Charity, Justice, Debt—and your Church Board

TMC Digging A Deeper Well

It’s rare that a major news outlet covers the charitable work of American churches. (Is that the fault of the news media, or the churches?)

Bucking this trend, a recent New York Times Op-Ed by Elizabeth Bruenig, “Churches Step In Where Politicians Will Not,” highlights a growing movement among churches to relieve the crushing medical bills of many in their communities by contributing to an organization called RIP Medical Debt.

In a few brief anecdotes, Bruenig illustrates how the medical debt relief movement is enabling congregations to directly and powerfully ease the pain and suffering of people they do not know—caring for the stranger in their midst, as the gospels call us to do.

Bruenig also shows us how this movement is engaging congregations across the ideological spectrum. Indeed, she acknowledges, there is “something remarkable — almost miraculous — about this faith-driven debt relief. Although American Christianity is as malformed by the harsh tug of political poles as any other realm, forgiving medical debt has managed to ally very different Christians behind the same cause.”

And finally, she articulates an uneasy relationship between debt, charity, and justice (one that might challenge the traditional “atonement” or “ransom” theology of Christian faith). “In just societies, these debts do not exist,” she argues. “But in our society, charity must stand in for justice so long as the latter is in short supply.”

The debt-relief movement highlighted in this article is not for everyone, as the 690 comments written in response clearly indicate.  Indeed, there was almost immediate push-back from readers who see charity as an obstacle, not a step toward justice. And in response to this response, there has been talk about not letting the perfect be the enemy of the good when it comes to faith communities getting involved in acting for justice in our society.

Thomas Daniel, Senior Pastor of Covenant Presbyterian Church in Austin (and a member of The Ministry Collaborative’s Advisory Board), was in the middle of much of this debate when his congregation donated $100,000 earlier this year to erase $10,000,000 of medical debt among the most vulnerable in their city.  “Our board was looking for a way to move from dealing with symptoms of injustice and suffering to something closer to root causes,” he told us.  “Medical debt is the largest reason for personal bankruptcy, and it falls disproportionally on communities of color.”  Daniel noted that a subsequent article about the congregation’s action has become one of the most read stories of the year in Austin’s major newspaper.  And it kicked off a similar debate that Bruenig’s article did, with people both lauding and decrying the church’s action.  Commented Daniel: “How great that, beyond trying to address this need, it also caused a public debate on the purpose of the church!  How often does that happen in a culture that largely sees the church as irrelevant?”

Wrapping up her opinion piece, Bruenig challenges those in her own political party to find unity in their approach to medical debt. But she also leaves congregations with a host of questions to consider in this season of giving, as we acknowledge the injustice and grieve the suffering of so many in our midst.



Does your board regularly discuss how your congregation is seeking greater justice for our society?  If not, what takes the place of this topic?


How does (or would) your board respond to the statement:  “God loves the world more than God loves the church?”


What is the relationship between charity, justice and debt in your reading of the gospels?


If you feel called to relieve suffering that is rooted in injustice, how do you act? What is the good available to you to do?


What in this story gives you the most hope? How can you as a church board build on that hope?


What in this story leaves you most disturbed? How can you as a church board talk about that sense of disturbance?

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