Poverty, the Church, and the Posture of Self-righteous Defensiveness

The views expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not in any way reflect the official policy or position of anyone my institution, its affiliates, partners, departments, donors or alumni. They are mine, and mine alone. Disagree? Feel free to contact me! (ONLY me)

The Catholic-Evangelical Leadership Summit on Overcoming Poverty seems to have ruffled a few feathers in, of all places, Southern Baptist life. The response to the Summit and its subject matter are not getting nearly enough attention.

First, a Baptist professor took issue with speakers, including President Barack Obama, using the term “the least of these” from Matthew 25. (Please note:  This is evidence that knowing the technicalities does not mean you understand the full application of a passage in the Bible).

Following that, Southern Baptist Convention Executive Director Dr. Frank Page fired off a response to the President’s remarks regarding churches and poverty. In a somewhat painful experience, I went to the podcast of Tony Perkins (Family Research Council) in order to hear his interview with Dr. Page about the President’s remarks. One word came to mind as I listened:  Defensive. I would even make the case that it was extremely defensive.

This may be an overview and perhaps an overstatement, but churches and denominations lately are taking an aggressive, near-angry defensive posture in regard to criticism. Perhaps this is justified, and even understandable. The talk of church decline and Pew Reports and the glut of “open letters” from Millenials is bound to cause churches to get the gloves up and counterpunch.

Unfortunately, this approach is also dangerous, pushing the limits of our discipleship in Christ. It lends credibility to the criticism. A defensive posture also leads to notoriously bad interpretations of scripture. Worse yet, it can lead us to enclose ourselves in forts of self-righteous, self-satisfied indignation.

And we cannot afford to do that. Especially when it comes to the issue of poverty.

In his interview, Page states that, “We have 46,000 (Southern Baptist) churches…I’m sure there are some churches that are not involved, but I would guess to say that at least 40,000 of our churches all have some community based ministry to help hurting people.”

Although he is “guess-timating” rather than citing hard data, I have little doubt that his assessment is accurate. The vast majority of churches are giving money, food and/or volunteer hours to relieve physical suffering. Most churches are doing something to help.

The truth is that churches really do make a difference in reducing poverty in a wide variety of ways. This includes Baptist ministries such as Disaster Relief/Baptist Men, World Hunger Offerings, etc. It should also be noted that Dr. Page’s last pastorate was at a church with significant community-based ministries.

But the flip side of that truth is that we still spend 96% of our budgets on buildings, staff, programming, etc. Let’s look at that percentage with our eyes wide open:  The majority of this is probably not directed towards poverty in any way. And we need to own the reality of what we are choosing not to do as ardently as we own the good things we do.

Here’s the thing:  A posture of defense trumpets that we are doing something, while preventing us from asking whether or not we are doing something well. A band aid and a kiss from mom are great when you skin your knee, but don’t help much with a broken leg. I fear that our church “solutions” to poverty amount to little more than the band aid and a kiss.

For too many churches, benevolence is a part of the church budget and maybe even the programming. But is it an overwhelming factor in who we are and what we do? Is the response to community poverty and needs a key component in our planning, practice, education, and discipleship?

Dig a little into the mentality of some (many?) churches, and you are sure to find some people who do not think the poor should be a priority at all. Why? Because they are all a bunch of “freeloaders” who are just looking to get by without doing anything!

Here’s the scary part:  These members may be right, at least in part. Churches often encounter these so-called “freeloaders.” What the members do not comprehend is why.

This segment of poverty will target churches. They know what time to come in order to catch people and pastors off-guard. They know that members will give them food or money if they arrive right before or after services. They know what story to tell, and they know how to tell it.

Why? Because they know that churches are compassionate, but not prepared. They have not invested in the training, staffing, and ministries required to know how to effectively serve “the least of these” in our population—and yes, I am unapologetic in my belief that this is a Biblical use of that term.

Compassion is an absolutely necessary mandate from Jesus Christ through the Holy Spirit. But how much more effective is compassion combined with preparation? Commitment? Investment?

What if churches would…

Invest in social workers and mental health counselors as staff? 

…Partner with local schools (private or PUBLIC) to improve education opportunities for poor children? 

Empower the poor by putting them into meaningful relationship with well-prepared members?

…Pursue policies to encourage welcoming poor or homeless people into worship?

…Design discipleship and Bible study around acts of serving others?

 …Repurpose little-used space in church buildings for the needs of the poor and homeless?

 …Engage with organizations or individuals who are trained to deal with the problems of addiction?

…Bond with community partners and other churches (and even other denominations) to expand resources and opportunities to serve?

Yeah, I would say that there are a few more things we could do.

It is not to say that any of this would be easy. Addressing a problem as broad as poverty takes a huge culture change and commitment on the part of the church that will stretch hearts, minds and resources. But if we are serious about moving from alleviation to eradication of poverty, then we need some honest assessment and reflection on what we are doing.

Expending our energy on angry, defensive rebukes for our critics and waving our pom-poms will not help us move forward in addressing poverty. Whether or not the President has the right to offer it, you can bet that his critique reflects a certain degree of both perception and reality. A posture of self-righteous defensiveness will not help us to overcome either one.

Instead, we would be wise to look ourselves with a helpful dose of “sober judgment.” At least we will be sincerely searching for a cure, rather than continuing to offer band aids for broken legs.

Let’s keep doing the good that we have been doing, while not being afraid to acknowledge that we can–and should–strive to do better. Quite simply, that is the journey of discipleship.

