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Here's Your Chance to Strike a Blow Against "Socialism"

It's not unusual to hear "small-government-conservative" Christians lamenting the steadily-increasing role of government in providing the social safety net.  "Forced charity" via taxes, they often say, pre-empts true Christian charity and fosters reliance on the government...and that this "socialism" should diminish to be replaced by private sources of funding and services.

An obvious weakness of this point of view is the lack of evidence that churches are prepared to embrace the self-sacrifice necessary to provide the level of services that would be required if the government abandoned its role in this area (e.g. Jay Guin's take).  However, after recently reading an inspiring passage from Daryl Tippens' "Pilgrim Heart," I don't want to underestimate what Christians could accomplish if they were inspired to radical self-sacrificial service.

Here is a lengthy passage from pages 55-56 of Tippens' book:

The significance of Jesus’ kind of hospitality is considerable when seen against the dark canvas of the ancient world. Life was risky and ever fraught with danger. Catastrophic plagues raged through Europe, especially in A.D. 165 and 260, killing hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions. At the height of one epidemic 5,000 people a day were dying in Rome. Two-thirds of Alexandria’s population was wiped out. Life in the Roman Empire teetered on the edge of disaster. Risking their lives by the thousands, compassionate disciples waded into this horrific maelstrom of death, ministering to the sick and dying in the name of Christ. Remarkably, they tended to dying pagans as well as to their own; and the shocked but desperate pagans took notice. According to Dionysius, the bishop of Alexandria: “Heedless of danger, [the Christians] took charge of the sick, attending to their every need and ministering to them in Christ, and with them departed this life serenely happy  Once the plague had passed, countless survivors owed their lives to Jesus’ followers who had nursed them. The survivors were never the same again, and the church flourished because of this exceptional hospitality to the sick.  Hospitality took new forms in the ensuing centuries. Throughout the ancient and medieval worlds Christians established “hospitals” (xenodochia, ‘guest-houses’), not institutions exclusively for the sick according to the modern sense of the term, but houses of care for people with varying needs: widows, orphans, strangers, the poor, travelers, as well as the sick. Originally “hospital” (Latin hospitalia) signified any place of reception for a guest, whether pilgrim, invalid, or needy stranger. These richly varied practices of caring for strangers can still be traced through the related English words hospital, hospice, hotel, hostel, hospitality, host, and hostess. The unbelieving world had never seen anything like this kind of nonsectarian concern, and it astonished them.  Not only did they say of the Christians, “Only look! See how they love one another!” But they must have marveled and said to themselves, “Look! See how they love us, who are not of their faith!”

A wealthy Roman matron named Fabiola, who died in 399, established the first (medical) hospital in the Western world. With one Pammachius she also established homes for the destitute and a guest-house for travelers and pilgrims visiting Rome. Congregations established ambitious missions to the poor. The church in Antioch, for example, fed three thousand destitute widows and virgins daily, in addition to caring for prisoners, the sick, the disabled, and travelers. The breadth of Christian care in the ancient world is startling and inspiring. According to Rodney Stark:

"...Christianity revitalized life in Greco-Roman cities by providing new norms and new kinds of social relationships able to cope with many urgent urban problems. To cities filled with the homeless and impoverished, Christianity offered charity as well as hope. To cities filled with newcomers and strangers, Christianity offered an immediate basis for attachments. To cities filled with orphans and widows, Christianity provided a new and expanded sense of family. To cities torn by violent ethnic strife, Christianity offered a new basis for social solidarity....And to cities faced with epidemics, fires, and earthquakes, Christianity offered effective nursing services."

Hospitality of this kind continues today, mostly through great institutions that have either secularized the care (e.g., the Red Cross, Doctors Without Borders, government-funded medical centers, philanthropic foundations) or through large, complex faith-based charities (e.g., the Salvation Army, World Vision, Habitat for Humanity, etc.). One can be thankful that Christian understandings of charity have permeated international organizations and whole societies.

