It seems that there is a lot of discussion about the state of the welfare system in our country, its pros and cons, ways it needs to be reformed, and how it affects our country. While I do agree that the welfare system does have good intentions at its foundation, if we take a broader look at the system, it points to something we, as Christ-followers, probably don’t want to admit, or even see – the need for its existence follows out of the failure of Christ’s church to take care of others around us.
When we look at the early church, we read about how the first Christians helped each other out, how they took care of the needy around them. There was no welfare system at the time, so whenever someone had a need that they couldn’t meet, they went without. However, the early church was different. When a Christ-follower went through tough times, others around them would give out of their own resources to help them out. Sometimes that simply meant giving something extra they had lying around, or sometimes selling stuff to help cover their needs. But at the same time, they didn’t drag themselves into poverty so that someone else would have plenty – they moderated their own resources so that they could help out others. By so doing, not only did they help others out, but at the same time, they were helped out. If they had a surplus this year, but next year their crops died, they would give help one year and receive it the next – different people benefiting in different ways at different times, so that “those who gathered a lot had nothing left over, and those who gathered only a little had enough.”
And the coolest thing is – other people noticed. The world around them saw how they cared for each other, cared about each other, and it caused them to wonder what was different about this group of people. And in so doing, others were shown the Love of Christ.
When we look at the connection between the believers, there was something critical involved – relationship. The believers knew each other’s needs, and knew each other’s character. One of the biggest criticisms of the welfare system today is that it results in a group of citizens who do not try to provide for themselves and their families, but instead live off of the system. In reality though, this would not, and could not, have happened in the early church, because the group would have known whether someone was actually in need, or just didn’t want to work. And as Paul commented to the Thessalonians, “Those unwilling to work will not get to eat.” Not “unable,” but “unwilling.”
By removing ourselves from the process, by disconnecting ourselves from our neighbors, our community, and our country, we allowed a very severe need to arise – people legitimately in need of help, but unable to acquire it. As a result of our stepping back from the life we are called to live in Christ (to love our neighbor,) the government was forced to step in to cover our absence, and the system we see at work in the world around us was born. By allowing the process to be handled by a group of individuals relatively disconnected from the lives of their constituents, the process was allowed to move from “those unable” receiving the assistance they need to a new group of “those unwilling” receiving the benefits as well. And we should be ashamed.
By distancing ourselves from the world around us, not only are we failing to see the needs of others around us and help them out, we are also robbing them of the thing we most deeply desire – relationship. We close our doors, curtain our windows, and isolate ourselves from the world around us while just across the driveway, across the street, across town, people are desperately in need of the basic necessities. People are desperately in need of knowing that they have value, that they are cared about. And when we, as the Body of Christ on earth, fail to address that need, they look elsewhere.
Which brings up the question – what are we to do about this? By now the welfare system is far too entrenched in our culture to be easily ripped out and redone, especially with the current state of the economy. And that can be overwhelming. But the thing is – we aren’t called to take on the whole world by ourselves. We’re called to influence the environment around us.
I’m not saying that we’re all called to live in a tent in the woods, eating berries and tree roots, giving everything we have to others while we live in abject poverty. We’re not even called to live in the tiniest houses we can find, driving 40-year-old cars. While some of us are called to that life, the rest of us are called to moderation, to be good stewards of that which we’ve been blessed. The American thing is to supersize. When we get raises, we buy a new house, a new car, a new TV. While these aren’t bad things in and of themselves, the incessant upgrading of our lifestyles, expanding to fit our current financial situation, tends to point to a larger problem – greed and selfishness. We want to keep as much for ourselves as possible – after all, we’ve earned it, right? But in reality, while we are called to provide for our needs and the needs of our families, we are also called to use the resources we’ve been blessed with to take care of those God brings into our lives. And I don’t mean the dude by Wal-mart holding the cardboard sign. (Although I know sometimes God does call us to give to that guy, I’m talking primarily about the people who are regularly in our lives…) Because for all we know, God blessed us with the raise we received this year because the family across town lost a job and is about to run out of unemployment.
Excess in any form is a bad thing, and God shows the evidence of this in nature. Too much food, and you deal with heart disease, diabetes, and all the other complications of obesity. Too much sleep, and you become lethargic. Too much rain, and floods happen. Too much sun, and plants wither. At the same time, too little food, and your body breaks down. Too little sleep, and your body stops functioning correctly. Too little rain, and life dies. Too little sun, and the plants wither. The key then, is to find a healthy balance.
We are called to provide for our families. At the same time, we’re called to help each other out, to care for and love our neighbors (and they, us.) In so doing, we don’t ever have to worry about how to make ends meet, how to provide for our families. During times when the crops are green and life is good, we can help others who aren’t as fortunate. And later, when the transmission goes out on the car the same week as the leaky roof made the ceiling collapse in the living room, others who are in their green seasons can help us out. Because the real definition of welfare is providing what we all need the most – knowing that God loves us, and that we’re valued and cared about. And out of that relationship, helping each other out with the less important pieces of life – food, money, shelter, and possessions.