My recent post Why So Much Heat About Social Justice? Part 2 generated such a thoughtful comment from a reader that I want to use a new post to respond. Thanks, Steve, for taking the time to write. Your remarks suggest that we have a mutual desire to live from the framework of orthodox Christianity. We also seem to have a common heart to help the poor escape poverty. We both recognize that well-intended money dumping does the opposite. Internally it often enslaves them to what Paul calls the “stronghold of the mind,” in this case a mindset of poverty. Externally it creates shackles of dependency that become harder to break.
I want to respond further to Steve’s comments. Below, Steve’s original remarks are in green.
Let me preface this response with our common ground: I affirm our shared belief in orthodox Christianity, and the reality of the kingdom of God both now and future. I resonate strongly with the approach to poverty called transformational development, as a way to address all aspects of poverty including broken relationships between God and man. Poverty will not be solved with dump loads of money applied from the top down. People, who are created in the image of God, have incredible skills and assets that should be recognized and built on, a process that builds their self-worth, and brings reconciliation with their communities and with God.
I would agree with your opening paragraph and this is what leads me to believe that we have a lot in common.
However, I don’t believe that all underpinning beliefs related to social justice can fit into a 2 by 2 box. Sometimes God works through a supernatural “open” process and through “moral” people, but surely we have sometimes seen the poor cared for by “amoral” atheists.
This is true. People who are immoral sometimes act morally and people who profess to act by a moral standard at times do not. But in each case the person is acting apart from the implication of their framework. What do I mean? An atheistic-amoral framework has no basis to do good or to pursue justice. That framework, by its nature, encouraged “the survival of the fittest” and sees nature as “red and tooth and claw.” The propensity is toward the accumulation and use of power, the goal is to survive, to come out on top. People who function compassionately are doing so from their human nature as given by God and not as an impulse from their atheistic framework.
There are millions of well-meaning Christians who pity the poor as simply lacking material resources, and think the solution is to go on a mission trip to build stuff for them.
I agree. Often these folks are motivated by Christ, but they do not reflect on what they are doing and thus they tend to create more poverty. My good friends, Steve Corbett and Brian Fikkert, of The Chalmers Center, have written a book, When Helping Hurts which responds to these well-intended mistakes.
There are also many non-Christians who see the poor as real people whose skills are neglected, and work to build their capacity to develop their own communities.
Yes, this is true. Again, I agree.
God can choose to work through all people for his own purposes, sometimes through the most unlikely agents, to bring Himself glory.
Splitting people into those who either follow a Judeo-Christian or Atheistic-Materialistic paradigm also misses the possibility that people (and belief systems) are more complex and nuanced.
I would agree that belief systems are very complex and this is both good, and at the same time it provides challenges. Yes, these systems may be nuanced, but the nature of the nuances will conform to the boundaries which define the system.
For example, solving material poverty will certainly require creation of wealth through development of human skills, but may also require that government play a proper role in protecting society’s most vulnerable citizens.
I agree. I would also identify that protection by government as the rule of law. Each person, rich or poor, healthy or sickly, young or old, female or male, black or white, is to be equal before the law. It is the government’s priority to provide justice and social peace so that free citizens might pursue the health and prosperity of their families in a framework of economic freedom. Steve, here is where I think we are operating from two different perspectives.
Here’s a perspective on levels of responsibility that a society would do well to observe. First, we must practice personal responsibility at an individual level. After that, comes family responsibility, followed by the responsibility of voluntary associations such as churches, synagogues, mosques, boy and girls clubs, civic clubs. Only then should government responsibility be invoked in providing a safety net, and even then the responsibility of local government precedes that of state government. Federal government begins only after that. Part of the beauty of this model is that those who are closer to the need can provide more personal help. Unfortunately today, in the US and other places, we assume the federal government is the party responsible to solve problems. So the solutions tend to be bureaucratic and top-down. Money replaces personal responsibility.
Here’s a question that frames part of the battle we are facing in the US today: Will our citizens be responsible? Will they be free and “large” human beings, or will the government continue to take on more and more responsibility that belongs elsewhere? In such a scenario the government grows and people shrink to insignificance.
Steve, I highly recommend Marvin Olasky’s The Tragedy of American Compassion. In my opinion this is a must-read for all poverty fighters. Olasky shows what characterized poverty fighting programs born out of a Judeo-Christian worldview and what happened to compassion in the West when we moved away from a Judeo-Christian to a deistic worldview and eventually to an atheist worldview. (In one of our next posts we will present Dr. Olasky’s article, Effective Compassion: Seven Principles from a Century Ago.)
A recent example is the case of Sandra Fluke, a law student at Georgetown University. In today’s culture sex is not saved for a committed covenantal marriage relationship between a man and a women before God. Rather, sex is defined as a recreational activity or as entertainment. Ms. Fluke wants freedom to have sex at will without pregnancy. Therefore she needs access to birth control and abortifacients. She argues that the government should be responsible to provide what she needs for her recreational activity. Is this really the province of the federal government? I think not. I am type 2 diabetic. I need walking shoes to keep my type 2 diabetes under control. In Ms. Fluke’s framework I would expect the government to provide me with walking shoes so I can practice my recreational walking for health purposes.
Let’s be careful about how we characterize those who see a right role for government …
Who gets to define what the right role of government should be?
… not all who want the state to provide services for the poor want them to be “enslaved” or dependent on an all-powerful massive bureaucracy.
This is true. And I trust that was clear in my post. However, others are intentionally building bureaucracy and government control. Like some in business who cheat customers, stock holders and employees for their grossly immoral and sometimes illegal gains, some in government circles are abusing their power as well.
Thanks, Steve, for the opportunity to dialogue.