Intergenerational Justice: What Is the Church’s Role?

Up until now, I have avoided any in-depth discussion about the Center for Public Justice’s Call for Intergenerational Justice, a document which “demand[s] that Washington end our ongoing budget deficits.” The document was signed by a variety of Christian leaders from across the political spectrum, and was designed to “start of a biblically grounded movement in which grandparents, grandchildren and everyone in between can join hands to promote a just solution to our debt crisis.”

The Call has garnered both praise and criticism, with much of the latter coming from friend-of-the-blog Jordan Ballor. To discuss their disagreements, Gideon Strauss of CPJ recently joined Ballor for a discussion at the Acton Institute. This week, Common Sense Concept took the conversation a step further by hosting a panel on the Christian’s role in the budget crisis. Included on the panel were Strauss, Ballor, Jennifer Marshall, Ron Sider, Ryan Streeter, and Pastor Jonathan Merritt.

Catch the conversation here:

The discussion is engaging across the board, and as Daniel Suhr has noted in his recap, there is plenty of room for consensus.

But as an evangelical, I’d like to focus specifically on Pastor Merritt’s concers, particularly his (mis)perception of how conservatives and libertarians view poverty solutions — a misunderstanding that permeates evangelicalism at large.

Merritt, himself a self-proclaimed conservative, begins his response by countering Ballor’s claim that the Call does not do enough as far as “putting the church on the hook.” In an initially shocking statement, Merritt says that he’s tired of putting the church on the hook, wrongly assuming that Ballor wants the church to ramp up its political involvement. Going further, Merritt says he is tired of evangelicals using “beautiful, elegant language” to talk about poverty solutions while doing nothing to provide “substantive policies.” So we aren’t supposed to be on the hook as a church, but we are as individuals? Here is where a narrow view of poverty alleviation can be crippling in one’s overall perspective.

Indeed, Ballor’s intention is to emphasize that the church has a distinct and non-governmental role in helping the poor (a view he has expressed on this very blog). Why, then, does Merritt automatically assume that politics and “substantive policies” are the primary ways the church does go about poverty alleviation, and why does he imply it is the primary way by which individual Christians should go about alleviating poverty? Later in the discussion, he again argues that conservative evangelicals are prone to “throwing rocks” at those who are trying to help the poor without actually doing anything themselves. Once again, this assumes that trying to help the poor is limited to governmental means and that any governmental means will actually help the poor.

As Arthur Brooks has detailed, the less individuals agree with redistributionist government solutions, the likelier they are to engage in voluntary charity. In fact, Brooks found that conservative Christians are far more active in volunteering and giving than others, even non-conservative Christians. This is based on statistical evidence, so it is by no means all-encompassing or all-determining, but given this and plenty of more basic observations, I don’t think conservative Christians should be singled out as the ones who are lacking in their individual care for the poor. This is not even to mention the role of the market and the role conservatives play in promoting that as a means for empowering the poor.

Yet besides Merritt, the other panelists seem to recognize this distinction from the get-go. Strauss talks at length about the market economy being the “primary agency for generating wealth,” and notes that the government is not the “first agency that has a responsibility for addressing the problem of poverty.” Sider, who is left-leaning on economic issues, then agrees with Strauss, explaining that drafters of the Call simply assumed that readers would understand that churches and private institutions have an important role to play.

Merritt’s confusion on this illuminates that such distinctions do indeed need to be made, giving weight to Ballor’s expressed concern that the Call does not go far enough in making those distinctions explicit. Although those in the trenches of policy debate like Sider and Strauss will gladly (and rightly) make such distinctions, those in the evangelical church — the realm of Merritt — rarely even consider the church as a source of poverty relief on a national or global scale.

With this mindset, it’s no wonder we think the poor are doomed without government programs.

