Friday, September 25, 2009

The church caused (and could undo) big government.

This is a developing thought process for me. It does seem inevitable to me that the government will continue to grow. I don't think there is an example of a democracy that has un-done growth. The conservatives say it as "doomsday coming" and proof of societal decline, the liberals as "it ought to be". Here is another take:

The unabated growth of the United States government has corresponded directly to the disengagement from society of the American church. The removal of the active role of the church among the poor, the broken, the illiterate, the oppressed has also paralleled the astronomical increase of wealth among middle class Christians in America. This increase in accumulated personal and institutional wealth, along with the absence of engagement with the poor in our country, has been a critical factor in the growth of the government.

And the only way back, that I can see, from immense and inevitably larger government, is for the Church in America to change. The average Christian tithes about 3%, and has no sense of “cap” on one’s personal wealth or lifestyle. I have only met one Christian who has made it clear that they tithe on all income: capital gains, salaries, even student loans/grants.

Before you assume I am a communist, let me be clear. I believe that limited regulation within free-market economies is the best way for individuals created in the image of God to appropriately live out what they were designed to be. Regulation is always necessary in some forms because of the fallenness of man. Yet all regulation has unintended consequences and always impinges on human freedoms.

But markets allow people to work, and working is clearly the fastest way out of poverty. A massive number of people in so-called 3rd world countries have risen out of the depths of poverty, largely due to a growth in the economies of India and China. People have been put to work productively and poverty has decreased.

Entrepreneurialism, allows individuals to work, freely and creatively. These are each key parts of the imago dei.

I also assume that there are, as the Dutch theologians would like to say, appropriate spheres of sovereignty. . . family, church/local organizations, markets, governments. Each has appropriate roles to play. When one abdicates its appropriate role, we should expect to see others (a) pick it up and (b) not do as good of a job as the appropriate entity/sphere would have done.

“If you talk and act as a Christian should, the world will love you for what you do, and hate you for what your say”. Tim Keller (my paraphrase).

In the early 1900s the conservative, largely white church in America stopped doing what Christians should do. She removed herself from engaging with society and being an active part of addressing issues such as caring for the sick, the illiterate, the destitute, and those experiencing injustice.

During a period known as the fundamentalist-modernist controversy, virtually all of the fundamentalist churches and leaders, the heritage to what is now called the evangelical church, engaged in a theological battle over the meaning of the gospel. Out of a fear in what had become known as the social gospel, the church removed itself from actively engaging with society and took on a separatist, individualistic, and culture-war posture.
The church created her own schools, magazines, radio stations, art (sort of), literature (sort of) and more. She continued to proclaim a gospel of Jesus and Him crucified, (saying the things she should say) but became virtually irrelevant to the larger society in terms of mercy, justice and cultural engagement (thus not doing the things she is called to do).

This removal from society and the active disengagement with those on the margins of society coincided with the years leading up to the great depression, during which the government grew by leaps and bounds. Who would feed the hungry, retrain workers, fill them with dignity and purpose, educate them, speak up for those unjustly kept out of the economy? The answer became the government.

We have continued on this path for a century. The government continues to fill in roles that ought to be cared for, in my estimation, by small local organizations who are able to work with much greater accountability, efficiency, effectiveness, and sustainability.

But, I hear the objections now, “the government is taxing us to death!” “We can’t afford to do this until the government stops competing with the church.” “We can’t stand it when the government wades into issues like unemployment, education, health care and more. Stop the socialism!”

But I am increasingly convinced this is backwards. The church has the moral responsibility, through its manifold small organizational representations, to be the hands and feet of Jesus. To love the unlovable, heal the sick, visit the imprisoned, speak up against injustice and of course, preach the gospel. Yet the church has ceded this responsibility away. . . and the federal government will inevitably continue to grow until we “do the things we should do”.

“But we can’t. we don’t have the money” . . . we say. What if every Christian in American gave 20% of our income? What if Christians who are well off capped their net worth at say $2,000,000? What sort of revolution would unfold? We would not only have enough to pay for our (ridiculously) large church buildings, we could fund (Christian) schools that would revolutionize our inner-cities.

We could transform our health care system. We could easily address our homelessness and housing issues. It would allow us to do approach the development of economic systems in urban communities through micro-enterprise, entrepreneurialism, job training and more. All of this would allow us to do it with the kind of close to home accountability, efficiency and effectiveness that cannot be accomplished through large bureaucracies.

I am not suggesting that this would replace the federal government, but I propose that this is what it will take to undo the growth of the federal government in America. I believe that if we did this, that is if we lived sacrificially and loved our neighbor as ourselves, along with proclaiming an unapologetic gospel, we would have immense credibility. In other words we could more effectively “say what we should say while we do what we should do”.

It is our materialism and individualism that has caused the government to grow. Rather than rail against our government, which will inevitably continue to grow unless something radical is done, we would do something radical. Should we wait for the government that most of us don’t trust to somehow do the right thing? No, we should stop it by doing what we ought to do.