Discussing
Obama’s State of the Union and a Christian understanding of income inequality

Jordan J. Ballor

Jordan J. Ballor
January 21, 2015

Given the limitations of political promises in addressing income inequality, Christians must also engage in programs of charity and material aid.

Josh Larsen
TC Staff
January 21, 2015

I wanted to explore your notion of "charity and material aid" a bit further, Jordan. Would you agree that this calls for more than writing the occasional check to your favorite Christian charity or dropping off canned goods at the church food pantry? I'd like to think it would also include the regular financial - and volunteer - support of agencies specifically organized to combat the underlying social issues that lead to income inequality. Some of these may be Christian ministries, some of these may be secular nonprofits and some - gasp! - may even be government-led initiatives. I guess if we're going to put this much emphasis on Christian charity to address income inequality, I'd like to see an expansive understanding of what charity means.

Bonnie Nicholas
January 21, 2015

Current political policies have contributed to a widening gap between the rich and the poor in this country that cannot be denied and should not be ignored. Are there other non-policy/political causes and solutions that should also be considered. Of course there are. Charity can play a small role, though all the Christian charity possible can't possibly be enough given the current situation. Changing tax codes and policies that favor the middle class rather than the ultra-rich is at least one step in the right direction. This direction, I believe, should be embraced.

In regards to "charity" there is the old saying, "give a man a fish and you feed him for a day, teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime". But it's more complicated than that. There are other questions to consider: Who owns the pond? Who allows access and who denies access? Who creates laws that govern and protect it? The same is true about our economic situation, it's complicated and those who benefit are the ones in power. Jesus is most often found not on the side of the powerful, but on the side of the poor, the marginalized, and the oppressed. Our congregations reflect him best when we are found there too. Political policies may not be the entire solution, but a step in the right direction is a good place to start.

(And really, you couldn't find a better picture of Obama? He is our president! I knew before I read anything the direction of this article.)

Josh Larsen
TC Staff
January 21, 2015

Thanks for the comment Bonnie, but don't read too much into the photo choice! (As TC editor, it was mine, not Jordan's.) I had to work with the stock photo site TC uses, and this was one of the few "non-campaigning" pictures available.

DDiana
January 21, 2015

FINALLY! JUSTICE IN THE US OF A. I am a Christian and American living in Canada because I cannot afford to live in the US due to my disability (I am unable to work) and the difficulty with how the poor and oppressed have to live (health care, food banks etc)

Magnificent to see that OBAMA is doing what the LORD would have all of us do. I do volunteer work and do it with new immigrants/refugees and with the Salvation Amy and would encourage EVERYONE to do even a few hours of volunteer work. IT IS SO MUCH REWARDING THAN ANY WORKPLACE!!!

Jordan Ballor
January 21, 2015

Josh, yes I would agree that charitable work should involve a range of activities from personal engagement, volunteering, and financial support of particular ministries and charities to involvement in and with organizations that focus more on structural and social institutional work. What I want to highlight as problematic is a view that sees material aid provided by the government under the demands of justice as normative and voluntary aid provided by private charities or churches as comparatively undesirable. This is often more characteristic of attitudes in European social democracies (e.g. the "aid under protest" model in the Netherlands) than in the United States, but it is not entirely absent here. There is no doubt that part of the challenge must be met at the level of governmental policy, and depending on gifting, disposition, and conviction some people will be more involved at one level or another (e.g. advocacy versus individual charitable action). So I mean to point out the question of economic justice is larger and must comprehend more than governmental policy questions (particularly concerning redistribution), even though that is certainly part of the answer.

Jordan Ballor
January 21, 2015

Bonnie, what concerns me is that acknowledgements of the limits of Christian compassion, both through the institutional church and in other charitable and ministry endeavors not become an excuse for giving less. I don't want to see the mandate to provide material aid that is laid upon Christians simply outsourced to the government. I have spiritual as well as material problems with this kind of attitude.

I think it is much better to hold in tension the demand, as Kuyper put it in his 1891 speech on the problem of poverty, that "all state relief for the poor is a blot on the honor of your savior," and that Christians ought to be giving more. At the same time Kuyper acknowledged that "it is perfectly true that if no help is forthcoming from elsewhere the state must help. We may let no one starve from hunger as long as bread lies molding in so many cupboards. And when the state intervenes, it must do so quickly and sufficiently."

