By / Aug 25

In 1993, a photojournalist took a photo that has become iconic and controversial. Titled “The vulture and the little girl,” it shows a young, starving, small girl being stalked by a vulture preparing for her to die. In the context of the 1993 Sudanese famine, the image was instantly iconic, with The New York Times running the image on their coverage. However, it became controversial because of the public’s question: “Did she survive? Did you help her get to the food station?” The photographer did not (journalists were encouraged not to interact with their subjects at the time to avoid spreading disease), and instead was careful to not scare the bird away before he got his shot. He did scare the bird away after the picture, but still left the weak girl on the ground instead of taking her to the food station where her parents were attempting to get food. 

“Did you help her?”

The image is a stark reminder of the incredibly tragic results of famine and hunger. However, it is also a reminder of the ability of humans to turn our eyes away from the tragic, or place a filter between ourselves and the world around us. At its most basic level, the public’s question is the same one that we all should be asking: “Did you help her?” In an age where we are surrounded by so much tragedy and news of devastations across the world, there is an understandable need to prioritize what we can do. However, when faced with such a clear instance of need and scarcity, the response should be to help. The photographer should have helped her. Yet, it was easier to turn away once his job—chronicling the devastation rather than responding to it—was complete. 

The tendency to turn away is one that we all know well. It’s avoiding the eyes of the homeless individual panhandling on the corner at the stop sign. It’s quickly scrolling past the Facebook post detailing hardship. It’s the discomfort that comes from hearing a child tell about their family’s home life, and learning how they have struggled since the economic downturn. 

We don’t like that discomfort. It makes us feel like we are guilty for what we do have. So we turn our eyes away and choose to ignore it. That’s someone else’s problem. Not ours. We don’t have time to stop and help. So we push down the discomfort and tell ourselves that we are doing our job, and it’s someone else’s responsibility, just like the photographer who walked away as soon as he had taken a picture that would win him a Pulitzer.

More tragic than ignoring the problem is the way that we tend to relegate it to something happening somewhere else. To read accounts of the image, the journalist saw everything through the lens of his camera. It was a mediated world that he inhabited. On one level, this is expected for a journalist who covers some of the worst situations around the globe (he had spent years covering violence and civil war in Africa). A level of distance is to be expected.

Yet, the distance required to leave a starving girl on the ground after a vulture was just stalking her requires turning off a piece of our humanity. It’s the piece that causes people to run into flames to save a child they don’t know. Or the way that strangers will rally around a struggling family to provide for them. We recognize that this person holds inestimable worth and dignity, and we should treat them accordingly.  We don’t leave them in the dirt. 

But when life is mediated through a camera lens (or for most of us a smartphone), it is easy to see not people but images. We don’t mean to dehumanize others. But when you experience people through a filter, then it becomes easier to also push every other emotion or desire through the same filter. We start to think that reports of tragedies are just numbers and normal realities, rather than evils we must resist with every fiber of our being, the lingering effects of a broken world crying out for redemption. When we assume that mindset, then it becomes easier to turn that blind eye. One death may be a tragedy, and a million a statistic (as is often cynically claimed), but when news of that death comes to us in the same way that we watch mindless cat videos, then it is just one more piece of information for us to consume for a moment and then discard for the next factoid to cross our timeline. 

Hunger and poverty are areas that are especially difficult for Americans to truly understand, and thus make us even more likely to turn away. I may not like what‘s in my fridge, but there is always something there. We may see poverty around us, but often it is confined to a place, not widespread. And so we turn away because we don’t want to reckon with the discomfort that we feel. However, for Christians this is not an option. Like the Samaritan who cared for the dying man on the road, and Jesus’ reminder that when we served the least of these we served him, we do not have the option to turn our eyes away from the tragedy around us. 

Practically, this means that we must be looking for those opportunities around us to serve the world. Unless you are a tech billionaire or an expert in public policy, then it is unlikely you will be able to solve hunger and poverty. However, you can search for ways to serve the individuals around you. This might mean volunteering at homeless shelters and providing donations. But ideally it goes beyond simple incidental moments and instead is a life characterized by attention to the problem. We should not confine our love of neighbor to the holidays or special emphasis days, but rather see the need around us every moment. Yes, we can try to solve the immediate problem, but we must also look at how we might develop a long-term relationship that has the potential to help an individual with their ongoing hunger or economic situation. 

In a social media age, we need to guard against issues like hunger becoming just a fact that we know because of our screens and constant stream of information. The statistics and data we hear in reports are snapshots of the real-life experience of those suffering. We can’t let our heart be turned off so that we don’t have to be incovenienced. Those suffering don’t have that luxury, and we shouldn’t either. Instead of turning our eyes away in the face of tragedy, let us be the people who work tirelessly to see that suffering eradicated in Jesus’ name. 

By / Aug 10

The United States is a technologically advanced country with trusted science and medicine. And many of us assume most individuals in this country have access to world-class medical care and that their health is always in good hands. Yet, according to the latest report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), maternal mortality rates are on the rise in the United States. The World Health Organization (WHO) defines motherhood mortality as “the annual number of female deaths from any cause related to or aggravated by pregnancy or its management (excluding accidental or incidental causes) during pregnancy and childbirth or within 42 days of termination of pregnancy, irrespective of the duration and site of the pregnancy.”

According to the most recent data from the CDC, in 2020, the maternal mortality rate in the United States—the number of maternal deaths per 100,000 live births—reached 23.8 compared with 20.1 in 2019. This rate indicates a total of 861 women who died of maternal causes in the United States in 2020 compared to 754 women in 2019, continuing an upward trend in maternal mortality rates in the U.S.