Back in May I read an article by Tami Luhbi on CNNMoney ("Goodbye, stimulus. Hello, state budget cuts") that warned the impact of the recession and waning stimulus on state budgets.  Some excerpts:

Think states have made deep spending cuts? You ain't seen nothing yet.

States have been struggling with huge budget gaps since 2008, but this year could be worse as federal stimulus funds wind down.

Until now, stimulus money spared governors and state lawmakers from making some of the most brutal budget cuts. But with this lifeline running out, officials are looking at making significant cutbacks to public services, particularly schools and health programs...

In all, the stimulus funds helped plug between 30% and 40% of the $291 billion in budget gaps that states have faced over the past two years, experts said. But Recovery Act money will only be sufficient to plug 20% or less of the coming fiscal year's shortfalls, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. By fiscal 2012, most of the money will be gone....

Compounding the problem is that many states have already slashed services and raided their rainy day funds to balance their budgets, as they are required to do. And a recent analysis by the Rockefeller Institute shows that the all-important personal income tax revenue for April is likely to decline steeply.

All this means that state officials are being forced to make some of the tough decisions they've been able to put off for the past 18 months.

Then a few weeks ago I read a NY Times article by John Leland ("Cuts in Home Care Put Elderly and Disabled at Risk") that put a face on those who are suffering from the budget shortfalls in a variety of states including this from Oregon:

As states face severe budget shortfalls, many have cut home-care services for the elderly or the disabled, programs that have been shown to save states money in the long run because they keep people out of nursing homes.

Since the start of the recession, at least 25 states and the District of Columbia have curtailed programs that include meal deliveries, housekeeping aid and assistance for family caregivers, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, a research organization. That threatens to reverse a long-term trend of enabling people to stay in their homes longer.

For Afton England, who lives in a trailer home here, the news came in a letter last week: Oregon, facing a $577 million deficit, was cutting home aides to more than 4,500 low-income residents, including her. Ms. England, 65, has diabetes, spinal stenosis, degenerative disc disease, arthritis and other health problems that prevent her from walking or standing for more than a few minutes at a time.

Through a state program, she has received 45 hours of assistance a month to help her bathe, prepare meals, clean her house and shop. The program had helped make Oregon a model for helping older and disabled people remain in their homes.

But state legislators say home care is a service the state can no longer afford. Cuts affecting an additional 10,500 people are scheduled for Oct. 1.

It's seems like the recession's impact on state budgets and the resulting cuts in services provide an opportunity for "small-government-conservative" Christians to walk the talk and take up the slack.  I'd like to see the White House Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships coordinating with churches and other faith-based organizations to volunteer to fill the gaps in services to the vulnerable (rather than just figuring out creative ways to funnel money to faith-based organizations). "Small-government-conservative" Christians should be eager to do this kind of thing without government funding. 

What a great opportunity to minister to the sick and elderly!  Actually, I'm sure there are already organizations in existence that do just that and are currently desperate for volunteers to help out, but I'm ashamed to to say that I don't know what they are in my town.  That's something I'd like to find out.

A few months back Jay Guin published a reasonable take on this issue and concluded:

The problem is that the political parties are working hard to polarize us into pro-welfare and anti-welfare camps. And I think they both sin in so doing. The government is neither the solution nor the enemy — although it can both offer help and do great harm.

Yes, there are limits to what the nation can afford. Yes, the church should be more involved in the lives of the needy — but the government isn’t stopping us. It’s not welfare that keeps us out of the projects.

This is how I’ve got it figured. If we’re really mad about how much money is being spent on welfare, we ought to do something about it. And that means we ought to help people escape poverty — by helping with job training, by helping rebuild families, by restoring a righteous culture by teaching not only salvation but the restoration of relationships — between spouses, between parents and children, between employer and employee — to those who most need it.

But if our model of church growth is to attract white, middle class families with children by out-competing the other churches in town for families moving into town, it’ll never happen.

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