When I was growing up my grandparents talked often about going through the Great Depression. I heard about Wall Street investors jumping out of windows and about the poverty most folks feared and experienced. As kids, we were reassured that we came from the kind of people who don’t give up, who go through a crisis and get closer to family and neighbor, and who possess a national pride about outlasting tough times. Gran and Pop would speak with some nostalgia about how everyone stuck together through that kind of poverty because everyone was struggling.
My parents talked often about what it was like to go through World War II. Those conversations had the same kind of “everyone pitched in” tone because everyone was equally at risk.
But the recession we are going through now doesn’t impact everyone in the same way—not everyone is struggling; not everyone is at risk. Some of us have enough financial means to be insulated from immediate threats. So what happens when a national crisis is technically a “part of the nation” crisis? Are “we” still “we”?
Almost everyone says they want to help poor people, and I think deep in their hearts, they do. It is part of our Christian heritage to “love our neighbors as we love ourselves.” It is part of our national aspiration to be the “United States.”
But in this recession we do not all face the same decisions. Those who are secure have to decide whether or not we will help those who are now out of work. This decision can’t be based mainly on our economic pain or plenty; it must be based on our principles. If “we” are still “we,” it is because we remember our faith and our common history and decide this is still the United States.
What to do? Platitudes are not enough. I hear people saying, “Prioritize jobs, jobs, jobs.” That’s wonderful, until we realize how complicated the solution is in a national and global economy. I am reminded of a story I heard attributed to humorist Will Rogers. When asked how he would solve the problem of submarine attacks on U.S. ships in World War I, he said, “Simple. Just boil the ocean, and when they come to the surface because the water’s too hot, shoot ’em!” Asked how we could possibly boil the ocean, he replied, “Look—I’ve given you the solution; you work out the details.”
Those of us in the faith communities are a part of the solution during this time of recession. Many of us are stretching to help newly poor families and individuals going through difficult times, but when I hear people say that the government shouldn’t have to help people because that’s the churches’ job, I’m taken aback. Almost every church I know is living paycheck to paycheck (Sunday to Sunday). Churches can and will help, but churches can only make a small dent financially.
The solution must be a partnership among all of us. The best national offering we have is the one that assures we are all in this together. We must do what we can as individuals and faith communities, but the government, too, should address the basic needs of the most vulnerable, through public policies and through the use of taxes from those of us who are blessed by wealth and position.
The most complete Christian service includes a component of public funds and advocacy for the poor, because Christians are a part of the “we” and because Jesus’ command to “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s” is a way to be devoted to “God [and] what is God’s” (Matthew 22:21). n
Dr. Joel C. Hunter is senior pastor of Northland Church in Orlando, Florida.