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O Brother Where Art Thou? | Provoketive Magazine
16 Apr 2012

The Author

I grew up in Franklin, Tennessee, where I attended a charismatic church that actively sought the gifts of the Holy Spirit. After graduating from Pepperdine University, I bounced around for a few years before eventually moving back to Tennessee. Along the way, I began to question some of my longstanding beliefs and attempted to reconcile my political and religious views. Increasingly, I became saddened and angered with how Christianity was so misrepresented for personal and political gain. My book (and blog), Hometown Prophet, was born out of that frustration.


O Brother Where Art Thou?
friends on the dock

“Am I my brother’s keeper?” (Genesis 4:9).  That was the question a defensive sounding Cain asked God after he’d killed Abel.  Christians know the answer is, “Yes, I am my brother’s keeper,” and most are willing to lend a helping hand to their fellow man.   Whether it’s building a Habitat for Humanity house, volunteering at Room at the Inn, or serving meals at the mission, they are actively working through their churches to assist those in their own communities, as well as remote villages thousands of miles away.

And yet, at the same time, many of these same Christians are opposed to the government doing the very same kind of work.  It’s as if tax dollars are in a separate category and should never be used for social programs that offer a life preserver to a person struggling to keep his or her head above the poverty line.   At the mention of government assistance, many conservative Christians suddenly become suspicious of free-loaders and disdainful of any sort of bureaucratic waste.

I’m genuinely curious why it’s acceptable for individuals and churches to help the poor and why it’s not okay for their government to get involved in similar activities?   I don’t think it’s an issue of separation of church and state.   Many of these same people are the first to want our country to have Christian values.   Well, healing the sick, helping the poor, and fighting injustices were the values that Jesus cared about in his day.   Of course, these principles are not the sole domain of Christian ethics; they are universally accepted by most people as the way healthy societies should treat their citizens.

Perhaps, conservative Christians are opposed to the amount of money that government spends on these issues.   It’s a fair question, and it is certainly easy to find examples of waste within big, federally funded programs.   We all know about the welfare mother who’s milking the system or the laid off guy who’s cashing unemployment checks while not even trying to find a job.   Of course, it’s also pretty easy to find great stories of redemption and recovery, if we’re willing to look for those too.

The reality is only the government has the means to put programs into place that can help large segments of people: Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP) and Head Start reaches disadvantaged kids; Emergency Food Service and Medicaid supports the indigent elderly; and food stamps and HUD’s public housing provides some basic sustenance and shelter for the poor.  These are all programs that can insure, house, and feed literally millions of people on a scale that all the well-meaning Christians are not capable of doing by themselves.

I’m not sure if the homeless person really cares if he’s getting assistance from a church or a “good Samaritan” or Uncle Sam.  If God takes note of things like that (and I believe He does), then I think He’s probably pretty pleased when someone is helped, whether that assistance is coming from you or me or churches or a  government program.  If we truly want the United States to be a nation after God’s heart, caring for “the least of these” is a pretty good place to start.

“Are we our brother’s keeper?”   It’s not an abstract ideological question.   It is literally a question of life and death for many of our own brothers and sisters.   At its root, it’s about compassion rising above apathy; replacing suffering with relief; hope triumphing over defeat.  At the same time, there has to be accountability, and not every government program is a good one.  But I had rather waste a little money giving someone a second chance than save a little money and let them slip through the cracks.

A few weeks ago, I saw Allison Kraus and Union Station at the Loveless Barn in Nashville.   During the show, I learned one of her band members (Dan Tyminski) overdubbed George Clooney’s voice on “Man of Constant Sorrow” in the movie “O Brother Where Art Thou?”   Learning that George Clooney didn’t actually sing didn’t take anything away from the movie experience.  Sometimes a brother just needs a little help.  It doesn’t matter who fills in; the important thing is that everyone pulls together to make things as good as they can be.   Do you agree?

Jeff Fulmer lives in Nashville Tennessee and is the author of the book Hometown Prophet If God spoke through a prophet today, would we really want to hear what he has to say?   For more information, visit the Hometown Prophet website.   Follow on Twitter or  like on Facebook.