The data shows motherhood mortality rates rise significantly among women over the age of 40 and among non-Hispanic Black women. In 2020, the maternal mortality rate among non-Hispanic Blacks was 55.3 deaths per 100,000 live births, nearly three times the rate for non-Hispanic white women. This was a significant increase for non-Hispanic Black women from 2019 when the maternal mortality rate was 44.0. Among non-Hispanic white women, the rate only increased slightly from 2019 to 2020, rising from 17.9 to 19.1. Rates also increase with maternal age. Women over the age of 40 have the highest maternal mortality rate at 107.9—7.8 times higher than the rate for those under the age of 25.

Maternal mortality occurs as a result of complications during and following pregnancy and childbirth. According to WHO, some of these complications existed before and worsened during pregnancy. But most develop during a woman’s pregnancy and are preventable or treatable. Nearly 3 in 4 maternal deaths are caused by severe bleeding, infections, high blood pressure during pregnancy, complications from delivery, or unsafe abortion. These are all known complications with known solutions.

In a world marred by the consequences of sin, maternal deaths are not a new occurrence. There are women in the Bible who died of child birthing complications. Both Rachel (Gen. 35:16-20) and the wife of Phinehas (1 Sam. 4:19-20) died after prolonged and difficult labors. And despite our attempts to combat the consequences of sin with things like science and medicine, sin still affects our world today.

Protecting women’s lives

Today, healthcare providers have well-known solutions to prevent or manage maternal complications. WHO identifies two primary indicators for preventing maternal deaths: 1) Access to high-quality healthcare during pregnancy and childbirth as well as after childbirth; and 2) Access to contraceptives to prevent unplanned pregnancies (though Christians would not support the use of abortifacients or the morning after pill).

Sadly, there are still women in the United States who do not receive the care they need during or after their pregnancies. The five main factors that “prevent women from receiving or seeking care during pregnancy and childbirth” are:

  1. Poverty
  2. Distance to facilities
  3. Lack of information
  4. Inadequate and poor quality services
  5. Cultural beliefs and practices

WHO suggests that to “improve maternal health, barriers that limit access to quality maternal health services must be identified and addressed at both health systems and societal levels.”

The church’s response

So what should the church do? The church can start by genuinely caring. Christ-followers should care because all people have dignity and worth. No matter their circumstances or conditions, every woman, baby, and family is valuable. When Christians show they care about women and are broken over the issues that arise when women don’t receive the care they need, the world sees a little more clearly that God cares for women. He cares for the broken. He cares for the hurting. As Christ’s ambassadors, God calls the church to love women, babies, and families and to be conduits of life.

Pregnant women and their families, healthcare providers, hospitals and healthcare systems, and states and communities can work together to reduce maternal mortality rates. And as churches invest themselves in their communities and pursue the well-being of their cities (Jere. 29:4-7), they are uniquely positioned to be a source of hope and light.

At the state and community level, the CDC offers three specific steps toward reducing maternal deaths:

  1. Assess and coordinate delivery hospitals for risk-appropriate care
  2. Support review of the causes behind every maternal death
  3. Identify and address social factors influencing maternal health such as unstable housing, transportation access, food insecurity, substance use, violence, and racial and economic inequality

It may be easier for us to close our eyes and walk on the other side of the road (Luke 10:25-27), avoiding the hurt that could come from engaging with the rising issue of maternal mortality. But God calls the church to respond to suffering in the world around us. For example, in light of the recent Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization Supreme Court decision, and the resulting restrictions on abortion, many pregnancy care centers across the nation are considering how they might meet the needs of the additional numbers of women and families who are walking through their doors for assistance. This has included adding more medical services, such as ultrasounds or STD-testing, which can be an important first step in prenatal care. 

God calls us to protect the physical lives of the vulnerable among us, seeking justice, loving mercy, and walking humbly with God (Micah 6:8) as we live out the call to love our neighbors as ourselves (Lev. 19:18). And he calls the church to be a light in this world, pushing back the darkness by physically caring for women while pointing them to the One who became vulnerable in order to make them whole (Matt.5:14-16).

By / May 16

The Biden administration recently announced that they plan to terminate Title 42, a pandemic-era rule that closed the United States’ borders to asylum seekers and others who migrate, on May 23. Title 42 has been in place since March 20, 2020, and has been used extensively to immediately expel migrants once apprehended without allowing them to assert their legal right to request asylum. After the administration’s announcement of rescinding Title 42, bipartisan concerns were raised about its termination, and whether the U.S. government was prepared for the anticipated influx of migrants at the border.

In 2021, roughly 2 million individuals were encountered at the U.S.-Mexico border. Because most individuals were apprehended, often through voluntarily presenting themselves to border agents to seek asylum, then immediately expelled, many migrants attempted to cross multiple times. It is estimated that around 27% of these encounters were from repeat crossers. Of the 2 million apprehensions, about 1.1 million individuals were immediately expelled, with only some family units and unaccompanied children allowed to enter to pursue asylum claims. 

It remains unclear whether the Biden administration will pause its anticipated withdrawal of Title 42 to prepare for the potentially significant spike in attempted crossings and asylum requests this summer. Additionally, while many of these individuals have been and will continue to come from Central America, there have also been reports of growing numbers of migrants arriving to the border from Haiti, Cuba, Russia, Turkey, India, and even Ukraine.

