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.
The job of the Christian socialist is to prevent secular colleagues from avoiding the critique (usually from those supporting regressive systems) that humans can not reason their way into a utopia. We should concede that there clearly is moral change required, a bending of the human will towards good and towards the “other.” And this should not always be seen as a result of socialist structure. There is a much more complex relationship, a symbiosis between the nature of the society and of the people who construct it.
We should instead embrace the truth that justice will not be achieved through a series of nonconfrontational policy tweaks. No justice without God, and no society can claim God without also evidencing His justice.
In the heat of battles for change, it’s necessary to focus on specific strategies and policy goals. Christians have the added responsibility of remembering that these changes are vital, but more is required.
With that in mind, we should embrace the endless dead ends and obstacles that have characterized the history of socialism, because they clarify our understanding of human inadequacy and reinforce our reliance on the divine.
It is only through an acceptance of these realities and of our Creator’s help that we can collectively mold a society that cares for all of his creation adequately.
We are called to be ministers of reconciliation. Between our Christian brothers and sisters, to whom we must always emphasize the necessity of social justice; and our secular brethren, to whom we are to be a constant, supernatural fragrance of death.
As Christians we can not pretend that it is possible to create structures that will sufficiently sustain themselves and support a society of individuals whose first priority is themselves. This is not a worthwhile aim, to servants of a God who desires unity with his creation.
The order of creation is such that we have not been allowed a resting place short of flourishing. Without that end in mind, this futility seems cruel, but in proper context it is revealed as great grace.
(Note- this is a post explicitly directed toward Christians. If you are not one, or come from a different tradition, I hope you might still find some insight into the beliefs of at least one follower of Christ.)
"In short, I do not believe that we are witnessing a new grace reformation. I believe we are witnessing the rise of a hyper-grace movement, filled with its own brand of legalistic judgmentalism, mixing some life-giving truth from the Word with some destructive error." (Is a New Grace Reformation Taking Place Today? by Michael Brown)
This came across my Facebook news feed today, and while I realized quickly that the term “hyper-grace” was meant to be pejorative, I actually thought it sounded pretty great. Can we emphasize God’s grace too much?
This seems to be a recurring theme in my corner of evangelicalism. We have to be careful to mention grace but not “over-emphasize” it, for fear that people will become unrestrained and use it as an opportunity for licentiousness (per the warning in Jude). Most of these people genuinely value God’s grace and believe it is a key to godly living, but there is still some hesitancy to explore its deeper implications. The balance to this is often continued warnings about the harmful effects of sin, with the caveat that God’s grace is still available to those who do sin.
Paul address these concepts as well as anyone, in the book of Romans:
The law was brought in so that the trespass might increase. But where sin increased, grace increased all the more, so that, just as sin reigned in death, so also grace might reign through righteousness to bring eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord. What shall we say, then? Shall we go on sinning so that grace may increase? By no means! We are those who have died to sin; how can we live in it any longer?
For sin shall no longer be your master, because you are not under the law, but under grace.
(Romans 5:20-6:2, 6:14)
Sin no longer reigns in the life of the believer. Grace reigns, through righteousness. This is not an enticement to sin. Grace rules instead of sin. If people are continuing in sin and using grace as an excuse, it is possible they are referring to some other phenomenon besides the grace of God, as seen in the person of Christ.
It’s a mistake to use the grace of God as an excuse to sin, but this most likely indicates an incomplete understanding of that grace. While it certainly frees us from the reign of sin, its effects are much greater than that! It is an invitation to a relationship with the Creator. It calls forth the image of God in us, and it does so without requiring us to meet any previous conditions. When we treat it like a mere “get out of jail” free card, we are showing that our emphasis is still on the effect of sin, rather than the blessing of grace. Apparent abuses of the grace of God prove its necessity.
This is why the reaction by some in the evangelical community to react to what they see as a “new kind of grace” (similar to the mythical “new tolerance”) is potentially so dangerous. Grace is pushed to the side when it is needed most. If the issue is with specific modern teachings of grace, then it should be made clear what those issues are, and where the error is. I have heard quite a few people refer derisively to a theology of grace that allows everyone to do whatever they want with no consequences, but I am not sure that I have actually ever heard that type of teaching anywhere. That’s why I believe to some extent this rift is due to a difference in emphasis rather than a difference in practical teachings of grace. There are probably Bible teachers that preach on the topic of grace but don’t consistently encourage their congregations to live righteously. God has accounted for this kind of oversight.
“For the grace of God has appeared that offers salvation to all people. It teaches us to say ‘No’ to ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright and godly lives in this present age”
When see your brothers and sisters in sin, remember – the solution is divine grace. This is not to be confused with human parodies of the genuine article. This is not a call to just ignore sin, or let it slide - but to point people directly to Christ. This is much easier when we truly believe that God’s grace instructs us and allows us to live righteously.