  1. Thanks for the article!

    Last night I was challenged by another article that seemed to really crystalize the issues at stake in this topic. You may also like it as it gives some answers to your questions. And, like you, the author goes back to Genesis to establish the rational for our responsibility to seek social justice. You can find the article by Michael Horton here: http://www.modernreformation.org/default.php?page=articledisplay&var1=ArtRead&var2=1276&var3=authorbio&var4=AutRes&var5=1

  2. I’m so glad for your article. I’ve had this discussion with so-called Christian conservatives many a time. Usually it starts with them complaining about tax money going to social programs and how it’s killing our economy and how we need to make cuts. So I remind them that Jesus said to render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s; in other words, that we are to pay our taxes. They say yes, but they don’t think the taxes should have to go to social programs. So I remind them that Jesus was all about helping the poor, “the least of them.” They say they are fine with helping the poor but that the government should just stay out of it. So I tell them that I agree with them, that Jesus didn’t get to tell Caesar what to do with the tax money he collected, but I can’t help but think he would approve of it. I tell them to imagine what if Caesar did seek Jesus’s advice on what to do with the tax money. I could just imagine Caesar showing Jesus around his opulent castle and saying I have gold and silver everywhere, my gold crown has jewels inlaid, my wives all dress in the finest silk and are laden with jewels, as are my concubines. Even my servants wear the finest polished cotton. What should I do with my latest windfall? Then I imagine Jesus taking Caesar for a little walk around his kindom, starting with the market place, past the blind and the beggars, into a few of the poorer homes to visit the sick and dying, and past the leper camps and turning to Caesar and saying do you see anywhere your money could be put to good use? Of course, the choice is now Caesars, just as it is ours. But I think as much as Jesus cared for the poor and the sick, he would certainly approve of a portion of what we pay in to the govrnment go there, and I even think it would be a priority.

    I put something in my Facebook status a while ago about the poor, and the comments I got were that we didn’t need social programs for this, that the churches and charities would take care of this. So I reminded my commentors that in the 1930s, during the times of tent cities and tar shacks, these programs were implimented because the churches and charities couldn’t do enough. Neither can they today for all the families without means due to outsourcing and downsizing of jobs. A bundle of gently used clothing, a blanket or two, a couple loaves of bread, a bag of beans or potatoes and a couple of packages of macaroni and cheese isn’t going to feed a family for long, nor will it pay their rent, utilities and put gass in their car to look for work or get to job interviews. And passing around that “special offering plate” will not take just one family far for long either. We need those insititutions. The very next day I again put something about the poor and how we should help in my status, and this time my first comment was from a self-described Christian conservative that said, “I’m not about to give to any charities. They can just work like I have to.” So much for that Christian’s loving heart toward those with less than himself, and I see this same attitude often among Christians, but most are less blunt about it.

    So I am wondering what has happened to the Christian attitude I grew up with? The Christ I learned about back in the day, before the “Prosperity Doctrine” began to invade our mainstream Christian churches 30 years ago, and before Ayn Rand’s “Atlas Shrugged” made a resurgeance in the 1980s, that Christ was about turning the other cheek and told us that if someone asks for your cloak, give them your coat as well. Christ stressed the importance of healing the sick and helping the poor. Never, never did I ever hear it taught that they were a bunch of lazy bums that could just go and work themselves. I wonder where our Christian ethic has gone. Nowdays, I see so many Christians that carry an attitude of selfishness, an “I got mine, so the heck with you” attitude so prevasive that it’s almost become their mantra. Not only is it okay to be selfish and to want to hang on to what’s yours, but it is now seen as a godly attitude. Talk about having your ears tickled!

    If is for this reason and a few others as well that I no longer consider myself a conservative and will not vote that way. At this time, I even struggle with the word “Christian” because of what it has come to represent, and which is the very opposite of what I think Christ was all about. Thank you again for your timely article.

    • Thanks for your reply. Obviously, I too have been frustrated with the way conservative politics became co-mingled with Christianity. Ayn Rand does seem to be a pretty good representative of that hybrid ideology. Of course, while she worked with evangelicals on some common goals, she did not share their religious views. Sadly, many Christians have taken up her beliefs over their own gospel when it comes to matters of social justice. I wrote a blog about that a while back called The Radical Atheistic Agenda of Ayn Rand.

  3. One good example of God using government to care for the basic needs of the people is the Biblical account of Joseph’s role in Egypt. In this story God’s man was instrumental in directing government to care for the hungry in a way that no other institution could. The people saved from this seven year famine were not ‘the people of God’, yet God obviously cared for them. From this you could easily draw the conclusion that the wisdom of God directs governments to care for their people using resources demanded from the people.

    • Hey John, the Horton article was good. From what I understood, it makes the case for applying the greatest commandments to society as a whole, which would include loving others as yourself. I also appreciate the example of God using Joseph (Egypt’s Secretary of Agriculture or the Interior) to save people’s lives. Then and now, God can work through governments and institutions to accomplish His will.

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