“If you don’t work, you don’t eat.” This is the way many conversations I have with Christians go when I talk about social security and welfare. The assumption is that there are many people milking the social system for all that it’s worth. Unwed mothers, they say, have babies to get an apartment handed to them without working. People who have recovered from disability years ago, fake a limp so they can still collect from the government. These people don’t work. They get ‘rewarded.’ They eat. The system is broken, they point out, so it should be massively reformed or in some places scrapped.
The Christians who speak this way tend to be white, non-urban and relatively affluent. There is nothing wrong with being white, non-urban and affluent, but that is the life they have known. Struggling to make ends meet only visits their door once in a while. Usually, these hard-working people find a way into a steady job and do not need to worry where their next meal is coming from.
Having worked in Pakistan, and having pastored an urban black church, I have also encountered another side to the argument. My father was a regular supporter of Labour (Britain’s left-of-center party), so he, too, often presented views counter to what I hear from most of my Christian friends today. Some of the people I knew in Pakistan would not survive without help from others. They did not know where their next meal would come from, jobs were denied to them, they had their water cut off. All this because they were Christians living in villages surrounded by people hostile to their faith. In black, urban community, there is a battle against social systems which have held the community at a disadvantage. The schools have less resources because of less local taxes. The community youth choose crime and gangs as their own road to security. The lack of family finances means a lack of support for moving out of the depressed community. My black church defined injecting money into the community to fund schemes an underclass as justice.
The friction around this issue in Christian circles is palpable. John MacArthur and others have recently signed a Social Justice and the Gospel statement which some people find aggravating. Evangelical Christians, the statement claims, need to go to the Bible as the sole source of social justice, but many people, they say, have been hoodwinked by socially constructed and post-modern ideologies.
Yes, as a teacher of applied philosophy, I can affirm that postmodernism is rife in the church. But so is modernism. Christians might do well to understand each other a little more before they draw stark lines of demarcation. The lack of understanding goes both ways. Being idle and milking the government are incompatible with gospel living. However, standing in lush pastures and haughtily criticizing those who struggle in a barren wasteland is also unbiblical.
The criticism I have of many people’s stance on social justice is that it is self oriented. Many people are angry if others get away with something they actually wish they could get away with. Comments like, “Wouldn’t it be great if we could all just down tools and sit at home eating chocolates and watching TV all day?” typify this approach. The short reply to this stance is, “No, that would not be great!” It is not good for anyone to sit down and waste their life in that way. A more generous attitude is one that encourages people to engage in meaningful work. God created everyone to work – work is virtuous and meaningful.
In 2 Thessalonians (which I finished reading today), both idleness and busyness are frowned upon. No activity and wrong activity need addressing in the church. The right kind of activity is the kind where God is honoured and glorified through honest work. Those whose abilities fall short need charity. Those who are held in place by unjust systems need liberty. We should look for opportunities to promote full compassion and full employment.
2 Thessalonians 3:6-13
Now we command you, brothers, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that you keep away from any brother who is walking in idleness and not in accord with the tradition that you received from us. For you yourselves know how you ought to imitate us, because we were not idle when we were with you, nor did we eat anyone’s bread without paying for it, but with toil and labour we worked night and day, that we might not be a burden to any of you. It was not because we do not have that right, but to give you in ourselves an example to imitate. For even when we were with you, we would give you this command: If anyone is not willing to work, let him not eat. For we hear that some among you walk in idleness, not busy at work, but busybodies. Now such persons we command and encourage in the Lord Jesus Christ to do their work quietly and to earn their own living.
As for you, brothers, do not grow weary in doing good. If anyone does not obey what we say in this letter, take note of that person, and have nothing to do with him, that he may be ashamed. Do not regard him as an enemy, but warn him as a brother.