Yesterday, I went to an event that was a part of Cedarville University's critical concerns series. The topic was Christian involvement when it comes to issues of poverty and affluence. Two speakers were involved; Dr. Marvin Olasky and Rev. Jim Wallis. Anyone who knows me well knows that I'm a pretty big fan of Wallis, which was my primary draw to the event. Both speakers had a chance to speak and then the evening concluded with the speakers going back and forth around a few questions thrown out by a moderator chosen for the event. Video of the event should be up soon and when it is, I will make sure to post it.
Though I was primarily there to see Wallis (and, let's be honest,to have my own views reinforced), I was interested in what Olasky had to say. Olasky is known as the intellectual architect of "compassionate conservatism" and he takes all of the classical conservative stance: let the markets work, give tax cuts, and tell government to get out of the way. I'll admit, he had a lot of compelling things to say and there were times when I allowed my preconceived notions to be challenged. There were some things he said that I'd like to factcheck, for instance his assertions that the Obama administration is hindering the work of faith-based organizations to help the poor. By the way, Olasky is editor-in-chief of World Magazine, which should probably become a part of my reading rotation. Olasky's "lecture" (his word) included a fair amount of good biblical exegesis and some interesting historical tidbits. It made for a very convincing academic exercise.
Wallis on the other hand gave a sermon. He told stories. Sorry, but stories are always more compelling than lectures. As much as I agreed with some of what Olasky had to say, Wallis just said much more that I can get behind. Instead of the rhetoric of all government is bad, he spoke wisely of the need for faith-based organizations to partner with the government with each doing what they do best. His point was made best in discussing work that missions groups have done in the Gulf Coast. He stated that these groups had done tons of wonderful things and that they had responded much more quickly than the government, but then he made the point that the churches can't rebuild the levees. He mentioned that he loves the story of the Good Samaritan, but that in addition he'd want to see lights put up so that people aren't getting robbed on the way from Jerusalem to Jericho, echoing a similar point that MLK Jr. made about questioning the existence of such roads. That just makes so much more sense to me than just a simple, all government is bad approach.
I had two major objections with Olasky's approach: 1) he made a point of caricaturing Wallis' position, which in a forum built on the idea of civil debate, seemed completely unnecessary. I felt like he was just taking cheap shots. 2) His approach seems based on this idealistic world where mainstream Christianity is actively engaging the needs of the poor around them. I just don't see that as being true. I think there are movements rising up, including those being spearheaded by Wallis and Sojourners that are concerned with caring for the poor, but the trend over the last few decades is that churches are moving farther and farther away from where the needs are, leaving the churches in the city and the country to deal with poverty with limited resources. I honestly would love to live in the world that Olasky imagines, but it's not real.
Sadly though, neither is Wallis' world. I think it is more real and I think he is more willing to admit the flaws with his approach, but he is still operating with a little bit of a "perfect world" scenario. The problem isn't the approach, but the machinations of government. Perhaps, that's the same problem with the church. One of the compelling points that Olasky made is that the market is more flexible than government. It responds more quickly to issues and changes in the cultural environment. Government works slowly. The bigger the government, the slower it works. Wallis argues that he doesn't want bigger government, he wants effective government. Cynical 30 something that I am, I find that term to be an oxymoron. I am continually amazed at how little are elected officials get done.
When it comes to politics, I realize that I have turned back into this guy. I allowed myself to get swept up in things in the fall of '08, but I've come crashing back down to earth. I think that's a really good thing. Politicians can quickly become idols. We don't need gods, we need servants. I think that's the other problem I have with the approach some conservatives take. Our government is supposedly of the people, by the people, for the people. When we criticize government it is a self critique. In some ways a critique of our willingness to be blissfully ignorant. In some ways a critique of our ability to get things done that we really care about. I go back to last April and the mobilization to end poverty (man, I am so in the tank for Jim Wallis!). I was amazed by the easy access we had to our elected officials. I'm no professional lobbyist, but I have every right to go into my congressperson's office and tell him or her what I think is important. When we let go of the right, we get what we deserve, which at the moment is not much. It makes sense that a lazy citizenry would have a do nothing government.
Most importantly though, and I think Olasky and Wallis agreed on this, government is not the answer. Those of us who have experienced the love and grace of God should be working actively on behalf of those who are in need. That is not an opinion. That is the foundation of our faith. When we forfeit that responsibility than what other recourse do the hurting in this world have than to beg for scraps falling from the government's table? The church has to take the lead on this because compassion is not a part of the government's mandate. It is most certainly a part of ours. MLK said that the church is not to be the master of the state nor its servant, but its conscience. We have to provide the moral compass that leads people to justice, mercy, love, and peace.
Finally, I hope what I saw last night were the death throes of the "left/right" divide in the church. Here's the deal, if you're super conservative and you want to help poor people, we're on the same team. If you're super liberal and you don't want to get your hands dirty, get the f out the way! (uh... by that I mean, write a check and/or pray for us.) Either way, the political divides are killing the church's social witness. We need to get back to what we can all agree on (God wants us to care for poor people) and get to work.
So enough about me, how are you?