This article is part of the Sacred-Public Partnerships series, published in collaboration with Sacred Sector, an initiative of the Center for Public Justice. The series explores the ways in which faith-based organizations – the sacred sector – and government partner for good. Sacred-Public Partnerships focuses specifically on the intersection of the sacred sector, religious freedom, and government-administered social safety net programs and explores why partnership between government and the sacred sector is essential to the success of social services in the United States.
BY DAVID TASSELL
There are thousands of church congregations throughout the country with rich traditions of providing resources for their communities. Food banks, hypothermia shelters, and childcare services are just some of the ways churches have answered the call to care for those in need. Many churches also partner with other community organizations, which make their own unique contributions, to support families, neighborhoods, and cities. In each case, there is typically a theological tradition in which these practices are rooted. Reformed, Baptist, Methodist, Catholic, and most other Christian traditions find a call from Jesus to care for the vulnerable.
Christianity inherits the love for justice proclaimed throughout the Hebrew Bible, and in chapter four of his gospel, Luke records Jesus preaching from Isaiah proclaiming good news to the poor and oppressed. The gospels record Jesus continually caring for the hurting in his ministry, and in Matthew 25 he calls his followers to also provide for the poor and oppressed; identifying himself with those in need. Those who follow the way of Jesus rightly care for those in their communities. Welcoming all and sharing resources is part of following God’s intention for his people.
Many Christians have also recognized that government can have a positive role in caring for those in need and creating a more equitable society. This can be somewhat complicated historically, as culture and governments vary throughout time and place, but many theological traditions see the government as having an important role in society, which includes care for those in need. For instance, the Center for Public Justice operates from a theological perspective that holds, as articulated in its Guideline on Government, “The government of a political community bears responsibility to legislate, enforce, and adjudicate public laws for the safety, welfare, and public order of everyone within its jurisdiction.” Within traditions that affirm a positive role for government, its practical application is most often found in representative governments. When government is designed to represent a collective of people, it can then care for society’s members in collaboration with civil society.
With this in mind, both churches and government complement each other in their responsibility to society. The sheer magnitude of the government’s capacity to care for those in need and its ability to enact policies which promote flourishing far outmatches the American Church. The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) alone, which provides food assistance to low-income Americans, operates on a budget of about $68 billion. This single program is comparable to almost half of all giving across U.S. churches. Other larger programs such as Medicaid, which provides healthcare assistance to those in need, outsize all church giving by about five times.
At the same time, the sacred sector continues to have a profound impact and is a powerhouse of charitable giving, local community investment, and effective practices that help those in need. While smaller than the government, the resources of faith-based organizations are not small, and neither is their impact on communities. Many local congregations and faith-based organizations have the capacity to invest resources locally with a deep understanding of local needs. Further, some of the largest charities in the U.S. making a difference domestically and internationally include faith-based organizations such as The Salvation Army, Catholic Charities, Compassion International, and World Vision.
A robust theology of God’s desire for Church and government leaves room for both to have a role in helping others. This sort of theological framework leads to examples of the sacred sector and governments collaborating for the good of the communities where they are invested, rather than competing for resources.
A local example of this type of collaboration is in Fairfax, Virginia. Here the local county government has recognized the basic need of food security for its residents by forming the Fairfax Food Council. This council of county government sets out to be a catalyst for “a vibrant food system where healthy, accessible and affordable food is valued as a basic human right.” They do this by advocating policies and by collaborating with community organizations who are also following their call to feed the hungry. As a representative government in an area of abundant financial resources, the Fairfax government recognizes a responsibility to help ensure no one goes hungry.
One community organization in Fairfax collaborating with the Fairfax Food Council is Daniels Run Peace Church (DRPC). DRPC has been involved in significant ways with the Fairfax Food Council, including hosting events, providing expertise from agriculturally educated members, being an outpost for produce distribution during harvest season, and more. In so doing they are following the call of Jesus to feed the hungry. Both the local government in Fairfax and churches like DRPC recognize the importance of caring for their community members through food, and their collaboration makes this mission Jesus cares about so much even more successful.
Another example of this type of collaboration is found in Fairfax County’s grants to local organizations providing an even broader range of services. For instance, Western Fairfax Christian Ministries (WFCM) is a Christian organization that receives grant funding to accomplish their mission of providing, “a wide range of relief including help with rent, utilities, food, counseling, financial counseling, school supplies, as well as spiritual support.” This ministry carries out its mission, in partnership with over 30 local churches, to care for the thousands of people experiencing poverty in Fairfax County. One of the ways in which local government carries out its responsibility to care for society is through providing funding to these services.
Christianity has historical, theological, and biblical reasons to affirm God’s desire and design for human governments and the Church to care for those in need. Even where those in government do not claim a Christian tradition, they often claim values Christians can affirm. In communities all around the country, local churches and faith-based organizations are working with local government out of these common values. Christians and other people of faith can advocate for the government to be a force for good, and in doing so see the government act as a partner in pursuing flourishing for the community. When both government and civil society work toward this end together, everyone benefits. As the sacred sector continues to do its good work in communities throughout the country and world, being mindful of government’s potential for good and seeking partnership are ways to follow Jesus’ calling to Christians to serve the vulnerable.
David Tassell is the Assistant Pastor of Table Covenant Church in Fairfax, VA and teaches as adjunct faculty in religious studies.
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