being able to handle them all --the government.

Someone else might chime in: But we think the government’s the problem -- not the answer.

I won’t defend the government’s incompetence. But the truth of the matter is, for the most basic needs of those people who, for whatever reason, aren’t in a position to help themselves -- that is, the people who’ve got no bootstraps by which to pull themselves up -- at present the government is the only game in town.

Why punish those without healthcare, those without proper documentation, the poor, the powerless, or the hungry just because we have a difference of agreement over organizational strategies?

Look, if you happen to believe the church and not the government is the rightful place for charity, and that the government has no right to redistribute your tax dollars to those in need, I’m not saying you’re being selfish and only trying to rationalize being relatively well-off. What I am saying, however, is that that’s what it sounds like to people outside the church, which places the burden of proof on you -- given your commitment to following Jesus, the one primarily concerned with “the least of these” -- to explain why it’s not just a cover for selfishness.

Saying you love Jesus, then making it your political mission to dismantle systems and programs designed to help those whom Jesus loves -- without offering up a legitimate alternative -- cannot but appear to those on the outside to be an exercise in looking out for yourself.