Though each migrant’s journey to the U.S. looks different, many face some of the same tragedies and hardships on their journey. Horrific violence, extortion from cartels, emotional trauma, rape and sexual assault, and lack of basic necessities are commonplace for migrants on their journey to the U.S., especially for women and children. As we once again see headlines around immigration in the news, it is essential for us to stop and consider why so many still choose to come, given the difficulty of the journey and the uncertain futures that migrants face upon reaching the U.S.

The factors that cause each migrant to make the difficult decision to leave home vary for each individual situation and country. However, there are some consistent, widespread issues that are often cited as the root causes of migration: corruption, violence, and poverty. 

Corruption

Perhaps the most widespread root cause of migration is corruption. Corruption is especially damaging because where it persists, other evils can thrive. Where corruption is allowed to fester, it can easily spread to many institutions in a country and region: police, government, the judicial system, businesses, and even, in some instances, religious institutions. Once people have completely lost trust in their institutions, individuals are often relegated to despair and hopelessness. Many begin to believe that their situations cannot improve or that they will be unable to receive redress for injustices committed against them. While corrupt governments exist all over the world, they are currently particularly prevalent in the Northern Triangle (Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador) and Caribbean nations. Government leaders rake in huge sums of money while refusing to hold free and fair elections and failing to invest resources in the basic services that their citizens need to survive. 

The COVID-19 pandemic and recent natural disasters throughout the world, especially in Central America, have exacerbated and highlighted these issues to the watching world. The inefficiency and corruption of these governments have prevented vulnerable people from receiving the necessary recovery aid, adequate testing and PPE to fight the pandemic, and have severely hampered the distribution of COVID-19 vaccines, leading to prolonged and heightened suffering at the hands of this disease and these natural disasters.

Violence

It is in these environments of corruption that violence is especially able to thrive. Cartels and gangs are enabled to act without fear of punishment and are able to easily bribe and infiltrate the institutions that should protect the vulnerable. These dynamics are particularly hurtful to women and children, who face increasing levels of violence, including femicide and sexual violence. Impunity for these crimes is typical, with conviction for violence against women under 3% in Central America. With no threat of meaningful retribution, gangs and cartels are allowed to terrorize the vulnerable.

In addition to these trends in Central America, many are being forcibly displaced due to violence all around the world. Following the Taliban’s takeover in Afghanistan this summer, thousands were forced to flee. As Russia has now waged war in Ukraine, it is estimated that as many as 10 million individuals might be displaced, with over 4 million already leaving the country, creating the largest refugee crisis in Europe since World War II. 

Violence is also often a factor for those who face persecution because of their religion or ethnicity. Open Doors’ recent World Watch List, which analyzes where it is most difficult to be a Christian, highlights countries where believers are being forced to flee for their Chritian faith. While many of these people seek protection through the refugee resettlement program, its severe backlogs and lengthy processing time force some to attempt to travel to the southern border to seek asylum.

Poverty 

A third factor that often spurs emigration is poverty. As individuals struggle to meet their basic needs, face no economic opportunity, and receive little assistance and aid from their governments, many are forced to make the difficult decision to migrate. Parents who see no opportunity for their children or are unable to provide for their needs have to reckon with these harsh realities. Nearly 10% of the world’s population lives in extreme poverty, attempting to survive on less than $2 per day, with children accounting for two-thirds of the world’s most poor, and for those older than 15, about 70% have no schooling or only basic education.

Oftentimes, poverty is directly linked to these other factors of violence and corruption. According to World Vision, “Although countries impacted by fragility, crises, and violence are home to about 10% of the world’s population, they account for more than 40% of people living in extreme poverty. By 2030, an estimated 67% of the world’s poor will live in fragile contexts.” 

Why does it matter?

Understanding why people migrate is essential to addressing our broken immigration system wisely. While there are sharp disagreements on how exactly our system should be fixed, few would argue that it currently works effectively. Addressing the root causes of migration must be an integral part of our national strategy to reform our immigration system. 

The ERLC has joined other evangelical organizations in urging both Congress and the administration to prioritize addressing these issues through equipping local Nongovernmental Organizations and civil society organizations, including faith-based organizations and churches, to meet the needs of their communities and fight against these forces of violence, corruption, and poverty. One piece of legislation that works to do this in the Northern Triangle is the Central American Women and Children Protection Act. The ERLC is actively advocating for the swift passage of this bill which would allow the vulnerable, particularly women and girls, to find safety in their communities without having to face the dangerous journey to the U.S.

Secondly and primarily, for us as Christians, understanding why people migrate helps us to see the dignity of these migrants, to better understand their pain, and to respond with empathy and compassion, rather than with partisanship or suspicion. It is much easier to see migrants as something to be feared or hated when we don’t first stop to consider their individual stories and the forces that brought them to our borders. As migrants arrive to the U.S., churches have an opportunity to reach the nations without leaving our neighborhoods. Migrants have experienced tremendous difficulty, and it is imperative that the Church respond with compassion and rise up to meet both the physical and spiritual needs of the most vulnerable among us—in the same way that Jesus has cared for us. 

By / Aug 31

This fall, the Supreme Court will take up a court case that could pose a threat to Roe and Casey precedents which protect the right to an abortion. If Dobbs — the case out of Mississippi — does what the brief field by the state’s attorney general hopes, then abortion will cease to be a federally protected right. Instead, a variety of state legislative positions will go into effect, ranging from complete abolition of abortion to complete protection of access. If this case is successful, the pro-life movement will suddenly be faced not with one fight but with dozens across the country, each unique.