As to what the church and Christians corporately may or may not be able to do, at one point Ron Sider estimated that "If American Christians simply gave a tithe rather than the current one-quarter of a tithe, there would be enough private Christian dollars to provide basic health care and education to all the poor of the earth. And we would still have an extra $60-70 billion left over for evangelism around the world." Maybe he is wrong about the details, but the spirit of encouraging greater charity amongst Christians is something that ought to resonate with us whatever our political persuasion.

Bob M
January 21, 2015

Income inequality was the American norm for much of its history. We experienced a middle class bubble following WW II when industrial production turned from tanks to cars and appliances, and our European and Japanese competitors were in ruins. They caught up. Now, technology has reduced the number of workers needed in manufacturing so don't count on it to bring back the middle class. Will college grads bring back the middle class? Seems we have more grads with debt than jobs. I suspect income inequality will be here for awhile.

Is income redistribution another way of saying, "to whom much is given much is required?" Maybe but how does this create a sustainable middle class, unless you tax the wealthy so much that they become middle class.

I find myself attracted to Kuyper and Jordan's thoughts on the role of the church in caring for the poor. The church ministered to the poor long before government did. Where did we lose our heart? I wonder if my church could really prove we are a tax exempt charitable institution?

RW
January 22, 2015

Jordan,

I feel that your politics are on display. Charity is important and necessary. Noone is claiming that charity is demeaning, but to rely soley on charity is naive. Christians that I know use the government as a source for aid frequently. Whether it's programs for my disabled granddaughter or providing food stamps for those unemployed, it is an important function of the government to help people. Economic justice is one of the roles of govertnment. What does a just government provide. I don't think taking from the rich and giving to the many sounds like too bad of an idea. I believe that job creation does occur by providing spending power to those who don't have much. An increased minimum wage and lower energy costs will create jobs because of increased spending. It is foolish to think that the Christian church has the knowledge and the resources to deal with economic equality. I think you are talking about merely charity solutions. I will go with political solutions plus charity. It is our job as Christians to push the government to keep itself open to the needs of the less fortunate. We need to be advocates for the poor to our government. The few may need the voice of the church to remind them that they have a responsibilty which the government and help them to provide.

Jordan Ballor
January 22, 2015

RW,

Thanks for your comments. I think we differ in emphasis as well as in our level of comfort with government welfare programs. But it just isn't true to say that I am advocating "merely charity solutions." I prefer private and churchly charity to government welfare, and creative, productive, and remunerated work most of all. It just isn't accurate to say that I do not believe the government has no valid role in promoting economic justice.

Doug Vande Griend
January 22, 2015

It is important to realize that the questions of "poverty" and "income inequality" are two completely different questions, especially when considered by government. There is certainly a role for government to play as to poverty, although I tend to favor Jordan's "last resort" perspective if for no other reason than that government is pretty bad at relieving poverty (helping without hurting).

But the analysis government would need to make about "income inequality" is completely different. Holding the power of the sword (that is, having a societal role to play about life and death) is reason enough for government to provide a safety net that protects each citizen (against death, literally), but reversing "income inequality" should only be considered by government if doing so is deemed quite necessary for the "common good" (the good of the nation generally), and in that case, the purpose would not be to take wealth from people in order to give it to other people.

Having anti-trust laws follows this analysis. Such laws keep market sectors from becoming devoid of market competition. The point is not to relieve poverty or to take from the "1%" and give it to the "99%" but to create an economic environment that is good for all (including the 1%).

David Greusel
January 24, 2015

Jordan, really appreciate this thoughtful article toward a more productive conversation about wealth and justice. In my opinion, the very term "income inequality" is heavily loaded with redistributionist thinking, because it bears the implication that the desired state is "income equality." For anyone who has ever lived in a democratic, autocratic, communist, or other country, the unlikelihood of that condition ever occurring is understood. What is important, which your article highlights, is the creation and maintenance of economic justice, that allows people to flourish in accordance with their gifts and their efforts, not in accordance with their birth or someone else's predetermined outcome. Exactly what the conditions are that create economic justice is the puzzle for our age. Thanks for taking a well-aimed shot.

Jordan Ballor
January 29, 2015

I would say this is a good example of a perspective with which I am disputing here: "Sadly the majority of CRCs do not realize that it is only through political channels (CPJ) we can expect a change."

http://www.thebanner.org/departments/2014/09/letters-to-the-editor

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