Monday, February 20, 2012

What is "Helping" the Poor 5

... continued from Saturday
... To be sure, there are, I believe, legitimate claims to be made that far more people overall prosper under the type of capitalist systems we find in the Western world today. But many seem to lose sight of this fact, that the ultimate Christian justification for capitalism is the conviction that it helps more people in the end. The danger is that we come to mistake Rand's "selfishness" as the Christian value itself.

When we begin to talk about something like capitalism, we begin to get into the bigger sense of what "helping" might mean.  I can help one specific person on one day by giving her a fish.  At the end of the day, I have one less fish and tomorrow that person will be hungry again.  If I could teach others to fish, so the adage goes, then they will be able to get fish for themselves.

This is of course a modern proverb.  It presumes that there are plenty of fish to find if we will only fish for them.  It is not a proverb based on the way people generally thought at the time of the Bible, which was more in terms of a limited amount of "good," a limited amount of resources.

But today it does seem that my prosperity need not take away from yours.  Sure, there are cases of this sort.  If there is a certain dividend in a company for the year, it can only be divided a certain way. And there are times where work is hard to find. I write this book as the United States seems to be emerging slowly from the most significant recession since the Great Depression of the 1930's. There are lots of people right now who know how to fish but can't find a pond.

But in general, the proverb rings true for our context today.  Jesus and the New Testament would not want someone to go hungry today. But surely it is even more loving of our neighbors to teach them to fish, to help them find a job, to help them stand on their own, maybe even to give them a job.

As we hinted above, the cycle of poverty in some cases has left some not wanting to fish.  I am convinced that Jesus would not say, "That's their own choice.  Let them experience the consequences of their own actions."  The reason I do not believe Jesus would say this is twofold.

Most importantly, psychology would lead us to question whether in fact they are free to make another choice.  Poverty can be a sort of addiction every bit as powerful as alcohol or drugs.  It is very difficult when you have never been addicted to anything to realize the powerlessness of the situation. I am convinced that Jesus would come alongside people in such situations to find a way not only to give them a fish for today, not only to teach them to fish.  But as the first order of business, I believe he would heal them so that they want to fish in the first place.

The second reason I believe Jesus would not leave such people alone is because mercy was more important to him than justice in our sense of the word. [1]  The focus of his mission was to reclaim the lost sheep, not to discard them because they had got themselves into a mess.  We do not find Jesus saying things like, "Let them stew in their own juice."

How to lift up those enslaved to a cycle of poverty is far beyond my capacities. I do suspect we are almost talking about a kind of miracle, just as it is so difficult for a person addicted to alcohol or drugs to stop. For the purposes of this book, I will be happy if you will at least recognize what Jesus' values were.  He did not leave the demon-possessed as if to say, "If you had been righteous, a demon would not have been able to take you over."  He intervened when the weak were enslaved beyond their control. His impulse to heal is the impulse we should have toward those in distress in our society...

[1] "Justice" in the sense of the Old Testament prophets was not about punishment for wrongdoing but primarily about "social" justice, seeing that widows and orphans were taken care of, while making sure that those that oppressed them were brought low (cf. Micah 6).


Nathaniel said...

I agree whole-heartedly. And I have no intent to defend Rand at all. However, what do you do with Paul's "If a man will not work, he shall not eat" or Christ's "the poor will always be with you"?

Here in KY we have a lot of generational poverty. Most of them are quite capable of working, at least physically, but just prefer not to. I've personally seen houses with no electricity or running water with tarps covering the holes in the walls and ceilings. Yet these sames houses sometimes have a generator that powers their satellite dish and big screen TV.

I don't have any easy answers to this. However, I can't help but observe that the food stamps they get enable their laziness. I'm also not suggesting that taking away the food stamps would fix their problems. For some of them it would probably push them to go find work (and there is work available here). For others they would probably just be content to live in even more squalor.

Further, I tend to see a deep spiritual component to these issues. Many of them arrive at such conditions by their refusal to deal with various vices. That is the disorder of their lives is reflective of the disorder of their own souls.

May God help us navigate these tough issues.

JohnM said...

Ken, you said " But as the first order of business, I believe he would heal them so that they want to fish in the first place."

I'd like to agree, but it seems to me if a person is hungry now, and provision for need is THE moral imperative no matter what, the FIRST order of business would be to give them a fish, now. And there's your catch-22. A full belly is a dis-incentive to learn fishing. I observed that first hand working in a Salvation Army shelter.

I also learned that what you characterize as addiction can sometimes be perfectly rational behavior. People may make what looks like unfortunate choices to you but from their perspective they are doing exactly what works for them. It is possible to regard the poor with compassion and ironically not give them enough credit.

Of course, not all stories are the same. I've also seen people addicted in the more traditional sense, I've seen the mentally ill who are incapable of rational choices, and I've seen people trying really hard end up laid low by circumstances. It is not uncompassionate to make distinctions.

Was justice (as distinct from mercy) in the Old Testament so much about seeing that widows and orphans were taken care of as it was about making sure that those that oppressed them were brought low? It seems to me those are two different issues. I can see where the term justice applies to bringing to account those who cause or exacerbate the misery of the poor or weak by their actions. We know to take care of widows and orphans but we are to do that as a matter of mercy whether they are oppressed or not. That's one reason "social justice", has always struck me as a misnomer