Even with the unique challenges that will face the pro-life movement, there is almost certainly one constant: one of the most commonly cited reasons that women seek an abortion is that they don’t think they can afford a child. Therefore, moving forward, it will be necessary to not only think about making abortion illegal, though that is necessary and vital, but also making it unthinkable. One part of that is ensuring that women do not see a positive pregnancy test as an economic crisis, but for the joy that it is: a new life bearing the image of God. 

Economic instability increases abortion vulnerability

There are a number of reasons that women seek abortions including age, number of previous children, and pressure from their partner. However, the most common reasons given are rooted in socioeconomic concerns, namely that the birth of an additional child is an economic crisis which endangers an already meager financial situation. One study found that over 70% of women who reported receiving an abortion listed money concerns as a reason. Similarly, this is not just a concern in the United States. In countries around the globe, socioeconomic factors are at the top of the list for why women receive an abortion, whether because they think themselves too impoverished to care for one child or to provide for an additional dependent. 

Each year there are hundreds of thousands of abortions (800K+ in 2018) in the United States, and statistically 75% of those abortions will be provided to women who are considered poor or impoverished. Poverty here is defined by the federal poverty level which, in 2020, was an annual income of $17,331 for a family of two or $26,246 for a family of four. While the number seems incredibly low — and it is — the number of individuals who fall into that category is not. There were over 34 million people below the poverty line in 2019. For comparison, that is the equivalent of the entire state of Texas, and an additional 4 million people. In the face of such poverty, the birth of an unexpected child, with all the attending costs — healthcare and insurance, doctor’s visits, milk, formula, time off from work, and diapers (just to name a few) —looks like an insurmountable hurdle. 

In the face of these circumstances, these vulnerable women are preyed upon by an abortion industry that offers them an inhumane answer to their economic uncertainty. They are offered the chance to make it go away, for a price. Because of the Hyde Amendment (and even this is subject to constant renewal), the federal government is barred from providing money through Medicaid to pay for abortion except in specific cases. However, several states allow the state’s contribution of Medicaid funds to pay for the procedure. In those states which allow funding, over half of the abortions were paid for by Medicaid. Further, they are allowed to receive government funds as reimbursements for other medical services provided. That amount, which varies from year to year, has seen an uptick since 2016 and was over $600 million in 2018. Not only does the abortion industry prey upon the most vulnerable in its destruction of life inside the womb, it profits off the economic instability of their mothers, with promises that economic security lies just past the procedure that ends their child’s life and lines the abortion provider’s pockets. 

Countering abortion through poverty measure

Poverty prevention and alleviation is one of the areas where the church has a unique opportunity to prevent abortion vulnerability. Churches often have networks that are already in existence whereby the impoverished can come to them for help in the form of benevolence funds. Further, they can be the hub for connecting abortion vulnerable women to the social services available to them and help to bridge them through difficult financial times. 

Poverty prevention is not a distraction from the work of the gospel but rather a recognition that the care of the poor is a consistent theme throughout Scripture. From the commands to leave crops for them to glean in the Old Testament laws (Lev. 19:9-10), the condemnation of those who unjustly oppress the poor (Is. 3:14-15), or the praise of Jesus for those who have cared for the poor, hungry, and naked (Matt. 25:36-40), the scriptures speak clearly of the Christian’s duty to care for the poor. 

Not only at the local level, but at the state and federal level, measures to alleviate poverty are methods that can decrease the need for abortion. Though politicians and political operatives may argue about the measures that will best correct the crisis that is poverty, there is no doubt that it must be addressed. One recent example is the expansion of the Child Tax Credit that resulted in direct payments to families with children that helped to decrease the number of children living in households that were identified as economically vulnerable. Daniel Williams, in his book The Politics of the Cross, argues that another method is to expand healthcare availability and ensure that the working poor have better wages and improved opportunities. 

The correction of poverty through the alleviation of poverty is a tool that the pro-life community has employed in the past. Again, Daniel Williams, in his history of the pro-life movement before Roe v. Wade, shows that prior to the court’s ruling, pro-life advocates combatted abortion through their advocacy of poverty measures. Since the Roe decision, anti-abortion advocates have focused on overturning the decision and restricting access. This is a needed (and incredibly effective) tool. 

However, the goal is not just to end abortion, but rather to make it unthinkable. While we also need to address the suburban woman sitting in a Southern Baptist pew who is tempted toward abortion, one of the means of helping to make abortion unthinkable is to provide vulnerable women with the tools they need so that an unexpected pregnancy is no longer an economic crisis. Addressing abortion through poverty will not end the practice, and it must be paired with state and federal measures that limit access to the practice. But removing this one concern makes it less likely that the women will fall prey to the predations of the abortion industry. It removes the concern that a woman faces between having another child or feeding the baby she already has. And it clarifies the church’s commitment to serving the least of these.

By / Jul 22

Every person reading this is a human being. But what does that actually mean? “Human dignity” is a term used by Christians (and non-Christians) in policy conversations about a vast array of topics including poverty alleviation, humanitarian aid, abortion, and euthanasia. As Christians, we believe that God creating humankind in his image means that every person possesses an inherent and inalienable dignity. In other words, every human life is precious because every life belongs to a person who bears God’s image. Because of the value and preciousness of each life, it is vital that we develop a clear biblical understanding of what a human is and what the image of God implies. 

What is a human?

