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The world is in a mess, and Christians know it. Too many of us believe that we have not been called to change the world. What if centuries ago Christians had taken a similar position? What would the world be like today? John Newton (1725–1807) was an infamous slave trader. The church knows him best as the author of such well-known hymns as “Amazing Grace” and “Glorious Things of Thee Are Spoken.” Even while Newton was a Christian, he was also a captain of a slave ship. “Newton penned the beloved hymn ‘How Sweet the Name of Jesus Sounds in a Believer’s Ear’ during the leisure time afforded by a voyage from Africa to the West Indies.”1 Keep in mind the often repeated claim that Christians are not called to change the world. Following this line of logic, Newton could have remained a slave trader and a good Christian.

In time, however, Newton confessed “shame” for “the misery and mischief to which [he had], formerly, been [an] accessory.” He eventually denounced his former occupation with the publication of Thoughts Upon the African Slave Trade (1788), “a stinging attack upon slavery that makes scenes from Alex Haley’s Roots seem mild by comparison.”2 Newton believed, prior to his denunciation of the slave trade, that he could be a good Christian and do nothing to fix social evils. “By 1788 Newton considered it ‘criminal’ to remain silent and not inveigh with evangelical fervor against the entire slave system. This conviction did not arise automatically upon his conversion, but from ethical deliberations that [William] Wilberforce set in motion.”3

England’s abolition movement was almost entirely led by the evangelical wing of the church. At the pleading of Lady Middleton and Bishop Porteus, James Ramsay wrote a long Essay on the Treatment and Conversion of Slaves in the British Sugar Colonies (1784). Ramsay was “convinced that men will not respond to lessons of eternal redemption from those who enslave them on earth, or about heaven when kept in hell. . . . He proposed steps to total Emancipation, and suggested that free labour would yield more profit to plantation owners.”4

William Wilberforce, upon being struck with the oppression inherent in the slave trade, wrote in his diary, “Almighty God has set before me two great objectives: The abolition of the slave trade and the reformation of manners.”5 Wilberforce began his mission in 1787. His efforts were ridiculed and lampooned in popular cartoons. “The attitude in the House of Lords was summed up by the member who declared flatly, ‘All abolitionists are Jacobins.’”6 These words are similar to the charges made by a number of modern-day evangelical leaders. Had the British government “not been in the hands of Christians there seems little reason to have expected it to mount its massive, expensive, and voluntary campaign against slavery.”7

In addition to the work done by these nearly forgotten Christians who worked tirelessly to abolish the slave trade, there is a long tradition of the establishment of schools and hospitals around the globe. Medical and educational missionary work has its origins in the evangelical struggle for reform. Great efforts of social reform followed the preaching of the gospel. “Historians have attributed to [John] Wesley’s influence rather than to any other the fact that Britain was spared the horrors of a bloody revolution like France’s.”8 His philosophy of social reform was derived from the Bible.

Civil governments sanctioned the slave trade. What makes us think that economic policies are any more morally neutral than laws protecting slave traders? Creating economic policies that claim to “save” people but in reality only make them dependent on the State is as morally reprehensible as stealing men and women from Africa and putting them on plantations. Poor people had been warehoused in New Orleans because of well intentioned by inherently flawed welfare programs. Housing developments, a euphemism for “the projects,” were built to stack poor people on top of poor people, all in the name of social justice. Government subsidies made it easy for the poor to stay right where they were. Hurricane Katrina exposed the open sore.

In 1937, New Orleans became the first city in the United States to benefit under the Wagner Act to provide public housing for low-income families. There are a number of basic economic principles that politicians either don’t understand or refuse to believe. One very important law is, if you subsidize something, you’ll get more of it. If the government is making housing available at below market prices, there will a significant number of people who will take advantage of the offer. The St. Thomas housing development originally included 970 dwelling units contained in a multitude of two and three story solid masonry brick buildings arranged around outdoor spaces. In 1952, 540 more housing units were added. At first, only whites could occupy the units. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 changed all of this and eventually led to a racially diverse, low-income, working class group of families. When family income reached a certain level, residents had to move out. So how did some families respond to the new income rules? They cut down on their income level by not working. Fathers often left because any added income puts the family unit over the limit. It’s not a coincidence that 35 percent of families in the Lower Garden District and Orleans Parish are led by women only.9 Many of these families stay poor to keep their subsidized housing and other welfare benefits. Subsidies have led to the immobility of the poor, the breakup of the family, and dependency on government programs. There is little incentive to leave the area, since the risks are seen as being too great. Star Parker, once trapped in the welfare cycle, writes:

