Is the Church Impotent to Help the Poor–Really?   Leave a comment

After I read Mark Galli’s article on fighting poverty I had a sense of unease that wouldn’t go away – an unease that only increased with further readings. This post is my response to his article, and an attempt to contribute to the critically important discussion on Christians and the poor.

I’d like to begin with the provocative list of assumptions and arguments made by Mr. Galli:
1) Government economists and bureaucrats making top-down macroeconomic decisions play the most significant role of all in fighting poverty, not the church. (“The government is by far the best institution to raise the poor’s standard of living.”)
2) The church is “ineffective” or “impotent” when it comes to fighting massive poverty or helping the poor.
3) We can sometimes improve social conditions, but ending poverty can never happen, and will never happen.
4) Poverty will never and can never be ended because of the nature of man.
5) A Christian approach to helping the poor should not be only or mostly “pragmatic.” To focus on making “a difference in the world” is a sinful, misguided, eg0-driven enterprise.
6) What is important about the Church’s “antipoverty efforts”, most of all, is it’s witness to “Jesus’ final antipoverty program.”
7) The church’s “irreplaceable calling” is to give witness (as in #6), and to care for poor individuals “in our midst.” (We are “… to show forth the good news – in deeds of justice and mercy, and most importantly, in gospel words.” [my emphasis]

The Role of Macroeconomics
As the article demonstrates, macroeconomic forces have powerfully worked to decrease extreme poverty in our world. This is seen in the last thirty years in the developing world, especially in China and India. Mr. Galli doesn’t mention it, but macroeconomic forces have also powerfully worked in the U.S. (and Western Europe) during pretty much the same period of time, but in instead to increase poverty (as those who were formerly reasonably financially secure have slid down and out of the middle class.) And, although I’m no economist, it seems to me that the same forces – globalization and outsourcing of jobs – are what account for these movements both out of and into poverty. I don’t mean to equate extreme poverty in the developing world with the poverty of those formerly in the middle class in the U.S.! I’m simply comparing the opposing trends. (Mr. Galli doesn’t even mention today’s tough economic times in the U.S. and in the E.U. – especially in Greece. He only states that “if you’re concerned about poverty, these are indeed the best of times.” ) We can hardly put our trust and hope in macroeconomics to eliminate poverty when macroeconomic forces can lead to less poverty in one place and, at the same time, more poverty in another.

The author’s argument is also based on a historical snapshot covering a relatively short period of time. He demonstrates that macroeconomics has really made a difference, but then turns it into a principle when he asserts that macroeconomics really “makes” a difference. If macroeconomics has always been the most significant force in eliminating poverty, and always will be, that still needs to be demonstrated. It’s not proven in this article. Mr. Galli admits this when he points to “recent economic developments” as the basis of his argument.

In many times and places in the past (and now again), economic prosperity in a nation has been enjoyed by only a few individuals at the top – individuals who had no interest in letting it “trickle down” (the author’s term) to those below. The author doesn’t discuss whether in India and China, the gains that have been brought on by macroeconomics were shared equitably. Were the extremely poor simply rescued from that state, but helped very little otherwise as others were enriched, or was the transformation more of the “rising-tide-lifts-all-boats type?” No matter, it seems to me that we must conclude that macroeconomics is an impersonal, unpredictably fickle savior. We can be thankful for such forces when they are positive and helpful, but we can hardly put our faith in them as the Answer. (And even then, to say macroeconomics is what works best is merely “descriptive” rather than “prescriptive” language. It tells us only what happens, but not what should happen, or what anyone should do or can do to encourage it. Hopefully “sheer economic growth” will benefit the poor wherever it occurs, but is our job merely to sit on the sidelines, waiting in hope to see where such growth will occur next, marveling at its causes, and giving thanks when things go well? If “Government economists and bureaucrats making top-down macroeconomic decisions play the most significant role of all in fighting poverty.”, then we better either place skilled Christians into these places of influence or “occupy” the people who are in these positions now (or both!), to see that they use this transcendent power wisely and equitably. (That’s obviously a separate discussion.)

