This is the followup posted by my friend Chris, I’m sure he’ll get to your comments when he finds time, he often moonlights as a blogger, and works during the day. But here’s part two, thoughts?
I decided to post this as a separate [post] because it got really long… are you shocked? You shouldn’t be… Check out the previous note for context if you’re interested, but this is a response, and hopefully a clarification to an impressive rebuttal of my last note.
Mike – thanks for your thoughts; you have a very passionate rhetorical style, although it was a little aggressive for my taste. I’ve only met you briefly in person, so I want to avoid taking liberties that I would not take if we were speaking face to face. I think this electronic format has a tendency to dehumanize these sensitive discussions and I don’t want this to turn into the sort of name-calling and disrespect you see on YouTube comments or online news articles; it doesn’t suit either of us.
[…]I intended this post to offer a particularly Christian approach, not even toward the Health Care bill in particular, but more generally toward the manner in which American political issues and philosophies bear upon those living in poverty. I only used the Health Care bill as a device to make the point of separating American/Enlightenment ideals from Christian ones. To tell you the truth, I am not even necessarily a fan of the bill – I think it is ill-timed at best, and we are all aware of the inefficiency of government-run establishments (though we must be fair – most of them are not as dreary and pitiable as you’ve made them out to be). So while you are absolutely welcome in this discussion, this note is intended to challenge Christians, because, as you point out, it is for Christians a moral issue – we believe that public policy cannot be separated from morals, nor economics from real people.
Yet as stated, my concern is for those living in poverty, and how to conceive a Christian perspective on economic justice on the level of national policy. When in right standing, both biblically and historically, Christians have always stood in solidarity with the poor, and have always been advocates and practitioners of charity, in line with our foundation in faith, hope, and love.
Though we obviously have different perspectives on the impact of Christianity in the world, on which I will abstain from comment, I think we do have a couple points of agreement. Firstly, when you equate morality with productivity, you demonstrate my point about the Capitalist commoditizing human beings. Your logic is sound. That is the necessary end to the starting points of enlightenment political philosophy, and in that sense I think you have done a superb job of faithfully appropriating and articulating that position. That is precisely why I opted to try and distance it from a Christian ethic, which is our second point of agreement.
And I’m glad we agree that the American/Capitalist/Enlightenment tenets of individualism, etc., are decidedly in express conflict with the Christian imperative of charity. It (sadly, from my perspective) can be all too easy for Christians to miss this clear distinction and adopt the American/Enlightenment ideals as their own, and thus they can become entangled with the individualistic/materialistic pursuit that such philosophies engender. There is a fundamental conflict between Christian virtue and American ideals, and when they are strained to coexist (as is, again, sadly, more than common), you have wish-washy, confused, and ineffective Christians. The American Dream stands squarely in the way of charity – just as Christ says, “it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the Kingdom of God.” And on that note I thank you Mike for helping me make my point.
The real crux of the matter for me is that the American/Enlightenment philosophy is inseparably annexed to the myth of humanistic progress – that by reason, as a society, we can continually build toward a utopia where there the rising tide of improvement “floats all boats” to the point where poverty, inequality, and injustice are eliminated altogether. I think it has for the most part matured beyond this naiveté, but it cannot shake its roots completely.
Now, if the science of economics teaches us one thing, it is that there will ALWAYS be poverty. Of course, if you’re a Christian, you could have just listened to Jesus to learn that, “the poor you will always have with you.” And since society has not yet progressed to the extent that these problems have been eradicated, this leads us to suspect the veracity of the progress myth. It leads us to conclude that all men are NOT born with equal opportunity to succeed, and these people are those who will live in poverty. The “lower class,” as an entity, exists not as a remediable condition of society – one that can be addressed and overcome exhaustively on the societal level, or as such on the individual level – but as a permanent fixture of all societies at all times – a symptom of a broken world that needs help. And since there will always be people living in poverty, the economic question is therefore ALWAYS a moral one:
Why, and under what circumstances is a human being valuable?
Christians say (based on the Bible, mostly) that human beings are valuable because they are God’s children – created in his likeness, and because he loves them in the same way, although much greater than, a mother or father loves their children. Thus, the poor have the same value as human beings as the wealthiest and most productive members of society, and charity makes sense(!), because the purpose of life is not to be productive – it is to love. The value of all human beings is tied to their equality.
If you are a proponent of American/Enlightenment philosophies, a human being’s value is tied directly to their productivity, and their equality is no longer tied in any way to that value. It is instead tied to their “rights” to pursue the American Dream. Thus, when the poor fail to participate in the forward economic movement of society, it must be because they didn’t capitalize on that equality. Industry is the morality of Capitalism, and I think it fails to consider human beings rightly.
So, if there will always be a lower class living in poverty, and it is not up to the individual to pull her/himself out of it because poverty is a perpetual and perennial fact of society, then the middle and upper classes have to make a choice as to how they will relate to this ever-present lower class.
The Capitalist, having located the equality of human beings in the individual’s theoretical potential to gain wealth, demands that the lower class raise itself out of poverty through industry and individual pursuit; and if they fail to do so, it is their own fault. The Capitalist says to the poor, “if you would only drop the chip on your shoulder/if you would only stop being so lazy/if you would only… fill in the blank… you would not be in this situation.” The lower class does not produce, so they deserve what they have gotten. The responsibility lies in the lap of the poor.
For the Christian, however, responsibility for the poor lies with those who have wealth and power – the ability to help. The Christian, called to charity, should look to fundamentally change what it means to be in the lower class. Christians should not look to eliminate the lower class, because that is impossible. But they should look instead to transform it. If the lower class will always exist, then why not ease the suffering of poverty? Isn’t that at least part of what charity is about on all levels? If all members of society are equally valued, but not equally bequeathed, then let those who have give to those who have not! Let our economic policies reflect an effort to make being in the lower class an acceptable and bearable life. Let them attempt to shrink the chasm between those who have all of the resources, opportunity, and power, and share them with those who cannot obtain these things for themselves. Let us truly treat our neighbors with equality and let us work toward economic justice!
How do we do this? I don’t know. Is it Obama’s Health Care Bill? Probably not. As I said, I do not think politics can or will ever solve the problems of our society. But as Americans we must participate in our own governance because, by virtue of the structure of our democratic republic, that responsibility has been extended to us. And for those of us who call Christ Lord, we must see human beings through Christ’s eyes and not those of Locke, Rousseau, and Montesquieu, and we must let that vision not only dictate our political priorities, but also take us beyond their language of “rights” to take up responsibility as God’s ambassadors far beyond the legislation our government passes. I think the primary action to which Christians are called takes place within and through the Church, and from there our charity and Christ’s love should spread through all arenas of life. Politics plays a part in that.
As for the examples Mike mentioned – the failures of Venezuelan socialism and the Soviet Union’s communism, etc… it was not simply and straightforwardly economic policy that cause them to fail. There are always many other factors at play, and that history is up for interpretation. What I do see clearly in recent history is a general move toward socialism – a trail surely blazed in Europe, but then followed, if not hesitantly, by the United States. There is of course, as I said previously, a balance to be had: because on the far extreme of socialism there is a killing of the market and failure of the economy, while the capitalist extreme of Laissez-faire economics only gift-wraps all of the wealth and hands it over to the powerful and affluent, creating a small upper class, a small middle class, and a huge lower class. In the US, it is only because of the regulatory involvement of government over the market, and the social programs instituted since the Great Depression, that 1) we have such a robust and thriving middle class, and 2) that poverty in the United States is so much more bearable than in other countries. We have the choice to try and make it more than bearable.