This may seem like nit-picking, but I think it’s crucial to our success as a nation and a church. In our discussions of the budget, the church’s unique role in caring for the needy must be leveraged. I truly believe that if we were to truly step up to our God-given tasks, many of these bloated, ineffective “anti-poverty” policies — as well as the effective ones — could be cut off and vacated with little to no resistance or impact.

Intergenerational Justice, Jordan Ballor, Gideon Strauss, Eric Teetsel, Jonathan Merritt, AEII agree that the rest of the discussion is important as well, and Strauss is right to point beyond the “sexy” issue of poverty to the longer-term economic concerns. Yet it is precisely because helping the poor has become “sexy” that we need to take a step back and make the proper church-vs.-government distinctions.

Invigorating individual- and community-based volunteerism is not easy, primarily because it is more complicated than checking a “yes” box next to Anti-Poverty Policy X. To start the process, we need to start taming and enriching our views of poverty and the related church-vs.-government distinctions.

Let’s leave the sexitizing to the long-term solutions. God knows, they could use it.

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  • Jason Summers


    I think you’ve misunderstood Jonathan’s comments. My understanding (which could be incorrect too, but has the benefit of having been at the event and having spoken with Jonathan) is that by entangling churches with explicit political messages (e.g., recall, Jordan is a theologian, not a political scientist, but he espouse a particular political view which is not a de facto truth given his particular religious views — cf. Gideon’s political views) some church members have become more wedded to promoting that view than to affirming the teachings of the church and working out how best those are articulated in society (which means, methods, etc.) As a paster, I imagine that sort of issue would be at the heart of Jonathan’s concern.

    Consider, e.g., how this could reinterpret your statements here:

    “Later in the discussion, he again argues that conservative evangelicals are prone to “throwing rocks” at those who are trying to help the poor without actually doing anything themselves. Once again, this assumes that trying to help the poor is limited to governmental means.”


  • Remnant Culture

    Perhaps I am misunderstanding you, but Jordan is not advocating the entanglement of churches with explicit political messages either (he has a whole book arguing against this). That was my point. Jordan made a statement about putting the church on the line for alleviating poverty and Jonathan responded with a statement about the church and political power. His immediate assumption was that the two would go hand-in-hand if the church were to tackle issues related to the budget crisis. As I mention, I think the *church* — not just Christians — has a crucial role in battling the budget by seizing things from the government that are rightly in the Christian purview and wrongly in the government’s. (Upping the charitable, evangelistic and/or entrepreneurial activity)

    At the end, when he called on Jordan and Jennifer to come up with their own “calls” or “positions” rather than “throwing stones,” it seemed clear to me what he meant by “throwing stones” — that conservatives who resist certain efforts to influence the *government* through a Christian lens, and propose other means (like not advocating bed nets, etc.), are not actually trying to help the poor.

  • Jason Summers

    Ah, but Jordan is. When one argues there is only one correct Christian understanding then one has quite explicitly entangled the church and a political view by making one’s view on the role of government an article of faith. Yet exactly that, the PRI polling from earlier this year showed, is a growing view among conservative evangelicals. However, by making this political view an ersatz religious truth we impoverish the role the church can play and hijack the role it should play into a tawdry adolescent game of ersatz orthodoxy grandstanding. While I am sure Jordan and others have the best intent in trying to wrest away from the state responsibilities it ought not have, it’s a failed gambit that has made certain factions of the church more concerned with upholding that ersatz religious truth than actually working within the Church to do what that belief would have them do.

    I still think you are interpreting Jonathan’s remarks through a dichotomous filter that strips away nuance. There are more options and gradations than that model would suggest.


  • Remnant Culture

    How is Jordan saying there is only “one correct Christian understanding” when it comes to the government (any more than anyone else on this panel)? In the instance I’m referring to, all he says is that the church should not be forgotten in its own independent role to fight poverty. If you mean that he’s saying (generally) the church should absolutely, positively, certainly have a role in fighting poverty, then yeah, I would say there is one correct Christian understanding on the “yes” and “no” question. Would anyone disagree with this? The point is that Merritt seems to forget or doubt (or both?) that it can have the large-scale impact detached from government, not that he disagrees whether it can or should have a legitimate role on its own.

