I’ve said this many times, but it bears repeating. Conservative evangelicals as a whole do a lot to help the poor ; they’re good at giving things to the poor. They work with inmates in prison. They run food pantries and other food distribution organizations. They send thousands of missionaries to poorer nations overseas, not only to convert souls, but also to help build infrastructures, give medical care, train and educate, even dig wells. They are generous people.
But one thing they more than often forget is that giving to the poor should go hand in hand with standing up for the poor, being a voice for the voiceless, challenging power structures on behalf of the disempowered. As Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. preached : “True compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar. It comes to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring.” The principle is indeed a biblical one:
I know that the Lord secures justice for the poor and upholds the cause of the needy.–Ps 140:12
The righteous care about justice for the poor, but the wicked have no such concern.–Prov. 29:7
The people of the land practice extortion and commit robbery; they oppress the poor and needy and mistreat the foreigner, denying them justice.–Ezek 22:29
It amazes me how hard some evangelicals can work to feed the poor; then they go out and vote for the same corrupt politicians who despise the poor (or immigrants) and want to make them poorer or deprive them of all rights. Many evangelicals donate time and money to programs that comfort the afflicted ; but they will fight to the death to support the very systems than help create those afflictions in the first place (American exceptionalism and militarism, support for oppressive regimes, or economic domination, for example). It’s as if we’re dealing out poison with one hand and antidote with the other, helping to create and cure misery in the same embrace.
In my church parking lot I recently saw a bumper sticker that for me is emblematic of the problem : it read, “John Galt for President.” Really ? The reference, of course, is to a character in Ayn Rand’s objectivist novel Atlas Shrugged, a man who lives by the motto, “I swear—by my life and my love of it—that I will never live for the sake of another man, nor ask another man to live for mine.” For Rand, things like God-values have no place in this world, which is about survival of the fittest. Instead, she postulates a morality of selfishness, in which the poor are viewed as useless and ugly, and rich capitalists are the bold and the beautiful. Is there anything so completely antithetical to the essential teachings of Christianity ?
How can you reconcile two things that are so completely irreconcilable ? Here’s a clue : you can’t. But it is entirely possible for some people to put their spiritual and ethical lives in separate compartments. It’s not about “living with the tension”; it’s about moral blindness, a kind of ethical dissociation. It allowed people like Thomas Jefferson, a brilliant thinker and a firm believer in human equality, to own and sell slaves (or even sleep with them). It may not be a conscious choice; in Jefferson’s case, he grew up with slavery and racism, lived and profited by them, and so rarely allowed his enlightened self to challenge them.
And perhaps therein lies the problem. We evangelicals often have a moral blind spot when it comes to America, the land of the free and home of the brave. We’ve been suckled on our national myths and propaganda—that America is good and can do no wrong, that our system is the best—and we can’t conceive of any other view. We’ve so profited by a system of inequality, militarism, and the politics of empire– especially those of us among the white middle and upper classes– we durst not rock the boat.
What is clear, however, is that as evangelicals we can be the bearers of both the good news and the bad. Like the old colonial missionaries we are at the same time part of the answer and part of the problem, packing heaven with souls while we help to facilitate the rape and pillage of foreign lands, or else crossing land and sea to make converts while neglecting the poor and destitute among us. Charles Dickens called this kind of mental gymnastics telescopic philanthropy.