The Impotence and Insignificance of the Church

I’ve already suggested that the overall sense of Mr. Galli’s article is that the poor are substantially helped to rise above poverty, not by the church’s anti-poverty initiatives or her lobbying of governments, or by “Christian activism”, but by the forces of macroeconomics. He says, “When huge poverty reduction strides have been made, it has been due not to every person doing their little part, but to government economists and bureaucrats making top-down macroeconomic decisions. Doing our little part makes very little difference when it comes to large-scale poverty.” and thus, “… it is not micro but rather macroeconomics that really makes a difference.”

In his discussion, Mr. Galli doesn’t maintain a clear distinction between “fighting poverty” and what could more simply be called “helping the poor.” (To be fair, he implies a distinction between the two he qualified some poverty as  “huge” or “large-scale”, but the distinction blurs when he deems the church’s efforts in both endeavors as – “impotent” and “insignificant.”) Perhaps I’ve misunderstood him, but I don’t think so, since in the end his main prescription for the church is mostly about making neither macro or micro efforts, not “fighting poverty” or “helping the poor”, but mostly about something else.

I see this failure to maintain a distinction between “fighting poverty” and “helping the poor” as a problem which skews the discussion. “Fighting poverty” targets a problem and can be measured by results. “Helping the poor”,  can convey a more personal activity – the poor are people, after all. I would agree that you can give significant help to the poor and not necessarily accomplish much in fighting poverty. You could bring groceries to your disabled, recently unemployed neighbor who is a single mom. It probably would be ironic to refer to it as fighting poverty, but there would be no doubt that you had helped the poor.

It’s true, the church often lacks clout when it comes to influencing politics, and historically it probably hasn’t often been the driving force in macroeconomic development. But to say that the church has been impotent when it comes to helping the poor is obviously not true. Every time the church helps the poor, it helps the poor! And when it helps the poor, it is neither “impotent” or “insignificant.” Just ask your neighbor who now has something to eat whether what you did was “insignificant.” Your neighbor was hungry and now she’s not! You have given more than a “cup of cold water” in Jesus’ name, and loved your neighbor as yourself. (Remember the story of the boy and the starfish? That’s what I’m talking about.) It’s not only macro-results, but micr0-results which are important. Helping an individual is always important and significant, even if it doesn’t show up in a trend or a statistic.

The Impossibility of Ending Poverty

Mr. Galli reminds us that Christians will sometimes speak of “defeating poverty” or “ending extreme poverty.” But, he says (and in spite of all the surprising and encouraging statistics he mentions about what has been happening in the developing world) that can never happen:

“… it is a stretch to suggest we can end any sort of poverty. I asked a number of Christian economists about this, and all agreed: No, we can’t. When I asked why, every one of them said, ‘Original sin.’ Until the coming of the kingdom of God, greed, sloth, oppression, corruption, and the like—all of which breed poverty—will persist.” He continues, “… we can indeed improve social conditions in some regards. But the human capacity for sin is relentless and will find ways to subvert even our most stellar progress.” [my emphasis] His example of slavery illustrates what the author means in this regard:

“… it is much better to live in a time when every nation on the planet has outlawed slavery. But as experts today acknowledge, slavery (defined as people enduring forced labor, including sex) is still endemic worldwide. There are more slaves today (estimates range from 12 million to 27 million) than ever. By contrast, even at the apex of American slavery, the United States counted only 4 million slaves.” This illustrates what Galli means when he says it’s impossible to end poverty. He means we’ll never succeed in doing that – and what’s more, apparently were doomed to live with widespread slavery (and who knows what else) on our planet as well. It’s like pulling dandelions. You do your best to improve your lawn, but it’s futile, and you’ll probably only make it worse.