    Jordan may indeed have a view of politics that promotes a single, absolute view of how Christians should engage, but that’s not what he or I am talking about. The fact that Merritt or you assume it does, confirms my point. You seem to be intent on muddling the two.

    Why can’t we simply talk about the church independent of politics as a widespread agent of poverty alleviation across the nation and the U.S.? Yeah, government budget discussions need to occur — that’s why Jordan and Jennifer are there — but why can’t we also promote the church in and of itself and go above and beyond what it’s doing now. As I’ve referenced previously, and as Jordan references in his book, Sider himself ponders the impact the church could have if everyone simply tithed. That’s the type of thing I’d like emphasized in the call. Sider and Strauss see it as something to be assumed — and that’s understandable — but many Christians don’t.

    I see no way by which the promotion of “purely church” efforts to fight poverty will have the effect of driving the church away from fighting poverty. Yeah, the government does have a role, but saying we can’t forget the church (in and of itself) is hardly counterproductive. How is saying “we can’t forget that the church must also be held accountable and responsible for its *actions*” part of the problem within the church of “upholding ersatz religious truth”? It seems to be part of the solution, if you ask me.

    Much of this discussion is in the end about what action to take, because that starts with the fundamental principles on which you act. I’m all about “throwing stones” if that means simply (and civilly) criticizing particular plans or calls in an effort to lead to proper action. Criticism and debate is healthy, and I think it’s crucial that we get the fundamentals right before just trying to “work within the Church” blindly. I’m not saying others like Merritt are wandering aimlessly, but many do seem to want to *throw* a blindfold on the rest of us who disagree with their particular convictions.

  • Jason Summers

    “You seem to be intent on muddling the two.”

    No. I understand the point you are making and the point Jordan was making in the comment you refer to. Sure, it’s an important (albeit obvious) point. My concern is that one cannot separate that message from the beliefs of the messenger. Note that, empirically, only folks who believe the latter are so intent on making the former. To say, then, they are not tied is a bit disingenuous. When I read Jordan’s work (collectively) I don’t see it as focused on promoting purely church efforts. Rather, it seems clear to me that it is focused on reducing governments role. I would be interested to see a statistical account of his sentences in public record; I suspect my conjecture would be borne out.

    So, my point of contention then is not that folks are promoting purely church efforts to address poverty (I know many folks who are doing just that and I support them in their efforts in many ways). Rather, I am concerned that there are religiously trained individuals who claim to be promoting purely church efforts, but, in practice, are really just promoting the absolute minimization of government efforts. That to me seems to be a dangerous mingling.


  • Remnant Culture

    I wouldn’t deny the bulk of Jordan’s efforts lend to what you claim. I don’t, however, believe that he was, in this particular instance, calling for reduction of government in the Call (at least, not on this particular point). All he has said is he wants the more church-on-the-hook emphasis. That’s all I was referring to in the instance described in this post. You’re welcome to assume he wants more, but I see no reason to.

  • Reyjacobs

    “Helping” the poor seems to always be looked at by organizations like the government and the church as a means to help itself. The poor are to be helped so they can be controlled, in other words. Help the poor, and you buy their votes and thus ensure that you will be in congress for the next 50 years, in the government scheme. For the church, its help the poor and ensure they join up and start paying their tithe. Keep harping on them about the story of the widow who gave two mites, all her living, and encourage them to do the same. Helping the poor always seems to ends up exploiting the poor. The poor would be better off fending for themselves than taking anyone’s handouts and becoming their dupes and slaves.

  • Reyjacobs

    “In our discussions of the budget, the church’s unique role in caring for the needy must be leveraged.” Leveraged always means you’re looking for what you’re going to get out of it. And in the end, the hope is increased tithe, even if it is just two mites.

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