Caring for people who are poor has not been, in theory at least, a controversial concept in Christianity. Historically, some form of providing for those lacking the basic necessities of life has been a central tenet—if not always a central practice—of the church. Contemporary churches are no different: Christians from across the spectrum of political beliefs generally agree that we ought to respond to people living in poverty with concern and assistance.
As both E.J. Dionne and Ronald Sider write elsewhere in this issue, however, the preferred means by which people of faith should respond has been controversial. Many conservative Christians emphasize private approaches as the preferred solutions to poverty: individual and congregational charity, community projects, and the salubrious effects of a thriving business sector and individual hard work. They will often emphasize the role of individual responsibility (or rather, lack thereof) in creating poverty, and decry the dependency that many government domestic aid programs are believed to create.
Toward the other end of the spectrum, Christians with more progressive leanings also volunteer at community food pantries and encourage generous giving by congregants, but tend to view the role of government antipoverty programs with less suspicion than many conservatives. They believe there are structural and systemic issues inherent in creating the common good that only government is equipped to address. They believe that scriptures and doctrine call Christians not just to mercy and charity (which are absolutely vital) but also to justice for all people. To achieve justice requires tackling large infrastructure questions (and macro-economic questions) that by necessity involve government.
Recently some churches from across the theological and political spectrum, such as those participating in the Christian Churches Together in the USA, have begun working together to break out of the traditional polarized responses to poverty. They are carving out a space in which accepting a role for government in dealing with economic injustice does not require rejecting efforts to address the roles of cultural values and individual responsibility in long-term poverty, and vice-versa.
An understanding is growing that supporting nonprofit community services is vital—and so is advocacy around public policy issues, especially those that adversely affect those with little voice or political power. Some Christians have understood this for quite a while: Bread for the World, for example, has been organizing grassroots lobbying by people of faith on hunger issues for more than 30 years. Other Christian aid and development organizations, including some with an evangelical support base, have come to see the importance of policy advocacy as a vital companion to their direct service work.
Such efforts affirm that social responsibility and individual responsibility go hand-in-hand—and that it takes all sectors (religious and secular, government and private, business and charitable) to create the common good.
Julie Polter is an associate editor of Sojourners.