The Messianic State
Modern political philosophy gives the state a messianic role, it must provide justice and equality; guarantee health, education, welfare, old-age provision, and freedom from poverty. It endeavours to provide in a modern secular society what God himself pledges to his covenant people and to nations who adhere to his law Deut 28:1-14; 29:1-15. The only way to national prosperity is for a nation to obey God and implement his law. The state cannot eliminate poverty. First, God has not given it the responsibility to do so. Second, it does not have sufficient resources. Third, attempts by the state to eliminate poverty give the wrong incentives and encourages dependency. It adds to the problem rather than removing it. Creating a system of cradle to grave welfare, undermines the independence and responsibility which a strong and healthy society needs.
Responsibility for caring for the poor belongs to families, the church and other co-operative societies. They can demand that people who receive assistance act responsibly. Families can exercise discipline over their members. Churches would be giving away money that has been freely given, so no one can lay any claim to it, no matter how poor they are. Since such help is given voluntarily, churches can lay conditions on those who receive there assistance. They can refuse assistance to immoral people, or those who refuse to work. The church can also teach morals to the poor.
In contrast, when the state provides assistance it quickly becomes a right. All citizens, are entitled to the benefits of citizenship. This means that the state cannot refuse assistance to anyone, regardless of how immoral they are. The state cannot discriminate when providing assistance. Thus it often ends up subsidising those who do evil. It has to provide assistance to people who may not deserve it, or who do not take responsibility for themselves.
Politicians get frustrated with this situation. They feel that because the government is providing assistance, it should be able to demand a standard of behaviour in return. On the surface this seems a reasonable demand. However, because the government has such strong coercive power, it is a very dangerous suggestion.
The idea is right, but the agent is wrong. Using social assistance to encourage responsible behaviour is only appropriate for family and charitable assistance.
The problem arises because the civil government has taken on a responsibility to which it is not entitled. Taking responsibility for teaching morality, another responsibility to which it is not entitled, would only add one problem to another. The solution must go to the root of the problem. Responsibility for social support must be restored to families and other co-operative organisations like the church.
Caring for the Weak and Needy.
The idea that people should take responsibility for their lives is a good one. A corollary that is fundamental to Christianity is that people have a responsibility to take care of other people who are in need. This responsibility was exemplified in Jesus parable about the Good Samaritan. When he came across a foreigner in need, the Good Samaritan tended to his immediate needs, and then took him to an inn and paid for his longer term needs to be met. We can exercise our responsibility for others in two ways: by providing care ourselves or by paying for a caring institution to provide the care. The good Samaritan did both.
A third way of caring, which is often said to follow on, is to demand that the government care for the person in need. However this is abdication of personal responsibility. It is saying that I don't want to care for the person in need, but I want the government to coerce someone else to care for them. However, the Good Samaritan did not tell the inn keeper that he should pay for the injured man. Jesus did not say that the government should set up a scheme for wounded travellers. The point he was making was that we each have a responsibility to care for people in need.
One of the negative consequences of modern social welfare systems is that they have destroyed this ethos of caring for the needy and the poor. Caring for the poor and needy is now seen as the responsibility of the state. This has severely weakened our society.
Of course, there is a limit to what individuals can do. This leads to a call for the community to do something. In New Zealand the view that the state is the only vehicle for community action is now widespread. This is not true, the state is the most inefficient and ineffective form of community action. State controlled social welfare, by its very nature, is bureaucratic, inflexible, wasteful and impersonal.
The state has a ministry of justice; it does not have a ministry of love and compassion. The reason is that the only way that the state can work is through bureaucracy. Bureaucracies are fine for administering rules and procedures fairly and without bias, but they cannot be a vehicle for love and compassion. Fortunately, the state is not the only source of community action.
The best form of community care for the poor is that provided by voluntary, co-operative associations. We need to see a resurgence of groups with a mission to care for the poor. There is no reason why a wide variety of groups cannot be formed. They would provide a variety of ways for communities to work together. Co-operative societies will allow groups of people to join together to support each other. Other voluntary organisations will be channels by which support can flow from people with plenty to those in need.
The Role of the Church
I believe that the church will be at the forefront of these efforts. Christianity is the only philosophy that provides a pure motive and impetus for doing this work. It also provides a motive for the dedication and self-sacrifice that will be needed by people who take up this ministry. The Holy Spirit provides the commitment, strength and discernment people in this ministry will need.
Historically the church was the most successful co-operative association. Most of the other successful voluntary associations were started by Christians. In fact the church had a ministry to the poor right from its inception. Soon after the church began, deacons were appointed to distribute food to the poor. All deacons were required to be good managers of their own households. This was important because part of their role was to teach the poor how to care for their own households. This ministry will need to be redeveloped.
The church in Rome, even though it faced persecution, rescued babies abandoned in the streets to die (a common practice). Christians took these orphans into their homes and adopted them into their families. From these early beginnings, the church went on to do many great works of charity. The church invented hospitals. The first universities in both Britain and the United States were started by the church. Before, the church started schools for the poor, education was only available to the rich.
In this last century, as the state has tried to take over responsibility for the poor and needy, the church has retreated from this ministry. It has fallen Back to being the defender of the welfare state, limiting its role to calling on the state to do more. If the church is to take back the responsibility for caring for the poor, it will need to be subject to renewal and restoration. The role of deacons will have to be redeveloped. More important, the church will have to become less bureaucratised. The Church has a ministry of love and mercy. This ministry cannot be exercised by a bureaucracy. It must be exercised through individuals, families and small groups of people giving freely, sharing and providing, with love and compassion, what those in difficulty need.
Fortunately, over the last two decades, Christians who are open to the voice of God have begun to develop new and innovative ways to assist the poor. An example of this is the Kingdom Resources Trust, which has helped thousands of people with financial assistance and advice. The development of a large number of ministries along these lines is the best hope of the poor.
Freedom, Responsibility and Security
Most modern people live in a world where the future is uncertain. There are hostile forces all around them. Taking responsibility for your own life in these circumstances can be very frightening. No one knows what may happen; and it is likely to be bad. Only those who are emotionally strong or have strong Christian faith will be comfortable about taking full responsibility for their life. Those with strong Christian faith are now only a small minority of society. Those with the natural confidence to take control of lives are also a minority. However most Members of Parliament are in this group. They don't understand how frightening life is for most people.
Therefore, it is not surprising that most people, if given a choice between freedom and security will choose security, even if it means loss of freedom. That is why there have been so many demands for the government to state what its responsibilities are.
The insecurity of the current generation is made worse by the rejection of the Christian world view. Many modern western philosophies are very hostile to the family. However, the insecurity of the modern world has not been helped by the breakdown of family life, with the consequent loss of support that families can provide.
Almost all non-Christian world views see life, as at best, subject to chance, or at worst, subject to capricious forces which are hostile to humans. Therefore most people expect things to go wrong. That is why they want the government to take care of them when things go wrong. Only the really strong, can hold those world views and still have the confidence to take responsibility for themselves.
In contrast, Christians live in a world that is ordered by God. They know that he is working all things for good. They also have the support of the Christian community, which is a real community. The Christian theology of hope provides them with a solid basis for confidence in face of the future. Christianity also provides the best basis for a strong family life. A resurgence of Christian faith and the adoption of a Christian world view will be essential if most people are to be willing to embrace personal and family responsibility. Until that happens there will be continued demand for a messianic state, even at the price of loss of freedom.