The 1996 dismantling of the welfare system has engendered the most thorough reassessment concerning the role of the religious community in the delivery of public social services since the New Deal. The dramatic shift from entitlements to block grants has opened up unprecedented opportunities for churches to receive public funds to administer programs such as Welfare to Work.
In the public discourse, the role of faith communities in social welfare, which until recently was mostly the domain of conservative intellectuals and a few other organizations such as Call to Renewal, has now become quite a hot topic. This was reflected in the comments of then-Vice President Al Gore: "Let us put the solution that faith-based organizations are pioneering at the very heart of our national strategy. If you elect me your president, the voices of faith-based organizations will be integral to the policies set forth in my administration."
If the emergence of this theme now represents political capital in Washington, D.C., it is a decidedly mixed blessing for churches. We can take this opportunity to explore the twin dangers that face the churches' response to this historic moment:
Overcommitment. In our enthusiasm to "step into the breach" to serve the abandoned poor, we need to be careful not to over-commit or over-represent the capacity of churches to fill the gap, nor should we absolve government of its public responsibilities.
Undercommitment. Neither should churches undercommit by neglecting the profound needs among former welfare recipients in this time of transition, excusing ourselves from setting up programs because we are underfunded and unprepared.
In attempting to navigate between these two errors, however, a third problem arises that is perhaps the most serious of all. This is the temptation for churches to simply reproduce welfare's "service delivery franchise" without correcting its most odious characteristics.
The old welfare system was flawed because it bred dependence and disempowerment among the poor. It was fundamentally a system of patronage, where the institutions and professionals delivering services had all the power and resources, while the service recipients were treated as "clients." The worst thing churches can do is become opportunistic in the "poverty industry." To be sure, operating as brokers provides opportunities to enhance church program funding or infrastructure, or to grow membership, or to increase political access. But these are not good reasons to deliver services. Churches must serve the needy because of their sense of justice, and at the same time must work to build a broad-based social movement to end poverty.
The deeper theological issue, then, concerns not whether but how our churches should engage welfare reform. I am concerned not so much with finding analogues to contemporary welfare reform in the Bible, but rather reflecting on how the Bible might help us interpret our responsibilities for welfare reform.
Solidarity or Patronage?
Churches must approach the poor not as entrepreneurs, but from a commitment to solidarity with those who have been left on the margins of society. The old story of St. Lawrence the Deacon is germane. He and nine companions of the early church were convicted of treason by the Roman authorities, but because Lawrence was the treasurer of the Church of Rome, he was spared immediate execution. It seems that the authorities believed that the Church was fabulously wealthy (they were a few centuries too early!). So they commanded Lawrence to go away and bring back the treasures of the Church. "Give me two or three days," he replied, "and I will bring them here for you." Three days later Lawrence returned. "Where is the treasure?" the Romans demanded. Lawrence led them to the entrance of the hall and threw open the great doors leading to the courtyard. Outside was assembled a great crowd of poor, blind, and crippled humanity. "Behold, the treasure of the church," said Lawrence. He was taken away to be tortured, then roasted alive on a gridiron.
This brings us to the most oft-quoted and misunderstood biblical text in the debate over the church's relationship to the poor: Mark 14:7. This text has notoriously been used by politicians and preachers alike to justify the existence of poverty, as if Jesus is stipulating its inevitability as a condition of nature or, worse, as a divine plan. In fact, the text is emphatic: "For the poor will always be with you, and whenever you will you can do the right thing by them." In other words, this is a statement about the social location of the church, and Lawrence the Deacon exegeted it well.
This is confirmed by the fact that this saying of Jesus alludes to the Deuteronomic tradition of Sabbath year debt-release (Deuteronomy 15:1-18). Such legislated social disciplines of wealth restructuring in Israel were intended as a hedge against the tendency of human societies to concentrate power and wealth in the hands of the few, creating hierarchical classes with the poor at the bottom. The vision was that if "Sabbath economics" was practiced, "There will be no one in need among you" (Deuteronomy 15:4). But the practical Deuteronomist, anticipating rightly that the people would forever be hedging on the demands of social justice, adds that compassion is the plumb line of the law: "For there will never cease to be needy ones in your land, I command you: Open your hand to the poor" (Deuteronomy 15:11).
Jesus and Prophetic Empowerment
Jesus models for the church how to be prophetic in work with the marginalized. In Mark 1:40-45 we have the first detailed account of a healing by Jesus, and it sets the pattern for every subsequent healing episode in the gospel. The leper represented the archetypal social outcast due to impurity. The extensive Levitical regulations regarding leprosy (Leviticus 13-14) revolved around two stipulations. First, the impurity was communicable. Second, a priest must preside over ritual cleansing. Both principles are challenged here. This episode is constructed around Mark's repeated use of the Greek verb "to declare clean."
