January 20, 2008

The church, the individual, and social justice

Thanks to Natalie, I am reading James K. Smith's Who's Afraid of Postmodernism. Smith is trying to explain how post modernism can influence the church in a positive way. I bought it partially because I am one of those historians who is uncomfortable with theory, and thought this would be a good refresher. But I am finding the discussion on church very interesting. Even as I am just starting this book, I found this great discussion about the difference between the individual and the "church."

Page 29. While discussing the problems of the "modern" church, Smith says:
Within the matrix of the modern Christianity, the base "ingredient" is the individual; the church, then is simply a collection of individuals. Conceiving of Christian faith as a private affair between the individual and God--a matter of my asking Jesus to "come into my heart"--modern evangelicalism finds it hard to articulate just how or why the church has any role to play other than providing a place to fellowship with other individuals who have a private relationship with God. With this model in place, what matters is Christianity as a system of truth or ideas, not the church as a living community embodying its head. Modern Christianity tends to think of the church either as a place where individuals come to find answers to their questions or as one more stop where individuals can try to satisfy their consumerist desires."

Perhaps it is this obsession with the individual which holds us back? I am not completely sure how to connect all the dots, but this consumerist tendency that is now central to the church as well, certainly keeps us from addressing larger social and moral issues. I know a lot of Christians who do a lot of "good" in their community. They feed the hungry and donate money and clothes to the poor. They are concerned to help their neighbor during a crisis, and might be some of the first to stop and help someone clearly in need.

Yet, those same Christians, in my opinion, often vote in ways that actually perpetuates some of the social ills. I am sure they would dispute this, but it seems inconceivable to me that Republican tax and economic policies are congruent with their heart for helping people in need. Not that Democrats offer some magic solution, mind you, but voting for tax cuts and a system that rewards wealth and opposes health care for the middle and lower classes seems contradictory.

I think one of the key issues might be individualism and the ability for so many to compartmentalize their lives from that broader context. Individualism, after all, is the rallying cry for the GOP. Moral issues become mostly sexual or drug and alcohol use--economic choices and systemic problems are just "policy." When faced with a person lacking an individual meal, they respond. When faced with a system that rewards corporations who exploit those in need--they are unsure what to do. Compassion, then, competes with the cold, hard, capitalist ethos. Hungry, and I will feed you. But if you are harmed by policies that help me, I will do little. Or perhaps more accurately, I don't know how to do anything because it means asking questions about how I have what I have, and how I live my life.

Bono, in the endorsement for Jim Wallis' new book says:
I had always been skeptical of the church of personal peace and prosperity ... of righteous people standing in a holy huddle while the world rages outside the stained glass.
Bono and Wallis think the tide is changing. I hope they are right.

Opening my Sojourners and I see a review of The Missing Class which explores those who are
the “near poor” or “missing class”—households that fall between the stable middle class and the impoverished. Their household incomes range from $20,000 to $40,000.

Our “missing class” neighbors don’t qualify for, in the words of Newman and Chen, the “dwindling government-provided benefits for the truly poor,” such as public day care, Medicaid, and welfare. But they also lack the means to afford their own quality child care and services. They may have higher incomes, but the stability of homeownership and significant savings eludes them. Those with health insurance are “weakly insured” and have inferior health options. While they may not receive direct subsidies, their security is woven closely to the quality of government spending and institutions—human services, neighborhood schools, libraries, policing, and economic development."

Where is the church discussion about these "near poor?" Where is the framework to talk about how individuals work their asses off and lose ground in a system that values and rewards individualism? How do we have a discussion about the contradictions between a belief system that says we are all equal because of what God thinks of us and an economic system that pits us against each other?

I think the church, as a community, can do much on this and other issues. But it will require a sea change to do so.


steves said...

I think there will always be some Christians that are greedy and care little for others, but there are plenty that are compassionate and will give a lot of their time any money to helping others. I know many.

I certainly can't speak for all of them, but in some cases, they just don't think it is the job of the government to provide charitable services and this can be better provded by private groups. Some also think theat the gov't is inefficient or funds things they don't agree with. Another thing to consider is that you will never get universal agreement as to what is justice.

I agree with them on some levels. Having worked in the public health system and being married to someone that works in the public schools, I have personally seen a lot of waste of public funds. That being said, there are some things that the gov't has to do, and while they may not always do a great job, it is still necessary.

