Thursday, October 09, 2008

Are we our brother's keeper or not?

I am concerned and upset by an attitude I’ve been hearing from many Christians about politics. Maybe this is an old problem, but I just feel like lately I’ve been noticing it more. The basic complaint is that there are all these lazy people living off the government – which means they are living off of taxpayer money. The way that many people vocalize it is something along the lines of: they should not be expecting me to pay for their [fill in the blank: food, healthcare, too many kids, retirement, etc.] with MY hard-earned money.

This distresses me for many reasons. First, I think it reveals a basic insecurity about money (which we’re all coming by honestly these days) which is based on, frankly, loving money more than God. Jesus said you can only serve God OR money, not both, and if one is this obsessed with somebody else getting to use their money (as if any of it was ours to begin with), then one seems to have chosen the side of mammon. Jesus said do not worry about what you will eat, or wear, or how you’ll get by, because your heavenly father will take care of you. Now of course I recognize that we live in a world that requires us to have some means in order to at least put a roof over our heads. But then again, I wonder…there are people who manage these things without turning money into an idol. Then there are people who DON’T manage them, and still are content.

I’m not saying we have to be ascetics or stop buying things (though we should probably stop buying so many things), I’m just saying that the basic idea that it’s “MY” money is the root of all evil. When I got married I had to stop thinking of my finances and J’s – it became “our” money. Now I feel compelled to take it a step further – to admit that, in fact, since all good gifts come from God, I must be willing to return them all back to God. I must be willing to allow what I think is “mine” to belong to the whole world.

Another issue is believing that we don’t somehow hold responsibility for our neighbor, that we’re not our brother’s keeper. I heartily disagree – I believe we are absolutely called to take care of others, particularly the poor, as Christians. Sometimes I think of paying my taxes like giving alms – as part of my support of the poor and oppressed, done on a massive scale that I couldn’t accomplish alone (nor could my church). I believe that when Jesus says if we are asked for our coat we should give our shirt also, he’s specifically saying don’t hoard, don’t take more than you need, and give generously to all those in need. There are ways that the government can actually help in this (there are lots of ways they hurt too, of course). And there are ways to vote with our dollars – such as buying fair trade and supporting local farmers – that reflect this ethic.

This is also why I believe so strongly in universal healthcare. It’s not a perfect system – nothing is. But it’s the only way I can see that ensures everyone at least has a shot at getting medical help when needed. As a Christian I believe that healing is one of God’s gifts, and I absolutely believe God performs that work through medicine and doctors, not just through prayer (though God answers only prayer sometimes too, but more often I think it’s all these things working together). Because I want to live in a society that cares for its elderly and children equally with those who are healthy and wealthy, I have to be for universal healthcare. I have to go with the option that will cover the most people and will always be there for those who need it most. Market-based healthcare denies coverage to sick people, plain and simple. That’s backwards. And when healthy people use it (if they have a job that offers it), they often get screwed too. So it’s really bad to leave it in the hands of corporations and the free market. It’s simply not a commodity. And it’s not a responsibility or privilege. It’s a right. Because I believe in making this world as close to God’s ideal as possible, I believe it’s a right. Because in God’s world, everybody gets healed, whether they can afford it or not.

And whether they deserve it or not. This is another of my pet peeves. I hate this attitude that everybody who is poor is lazy, or everybody who needs some form of government assistance could get off it if they’d just work harder. First of all, that’s a joke in this economy. Second, you don’t know anybody’s life except your own; how dare you judge? (I believe Jesus has stuff to say about judging others too) Third, even if someone is ripping off the system, how is that any of your business? Vengeance is mine, saith the Lord. More than that, God makes the rain fall on the just and the unjust. God gives generously to everyone, whether they deserve it or not! So if we want to emulate our heavenly father, we have to allow “our” money to be given just as generously and, yes, wastefully.

God’s grace is pretty darn wasteful. He wastes it on all sorts of undeserving people, most especially me. I don’t deserve a thing I’ve gotten from God – and neither do you. So how can we complain when the master forgives the debt of another? Or when he pays the same wage to someone who worked a fraction of the time we did? We can’t. (and if we don’t think of the money as our own, none of this will bother us anyway)

So maybe you think that all this economic stuff isn’t really in the Bible – that these are all spiritual metaphors. Maybe, but I am pretty sure at LEAST the stuff about loving God more than money is about money, and the rain falling on all equally is about farming which was their currency, and giving the coat and shirt is about generosity and sounds pretty darn practical, not just spiritual.