Grace can surface some tremendous insecurity in church leadership, or in anyone with true compassion for the well-being of others. The reality that believers should not be bound by a fear of punishment can be disconcerting to those who want to help the church walk in obedience. Once the believer sees his freedom, what will compel him to act righteously? We can instruct, but how can we be sure that they will obey when fear is diminished? This is why legalism (in many forms) is so tempting – it allows humans the opportunity to try and adjudicate God’s holy order in the church. But part of the beauty of grace is that it removes so much responsibility from church leadership. Leaders should be accountable to teach and guide, but beyond that, every disciple of Jesus is directly responsible to Christ for his or her own actions.
To those who are married: as your relationship grows, and you begin to experience security in the unconditional love of your partner, do you more often think of grieving them? Does knowing that they will always forgive and accept you cause you to consider testing those limits? Is fear of punishment your primary restraint?
If the idea of hyper-grace makes you nervous, know that you are not alone. It might be due to the experience of people ascribing their continual sin to God’s grace, or simply the result of a subconscious fear of exploring the depths and apparent uncertainty of the freedom found in grace. Whatever the case, please, make a point of really getting to know your God. He is still full of grace and truth.
The first title I thought of for this exercise was “why don’t Christians address poverty?” But as cynical as I can be on this subject, I do recognize that the church as a whole does at least acknowledge the problem of poverty, and there are many in the church that are actively seeking practical ways to resolve or at least lessen its effects. But the overwhelming majority of Americans identify as Christian, and as inequality and poverty grow, it’s worth examining why the church as a whole doesn’t appear to be making a significant impact (or even slowing negative trends). For the purposes of this discussion, I will ignore some obvious answers, like apathy or ignorance. I will focus on a few closely related concepts that I see as contributing to this overall ineffectiveness. I am separating these arbitrarily because that is how my brain is processing them.
Resistance to “Government Solutions”
Especially in conservative Christian circles, there is a resistance to “government solutions” to address poverty. After all, why did Jesus not prescribe government intervention on behalf of the poor? Of course this question is misleading in several ways. First, we know that the law as given through Moses required Israelites to give of their own resources to aid the poor. This is at least some type of government intervention, under that form of theocracy.
We also know that during his earthly ministry Jesus did not prescribe government intervention for anything, probably because the people he was speaking to were under foreign occupation and had little say in the structure or priorities of the government that ruled them.
As Elizabeth Stoker has pointed out, Jesus clearly laid out his goals – defining how these should be accomplished in every specific society over time would probably not have been as effective.
But in a country like the US, where Christians are able to exert influence on policy at every level of government, why the reluctance to use it to help the poor?
One of the most common refrains from the right is the idea that government intervention on behalf of the poor is ineffective. Of all the lines of reasoning pointed against practical solutions to the problem of poverty, this might be the simplest to refute because one need not change ones philosophy or moral viewpoint to observe the evidence against it. Even a cursory examination of programs like Social Security and SNAP will reveal that in fact, giving money and resources directly to those in need improves their lives and happens to act as an economic stimulus. Are there government programs aimed at the poor that are ineffective or inefficient? Probably! Does that mean we can’t enhance and build on the programs that are proven to work? Probably not!
One of the most subtle and pernicious reasons for the avoidance of “collective action” is the emphasis that the American church has placed on individualism – individual choice, freedom, and liberty. These ideas would have been very out of place in a first century Jewish context but make sense in the political and intellectual environment in which America was conceived and developed.
The purpose of a command like the one God gave Israel was that the nation should act in a manner consistent with God’s nature. There is no indication that the compulsory nature of these commands imparted a lesser degree of virtue to those who obeyed.
There are elements of “choice” in a democratic society. Government policies are partly an expression of our communal will. Even with the way popular influence has been weakened in today’s representative government, we still have some say in its priorities and structure. So when we as a society choose a form of government that unfairly burdens the poor, we can not then act as if the result is out of our control. It is disingenuous to refuse to acknowledge a government solution to a problem created by government policy.
(Side note here – my personal belief is that poverty, like so many of society’s ills, is caused by what I would call “evil.” The responsibility of a moral society is to judge how to most effectively ameliorate the effects of evil. In the case of poverty, we know that there are multiple ways we can counter its effects, and when we choose not to, I would say we are “causing poverty.”)