Our culture has wrongfully placed the responsibility of defining personhood onto individuals instead of our Creator, who, as “the Alpha and the Omega, the First and the Last, the Beginning and the End” (Rev. 22:13), has the rightful authority to define our being. Claiming false authority over personhood has led to broken families, distorted views of sexuality, and heinous acts such as abortion in our society. Thankfully, through the creation account, the Bible helps us understand specific ways human beings are set apart from the rest of creation. Though faithful scholars differ in certain respects about exactly what it means to be made in God’s image, below you’ll find three characteristics about humanity that are clearly implied by the opening section of Genesis. 

1. Humans are relational

“Then God said, “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness. And let them have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over the livestock and over all the earth and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth” (Gen. 1:26)

When God created mankind, he did so as a Trinity of three persons: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. God created us to live in community with him and with one another, reflecting his relational nature. As one God in three persons, God is relational by nature. Similarly, humans are made to operate in relationships. This is precisely what God emphasizes when he creates Eve to live in union with Adam and says, “It is not good for man to be alone” (Gen. 2:18). 

Through the blood of Jesus, God invites us into fellowship with the divine Trinity. John writes in 1 John 1:3, “Indeed our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ.” God’s heart for relationships is further revealed in the New Testament when he establishes the familial nature of the church, encouraging believers throughout the New Testament to “devote themselves to fellowship,” to “have one heart and one mind,” to “bear one another’s burdens,” and to “love one another with brotherly affection” (Acts 2:42; 4:32; Gal. 6:2; Rom. 12:10).

2. Humans are distinct/unique

So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them” (Gen. 1:27). 

In creating us, God not only gave us the ability to love and enjoy companionship with one another and himself, but he also made us distinct in two ways. First, as mentioned above, mankind is made in God’s image. And from Genesis, we learn that human beings are distinct because we are the only part of God’s creation that he specifically made in his image. 

Second, God made us distinct in terms of biology. As Genesis 1:27 tells us, God designed us as either male and female. These distinctions in biological sex are apparent in many ways, including our DNA and external features. Each sex is unique, and various aspects of God’s nature are displayed in both men and women. Ultimately, these distinctions are an important part of the mystery of the gospel, particularly when they are on display in a one flesh union between a husband and a wife. 

As the New Testament explains, the male and female marriage relationship is a picture of Christ’s love for the church. Paul writes of the mysterious, holy complexity of the marriage relationship in Ephesians 5:32: “For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh. This mystery is profound, but I am speaking about Christ and the church.” Long before Christ’s incarnation, God purposefully created humanity as male and female and designed the marriage union to display truths about himself. 

Biological sex in every individual is one aspect of God’s design that proclaims his creativity and gives us a clearer picture of his image. The distinct features each human bears remind us that no life is ever interchangeable, replaceable, or worthless.

3. Humans are commissioned

God blessed them and said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it; rule over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air and every creature that crawls upon the earth” (Gen. 1:28). 

Every person has a designated role as a steward and cultivator over the earth. God gave Adam a job: to have children, to subdue the ground, and to rule over the other living creatures. Each of us can subdue, or tame, the earth through all kinds of vocations, but this command reveals that God has designed a place and a purpose for each of us (Eph. 2:10). God has included in our makeup the ability to procreate, desires and determination to care for and protect our families — with specific callings designed for husband and wife — to produce things that are good and useful, and to assert leadership in various settings. In order to preserve ourselves and care for loved ones, we employ different gifts and talents that add value to the world and subsequently seek the good of our neighbors. 

God sets his image-bearers above creation and other created beings in giving us vocations. Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations is widely taught and accepted, observing the phenomenon of trade as an obvious outlier from the way animals relate. Smith is merely observing what has been woven into creation — God has uniquely commissioned his image-bearers to work and care for his good creation, and even the marketplace puts his creative design on display.

Conclusion

The special care God took in setting humans apart from other created beings is why a Christian understanding of human dignity is important when considering issues of justice. Slavery, genocide, abortion, and exploitation of all kinds are tragic displays of treating other humans as utilities. But God’s unmistakable genius in each of our bodies, minds, hearts, and personalities denies any attempt to devalue a human’s worth. These practices are considered “inhumane” because they treat people as a means to an end, more like subordinate animals than respected brothers and sisters.

As Christians, we must defend the vulnerable on the grounds that humans are image-bearers; there is no amount of privilege or power that makes a man or woman more or less valuable. Physical distinctions are often a barrier to relationships and an excuse for sinful and exploitative uses of authority, but the Bible makes no distinction when it comes to a person’s value; every person bears the imago Dei, and every person matters.

When God finished creating heaven, earth, and us, he called his masterpiece “very good” (Gen. 1:31). Long ago, God defined our worth so sinful humans wouldn’t be responsible for determining the value of a life. From conception to death, humans have dignity, eminence, and significance because we are the only creatures God made in his image. We may not understand the full picture of the imago Dei until we are face to face with God in heaven, but we do see God’s image reflected in how humans are relational, distinct, and commissioned.

By / Mar 17

Two recent congressional programs—one proposed and one already passed—may have a significant effect on poverty in the United States.

The recent $1.9 trillion pandemic relief bill, called the American Rescue Plan, includes a number of benefits that will affect low-income individuals and families. Although this relief only makes changes for 2021, it could be extended or used as a model for other poverty-reducing programs in the future.

Another program proposed in February by Sen. Mitt Romney, called the Family Security Act, would also give monthly cash payments to parents and reform federal aid for low-income Americans that would lead to reductions in poverty.

