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Suburban Poverty: The Gospel, Government, and Capitalism

In my previous post I introduced my interview with Dr. Rev. Daniel Meyer of Christ Church of Oak Brook. I asked him a few questions on suburban poverty, what role the Gospel plays in alleviating poverty, and some practical advice for how we can help. In this post I’ll look at some of the questions about the roles of the Gospel, government, and capitalism have in alleviating poverty.

The Gospel

Dr. Meyer noted a divide between traditionally conservative and liberal Christians. Conservative Christians have a strong desire for orthodoxy, seeing to it that people are made right with God. Liberal Christians have a strong desire for orthopraxy, seeing to it that people’s basic needs are met. He notes that though it is a central message to the Gospel, getting people right with God is not the only task for Christians. He said, “The gospel that Jesus preached, what Jesus called the gospel of the kingdom of God… clearly embraced a vision for human kind in the here and now that was very concerned about physical and social needs.” He elaborated that having a right relationship with God is evidenced by the fact that our earthly relationships change. Therefore, we will feel compelled to help meet the material needs of other people.

[pq]A right relationship with God is evidenced by the fact that our earthly relationships change.[/pq]

Sharing the Gospel does have a part to play in alleviating poverty.  Meyer notes two major effects when the Gospel takes root in a human life. First, it “transforms character and renews hope.” This is important because it combats the internal causes of poverty (such as hopelessness, anger, or moral corruption) and consequently combats the external causes of poverty (absences of good role models, job opportunities, etc.). The second major effect is the growth of churches, which “in turn become centers of influence and resources that help further address both the internal and external conditions of poverty.” Lastly, it is important to remember that the Gospel being a way out of poverty is not to be confused with the Prosperity Gospel, which teaches that God will give us far more than what we need if we are faithful.

Government and Capitalism

Regarding the role government has to play in alleviating poverty, Meyer believes there are two crucial aspects: what we might call the “social safety net” and the need “to restrain the effects of evil through laws and policing.” In explaining his (dare I write, temporary) support for the social safety net, he said “I think most of us want to see the government using our resources wisely in the establishment and maintenance of good schools, of quality housing for kids who otherwise would be on the street, of food and healthcare for the poorest of the poor.” To be honest, I have some concerns about the social safety net philosophy.  But where Dr. Meyer and I do find complete agreement is in believing that any form of government support is not to be considered a final solution to the problem. He said, “It’s very critical that we not expect government to solve all of our problems,” and that government is insufficient “to create the number of open doors that an entire society that has economic vitality possibly could.” Rather, “capitalism… has been the best bet for creating the overall environment of opportunity that lifts entire populations.”

But we can’t let capitalism go unfettered, according to Meyer; also required is the influence of moral values. He and I agree on this point but we may disagree as to what extent. For example, Meyer believes that unchecked capitalism led to the housing bubble, burst, and crisis, which has been one of the causes of poverty in the suburbs. However, I would argue that the unchecked capitalism we witnessed was a symptom, not the cause, of the housing crisis. I believe the cause was due to government overreach, which allowed banks to give out loans they never would have been given out if left to themselves. Thus, there never would have been a bubble. At any rate, Meyer and I do agree that a moral order is necessary for the success of capitalism. We need not only rules to the game we play, but a moral spirit too.

In my next post I’ll conclude my series with some practical advice on the part we can play to alleviate (suburban) poverty.