In March 2022, Bonnie Kristian, a columnist at Christianity Today, wrote that public reaction to the pandemic had caused her to have a more positive view of social welfare as a means to help the poor.
That might not sound like a surprising statement, but in her case, it was, because politically, Kristian declares herself to be a libertarian. And libertarianism as a political philosophy advocates only minimal state intervention in the free market and the private lives of citizens.
Individual freedom is a prime value for libertarians. When it comes to welfare, libertarians generally believe that private charity is a better way to help the poor because, they say, it avoids the shortcomings of government programs and therefore reduces poverty and the number of impoverished people. And that, in turn, libertarians say, benefits all of us.
Thus, for Kristian to declare that she’s taken a more positive view of social welfare as a means to help the poor is, for her, a significant shift in perspective.
Kristian is also a seminary-educated Christian, and in her article, she included a summary of biblical passages from both testaments that teach that “God cares for the poor and expects his people to do likewise until the redemption of creation is possible.”
But she goes on to say, “the Bible doesn’t settle how, exactly, Christians should relieve material poverty – especially in a context like ours,” where, she believes, “a midsize welfare state stands willing and able to forestall the extreme privation of other times and places. Scripture doesn’t explicitly answer the question of [the] individual versus government role in alleviating poverty that divides American Christians.”
What led her to go soft on welfare, Kristian said, were views she heard voiced or demonstrated during the pandemic, which caused her to become “pessimistic about whether a nation in which most profess Christianity would act like Christ if given this chance [and] more convinced of our selfishness and oblivion toward the common good.”
Several things caused her to decide that government welfare wasn’t such a bad idea after all. On the one hand, “Some of the loudest voices touting ‘faith’ as their sole pandemic precaution seemed to have no interest in valuing others and their interests above themselves.” And on the other hand, “Some self-proclaimed protectors of life and health started … dancing on the graves of people who died after critiquing vaccines … or seriously recommending unvaccinated people be denied medical care,” she said.
All of this led Kristian to say: “After surveying two years of pandemic life, plus the growing political bitterness of several years before, I’m no longer confident we’d voluntarily sacrifice our time and funds for one another en masse and long-term in that no-more-welfare hypothetical.”
The ancient prophets of God could have told her as much. And our reading today from Isaiah 58 is a case in point. The members of the post-exilic community in Judah were religious enough. In fact, they regularly fasted as an act of piety. But they also complained that God didn’t give them any credit for their pious actions. The prophet who speaks in this passage tells them why: “Yes, you go without food for a few hours, but you also oppress your workers and squabble with one another. You call that a fast?! No! The fast the Lord wants should result in a loosening of the bonds of injustice, an end to oppression and a sharing of bread with the hungry and shelter with the homeless” (author’s rendition of verses 4-5).
Kristian’s column hit hard because it declared that government welfare is needed because, left to our own devices, not enough of us – including we who identify as followers of Jesus – are sufficiently charitable in the long run to make welfare unnecessary.
One of the things that makes it hard for middle-class Americans to have much interest in helping the poor is an abiding conviction, sometimes unstated, that the poverty of the poor is their own fault – that if they just had some gumption, they’d pick themselves up by their bootstraps, get a better job, and climb out of their impoverished situation. That may be true for some, but what we often fail to realize is that for many, they have no bootstraps, and poverty is a far more complex issue than can be solved by gumption. That, I believe, is part of what Jesus meant when he said, “The poor are always with you” (Matthew 26:11). The poor are always there because poverty is a problem with no easy or complete solution. And the jobs available to those with nothing to start with seldom pay enough to break the cycle of poverty.
What’s more, the poor tend to be invisible to us because they don’t live in our neighborhoods, eat in our restaurants, appear in our television shows, or capture our imagination the way the successful, rich and famous do.
The prophet was calling out the disconnect that can happen between worshiping God and doing the will of God. The prophet’s audience was keeping the forms of religion but not the substance of it.
Today, this sort of disconnect is often called “compartmentalization.” We allow various aspects of our lives to have their own principles of behavior – principles that sometimes conflict with our values in other areas of our lives. A classic example is a person who openly supports high moral behavior but is cheating on their spouse. Another is the mobster who never misses Mass.
Many of us tend to compartmentalize, often without thinking about it. There are people who work for world peace but allow their broker to invest their funds in armaments companies. There are people who sing in the choir on Sunday but are ruthless in business dealings on Monday. There are environmentalists who drive gas-guzzlers. There are parents who preach healthy living to their children but practice unhealthy habits themselves. There are Christians who say, “God loves everybody” but they still harbor deep prejudice against people of a different color. There are disciples who sing the hymn, “All to Jesus I Surrender,” but who hold a few things back – if not more than a few things. And we can imagine the prophet’s audience protesting, “This is worship of God and that is life; the same rules don’t apply!” But of course, they do apply in both realms.
Compartmentalization is a spiritual problem, but it is also a term used in psychiatry. It’s defined as taking things that are properly related and putting them in separate compartments in our minds, so they don’t have to rub up against each other and cause us pain, stress or tension.
In psychiatry, the opposite of compartmentalization is “integration,” which means pulling the various aspects of our lives together so that we are working from the whole picture.
The word integration comes from the noun “integer,” which is a mathematical term for whole numbers (as opposed to fractions). “Integrity” comes from the same word. The same words can apply to Christianity, too. Recall that Jesus said the great commandment is to “love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.” In other words, don’t compartmentalize God.
We generally don’t set out to isolate our faith from other facets of our lives. Some of it happens because compartmentalization is a psychological defense mechanism that helps isolate conflicting thoughts and feelings, and thus spares us some emotional pain.
Integration is not nearly as comfortable as compartmentalization. There’s always the chance that something won’t pass muster when we run our behavior at work and play past our spiritual and moral values. That creates internal stress – at least until we resolve the issue by letting Christ fully into the formerly walled-off places.
On the other hand, compartmentalization causes its own kind of discomfort. Some compartments in our lives develop as a result of wrongdoing or because of some issue we do not want to face. We put those matters in a separate room, but we lock it up and put a “no admittance” sign on the door. If wrongdoing is inside, it may be there because we really don’t want to admit that it is wrong. But the secrecy of the room yields guilt, and guilt can spawn symptoms that can upset our lives.
On balance, whether speaking of our mental, emotional, or spiritual health, we are better to tear down the compartment walls. That could also help us when thinking about subjects like welfare and helping the needy. What does our faith in Christ call us to do about that?
One of our Homiletics writers tells of hearing a public figure making a speech about conservation and the environment. T hen he said, “I now call upon the Christian part of myself. …”
Really? Is Christianity just for a part of ourselves? Perhaps the speaker meant that statement as a transition to acknowledge that some of his views on the environment were shaped by his faith. But taken at face value, it sounds like an awareness of internal compartmentalization. Committing ourselves to Jesus means that we don’t divide ourselves into Christian and non-Christian parts. We operate in a culture that is not expressly Christian, and some of us work in jobs that require honoring the rules of church-state separation, but Christ belongs in each part of us.
In the end, this can be a subject of our prayers, and in that regard, listen again to the words of the intensely devotional hymn, “Dear Jesus, in Whose Life I See,”:
Dear Jesus, in whose life I see
All that I would, but fail to be,
Let Thy clear light forever shine,
To shame and guide this life of mine.
Though what I dream and what I do
In my weak days are always two,
Help me, oppressed by things undone,
O Thou whose deeds and dreams were one!