I find much to appreciate in the analysis that Eric brings to this discussion of the role of government. In particular, I can strongly affirm his emphasis on the distinct roles of state and church. The state cannot take upon itself the task of the church—it does not “speak to soul” in the way that the church does. Similarly, when the church take upon itself the responsibilities of the state, all sorts of distortions and problems appear.
But I part ways with Eric concerning what these institutions have to do with what we owe our neighbors who are in poverty. Eric sees our responsibility to be primarily a matter of charity, which is a particular responsibility of the church. That’s what leads him to warn against “subcontracting the work of the Church to government.”
I too see charity to be a primary responsibility of the church. Indeed the church that fails in the task of mercy fails in a task that Jesus himself saw as central to the gospel. But charity is not the only way we demonstrate love for our neighbors. We also owe our neighbors justice. To love our neighbor is not only to extend him or her charity; it is also to see that justice is done for our neighbor. And conversations about justice will necessarily lead to conversations about the state, as the state is precisely the institution charged with the task of doing public justice.
This means that we love our neighbors not only in church, but actually love them in the state as well. Eric writes that “bureaucracies can never love”. I think that’s actually a mistake. Bureaucracies do love those they serve—but they demonstrate that love in ways that are appropriate to state bureaucracies: that is, in the administration of public justice. How we love our neighbors is multi-faceted: in church we love through our charity, in the state we love through justice. (Similarly, we love our neighbors differently in families, in the classroom, at the office.)
This perspective doesn’t help us with the immediate task of determining whether the $78 billion we spend on SNAP (food stamps) is money well spent. Evaluating particular programs is a matter requiring much study, much debate, and much prayer. But this perspective does help us answer those who deny too quickly the possibility that by paying our taxes so that our neighbors receive food stamps, we may be actually showing love to neighbors in our community who otherwise could not participate with us in our common life.