Sometime during Easter dinner, the conversation shifted, as conversations including me tend to do, towards the various political, economic and cultural problems facing the US. This was a table of fellow Christians who would likely disagree with some of my political ideas, but with whom I share high-level beliefs about loving your neighbor, and caring for the poor.
There was surprising (to me) agreement on issues like growing inequality, cuts to education and social services, a lack of good jobs, even things like the school to prison pipeline.
The conversation stalled though, as questions were raised about whether “giving,” in the form of private direct aid or social welfare programs, would enable people to continue their bad habits and lifestyles. Can I give the guy holding a sign 5 dollars knowing he will probably drink or smoke it, can I support a welfare system that disincentivizes work, etc. The explicit problem that we were discussing shifted from systemic injustice to a “culture of entitlement” that was keeping poor people in bondage.
I bristle every time I hear this, but since I don’t think this was the only Easter table with this kind of discussion, maybe it would be worthwhile to unpack this some more. There are people who bring up these talking points because they are generally mean spirited and don’t really care for the poor. But I have to believe there are many people (such as were at my Easter table) to whom human flourishing is a worthwhile goal, but while they have tried to reach out and deliver aid, they have been discouraged by a lack of progress and change. They rightly recognize that there must be some force keeping poor people poor, and the label of “entitlement/dependency culture” seems to fit.
So instead of just reacting to that phrase, I would like to use it as an opportunity to ask some questions about how and why we selectively apply the idea. To look at a system of constant upward wealth distribution and outright theft, where the wealthy consolidate ownership of land, production and labor, and create a system of commerce that extracts rent continually from those without access to capital, is to see a culture of entitlement that is real enough. So why the urge to first point out a select few of the lower class who may be disproportionately benefiting from a meager social service net? Put another way, why would the church moralize against the poor, implicitly on behalf of the rich?
Indulge me for a paragraph or two here and consider the hypothetical worldview of someone in the 19th century who could look at the reality of chattel slavery and think that the reason these people were enslaved was a culture of dependency. Maybe this hypothetical person would point out that slaves benefited from food and shelter and other gifts from the slave-owners. Many slaves probably didn’t want to work, some took more than their fair share of food. Slavery was a permanent condition, because the only meaningful change could come from a dramatic improvement in the character of the slaves.
This is clearly an imperfect illustration, but this hypothetical was the perspective of many who were not slaveholders and many who even acknowledged to some extent the inherent barbarism in the practice of slavery. Why would anyone ignore the obvious fact that this was not just an evil, but an entirely preventable evil, supported by public policy, and strengthened by those who chose to ignore its realities? Why not acknowledge that many of the harped-on “character flaws” in the victims could be symptoms of their condition?
I am still working through some of these reasons. Again, for the purposes of this exercise I am eliminating the possibility of malice or prejudice, or any of the numerous motivations that prevent people from even trying to address societal evil.
I want to know why people who ostensibly want justice don’t work for it. Or, why people who genuinely want a solution are so easily derailed and led to misdiagnose seemingly obvious realities. My first thought was that maybe this was a matter of control.
Maybe large-scale injustices because just feel incapable of changing them. If our view of government’s role doesn’t allow us to see distributive priorities as a choice, inequality becomes like a natural disaster, like an act of God. And like happens all too often within Christendom, we can’t let the victims off without wondering if they might be somehow responsible.
To many Christians, systemic injustice is real but not something that can be fought with tools in the Christian toolbox. Contra Bonhoeffer, we don’t mind bandaging the wounds of victims of injustice, but we can not grapple with the idea of driving spokes into the wheel. This approach can only lead to frustration. A church that has given up on the larger fight has lost much of its value to society.
Fighting injustice in a meaningful way requires that we address the ways how are complicit in it, how we may benefit from it, and most of all recognizing that crucially, THINGS CAN BE DIFFERENT. The deceptive power of hegemony operating now is such that we can not even imagine solutions that are not warped by the evil itself. We have a system of exploitation ameliorated by (or supported by, depending on your perspective) a charitable industrial complex, which manages to avoid the tough questions.
My response to this is to encourage my brothers and sisters. We do have some power here! We can organize and even use our quasi-democratic system to effect real change that will vastly improve the quality of life for people across the globe. Evil and injustice will always show up, but they really do not have to win. Christians should be beacons of hope and faith, we can not abdicate our position here. The church should exemplify a better way.
The other side of the control coin is that the poor are somewhat easy targets, and we can be prone to feeling that sorting out whatever character flaws they may have is much more within our sphere of influence as a church. The church has always been taken with the kinds of sins that can be more easily addressed. Our current system of charity and welfare puts taxpayers and philanthropists in a position of power, and so in a perverse way it seems natural that we should use this influence to adjust negative behaviors. We don’t want the poor to purchase cigarettes with EBT cards not only because it is a waste, but also because it is a harmful behavior and all means to prevent it are on the table. I often talk about this as a creepy paternalistic instinct but I have to acknowledge, for whatever it’s worth, that many people feel compelled to use this kind of power because they actually care for the poor and want to improve their lives. My particular set of ethics sees coercive power as something to be avoided, but of course not every one shares that.
It’s likely that many of the people I am addressing could read all of this and not be at all convinced. So as a more general request, I will continue to ask Christians to examine the frames through which they view issues of injustice.
Don’t punish people for not working when there are no jobs. Talk about “teaching a man to fish” is pretty hollow when you know damn well there are no places to fish. Don’t talk down to poor people about the ways that they try to survive in a system that dehumanizes them. Don’t be the mouthpiece for oppressors and oligarchs -they have enough of these proxies. When you find it necessary to criticize the weakest members of society, consider how you arrived there and where that places you vis a vis Jesus (or any of the biblical prophets). We need to acknowledge the reality of what we are facing, and we need solutions that match.