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The Selective Defense of “Cast the First Stone”

Views here are mine, and mine alone. They do not represent any views, official or otherwise, of my institution, its affiliates, partners, departments, donors or alumni. If you don’t like what is said, contact me, not anyone else!

I have watched “19 Kids and Counting” exactly one time. And then, it was still “18 Kids and Counting.” I never in my life thought that I would stop a blog about the finale of Mad Men to write about the Duggar family.

I cannot speak intelligently about them, outside of what I have read/seen/heard. But it does not take much information to be disturbed by the recent events related to Josh Duggar.

Josh stepped down from his position at the Family Research Council due to a confession that he sexually abused young girls during his teenage years. This prompted a wide-spread reaction, with some racing to their laptops to point out the Duggars’ indiscretions.

Then, out came the evangelical bloggers and politicians to offer a defense. And a certain segment of evangelical Christianity proved once again that it will defend its superstars at all costs and cover the trail of damages they leave behind.

First, several rushed to point out that Duggar’s offense was no worse than Lena Dunham’s confession. There is some significant debate on what Dunham’s words and actions actually mean, but there is a much greater issue at hand. Lena Dunham does not hold herself up as a paragon of ultra-conservative Christian virtue and values. Josh Duggar and his family do. Attention-getting, shock-seeking Dunham and the professed values of the Duggars and the Family Research Council are neither comparable nor compatible. It should come as no surprise that reactions to them are distinct.

Equally ridiculous is the notion from one commentator that teenage sexual activity is comparable to criminal sexual conduct or molestation. Again, this is an apple-to-oranges comparison that has nothing to do with Duggar or his family’s management of the allegations. Worse yet, this naively absurd notion gives credence to accusations that Christians just don’t “get it” when it comes to cases of sexual misconduct and abuse.

Then, these bloggers tried to use the Gold Standard of Christian Defenses:  The media is out to get these good people because of their faith.

Sorry, not interested. The family has used the media to its advantage for years to promote itself and its values, and benefitted by earning millions of dollars on their television show. You can’t revel in the attention one minute, then whine and cry about it when it goes against you. In fairness, the Duggars are not doing the whining—Matt Walsh is.

Finally, the bloggers went to the old “Let he who is without sin cast the first stone” mantra for their primary line of defense. Certainly this is a valid passage here, and in many other situations. Christians use it all the time—when it’s convenient for them.

It would be comical, were it not so sad, that we pull that verse out of a holster to fire back in defense of one of “our kind.” But when it’s one of “those people,” we keep it buttoned up, maybe even pretending the verse doesn’t exist. And it’s very conveniently ignored, along with many other verses, if we have a chance to derail our enemies.

Walsh proves to be a master at this in his blog on the Duggars. He comes hard with the Cast the First Stone Defense, all while he is loading up his slingshot. Therein lies the problem.

We cannot selectively apply John 8:7 to Josh Duggar if we are not going to follow through with such grace towards others. We cannot scream for equity in judgment against one who is being stoned by hurling rocks at another whom we deem more worthy of blame. Changing the target does not make a stoning any more Christ-like.

If we are going to draw on this one verse, we also have to look at the entirety of the passage, John 8:2-11. We see that Jesus does not attack anyone or light into a fiery sermon about the evils of any of the parties involved. Nor does He berate a woman who has clearly broken a commandment, one that He upholds in several instances. He simply asks some questions that cause everyone to look deep inside their own heart and determine how they need to be better. We could all stand a good dose of this medicine.

Let us also recognize that Jesus did not offer grace and forgiveness because this woman is appropriately remorseful. While we can infer that she is, it is not clearly stated. Jesus calls on us to love and forgive even those who do not ask in what we deem to be the “right way,” including those counted as our enemies (Matthew 5:43-48).

This is not to excuse the actions of Josh Duggar and the Duggar family for the myriad of problematic ways that they handled this situation. If the timeline is accurate, then I would estimate that they badly mishandled this, and glossing over that as Matt Walsh does, along with others, is disingenuous.

(In fact, changing that might have rendered this entire issue moot. I hope that we can all draw lessons on how to approach abuse situations in the future, based on these mistakes).

It also does not mean that we brush aside the issues that contributed to cause this uproar:  Handling abuse “in house” by churches and families, shunning psychology and therapy, defending evangelical heros at all costs, and focusing on the accused more than on victims. (Elizabeth Esther offers a much more candid treatment of these issues here).

These things must change if we are truly going to follow Jesus’ teachings in John 8. He is teaching us to look honestly at ourselves, examine our own sins, and seek ways to go and sin no more. This starts when stop seeking out other targets for our rocks and look intently to the Christ who cleanses our own hearts.

I actually agree wholeheartedly with some of Walsh’s points on this issue. We do need the unimaginable grace of Jesus Christ, all of us. We are all sinners, far from perfect, and in need of the power of the Cross to overcome even our most hidden sins.

But we do that by dealing directly with our own sins, rather than attempting to justify ourselves by shouting “He started it!” and turning the stones on someone else. We start this process by claiming our baggage and carrying our own rocks rather than tossing them at others. And by the grace of Christ, we can leave it all at the foot of the Cross.

I hope that those demanding an end to the stoning of Josh Duggar will remember John 8:7 when referring to others. I hope they will remember it when considering the thousands of other teenage offenders who are in prison for offense that are no more egregious than this. I hope they will recall this when thinking of all those who are poor, sick, in prison or standing outside of the walls of Christianity.

I hope they will offer the same graciousness they request on behalf of the Duggars to those who are not “their kind” of people. May we all do likewise. And may we learn to stop defending the indefensible and instead confront it with the grace of Christ, both in others and certainly in ourselves.