In my opinion, there are several problems in the argument at this point. One having to do with “original sin”, and the other having to do with making a logical leap. If by “Original sin”, the author means the Christian assessment of man’s nature (I assume he means the Calvinistic concept of “total” or “radical” depravity.), then there is nothing in that doctrine that proves his point. Men and women are created in the image of God, and therefore have potential for greatness in many ways. They also have sinned and fallen, so that, while still bearing God’s image, they reflect it in a dramatically marred way – and have the potential for great sin against God and inhumanity to man. Radical depravity doesn’t mean though, that a person can do nothing good. It means that everything a fallen person does, even his most noble and selfless acts, is still touched by his depravity. Just think of Charles Schultz’s character “Pig Pen” who can’t make a move without making a mess. Everything a man does will have the fingerprints of depravity on it, but that doesn’t mean he can do nothing of great value. (“Pig Pen” still makes for a great, often wise friend.) It’s true that our race will always be characterized by greed, sloth, oppression and corruption, but it will also always be characterized by generosity, love and the desire on the part of many to help others. Obviously, we must wait until God’s Kingdom comes in fullness for any kind of utopia on earth. But to say that something quite short of that – the ending of “extreme poverty” – is impossible in this age, is not only begging the question, but minimizing what the God of heaven is able, and perhaps willing, to do through his people (and others). And yes, I know that Jesus said, “The poor you will always have with you.” I just don’t think that his words must mean that the immense global issues of extreme poverty are unavoidable. That’s making the text walk on all fours.

Secondly, and to reiterate from above, to say that because of sin, there will always be “poverty” (Jesus says as much.), and not only that, but that because of sin, there will always be “extreme poverty”, is two different things. The latter simply asserts an opinion. There is no way to demonstrate the truth of such a statement. This is important because of the fatalism involved with Mr. Galli’s interpretation. (The author’s fatalism is manifest when he suggests that “… the church in fact cannot defeat poverty, and … the church’s efforts make an insignificant dent in macropoverty….”) [The emphasis is mine.] We’ve already seen that these sweeping generalizations are based on a very small sampling of time, and remain to be demonstrated before they become gospel.

Focusing on Making a Difference in the Word is Sinful and Pointless
Mr. Galli suggests that a “uniquely Christian approach to poverty” will not be “pragmatic.” At one point in passing, he says that “impact is indeed one important criterion for how we invest ourselves”, but otherwise, he most forcibly and consistently argues that it shouldn’t matter to us whether our Christian activism and efforts to help the poor are ineffective or impotent. (In the end, this doesn’t seem to me to be mostly a warning against the real pitfalls of pragmatic thinking, which he clearly names. Instead, it seems like a corollary of his position on the impotence of the church. If we’re doomed to failure in most, or perhaps all that we touch, then we certainly can’t afford to focus on results!) What should matter to us, he says,  is “simple obedience to Jesus.” Our sinful egos might motivate us to try to do something “significant” or to make “… a difference in the world … so that we can go to bed at night feeling good about ourselves.” What we need to realize is that our efforts can only be insignificant, and that “… our selfcenteredness has sabotaged our ability to make any fundamentally sound contribution to our lives or to others’. This God speaks to us the frank word that not only do we not make a difference in the world, day to day we threaten to make the world worse by our sin.” [my emphasis]

I have to say that this is the most jaundiced Christian view of redeemed humanity that I’ve ever read, and as I’ve already argued, I think it’s theologically indefensible. I’m not certain what the motivation for such a view would be, but it certainly eviscerates what I think is an appropriate sense of human responsibility. What if we were to interview some Christian activists from the past – starting with John Calvin? Think about his story. Would he subscribe to this author’s view? Or would Martin Luther King, Jr, or Mother Teresa, or Martin Luther, or William Wilberforce? The list could be endless. This is truly a “unique” approach, but in my opinion, falls short of a “Christian” approach. As his people, we are God’s hands and feet. If the all-powerful God of heaven, has determined to use his church to in some ways bring about his will on earth, then how can we say it can only be ineffective, insignificant or impotent? This is a maddening theology if there ever was one.

