No Easy Answers
If someone says to you, “The solution to poverty is...,” and finishes that sentence with a single word, or a single phrase that doesn’t include ‘Jesus,’ then it's probably safe to stop listening.
Our hunger for tweet-length solutions, for snackable, bite-sized redemption plans has collapsed our ability—both as a church and a nation—to build towards sustainable healing. This type of healing takes place over generations and centuries, yet we seem to prefer to patch things up with a flashy band-aid (perhaps one printed with our favorite superhero). Blame it on declining attention spans, or blame it on shallow, feelings-based reasoning, or on the perpetual plague of American pragmatism. Whatever the cause, it seems that many institutions and leaders are, by a generous assessment, incapable of thinking more than six months down the road, let alone ten, twenty, or fifty years.
A thoroughly modern response would be: “Who cares? It’ll be a different problem in ten years, so let’s just patch it for now.” It’s as if we’ve decided to re-purchase, re-locate, and re-build a series of camping tents—each of which will last a few months—instead of agreeing that we should take the time and resources necessary to lay a foundation and build a home.
I mention poverty specifically because it is an issue that, first of all, is never going away (Mt 26:11). Secondly, alleviating poverty (in the broadest sense of that word) is something both church and state have a vested interest in, down to the core of their constitutions. And yet poverty alleviation is a massively complex issue.
But it’s not the only complex issue; in churches we often grapple with questions like, “How do we bring in more nonbelievers?” or “How can we better engage our community?” Unfortunately, we tend to answer complex questions simply with a new program, project, or outreach, patchwork answers that have their shelf lives inscribed from inception. And the church is not alone; similar policy questions in government or business often generate similar short-term, symptom-alleviating reactions.
These sorts of answers are not necessarily bad, as long as we recognize what they are: Tape over a leak, a means to prevent further or more serious damage. We have not yet done the hard work of investigation, diagnosis, or durable repair and reconstruction, and we should not pretend that we have. But because of our fatal attraction to the pragmatic and immediate (i.e. laziness), we want to pretend that the tape over the leak is the long-term solution. And if anyone starts poking around or tinkering with other parts of the plumbing, we call them (if using our most charitable terms) inefficient.
Consider the issue of homelessness. Why haven’t we yet fixed this particular social issue? Surely this is something both Democrats and Republicans, people of all ages, backgrounds, ethnicities, and degrees of education can agree upon: Homelessness is not a good thing. So why is homelessness such a rampant issue today, when it has already been an issue for hundreds and hundreds of years? Is it all because no one has really cared enough? Or are we, in fact, seeing a problem which lies in the crosshairs of multiple, complex difficulties, involving individual choices, families, educational systems, mental health, substance abuse, and well-meaning systems of welfare which result in dependency and entrapment?
Any single one of those issues is a world unto itself. And so, to point at homelessness and say: “This is a problem, and we need to solve it now,” is akin to spotting a blemish on the front side of a tapestry. It’s easy enough to point out, but when you look at the back side, you see that this blemish lies behind layers and layers of thread, woven and interconnected all over the tapestry. Simply plucking it out isn’t really an option.
Or take a more personal example. It is well established science and common knowledge that getting adequate sleep is vital to your health, your happiness, and your longevity. So why are so many Americans (CDC estimates 1 in 3) not getting enough sleep? Once again, there are a myriad of factors that actually go into you getting to bed at a decent hour. It’s all much easier said than done. Even knowing the problem and the relatively simple solution to the problem is not enough to fix it, because it’s actually not that simple to put into practice. And that’s one thing that you, as an individual, actually have a high degree of control over!
The book When Helping Hurts and the essay I, Pencil do a wonderful job of illustrating the real-yet-hidden complexities behind things which many people assume are fairly straight-forward. Yet rather than despair, we can rejoice! As Christians, we see in life’s complexity the beautiful power of the Gospel which we believe. It is the power of God for salvation (Rom 1:16), and transformation and renewal (Rom 12:2). As we cling to Christ, we see a power at work in our own spheres of influence that can actually get behind, and inside, and below all those threads of the tapestry with a mysterious effectiveness which other methods can’t duplicate on their own, both for the individual and the institution.
Justin Poythress (MDiv, WTS) is Assistant Pastor at Westminster Presbyterian Church in Fort Myers, FL.
Podcast: God's Transcendence and Poverty Alleviation
"Mercy for Migrants" by Mark Johnston
"Reformation 500, Social Justice and the Gospel" by Jon Payne
Grace Transforming by Philip Ryken
The Christian's True Identity by Jonathan Landry Cruse