The drama begins when the leper dares Jesus to assume the priestly prerogative and declare him clean (Mark 1:40). This may explain why "Jesus' guts were churning" (Mark 1:41)! Rather than performing a ritual, however, Jesus simply touches the leper and declares him clean. According to the purity code Jesus should have contracted the impurity; instead, Mark tells us that the declaration was effective (Mark 1:42). The purity code has been subverted by Jesus' willingness to have social contact with the leper. But the aftermath is the key to the story, as Jesus "snorts with indignation" and dispatches the man to the priests (Mark 1:43). The mood implied here is one of protest, not cooperation.
The man's task is to help confront the system that keeps him marginalized (Mark 1:44). He is instructed to submit to the Mosaic ritual in order to "witness against them," a technical phrase in Mark for confronting one's opponents (Mark 6:11, 13:9). The priests would hardly accept Jesus' authority to declare this leper clean! Unfortunately, the mission aborts: The leper goes public, and Jesus is forced to lie low (Mark 1:45).
This episode sets the tone for Jesus' ministry: his healings always involve more than liberation of the individual "victim." He also challenges the cause of the disease. This story articulates a "triangle of power," involving relationships between
1) Jesus and the leper in a relationship of intervention,
2) the leper and the priestly establishment in a client/patron relationship, and
3) Jesus and the priestly establishment in a relationship of challenge.
Jesus refuses to patronize the leper, instead inviting him to participate in his own liberation. This approach is later made explicit in his well-known commendation to the poor who take initiative: "Your faith has made you well" (Mark 5:34, 10:52). Jesus is clearly operating in the prophetic tradition, which both advocates on behalf of the poor and strategically confronts those in power with the demands of justice.
There is also a place for what we might call the "principled pragmatism" of the apostle Paul. Paul understood that the cornerstone of social stratification was the Roman system of patronage, which functioned in economic, social, and political spheres. In fact, the lack of a social safety net made personal patronage a practical necessity for the poor.
It was expected that Paul would support his pastoral ministry in Corinth by positioning himself as an "in-house philosopher" sponsored by a wealthy patron. Paul, however, refused to become a client of the rich. Instead, he insisted on supporting himself through a trade (1 Corinthians 9; see also 1 Thessalonians 2:9). For this he was severely criticized by the Corinthian aristocracy, both for offending the patron class and for lowering his prestige by working with his hands.
Paul, however, recognized patronage as the glue that held in place all the oppressive relationships of the empire. Following the Christ who had been executed by that empire, Paul instead embraced the status of a "slave" (the lowest social class), in order that he might serve all people equally, unbeholden to those of high political or economic standing (1 Corinthians 9:18-23). Paul expected the Christians in Corinth to reflect new, revolutionary social relationships in their community life. When they simply reproduced the divisions of the Hellenistic society around them, he was outraged, as in the example of how the Lord's Supper was practiced (1 Corinthians 11).
In almost every Epistle, Paul mentions the collection he was orchestrating among his churches on behalf of economically disadvantaged Christians in Jerusalem. In 2 Corinthians 8-9, we encounter his most elaborate discussion of that project. Paul there uses a variety of rhetorical strategies to persuade the Corinthians into this project of wealth-sharing, because he is concerned that they will interpret his appeal according to the expectations and conventions of patronage. But it was precisely the unequal nature of such a relationship that Paul wished to avoid. He was asking for Christian solidarity, not patronage (2 Corinthians 9:5-7).
For this reason, the term that is repeated 10 times in 2 Corinthians 8-9 is "grace" (Greek charis). Paul, the great apostle of "grace alone," here makes it clear that it is not just a theological concept but includes the practice of economic sharing (2 Corinthians 8:4, 6-7, 19), which practice Christ modeled (2 Corinthians 8:9). "Not that others should be relieved and you afflicted; rather, it is a matter of equality. So in this time your surplus should help their lack so that their surplus might help your lack—in order that there may be equality" (2 Corinthians 8:13 and following). Then, in his only scriptural warrant for the collection project, Paul directly evokes the old wilderness manna story: "The one who had much did not have too much, and the one who had little did not have too little" (2 Corinthians 8:15, which quotes Exodus 16:18; see also Acts 4:34 and following). This very text is the foundation for the Jubilee tradition in the Hebrew Bible. Paul was pragmatic in invoking the economics of mutual aid, and principled in rejecting the practice of patronage.
Our churches can do no less than practice solidarity with those increasingly left behind by the globalizing economic order. Our challenge is to work for the empowerment of the poor in our prophetic engagement with the dysfunctional "poverty industry." And it is to be principled in our pragmatism, as we seek to participate in the complex realities of welfare reform, public policy, and service delivery.
When this article appeared, Ched Myers , a Sojourners contributing editor and author of Binding the Strong Man: A Political Reading of Mark's Story of Jesus, was completing a fellowship in urban theology at Claremont School of Theology. This article is adapted from a Bible study he offered in Pasadena, California, in April 1999.