Here is what you should know about these efforts.

What is the poverty reducing feature of the American Rescue Plan?

A primary feature of the relief bill is direct payments to taxpayers of $1,400, or $2,800 for a married couple filing their taxes jointly, plus $1,400 per dependent. A married couple with two children would receive $5,600 in direct payments. 

The bill also significantly expands the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) for 2021 by making it available to people without children. The credit for low and moderate-income adults would be worth $543 to $1,502, depending on income and filing status.

For families with children, the legislation expands the benefit of the Child Tax Credit (CTC) from $2,000 annually to $3,600 for each child under 6 and $3,000 for each child between 6 to 17 years old (the credit previously excluded children age 17). Those amounts will also be available to all low-income families even if it exceeds the amount they paid in taxes

In previous years, the CTC was claimed when a person filed their tax returns. But starting in July, the CTC will be paid out on a monthly basis at a maximum rate of $300 per child. For example, a family with two children under 6 would qualify for $600 a month in CTC payments until December. (The other half of the CTC, for January to June 2021, will be paid when people file their tax returns.)

These payments are expected to have an immediate effect on the level of poverty in the U.S.

The poverty threshold for a one-person household is $12,880 a year (for comparison, a person working full time (2,080 hours per year) at the federal minimum wage ($7.25) would earn $15,080 a year). The threshold for a two-person family is $17,420, and $26,500 for a family of four.

The average relief benefit to the individual (i.e., $1,400 for the direct payment and roughly $1,000 for the EITC) would give them an additional $2,400, about 18.6% of the annual income needed to cross the poverty threshold (the equivalent to 331 hours—8.3 weeks—of minimum wage pay). For a family of two, it would provide 31% of the necessary annual income.

The benefit is most helpful, though, to a family with children. A two-parent family with two children under the age of 6 would receive $5,600 immediately, about $1,500 for the EITC, and  $7,200 in child tax credits—a total of $14,300, or 54% of the poverty threshold. 

How would the American Rescue Plan affect overall poverty?

An analysis by the Center on Poverty and Social Policy at Columbia University found the legislation could cut the overall poverty rate in the U.S. from 12.3% to 8.2%, and reduce the level of poverty for children under 18 from 13.5% to 5.7%.

What is the Family Security Act?

The change in the CTC under the American Rescue Act is similar to the Family Security Act, a proposal offered last month by Sen. Mitt Romney of Utah. The proposal would create a child allowance of $4,200 per child under age 6 (to be distributed at $350 per month) and $3,000 per child ages 6 to 17 (to be distributed at $250 per month). The maximum allowance per family would be $15,000 per year, or $1,250 per month. Unlike the change in the relief bill, which put no cap on the number of children, Romney’s plan would limit the benefit for families that have four or more children under the age of 6 or six or more children from the age of 6 to 17 to $15,000 a year. 

Eligibility would be available to parents four months before the child’s due date. The child allowance would also be available to families with no income and would only phase out for the highest-earning households (single filers making more than $200,000 and joint filers making more than $400,000).

This plan would repeal the current Child Tax Credit (CTC), which is currently administered through the tax code and is worth a maximum of $2,000 per child. The CTC is subject to a $2,500 minimum-income requirement, a phase-in rate, and a maximum refundability of $1,400 for workers with no tax liability to offset.

Romney’s plan would also reform the EITC by eliminating marriage penalties, reducing improper payments and IRS audits, making it easier for families to claim the correct credit, and maintaining the adult dependent component of the EITC separately to ensure no family earns less than the EITC in its current form.

A two-parent family with two children under the age of 6 would receive about $1,500 for the EITC and $8,400 in child tax credits—a total of $9,900, or 37.3% of the poverty threshold. 

How would the Romney plan affect poverty?

According to the Niskanen Center, Romney’s child allowance would reduce U.S. child poverty by roughly one-third and deep child poverty by half. They estimate the total poverty rate would decrease from 11.67% to 10.06% while the child poverty rate would decrease from 12.41% 8.37%. 

How much would these proposals cost?

The cost in the American Rescue Plan to provide $1,400-per-person stimulus checks to all Americans—not just those in poverty—is $422 billion. To expand the Child Tax Credit, Child Care Tax Credit, and Earned Income Tax Credit for all citizens for one year adds an additional cost of $143 billion. Because there are no offsets to that spending, it adds $565 billion to the federal deficit.

Under the Family Security Act, the estimated cost to expand the child benefit would cost $229.5 billion annually, which is $112.5 billion more than the current CTC. To pay for the expanded child benefit, the plan would make $66 billion in federal tax and spending offsets.

The Romney plan would eliminate head of household filing status, eliminate the Child and Dependent Care Tax Credit, eliminate the itemized deduction for state and local taxes paid, and eliminate Temporary Assistance for Needy Families. The plan would also change some eligibility for the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program. The reformed EITC would cost $24.5 billion annually—about $46.5 billion less than the current EITC.

By / Mar 9

In the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, a creeping global disaster is taking hold of families that can’t be fixed with a vaccine. A tsunami of children are at risk of being institutionalized in orphanages due to crippling poverty and loss of life as a result of the pandemic.

While churches may want to rush to help these displaced COVID-19 victims by donating to orphanages, it is also important to consider ways we might support these children and prevent them from being institutionalized in the first place.