Many Christians only see one thing about money in the Bible – the place where Paul says that those who don’t work shouldn’t eat. Well it’s pretty silly to take that one literally and all the rest not. But even if you do, that verse is about people in the church, not the general public. Once people are in the church, yes, discipline can happen. We seem to have it backwards. We seem to think it’s our job to discipline the culture, and care only for those in the church. That’s not what the Bible teaches, it’s the opposite.

So, I don’t want to hear any more complaining from Christians about where their money goes – unless it’s complaining about it going to clearly non-Christian things, like war or oppression or environmental degradation or even, I would say, a big corporate bail-out (capitalism is not a Christian system). Just get over it, people. Your money is not your own, and when it’s used to help people, for crying out loud, get up and cheer, don’t bitch about it!! As Christians we are GLAD when something happens that helps others! It means God’s kingdom is making inroads on this sorry little planet. And if that something is not deserved or appreciated, well, that just makes it all the more like God’s greatest gift: his son. Does it not?

One final point to address: there’s the libertarian idea that the government shouldn’t be taking care of the poor because that’s the job of the churches. The government should, I guess, just be for defense (isn’t McCain’s spending freeze essentially going to do just this? Huh). But stop and think about this: if the general attitude of Christians is that poor people are lazy and don’t deserve financial help from those who are better off (however they got better off), then how in the world would that change if the churches suddenly took over? If Christians truly believe that it’s not “their job” to provide food, shelter, healing, education, and the like to others, then they church will be the LAST place people will find help and relief. The government HAS to pick up the slack, because as near as I can tell, there aren’t too many Christians who’ll be stepping up to take its place.

Christians like to give money to their pastors because their pastor’s “job” is to teach them and take care of them. Essentially, they see the church as a business in which they pay for a product – namely, the salvation of their soul – and receive benefits such as fellowship, counseling, programs for the kids, status in the community, good feelings, some nice entertainment on Sunday morning, and so forth. (ok that’s pretty cynical, but somewhere in that list there are at least a few things that everybody wants to get out of church) So, if you only want to give to the church because of what you get out of it, then your basic attitude about money has not changed. Your money is still in the service of YOU, and you alone. It has not been given over to God.

I think if the government took Christians up on their pleas to let charity become entirely privatized, the poverty in this country would dramatically increase, more children would go to bed hungry (it’s a travesty that so many already do), way more people would die or be ill because of lack of healing, and generally the idealized notion that the church would take over would be proven utterly false. Because the fact is, the attitude is not going to change overnight. And if you don’t believe the government should help the poor, then why would you believe the church should? The same issues will come up: who deserves it? Who’s not using it for drugs? Who’s got too many kids and thus doesn’t qualify? Who’s not living up to our standard of looking for work? And so forth.

We cannot forget: the rain falls on the just and the unjust. God gives without distinction. God doesn’t require drug testing, or limits on children, or proof that you’ll use your life well. And Jesus didn’t say to check and make sure the person really needs the coat – he said just give to whoever asks of you, and give MORE than they ask for. That’s a really hard calling. I’m not great at it. In fact, I really struggle with it. But I know that it means we can’t complain about these things.

It kind of boils down to what you think government is for, or what its potential is. If you believe the government’s only job is to make war (i.e. “defend” you – which usually actually means defending your way of life, i.e. your possessions), then you want it out of the public assistance business (and you probably make fun of “community service”). But if you believe the government can be used as an instrument of justice, then you try to vote and spend in ways that promote public good, even – perhaps especially – at taxpayer expense.

The final thing I have to say is that this is all, entirely, faith-based politics. I would never expect someone who does not have my faith to agree with this ethic. They might, because it can be arrived at through other means. But this, for me, is based on the teachings of Jesus, and I only hold Christians to his standards (and I do believe these are his standards – but if you are a follower of Jesus and disagree, let me know!). So please realize that this comes from a place of faith and is not universally applicable. But for you Christians out there – shape up!


Stasi said...

a comment from my brother-in-law:

"I love the point "God’s grace is pretty darn wasteful."

One quick further point. Check out Ezek. 16:49-50 "Behold, this was the guilt of your sister Sodom: she and her daughters had arrogance,abundant food and careless ease, but she did not help the poor and needy.

"Thus they were haughty and committed abominations before Me Therefore I removed them when I saw it."

Sodom's sin was being more concerned about their needs and desires and did not help those in need around them. So, God destroyed them.

Just food for thought.

Wormwood's Doxy said...

Just want you to know that I've linked to you from my blog. I've been (slowly...VERY slowly) writing a series on why I vote the way I do. I love your take on this.


Gail P Smith said...

If you're gonna get mad, get mad about something important. Well done.
If the church one is attending doesn't practice charity in the community and globally, a change in churches may be indicated. There are plenty of churches who are committed to making a difference in their world by serving.
Finally, have you read "Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger"? Powerful stuff.