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FIRST-PERSON: Remember the poor this election season

FORT WORTH, Texas (BP)–For nearly 70 years, the modern Democratic Party has campaigned as the party of the common working man.

Birthed during the Great Depression with the help of Franklin Roosevelt, one of the key planks in the party’s platform has been, and still is, pitting rich against poor. Candidates for the Democratic cause frequently cite the low burden of taxes on the wealthiest 1 percent of America’s population. The party’s politicians promise that, if elected, they will set the record straight by excising more cash from those Republicans who worry little about whether their paycheck will be a few cents less than the previous one.

The assertion that the rich do not pay “their fair share” is patently false. According to the Internal Revenue Service, the wealthiest 1 percent of America’s population pays 34 percent of all the taxes collected. Add to that high property taxes which fund schools and local initiatives, and the percentage paid by America’s elite rises even further. The wealthiest 5 percent, as a whole, pay more than half of all taxes.

The poor, or those who fall below the middle class tax bracket, in turn, pay very little in the way of taxes per capita. Because the poor generally live in communities with low property taxes, there is little reason to assume that they are paying more than their fair share there as well.

Republicans, in contrast to Democrats, say little about the poor — a difficult critique for me since my allegiance lies with that party. Republicans often see the poor as those persons who benefit from the “trickle down” theory. Republicans believe that sound business principles and lower taxes for corporations and individuals make it possible for the economic plight of the poor to improve. If companies expand, they will create more jobs, Republicans believe. If people have jobs, they will have more money for food, clothing and other necessities.

Unfortunately, this attitude fails in one respect: It fails to see the poor as people with immediate needs. It is a “wait and see” philosophy in which improvement in their plight is an economic indicator that Republican policies are working.

Democrats have blamed Republicans for the plight of the poor in America. They say that the poor are getting poorer because jobs once offered to them by manufacturing and industrial companies have been sent overseas. Republicans have blamed the Democrats, citing excessive government tax burdens on companies and the middle class that have squelched economic growth.

Take your pick as to which party you’ll blame for the so-called ailing economy in this election season. I, as a Republican, have my own political opinions as to why it’s taken three years to climb out of recession. Many, as Democrats, will have their opinions.

I enjoy this kind of political finger-pointing. The freedom to debate such issues is what makes involvement in American politics so grand.

In my heart, however, I know that thousands of children go to bed hungry at night not for a lack of government assistance. I know that many elderly citizens live in poverty not for a lack of a prescription drug benefit. Blame the Republicans; blame the Democrats. Is it really their fault that ample food and resources have not been given to the poor?

As much as I’d like to say that the plight of the poor is exclusively the Democrats’ fault, I cannot.

It is my fault. It is yours. It is the fault of the church.

On a personal level, I often neglect the poor. Each day as I traverse the roads of my city, I see countless instances where the monster of poverty has reared its head and devoured whole neighborhoods. I see children who are dirty, and in many cases malnourished. You likely see the same.

I attend a church in the middle of a poor neighborhood. It is a church that has a benevolence house, a food pantry and an after-school program. Am I involved in these ministries? No, because I have my own to take care of. Do I pray for the poor? No, they seldom cross my mind. Do I invite them into my home? No, because that would be too uncomfortable. Have I worked in a soup kitchen? No, because that would be awkward.

Indifference to the poor is my sin.

I suspect that there are great numbers of churchgoers just like me — people who have lived under a benevolent government so long that they have come to assume that it is the government’s responsibility to care for the poor. That responsibility actually belongs to individual Christians, and collectively to the church, the body of Christ.

Jesus said on many occasions that the poor were of primary importance. In the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5, Jesus proclaimed good news to the poor. He encouraged His followers to be generous with the poor in Luke 14. Paul often spoke of caring for the poor as well. In Romans 15, he mentioned funds collected for the poor of Jerusalem.

Perhaps the most telling comment in Scripture about caring for the poor is the Lord’s command in Deuteronomy 15:7-11. The command speaks of giving to the poor of the covenant community:

“You shall generously give to him, and your heart shall not be grieved when you give to him, because for this thing the Lord your God will bless you in all your work and in all your undertakings. For the poor will never cease to be in the land; therefore, I command you, saying, ‘You shall freely open your hand to your brother, to your needy and poor in your land.’”

Some might object that we do not live in such a covenant community. I believe, however, that we do. We live in covenant with our fellow believers who are poor, and we, as a church, have made a covenant with our nation. That covenant is one in which we have pledged to be a light to all people, a city upon a hill that demonstrates the grace, mercy and compassion that draws men to Christ.

Churches are spending increasing amounts of money on multi-functional buildings. There are churches with bookstores and indoor playgrounds. There are numerous examples of money invested in buildings, rather than people. Is that how Scripture commands us to care for the poor? Let us not assume that a new $11 million worship facility is what God requires to alleviate the suffering of those in poverty.

This year, you and I will vote in another presidential election. Our votes will determine the course of American history and economic policy for the next four years and beyond. I wonder how the path of history would turn if, instead of attempting to fix the problem of poverty by pulling the lever in the voting booth, we actually dug deep into our wallets and gave away what we had. More importantly, I wonder how history would change if we stopped building mammoth churches and focused our resources on alleviating poverty inside and outside the church.

Perhaps our love for the unbelieving poor would encourage them to seek salvation in Christ. Perhaps we would understand what it truly meant to be wealthy in the eyes of God.
Gregory Tomlin is director of communications at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth, Texas.

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