When in modern day America we Christians praise “individual choice” as a response to the problem of poverty, we are making a couple of bold statements. First, we are choosing and reinforcing a dynamic of power that is contrary to the demands of the gospel. The gospel requires that we entirely give up our right of personal choice and conform to the divine will. Framing this compliance as personal charity allows us to essentially “reserve our right” to choose to follow God’s will. Charity also allows us to maintain, and direct our resources. This kind of control is very tempting, but it is illusory. When we look to the life of Jesus, we see someone who was fully submitted to the divine will. When he acted in accordance with the divine will, the emphasis was not on the fact that he chose it, but that the divine will was accomplished. To say, “I want to give to the poor of my own accord,” allows the American believer to act as though his heart has not been fully ceded to Christ, and that each similar choice he makes brings him some favor with the Almighty. I do not see any good arguments for the idea of “extra credit” being given for obeying Christ when that action is not also required by earthly law.
(To be clear, I understand and appreciate the reluctance to impose “Christian” laws on a secular society- I am wary of dominionism and similar movements. But if we as Christians can show that society is improved by following moral principles, I see no reason why they shouldn’t be fair game. Laws should not be enacted because they are “Christian,” but because they provide a benefit to society that is recognizable across a spectrum of beliefs. At some point Brian will have to contribute more on this specific point.)
The second statement we are making when we worship “personal choice” as a response to poverty, is that we don’t really believe poverty should be addressed in a meaningful way. When a politician says that he or she personally opposes abortion but that it should be between a woman and her doctor, and not a legislative matter, the logical reaction from the right is “this sounds like a person who is uninterested in preventing abortions.” The Christian right sees legislative obstacles to reproductive care (and abortions) as the most immediate way to reduce the number of abortions. Theoretically abortions could also be reduced if enough individual people were convinced not to have them, but individual choice is not emphasized here because it is considered an impractical way to achieve the impact of ending the practice nationally. At the very least, the anti-choice approach seems to be a blanket approach that reaches the appropriate individual actors, while also seeking to affect policy.
Contrast this with the way the Christian right addresses poverty. I believe that many Christian conservatives do feel kindly towards the poor – but if they are not committed to effective methods of support, what good are those feelings? When I hear a pastor say that providing for the poor should not be the role of government, I hear someone who is not seriously interested in making an impact on poverty. Does this mean the pastor lacks compassion, or doesn’t view poverty as a problem? No, but what is the difference to those in poverty? He might be anti-poverty in sentiment, but his actions reinforce a system that neglects to address it.
If you approve of a government solution to end abortion, but disapprove of any similar types of action that would seek to limit poverty, maybe it is not the process that you are really objecting to. Circling back to the previous section, I have never heard someone argue against abortion restrictions because Jesus didn’t specifically advocate for a “government solution.”
Closely related to the effect of individualism is what I would “no handouts” Christianity. This is an odd hybrid of Puritanical work ethic, and meritocratic wistfulness. From this perspective, everyone should be rewarded according to their work, and charity should be reserved for those who meet certain conditions. On first glance, those seem like pretty reasonable ideas.
I won’t take on the larger “desert theory” of economics, other than to say clearly many of the poor in our country don’t deserve to be poor, and most of the rich don’t deserve the scale of their wealth. I wouldn’t even be against people who (based on all sorts of problematic assumptions) seek to make the distribution of income more “fair,” and encourage work. But these are often one sided propositions. To many, it is not “fair” that the impoverished receive benefits they don’t (and couldn’t) work for. While these same people might concede that the super wealthy could not have possibly contributed to society any value proportional to their wealth, there are rarely any practical solutions offered.
I would draw a parallel to the church (even the Reformed) church, which has very often taught the principle of salvation by grace, but still given the impression that salvation and God’s blessings need to be earned (through repentance and pious living) rather than that they are instead the catalyst that incline our hearts towards repentance and ultimately allow us to live righteously.
We can say as a society that we value hard work, but when we don’t provide everyone with the resources to succeed, we can’t act like the end result has much broad significance regarding the character of those who “failed.”
Many parts of the church have fully embraced an incomplete perspective on fairness, welfare and work. 2 Thessalonians 3:10 (“The one who is unwilling to work shall not eat”) has had its context stripped, and is used as a justification to punish those who have been harmed by what the pope might call “unfettered capitalism.” The most commonly repeated translation of that verse says “He who does not work shall not eat.” This is used a serious indictment of our welfare system. Forget the basics of who Paul might have been specifically addressing in that letter, and what he was trying to get across. Forget the differences between that Grecian economy and ours. Do we really think that Paul did not want the disabled to eat?
Our economic system relies on unemployment. Einstein captured this well 65 years ago:
Production is carried on for profit, not for use. There is no provision that all those able and willing to work will always be in a position to find employment; an “army of unemployed” almost always exists. The worker is constantly in fear of losing his job. Since unemployed and poorly paid workers do not provide a profitable market, the production of consumers’ goods is restricted, and great hardship is the consequence.