Thirty-five years of Great Society social engineering have forced the disadvantaged to live under the control of the federal government. Politicians control their housing, food supply, schooling, wages, and transportation. A centralized government makes decisions about their childcare, healthcare, and retirement.10

Most of the St. Thomas Housing Development has been demolished, with the former occupants relocated, but with the same insane economic policies still intact. Some progress was being made in bringing development to the area. Wal-Mart wanted to build a store on the site of the old St. Thomas housing development. Opposition was loud and fierce, but in the end, after nearly five years of battles, Wal-Mart prevailed, employing 600 people.

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So what was Katrina’s silver lining? The poorest of the poor of New Orleans have been forced to leave the place they’ve called home for decades and taken to cities where they had to begin a new life. Black migration is not new, but it has never been this sudden. Blacks migrated from the South in the 1920s. Thomas Sowell’s research shows that there were many reasons for the size and scope of the mass exodus: “worsening race relations in the South toward the end of the nineteenth century, improving race relations in the North during the same period, the economic distress in the South caused by the boll weevil, and increasing job opportunities caused by the World War I mobilization combined with a reduction of competitors as immigration fell sharply because of the war.”11 This black migration paved the way for later migrations. As history attests, it was not always an easy transition and assimilation. As difficult as blacks had it during this period, a distinctly black culture developed, even in the prevalence of racist attitudes and restrictive laws. “Because Washington was a segregated city, blacks simply created their own metropolis. . . . The first black bank, the Industrial Savings Bank, was started here.” While “the black population of New York’s Harlem inherited many of its buildings from previous white owners, . . . many of the buildings in Shaw were paid for by black businessmen and built by black hands.”12 Adversity led millions of Blacks to parts unknown to make a better life for themselves and their families. It can happen again, but not if governmental welfare programs are reinstituted.

The evacuees, local governments, and Washington politicians have a choice. They can reengineer the same failed welfare policies that trapped and warehoused the poor in New Orleans, or they can advance a strategy of personal, family, social, and moral redevelopment. This is as good a time as any to dismantle the welfare state. 

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1 John D. Woodbridge, Mark A. Knoll, and Nathan O. Hatch, The Gospel in America: Themes in the Story of America’s Evangelicals (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1979), 233. 2 Woodbridge, Knoll, and Hatch, The Gospel in America, 233. 3 Woodbridge, Knoll, and Hatch, The Gospel in America, 234. 4 John Pollock, Wilberforce (Belleville, MI: Lion Publishing, [1977] 1986), 51. 5 Quoted in Charles Colson, Kingdoms in Conflict (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1987), 100. 6 Colson, Kingdoms in Conflict, 104. 7 Otto J. Scott, The Secret Six: John Brown and the Abolitionist Movement (New York: Times Books, 1979), 85. 8 John Stott, Involvement: Being a Responsible Christian in a Non-Christian Society (Old Tappan, NJ: Revell, 1984), 20. 9 “Black family life in the early decades of the twentieth century was typically one featuring two-parent households. More than four out of five Negro families in New York in 1905 were headed by the father. As late as 1925, only 3 percent of black families in New York were headed by a woman under twenty. The unwed teenage welfare mother emerged in a later era.” (Thomas Sowell, Ethnic America: A History [New York: Basic Books, 1981], 213).
10 Star Parker, Uncle Sam’s Plantation: How Big Government Enslaves America’s Poor and What We Can Do About It (Nashville: WND Books, 2003), 72. 11 Sowell, Ethnic America, 209. 12 Mark Cauvreau Judge, If It Ain’t Got that Swing: The Rebirth of Grown-Up Culture (Dallas, TX: Spence Publishing, 2000), 4.