A growing problem

In addition to the loss of parents and caregivers, the pandemic’s economic devastation is expected to pull as many as 150 million people into extreme poverty this year, according to the World Bank. This will be the first time this century that the number of people living in extreme poverty will increase rather than continuing its historic decline. An estimated 5.4 million children are already living in orphanages around the world—a number that will surely rise alongside the increasing number of impoverished families.

There is a direct connection between poverty and the institutionalization of vulnerable children. As much as 80 percent of children in orphanages today have a living parent. Furthermore, preliminary research shows that the children who have lost a parent due to COVID often still have a remaining parent and other family members to care for them. In times of crisis, without access to support, parents make the hard choice to place their children in an orphanage because they are unable to provide for them.

The proliferation of orphanages should concern every Christian because it is a direct affront to God’s design for families. With the right support, parents or close relatives can care for the majority of would-be orphans. If living with a biological family is not an option, local foster care and adoption are great secondary options that provide what a child needs most: a loving family. Decades of research show that children develop best in families, not orphanages.

The good news is, many churches are now choosing to move toward missions programs that support family-based care for orphans and vulnerable children. There’s something we can all do to help.

3 ways the church can help

First, it’s imperative that we know the facts and understand our role. Chances are, requests for more financial support for orphan care will rise along with the number of extreme poor. If you personally donate to a ministry that operates one or more orphanages, or your church does so with your tithe dollars, then it’s not just a distant concern. This question hits home for all of us: Is your charity answering the biblical call to care for the orphan by ensuring that they can live in a loving family? Or is it unintentionally tearing families apart?

Second, churches and other ministries in the United States have always played a crucial role in responding to global disasters. Hurricanes, earthquakes, floods, and other natural catastrophes consistently raise millions of dollars in donations to charitable relief efforts, as was seen with the response to Hurricane Maria’s devastation in Puerto Rico. The economic impact of COVID-19 must be considered in this category of global emergencies worthy of our attention and donations. In emergencies such as this, it is critical to fill the funding gaps and support local recovery efforts before children are placed in orphanages.

Third, international ministries and organizations must lead in solving this global problem. In 2019, the United Nations unanimously passed the Resolution on the Rights of the Child, which confirmed a commitment to prioritizing strengthening families over placing children in institutions. A growing group of over 60 Christian nonprofit organizations, including my own, affirmed that priority with the creation of the Global Church Pledge to See Children Thriving in Safe and Loving Families. Little did we know that our resolve would be so greatly tested by a global pandemic.

It takes a village

The problems facing children and families around the world are enormous and can feel overwhelming, especially as we are still dealing with COVID-19’s toll on our own lives. No single organization, government, or other entity is going to be able to tackle the problem on its own, but we can all do something. You can start by signing the Global Church Pledge, where you will learn more about the specific ways you can help at the individual or local church level.

There are millions of COVID-19 victims who are not in hospitals. They are headed for—or are already institutionalized in—orphanages. It’s time for churches to mobilize on behalf of these vulnerable children so they can thrive within a loving family, either by staying with their own parents or by being placed with other family members or a foster family. Children need families, and families reeling from the devastating economic impact of COVID-19 need our support to care well for their children.

By / Jun 25

I met Sarah* when she was seven months pregnant. She was homeless, young, and naive, and her intellectual disabilities were obvious, but so was her affection for the tiny baby girl in her belly, the one she and her on-again, off-again boyfriend were determined to keep. 

The circumstances made it obvious to most that she could not raise a baby on her own. She had no stable place to live, no family support, and no way of knowing what would be required of her. But for a young woman who had nothing else, there in the safety of her womb grew the only evidence she had that she was worth something; she believed her hopes of keeping her boyfriend and her dignity depended on keeping her baby.  

“Well, we will help you,” was all I knew to say, but I had no idea what it would mean.

Just under two years after I met her, this young homeless woman, Sarah, would have a new title: my daughter’s birth mother. 

Getting closer to the story

It’s easy to look at situations like Sarah’s, and the hundreds—maybe thousands—of other examples just like hers in my own hometown alone and dismiss them. 

She won’t hold down a job, she’d rather live off the system

Child Protective Services just needs to intervene and take that baby. 

You can’t help people who won’t help themselves.

I’ve heard each one of those statements over the last two years, from Christians and non-Christians alike. In the most frustrating moments, I’ve been tempted to believe them myself. But there is something that makes it nearly impossible to dismiss another human being with sweeping generalizations: proximity. Get near the broken and you can no longer ignore the reason she is broken.

Sarah’s story began more than a generation back, when poverty and addiction crept into her family line. By the time she was born, parents and grandparents, aunts and uncles and siblings had all been affected by the cyclical hopelessness of drugs and desperation. Sarah was taken from her own family as a near-starving toddler—herself an innocent victim of the CPS just needs to take the baby mentality. Authorities did take her, but with a shortage of suitable homes to send her to, the situation changed but did not improve. She was eventually placed with family, and her exploitation and abuse began before she entered second grade. Her primary perpetrator, a family member, was put in jail, but not before forever changing the narrative of Sarah’s life. At eight years old, Sarah had formed no safe attachments, experienced starvation, and had been repeatedly raped. The damage of eight years of trauma on her young brain was done.    

By the time I met Sarah, she had been living “the street life” for five years—sometimes sleeping on an acquaintance’s couch and sometimes under a bridge. She had an eighth grade education and a slew of diagnosed disabilities and mental illness. She used her body the way people who were supposed to protect her showed her how to use it much of her childhood: as a credit card to purchase affection, shelter, or food.

Everything was against her. And none of it was her fault. 

