I consider David Copperfield to be one of my favorite books of all time. I like the book for many reasons; the obvious ones of course-- a colorful cast of characters and a remarkable story-- but also because it had a profound impact on my thinking. Reading Dickens, one can't help but notice the stark poverty that existed in 19th century England. Even though England was one of the most developed nations on earth, with an empire that stretched around the globe, its streets were still filled with beggars and orphans, and its debtors' prisons were full of families with little hope of paying their debts. Reading David Copperfield for the first time, I wondered how people in such a wealthy nation could be so poor. How did it happen? Why didn't anyone help them? I know there was a lot of factors contributing to the landscape of 19th century England, but Dickens turned my radar on to the plight of the poor in this day and age, in my own country, and in my own town.
Growing up, I had the mindset that you are what you make yourself. Hard work would be rewarded, and laziness would lead you to financial ruin. (Pull yourself up by your own bootstraps and all that.) Those who looked to government handouts were simply people who didn't want to work, and inefficient bureaucratic government rewarded their slothfulness. As I always like to say, I grew up watching my father read his Bible with a Wall Street Journal in his other hand and Rush Limbaugh on the radio. Thus, I equated a Republican, "conservative" view of government with the most Christian view of government. A person's welfare was their own responsibility, and government had no business addressing what people should obviously be able to fix themselves. If a person was really in need, they could go to a church for help. Or so I thought.
Then I encountered poverty, not just in the pages of a book, but in real life. I encountered my own experience with financial hardship and the need to rely on government services. I realized that these things are never as simple as political stump speeches like to make them. And I realized that many churches in the U.S., either through ignorance or choice, are not equipped to help those in need in their own communities.
I've seen churches go above and beyond to help those in need, and I've seen churches completely drop the ball in helping the people literally outside their front door. I've seen government inefficiency at its bureaucratic worse, and I've seen government programs help people in tremendous ways, saving them from financial ruin. I'm not naive enough to think government can or should fix everyone's problems, nor is it the best vehicle for meeting the needs of people in poverty. But I look at the world of Charles Dickens-- a world with few government services, a world where the church (and indeed, being the Church of England, a very structured one) was responsible for caring for the poor-- and I wonder what made things finally improve. Many things changed--economically, politically, socially, and religiously-- so it's hard to point to what brought the most relief to a desperate situation. While government wasn't the sole source, it certainly played a part. I then imagine what our country today would look like if we had no government services-- no welfare, no medicaid, no WIC, no state child health insurance, no laws protecting workers, no unemployment aid, and so forth. Where could people go for help? Surely the church would help, but could the church help everyone, in every town, in every village? Without a safety net that covered the entire country in an organized way, how many people would fall through the cracks?
For this reason (and a few others), I came to the conclusion that government can play a positive role in people's lives, and until our churches get their acts together to address the needs of their communities, then government will have to continue to meet this need.
As a Christian, I'm not entirely happy with this conclusion, as I'm still convinced churches have the potential to do a better job of addressing poverty than the government. I get frustrated when I hear Christians bad mouth government services and the people who use them and yet don't do anything in their local church to help those people. Maybe we need to venture out of our comfortable church buildings and into our communities to see where the needs are--because the needs are there.
Or maybe we just need to read more Dickens.