The Moral Equivalent of War

As we begin 2018, the future looks bleak for America’s poorest residents.  Congress’ tax reform bill offers them little assistance and the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP) is endangered. Meanwhile, the priorities of Congress and the Trump administration, potential reduced federal revenue, and public attitudes threaten to abolish or reduce numerous government programs that aid the indigent, including affordable housing, job training, assistance with home heating bills, and the provision of free legal counsel.

Sadly, Christians and members of other faith communities are much more divided by politics, ideology, and self-interest than united by the biblical mandates to share food with the hungry, clothe the naked, provide shelter for the wanderer (Isaiah 58:7), and care for the least of these (Matthew 25:40).

In a famous 1910 essay, Harvard philosopher William James exhorted humanity to battle as vigorously to promote peace as some nations had fought to wage war. James hoped that people would adopt “a shared objective” that could “elicit the same willingness to sacrifice, and the same disciplined and purposeful ethos, as military conflict does, yet direct them toward entirely peaceful purposes.” So far, James lamented, only war had motivated and mobilized an entire community.

Unfortunately, more than a century later, James’ observation is still true. No humanitarian crusade has produced the same energy, enthusiasm, and total mobilization of people and resources as has waging war. No peacetime government or private sector program has been able to create a sufficiently powerful shared purpose to energize millions to serve the needy or induce people to sacrifice their own interests for the sake of others.

The suffering and stunting of human potential that child poverty causes, coupled with our nation’s abundant resources and biblical directives, compels us to make abolishing child poverty that common goal.  Its elimination requires a full-scale frontal assault.  While Christians debate the best ways to reduce poverty, we can agree that God cares deeply about the indigent, we have an obligation to help them, and destitution is an affront to human dignity. Their poverty prevents children, who Jesus deeply cared about, from fulfilling their full potential as God’s image-bearers.

Almost 400 biblical passages express God’s passionate concern for widows, orphans, aliens, and the homeless, hungry, disabled, sick, and vulnerable.  Aiding the indigent is a major biblical theme. Those who are “gracious to the needy” honor God (Proverbs 14:31).

Numerous actions can help abolish child poverty. We can pray faithfully, study carefully, give generously, live modestly, volunteer enthusiastically, invest and shop prudently, support candidates who strive to eliminate poverty, advocate passionately, and work to reform social structures.  While all these are important, I will focus on only two—giving liberally and volunteering ardently. 

The “effective altruism” movement, initiated by Princeton philosopher Peter Singer, challenges people to use their financial contributions to make the optimum difference in the world. What has a greater impact than helping a child avoid a major illness, receive an education, escape poverty, and realize her potential?  Giving to organizations and programs that enable the indigent to help themselves is especially beneficial. 

If American Christians all gave 10 percent of their post-tax income to churches and charities, sociologists Christian Smith and Michael Emerson argue in their book “Passing the Plate,” they could accomplish “massive and unprecedented spiritual, social, cultural, and economic change.”  Sadly, however, surveys indicate that only 3 to 8 percent of Americans donate 10 percent or more of their income.  Although regular church attenders tend to be more generous than other Americans, the percentage of those who tithe 10 percent is very low.

Volunteering our time and expertise can also significantly help the poor. Retired individuals usually have more time to volunteer, but all of us can use our talents and time to help those in need. In a typical year, one-quarter of Americans volunteer, but only 4 percent spend 10 hours or more per week in volunteer activities. If more Americans devoted their time and energy to myriads of worthwhile projects, including collecting and distributing food, mentoring, teaching, and tutoring, the benefits to children would be immense.

The good news is that opportunities abound.  Many of the world’s 1.5 million nonprofits actively solicit volunteers, and thousands of these organizations work to improve the lives of destitute children.  When analyzing where to volunteer to aid children (or alleviate other social ills), three things are especially important to consider: your God-given gifts, the world’s—or your community’s—greatest needs, and the issues about which you care most deeply.

Most affluent Americans are not hard-hearted. Rather, few of us have much direct contact with the poor or know how to help them effectively.  Thankfully, from Pittsburgh to Portland, Oregon, people are acting to help poor children.  In the Steel City numerous organizations, including the Light of Life Rescue Mission on the North Side and the Pittsburgh Kids Foundations, are working diligently to improve the lives of children and their parents. In Wilmington, North Carolina, eleven organizations share the facilities of the former city jail where they provide a variety of services to help low-income residents. In Portland about half of the 9,000 members of A Jesus Family Church participate in groups of 10-20 who eat, pray, and volunteer together to support foster care, aid refugees, and stop sex trafficking.  They partner with people from with other congregations, government agencies, and community organizations to help troubled and impoverished children in their city.

Nearly half of all American children live near or below the poverty line. According to a recent UNICEF report, the child poverty rate in the US is higher than 36 of the world’s 41 wealthiest countries.  As the federal government seems poised to do less to help poor children, we must do much more through the private sector to improve their lives.  This is a war we can win.

Gary SmithComment