I don't have the stats right in front of me, but I recall some research that shows relgious people tend to donate a higher percentage of their income than the non-religious. I am not throwing this out to make the non-religious look greedy, but rather to show that the relgious aren't as selfish as they may seem.

Streak said...


I suggested that many Christians give a lot and are willing to help. That is not the issue. My issue is that they are not willing to address the systemic causes of poverty. Say they don't want government to fix it--fine. But soup kitchens won't fix it. They are necessary, but not a solution.

I am not saying that religious people are selfish--or more selfish than non-religious people. That is not my point. I am saying that the church's way of addressing these issues is very limited and, in fact, inadequate to address the problem.

Bitebark said...

This is a community (evangelicals) that by and large isn't used to dealing well with ambiguity. I assume that carries over into thinking about root causes, and why poverty might be symptomatic of something larger, rather than the root cause itself. Which is why you get soup kitchens and winter clothing drives, rather than better schools, a higher minimum wage, and universal healthcare.

I also can't overstate enough how much the idea of moral hazard has warped everything good about American Christianity in the 20th century. Somehow this economic idea (originally used by English insurance companies in the 1600's) has entered into all of our social and political calculations, so that there is great fear of "giving too much," lest we create permanently dependencies.

To me, moral hazard is straight-up Victorian bulls**t, right out of a Dickensian poor house, and prevents us from achieving anything remotely resembling the Common Good. As a force in our politics it's simply given too much credence, and keeps us divided and our efforts incremental and miniscule. It's truly awful when your overriding political philosophy is "don't help too much."

ubub said...

I respectfully disagree with Steve about government, perhaps because I am a government employee myself. Private organizations, churches, and the like are simply unable to address the structural issues that underlie poverty. They play a critical stop-gap role addressing immediate needs, but the scale is too small to provide long-term solutions.

Education is proven to be the surest road out of poverty. Indeed the private sector, including churches, are doing great things to make scholarships available. The Gates Foundation's work is an excellent example of that. Nonetheless, there is still the larger issue of government support for public education, including higher education. This would include both direct funding to the institutions as well as increased financial aid availability to students through grants, loans, and work-study.

The idea of moral hazzard is compelling to me insofar as it reflects personal engagement with solutiuons. Externally imposed solutions are not likely to improve conditions, no matter the scope or sincereity. I strongly believe that it is better to work alongside communities to solve the problems they face -- as they define them -- than to run around "fixing" people willy nilly. That goes for whether you are private sector, public sector, etc. I am not characterizing the concern about moral hazzard that way, simply stating my opinion on the matter of "help."

It's similar to the teach a man to fish story in that it is better to empower a community to define and address its own issues than to dictate temporary solutions.

I hope this makes sense, I am crunched by jetlag at the moment.

Streak said...

Bitebark, I think you are on to something with teh "moral hazard" stuff. And Ubub, I had the same "teach a man to fish" thought last night.

I used this analogy one time, and it is deeply flawed, but it is still the best I can come up. Perhaps you can all help me refine it.

Imagine a community that lives on the banks of a river. Not a glorious scenic river, but a river that is central to the economy and yet still a tremendous threat to those on its banks. As a result, only the poorest live next to the river and they are constantly in threat of being pulled into the river. the middle class and wealthy live away from the river and benefit from the erosion that threatens the poor.

Moral people among them spend a lot of time and money trying to make sure that people don't actually drown in the river. Those adrift are pulled in by these people and that is a good thing. But politically, those same people vote in ways that encourages that erosion to continue. The concern to pull the people out of the river is good and something that should be encouraged. But the broader problem of how they get into the river rarely shows up in their dialogue.

I can't blame the lack of precision on jet-lag, but that is the best I can do this morning.

Bitebark said...

Re: moral hazard

I think it has its place in social and political calculus, and I certainly agree with ubub that it works best as part of a personal and community ideology, and that "teaching a man to fish, rather than giving him the fish" is still a compelling analogy for American domestic aid.

But conservative thinking has put moral hazard as one of the primary drivers of public policy, and you can see it in the stingy federal responses to everything from Katrina to tax policies to the sub-prime crisis. To me, moral hazard, as practiced by modern conservates, smacks of blaming the victim, and advocates withholding aid because "they might not use it well." And rather than finding ways to make the recipient accountable, it's an excuse to jettison aid programs entirely. Moral hazard should be a call for continuing reform, not reason to rescind an offer of help. Or to not extend the offer in the first place.

