Rescuing the Poor

A tea party regular on the letters page in our local paper wrote a scathing rebuke to liberals who use generous welfare benefits to keep the poor dependent on government handouts, thus buying their votes.  The best way to help the poor, she believes, is to cut jobless benefits and other welfare programs so that the poor would be free to enter the labor market and make it on their own. 
I remember that argument from my high school days in the 1950s, along with a popular pamphlet about the danger of creeping socialism that would surely lead to Soviet style communism.  And my memory is predated a couple of decades by claims in the 1930s that the same was true about various FDR programs aimed at easing the effects of the Great Depression.  Fear more than facts.  
I would like to say that such claims are without merit of any kind, but, sadly, there is a smidgen of truth in them, a smidgen being some but not much.  Among a few well meaning persons, the desire to help the poor is prefaced by an assumption that they cannot help themselves without our benevolent support.  It’s a type of patronizing colonialism, with the poor playing the part of uncivilized childlike people who need our care and supervision.  It is also true that some persons, who live on a variety of government assistance programs and private charity, have mastered the art of survival in that context, but have no knowledge, skill, or expectation that survival is possible in any other context.  It’s not a life of ease.  It takes constant vigilance, an ability to maneuver through a Byzantine maze of regulations, and a keen eye for the gentle scam that might bring in a few more dollars.  For all of that, it’s survival, not abundance.  Well, that’s not entirely true.  For certain hedge fund managers, and their kin, manipulating the system and scamming the public has made them billionaires, but that’s another story.
The greater truth lies elsewhere.  Our regular letter writing tea partier and patronizing liberals each dismiss the poor with more than a little racism underwriting their beliefs and behavior.  Our letter writer at least cherishes the illusion that a fair and equitable market offers opportunity for anyone who is willing to work hard enough.  Some of her fellow travelers are better informed, and know that a large portion of the population will sink to the bottom, forming a permanent impoverished underclass to provide cheap labor for those who float above them.  That’s the way of life, and good for those who are higher on the food chain.  Government handouts just mess up the natural order of things, costing us money we don’t need to spend. 
At the same time, well meaning liberals spend so much time trying to save, or expand, the social safety nets provided by governments and private charities that they fail to focus on the need for systemic reforms to make the market place more fair and equitable, and to open doors that have been culturally shut against access for others.  They need to stop their patronizing, pandering ways and recognize that the poor are quite capable of functioning as mature adults in an adult world. 

I’d like to think it would be easy, if we would just bend to the task, but it isn’t.  Our social prejudices are firmly held and hard to let go of.  Moreover, why should the poor trust the rich?  They are notoriously unreliable. 

St. Nick and You

On December 6 we will remember Nicholas, 4th century bishop of Myra, known for his compassionate generosity to the poor and needy.  Thinking about it reminded me of a recent conversation with a gathering of local clergy where talk quickly turned to examples of people who have been icons of the Christian life.
There is nothing wrong with talking about those examples.  They are all worthy of remembering, but it occurred to me that we almost always use examples of the godly lives of others to deflect useful conversation about how, or whether, we, you and I, are agents in our ordinary daily lives of God’s redeeming and reconciling work through Jesus Christ. 
Our clergy group tried to wrestle with that, but, for the most part, it ended up being a recitation of good deeds that could just as well been attributed to any local service club or well intentioned atheist doing what they can for the good of the community.  None of that is bad.  It’s all good.  But where is the good news that the kingdom of God has come near or is at hand?  How do we, as Christians, go about doing our good deeds with the light of Christ shining through?  It’s a hard question.  
For one thing, many of us have been beat about the head and shoulders by Christian do gooders demanding that we acknowledge Jesus as our personal lord and savior as they go about their work.  The kingdom of God seems strangely distant when that happens.  So we go about our work with no outward sign that it might be infused with God’s grace because we don’t want to be accused of bludgeoning someone with a bible.

Perhaps you have some thoughts on the matter, and I’d like to read them.  What I don’t want is your story of someone else’s good work.  What do you do in your daily life that others would recognize as something of the kingdom of God becoming present in their lives?  Would they ever connect that with your being a Christian?

Lurching Toward Justice

Not long ago a young friend posted on his Facebook page something he had picked up asserting that the churches of the country, not the government, have the responsibility for caring for the poor.  The short piece boldly stated that the bible says so.  I’ve heard that before in casual conversations around the Y locker room and elsewhere.
How curious!
As I pour through the scriptures, I can find dozens of passages where the people of God are commanded to care for the poor, as both individuals and society, but nowhere can I find such a commandment directed at synagogue or church.  I can find passages in Acts and Paul’s letters urging local congregations to care for the needy in their midst, but, unless I’m missing something, nothing about the needy in general.
More especially, the ethical prophets have a great deal to say about how kings, the wealthy, and society as a whole, had failed to address issues of justice, fairness and the needs of the poor.  God was not pleased.  To me the message is unmistakable, God expects society to be organized and governed so that justice and fairness extend to the poor and needy.  To be sure, Jesus and the writers of letters have little to say about government, and much to say about individual responsibilities to God.  But to carry out those godly responsibilities in daily secular life can be accomplished only by doing what one can to influence the rules by which we live together, especially as they impact the lives of the poor and needy.  
Our governments are not alien creatures forced on an unwilling people.  Our governments are not the enemy.  They are the collective wisdom of the people making decisions, through their elected representatives, about how we will live together as a society.  Over the short history of our nation, our governments, at all levels, have lurched toward a more godly form of justice, in part because some Christians have engaged their secular political lives as guided by God in Christ Jesus.  

What bothers me now is that the loudest voices claiming to represent our collective wisdom seem to be hard of hearing, shortsighted, and ill informed, but maybe that’s part of what lurching toward godly justice has to endure.   I’m reminded that Jesus healed the deaf, blind and dumb once, and he can do it again.