We have reviewed the concept of subsidarity and the importance of the family. But what about single folks? What about nuclear families who are isolated from family support systems? There clearly are needs for relationships beyond the family.
Voluntary associations are one way we connect. Educational associations, youth sports leagues, hobby groups, service groups, and political activities are just some of the ways we form connections with others. These associations serve an important function. Yet these groups tend to be purely task oriented with limited levels of commitment both in terms of depth and duration.
The core of community life used to be neighborhoods. Neighborhoods were places where people living in close proximity participated in each others lives, welcomed each other into homes, and watched out for each other’s children. These relationships were more organic, of indefinite duration, and were less goal focused than voluntary associations. It was about sharing life together. As we’ve seen in books like Robert Putnam’s Bowling Alone, neighborhood like relationships have been on the wane for decades now. With the demise of neighborhoods we have also seen a concurrent propensity to shape our identities according to material standards. We find ourselves, like the rich fool in Luke 12, talking to ourselves in isolation, contemplating building “bigger barns” to hold all the stuff we have used to secure our identity.
From a Christian perspective, there is yet another form of association that trumps these forms association: The church. The most common metaphor for church relationships in the New Testament is family. Paul in particular used fictive family metaphors to persuade Christians embrace each other across ethnic and social barriers. The archetypical family of the era was also a business. This comported well with the idea people engaged in mission. Yet the idea was one of communities in mission. Mission led to community and community led to mission. These communities provided a context where not only nuclear families had a place to belong, but orphans, widows, and single people were full fledged members of the missional community as well.
In our examination of New Testament passages concerning wealth, we found Paul taking up an offering for the church in Jerusalem. There were many poor people in Corinth yet Paul did not have the church taking up an offering to aid them. Instead, he took up an offering to help another church. John cautioned against being someone who will not help a brother in need. Fictive family descriptors usually signaled “other Christians.” In short much of the giving we see in the New Testament (not all) appears to be oriented to taking care of other Christians.
Historical accounts show that the expansion of the church in the early centuries happened because people were drawn to the mutual care and support Christians had for each other even in the face of great persecution. Rodney Stark points to the joyful self-sacrificing behavior of Christians during plagues in the second and third centuries as major transformational moments in the expansion of the early church.
I suspect that part of our problem in addressing poverty today is that we view the lack of material sustenance in isolation from a holistic human anthropology. We dissect various aspects of human existence into “issues” to be addressed and lose the integrated whole. The early Christians saw material matters as integrally and inseparably related to other matters of being in community. I suspect that helping someone economically divorced from other aspects of being in community would have seemed foreign to them. Therefore, the idea of sending offerings to alleviate poverty for nameless people as we do today may not have occurred to them.
Regrettably, far too much of the church today sees itself as a little more than a voluntary association peddling religiosity products (i.e. worship services, youth programs, education.) The idea of an organic mission oriented community into which others can be integrated and uplifted describes very little of American Christendom. The culture is hungry for genuine community but for unlike Christians in the early Roman era there is little that would compel outsiders to join or fellowships.
This isn’t to say we are without expressions of the church wrestling with these issues. There are a variety of movements working to create intentional communities and struggling to discern how our contemporary church life might be transformed. But at present we are without the kind of witness the early church had. The church effectively demonstrating and inviting the culture into organic caring communities has, among other things, the potential to lessen individualism, strengthen families, provide a community of identity for single or isolated people, provide for material needs, and a lessen the need for intrusion by the government into the lives of families and individuals.
I’ve written that simple living is singularity of focus. We are to be focused first and foremost on God’s narrative for what is unfolding in the world and conforming ourselves to that narrative. At the economic level that means sound stewardship and as we pursue communal abundance. Sound stewardship begins by first being responsible for ourselves so we can both be of service to others and not be an unnecessary burden to others. Next it requires that we be responsible for kin to the best of our ability. But beyond this, our call is to be part of witnessing community, not lone rangers. We draw other people into our community with us partly by the care we show for each other. I believe this is the biblical intention but it is poorly executed in our culture.
Exploring the role of government and macro-institutions is beyond the scope of this series. Just as the Mosaic Law had nationwide provisions about gleaning and offerings to aid the poor, there is a role for larger institutions to play in softening the difficulties people encounter, particularly when it comes to catastrophic events. A “pull yourself up by your bootstarps” model is not sufficient (although personal initiative is important) and government intervention often has perverse unintended consequences because of its indiscriminate methods of assistance (although government assistance is important too.)
At the core of an abundant society is a wealth of relationships where family is the leading player. From a Christian perspective, it is families and individuals in covenant communities that bring transformation to society. Other institutions should exist to supplement and protect the families and localized associations, not replace them or dissolve them.
I’ve acknowledged that our macro-institutions have a role to play in assisting others in need but what is our role as individuals and families in addressing the needs of others beyond our family, church and local community?