This has gotten away from your topic a little, Streak, but I do think moral hazard has made its way into evangelical churches as well, a nasty side effect of having a church work so closely with a political ideology. And to your point, it incrementalizes the steps individual Christians are willing to take. I know it would make me think twice about the effectiveness of my own generosity.

steves said...

Ubub, I agree with you completely. I probably could have been more clear. The point I was trying to make was that there were some well meaning conservatives that believe the private charities could step in to replace some gov't services.

I don't think they could on a large scale and I don't think they could effectively replace most services. I support limited privitization of some services (mostly on the local level), but in many cases, it does not work. There was a big push back in the 90's to privitize the industry I worked in (public mental health services). The state of Tennessee did so and it was a dismal failure. I am glad Michigan backed off of it, but it was still scary.

Schools are another example of something that should be provided by the gov't. Dismantling the public school system would be a disaster for this country.

I agree that charities can provide some effective stop gaps and other useful services. Besides the Gates Foundation, there is Habitat for Humanity. I have worked on a few homes and think the program does a great job of getting people back on their feet and into their own home. Charities can also do well when they partner with the gov't. I worked for Lutheran Social Services, which was funded by the church and by medicaid.

Bootleg Blogger said...

Streak- not enough time for a complete digestion of the post yet, but just a couple quick comments. Re: teaching a man to fish, etc... This sounds great in principle, but at a meeting several years ago John Perkins opened my eyes to one of the big flaws or inadequacies in this thinking. His point (my paraphrase) was that we can have all the well-educated fishermen we want, but if someone else owns the pond and restricts access to it, this education gives no power or wealth. Access to opportunity to utilize education is still largely lacking.

I like the river analogy. I spoke once with an investment recruiter for a non-profit. Amongst other things he made the point that while Christians often give generously he's interested in how they use what they keep. His point was that donating 10% of your money to charities that are combatting the effects of how you use the other 90% is a losing proposition any way you look at it.

Later- BB

Cold In Laramie said...

Streak, Do you think this is a result of the severing of community bonds in American history? You point out two issues - the church as a body of individuals (not making social ties between its participants) and the inability of individuals to think of "other people." The irony is that a church has been historically an institution of community (the emotional and mutual ties between people) - yet in modern America it is failing to fulfill these responsibilities. Any thoughts.

Streak said...

Bitebark's introduction of "moral hazard" into this discussion is invaluable, i think, and something we should think a little more about.

CIL, I agree completely. I think this is just one of many examples of the church mimicking broader social patterns, but not realizing it. Community bonds have fallen over the last couple hundred years, but my fear is that the Church (especially the conservative church) convinces itself that it is different. Same with consumerism--the conservative Christians I know swear it has not invaded the church--as they drive to the Bible MegaBibleBookstore and Emporium.

ANewAnglican@gmail.com said...

I should know better than to go anywhere near something with the word postmodern in it, but here goes.

This is a very interesting discussion and it makes a great deal of sense to me. But I would offer this caveat: The model of "the church" that this author, or at least the quote offered, describes, is just one of many out there.

I haven't read the book, of course, and the observations I'm about to list may be the very things the author is getting at by making a distinction of the "modern" church. But just in case it isn't, I wanted to point out that there are indeed Christians in America who: 1) do view the Church as a corporate body and not an individualistic, entertaining "experience"; 2) who see church as a place where the very act of gathering together trumps individualism; 3) consider the meaning of "church" to be worship and service and not a motivational seminar; 4) and who believe it is an institution (body?) in which they are in fact challenged to see the Church as a living community in the world and not isolated from it.

My reading of this p. 29 quote tells me that the author is probably aware of this. Terms such as "modern church" or "evangelicalism" indicate that he is looking at a particular slice of American Christianity. As we know, this slice is a big part of the American pie, and from almost anything one sees on television or hears on talk radio, one could be forgiven for thinking that all American Christianity is some variant of prosperity Protestantism.

But of course it isn't. Just wanted to point that out, obvious though it may be.

leighton said...

I'm with Anglican on this one. Bear in mind that I'm an outsider to the church in every sense, but my perspective is that in order to join forces with Christian groups to combat (e.g.) poverty and exploitative capitalism, the quickest and highest-yielding approach for people like me is to build common ground with those churches that never succumbed to these problems to the depth many American evangelical churches have. There's less baggage to move before we can make the bus run.

People with existing or lingering ties to these troubled communities may have different amounts of influence, of course.