We know from numerous studies that childhood trauma has damaging effects on the brain’s development. Science tells us that trauma leads to “dysregulation of the amygdala, ventral affective processing, and reward circuits,” all big words with a simple explanation: trauma changes everything. In small doses and with safe people to process, virtually all human beings can cope with trauma. But repeated, violent, and ignored abuse in a child is not something she can cope with, and it changes brain chemistry for a lifetime. What that looks like for Sarah today is an inability to discern safe from unsafe people, little capacity to comprehend consequences, and crippling anxiety and depression.

But trauma does not change the image of God woven into Sarah. 

The imago Dei

As frustrating and trying as it can be to love and serve and stay consistent for someone who does not understand—nor can she return—any of those things; who makes the same poor decisions again and again; seeing Sarah as a woman created in the image of God demands from us the kind of love we cannot manufacture on our own. It’s steadfast and unconditional, with no guarantees about when or if it will ever produce any fruit. It isn’t allowed to dismiss her with trite sentiments like she won’t hold down a job because it understands and has genuine compassion for the fact that she can’t. 

When we told Sarah that we would help her, we had no idea it would be through foster care and adoption. We had three young children at home, one with significant special needs. Our plate felt full. But when CPS came to take her baby, she called and asked us for help. 

Every night when we put this sweet girl down for bed, we thank God she did.

As it became clear after several months that Sarah would not be able to safely take care of her baby, she signed her parental rights over to us, asking only one question as she did: “Will my baby know who I am?” 

Through tears I told Sarah, “Yes, of course she will. You’re always going to be her mom, too, Sarah.” 

Like many sentiments, this is harder to live out than it was to say. There are missed visits and pushed boundaries. There’s the very real concern that Sarah’s life is not a safe one to expose her daughter to, but also the knowledge that seeing her daughter is so good for Sarah’s heart. We do not know how to walk out an open adoption perfectly. We only know a perfect Savior who welcomes every chance we ask him to help us (James 1:5). 

We cannot fix what Sarah’s past took from her, and we are not naive about how difficult it is for a brain and a heart as damaged as hers to heal, and then change. We believe with all our heart that if God can raise the dead, then there is nothing too big for Him to redeem. But if we are honest, we don’t know what redemption looks like for Sarah. 

I don’t know if we can expect a miracle—which is what it would take for her—this side of heaven. The damage is irreparable, bearing the tangible scars of so much sin. But, as followers of Christ, we don’t sit in what we do not know and let it excuse our inaction. Sarah needs a miracle, and we cannot do that for her. But she also needs clothes, sometimes food, coffee cards, help filling out government paperwork, and supernatural patience to do it all again when they are lost or stolen or neglected. And those are things we can do

Sarah, and everyone created with the imago Dei—which is everyone—need people to get close to them, and people who believe in miracles, but who tangibly love them while they wait for one.  

*names have been changed for privacy

By / Nov 7

After many years ministering in Third World Countries among low-income communities, I have asked myself how churches can help and care for the poor in a meaningful way. It took mountains of good effort but always questioning if it was an effective way to do it. I started looking for answers by reading and hearing from others. Providentially, I came across Becoming Whole: Why the Opposite of Poverty Isn't the American Dream.

In this book, Brian Fikkert and Kelly M. Kapic aim to equip God’s people with a set of lenses through which they can view their poverty alleviation efforts. They provide theological, anthropological, and cosmological concepts and principles to form a view of social and cultural change that can improve initiatives to alleviate poverty. They offer a helpful framework for ministry leaders, staff, volunteers, boards, donors, and individuals who are involved directly with materially poor people.

Fikkert and Kapic structure the book in three main parts; each of them begins with initial thoughts and ends with reflection questions. Both sets of questions prepare and guide readers in profound and transformative ways, encouraging readers to ponder and take specific actions to help others without hurting them. 

Fikkert and Kapic emphasize the concept of "materially poor," understood as brokenness that every human being suffers from because of not experiencing four fundamental relationships God intended for us. These are: (1) not having a spiritual intimacy with God; (2) not reflecting God’s inherent worth and dignity; (3) lacking community with others; and (4) not being good stewards of the world God created to sustain his image-bearers. In that sense and because of the fall, every person is unable to experience the fullness of joy that God designed for these relationships. We are all broken and poor in different ways. This brokenness levels the moral ground and provides a healthier perspective for alleviating suffering and poverty of broken people.

Both writers help readers discover better ways to serve those in need by carrying it out in a more dignifying way.

Fikkert and Kapic debunk some misguiding “metanarratives” or overarching accounts about the nature of God, of human beings, and the world. They propose that embracing God’s story as centered on the person of Jesus Christ will have profound implications in any poverty alleviation effort. This Christ-centeredness will help Christian understanding of human nature and personhood. People are whole, connected creatures characterized as mind, affections, will, and body who are intrinsically wired for flourishing through these four fundamental relationships.

Both writers help readers discover better ways to serve those in need by carrying it out in a more dignifying way. Becoming Whole is a useful tool to help us understand "people experience flourishing when they serve as priest-kings, using their minds, affections, will, and body to enjoy loving relationships with God, self, others, and the rest of creation.”

Any person, church, or ministry wanting to provide and alleviate poverty needs to consider the theological, anthropological, and cosmological assumptions at play when caring for the poor and apply the resurrecting power of Christ to identify and address its material and spiritual causes. In this sense, Becoming Whole provides a distinctly Christian and practical approach to the alleviation of poverty.