I can understand Christians who encourage people to work – we know that there is value to the community in each of us being useful. But we live in an economy that will not allow everyone the opportunity to work (this is work for direct profit, which seems to be the only way to properly characterize work today. Housework, yard work, parenting, etc. don’t qualify because they are not recognized as having the same value as wage-earning labor). Again we see a one-sided response from conservative Christianity. If you see “work” as a Scriptural mandate, why not agitate for full employment so that everyone will have the opportunity to obey Scripture? Instead, the focus is often on judging those who have been harmed by the system. High unemployment is not a result of sloth, but of policy.
If as a Christian your critique is not aimed at the “working poor,” but at those whom you don’t see as contributing, there are two assumptions that need to clearly stated. First, as inequality grows, we have no reasonable context to judge anyone’s character based on their willingness to work. Not only is it true that not everyone is able to work in a system that relies on unemployment, but we are judging the results based on one factor when there are many (possibly more significant factors) that determine whether someone is “successful.” If one person has remained healthy in a society that promotes bankruptcy for serious illness, if one had parents that were fortunate enough to be present and actively involved in one’s life, if one had the good fortune to be born in an affluent community or neighborhood, can we compare that person’s employment status to someone in different circumstances and determine character?
The second assumption that needs to made clear is the monumental difference between working for the common good (or use), and working for a disembodied idea of “profit.” In a society where 70% of the workforce is disengaged and emotionally detached, we have to ask whether there is really any virtue in creating profits that we know will flow upwards and be consolidated rather than distributed and used to elevate or enrich the community. This effect is not often considered by those intent on judging the intents and character of the lower classes. It’s not as though most of today’s unemployed have just voluntarily dropped out of this dehumanizing system. But we should recognize the collective psychological impact of working to enrich a relatively small cross-section of society, and seeing no positive impact on one’s own community. As inequality grows, this effect will become more pronounced.
So if you are a Christian who believes that there should be no “handouts,” that everyone should earn the value they create, I won’t put up too much of a fight. I will just ask that you first create the kind of environment where that would be possible, and not act as if it already exists.
The kind of justice that I believe Christians are called to seek can not be composed entirely of feelings, or good thoughts towards the mistreated. And it certainly will not be created only through the actions of a few exceptional, generous souls. The entire body of Christ is required. We can discuss different solutions, but let’s do it with a clear, communal perspective on justice.
“We are not to simply bandage the wounds of victims beneath the wheels of injustice, we are to drive a spoke into the wheel itself.” – Dietrich Bonhoeffer
SHOW US YOUR GOALFACE, CAPTAIN AMERICA.
USA 1-0 Costa Rica, Dempsey 18”
(screencap via mocksession)
Yet when it comes to Zinn’s demand for history to be judged for its political utility, Duberman [his biographer] is finally too indulgent. He can never bring himself to say that the fatal flaw of Zinn’s historical work is the shallowness, indeed the fallaciousness, of his critique of scholarly detachment. Zinn rests satisfied with what strikes him as the scandalous revelation that claims of objectivity often mask ideological predilections. Imagine! And on the basis of this sophomoric insight, he renounces the ideals of objectivity and empirical responsibility, and makes the dubious leap to the notion that a historian need only lay his ideological cards on the table and tell whatever history he chooses. He aligns himself with the famous line from the British historian James Anthony Froude, who asked rhetorically if history “was like a child’s box of letters, with which we can spell any word we please. We have only to pick out such letters as we want, arrange them as we like, and say nothing about those which do not suit our purpose.” Froude made this observation in the middle of the nineteenth century. —
A fascinating look at Howard Zinn and a new biography of said Zinn.
I didn’t really know any of this (beyond the general idea that Zinn’s work was “very liberal”). Damn, I need to read more books.
The problem described above seems to relate strongly to different ‘problems’ on the internet that take the form: “Yes, I know the thing I’m saying is wrong, but if I acknowledge that it’s wrong then I may continue and any conclusions thereafter will have had the wrongness washed away.” This is, of course, sheer ridiculousness.
Track Wars: Nick CollisonOKC Thunder What’s the first concert you ever... -
What’s the first concert you ever attended?
Prince at Key Arena in Seattle (2004)What’s the best concert you ever attended?
Jay-Z/Kanye West at Madison Square Garden (2011)What album would you not be able to live without?
Notorious B.I.G. “Life…
Landry Fields and Jeremy Lin’s new handshake: skimming through book, taking off glasses, then placing inside pocket protector.
Note: Landry Fields graduated from Stanford, Lin from Harvard. Way to set the bar super high for all Asian parents, Jeremy.
Love it. The Ivy League handshake.
The ivy league handshake
(Source: neaato, via mlawyue)