The Church’s Job is Witnessing to Jesus’ Coming Anti-poverty Program

In Mr. Galli’s view, the efforts of the church are not about making a difference in our world. As we’ve seen, we will only muck that up because of our sin and selfcenteredness. The efforts of the church on behalf of the poor, we are told, are really about witnessing to what God will do later, when Jesus returns. And thus, “… the church’s most characteristic antipoverty efforts are those that are utterly personal” – like child-sponsorship, which is “not only a proven strategy for making a difference” he says, but one which “works.” (It’s surprising to me at this point to hear the author talk about a “proven strategy for making a difference” – and one which works! It seems out of place after everything else he has said. (Perhaps this means that he himself is too sensible and hopeful to embrace his own view of the “church’s irreplaceable calling” –

The Church’s Irreplaceable Calling

The author ends by saying (and again in spite of all that he’s said that may seem to indicate to the contrary) that as the church of Jesus Christ, “We still have our irreplaceable calling”, which he says, “… begins with responding to the divine and gracious call” to follow Jesus. What troubles me about Mr. Galli’s definition of what it means to follow Jesus in this regard is that it rests upon his view of the church as a powerless, impotent society of well-intentioned bunglers. It arbitrarily limits what the God of heaven and earth is able or willing to do in this age (when the Kingdom is “not yet”), and absolves the believer from the need to respond to the call of Jesus with any kind of vision or courage as it applies to the poor. People are marching in the street to protest injustice and advocate for the rights of the poor (among other things). Are Christians just to sit on the sidelines, settling into their padded pews on Sunday, and supporting an orphan in Somalia so they can feel significant at the end of the day? (And I’m not suggesting that many of the protestors are not Christians, because they are.) Are we only responsible for the poor individual that God “providentially puts in our midst?” That seems like such a small calling to me, and so inconsistent with the commands to love our neighbor and to do good to all people. It also seems like the kind of Christianity that asks so little from God’s people that it receives almost nothing from God’s people. It’s not when Christians practice activism and make great efforts to help the poor that they are insignificant, but when they don’t. Just ask many of those protestors, or listen to young people in the twittersphere. They already believe that the church of Jesus Christ is insignificant and impotent. They’ll tell you that as a Christian you have no credibility with them or others. All I can ask is, please don’t tell these critics that, according to your faith, trying to help would be sinful (self-centered), and pointless, but that they should still be encouraged because in the eschaton things will be different. (I think this is reminiscent of the offer of “pie in the sky when I die.”, and definitely not what Christians are told to do in the book of James and elsewhere.)

Jesus wants us to make a difference – like salt does, and like light does in the darkness. He wants unbelievers to see what we do, and glorify our father in heaven. I think I can promise you that this “unique Christian” approach will not lead to that.

Mr. Galli and I are both evangelicals, so we probably have a lot more in common than a reading of our two articles would suggest. He wants the best for the poor. He wants the church to be as effective as possible. And he wants the good news of the Kingdom to be made known. I wholeheartedly share these concerns, but I differ with him on the way he has explained all of it. I’ve taken the time to write this response, because many who claim to speak for God today seem, not only cold-hearted towards the poor, but insulting and demeaning towards them. (I’m not including Mr. Galli! I’m really thinking about, for instance, what I’ve been hearing lately from GOP hopefuls.) Perhaps we all need to remember, like I did in a small group meeting lately, that the Bible describes Jesus himself as “poor.” Remember that the next time someone tells you that the poor only deserve what “trickles down” to them, or that they’re parasites, or lazy people who aren’t willing to work. It just might be, that someday macroeconomic forces will catch up with you, and that one day you’ll be looking in the mirror at the poor. Don’t wait until then to have a heart of compassion. Don’t wait until then to do what you can to advocate for and help the poor. Remember, when you do it unto them, you do it unto Jesus himself. Now that’s significant.

POSTSCRIPT:  seven responses from Christian Humanitarian organizations (like World Vision and Habitat for Humanity), and a response by the original author Mark Galli


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