The U.S. typically does not have much mercy on the poor and unemployed.
Often, we blame them for their life circumstances and think that if they would just get their acts together, they could be as successful as us.
We forget that unemployment is not necessarily related to a person’s attitude or desire to be lazy. This was evidenced by the worldwide financial crisis of 2008 and the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on countless people.
Even these types of crises do not fully account for other people who still cannot find or keep gainful employment because they suffer from mental health challenges or have a criminal record that hinders them from finding gainful employment.
If it were up to many of these unemployed people, they would not be spending their days in idleness.
I think one of the challenges the contemporary church faces is to not view the unemployed through a lens of bootstrap theology, some of the tenets of which are as follows:
- A person’s value to God and their community is based on their willingness to work for what they receive so they do not become a financial or social burden on their community.
- A person’s inability to positively contribute to their community is more likely due to their laziness or unwillingness to work than to the effects of any given economic, political or social system.
This is not a new challenge for the church to navigate. How to view those who do not work was also a challenge Paul attempted to address in 2 Thessalonians 3:6-13, which is often used to support bootstrap theology.
Although Paul talked about work in that passage, the overall point of his argument was not the value of work, but the value in having faith that God would take care of people.
Paul’s words were written to a context where faith was being stretched thin by multiple forces. The believers in Thessalonica were waiting for their Savior to come back and free them from the persecution they were experiencing.
Jesus’ return would also address the fears some were experiencing after losing loved ones whom they were not sure would be in heaven with them. Jesus’ return would also mean they would no longer have to toil and strive for temporary things.
The downside to this hope was that the longer it took for Jesus to come back, the more their faith waned and the more their fear grew — fear that whom and what they had trusted in was not valid.
The longer it took for Jesus to return, the more likely it was that they would be tempted to direct their angst at one another.
Like the people in the Thessalonian church, we as individuals and congregations can, and do, struggle with remaining steadfast in our faith as life marches on and things do not necessarily turn out as we thought they would.
Stressful circumstances that arise in our lives and a mentality fueled by fear of lack and scarcity can cause us to question our relationship with God and each other.
But what is the antidote for these types of fears? The remedy for fear, or a mentality of lack, is to acknowledge it, turn it over to God and accept the peace offered through the Holy Spirit.
Bootstrap theology fails to take into account that life in a community of human beings will always be flawed because someone will always be giving and doing more than someone else.
Depending on where we each find ourselves in life, not every member of a community will be able to pull their full weight at the same time. At any given time, there will be people who will be stronger and more engaged, having more time and energy or more experience to offer the community.
The hope is that the level of commitment we each can display will regularly flow back and forth.
That means that, at any given point of any relationship, you may be giving and doing at a higher level, but at other times you may be giving and doing less than someone else. Hopefully, over time, someone else’s efforts will increase as yours decreases, or vice versa.
Although it may sound trite, I simply affirm what God regularly promised us in the Bible. God has said that, in general, we do not have anything to fear.
We will be given what we need to endure the challenging times of life and to overcome them. Our privilege is to support each other as we navigate the waiting game that is life.
The poor and unemployed are not the enemy. Instead, fear and a mentality of scarcity are.
Author’s note: This article was adapted from Carter’s most recent book Taking Apart Bootstrap Theology: Gospel of Generosity and Justice. It is available through Judson Press.
Editor’s note: This article is the first in a series this week highlighting the International Day for the Eradication of Poverty.
A pastor, author and educator living in St. Louis, Missouri, he is the author of several books, including The Gospel According to Broadway and Taking Apart Bootstrap Theology: Gospel of Generosity and Justice.