Saturday, March 26, 2011

Parting shot by Bob Herbert, NY Times

Thanks to Professor Mike Gipson for providing this link to Bob Herbert's last NY Times column.

I've had the idea for some time that the growing disparity between the uber-rich and the poor, with a shrinking middle class, will drive the US closer and closer toward "social unrest," which if successful might remain peaceful, but if unsuccessful might . . . well, things could get ugly. Interestingly, though, it has been the right wing folks who have been talking about "second amendment solutions." Can we read the handwriting on the wall?

Because I believe in Jesus, I believe I should love my enemies, even those who want to kill me and will do so if given half a chance. Love, not kill them. So I am not advocating revolution. But I suspect that people driven to desperation who do not share my conviction about loving enemies will at some point be willing to do things I am not. It pains me to write this, but it's a prediction and nothing more.

Of course, those folks who are the uber-rich will simply take their fortunes with them to their private islands in the Caribbean with their private armies, or run off to live in whatever nation will give them the best tax breaks and the least interference with their weapons purchases. I doubt any social unrest will greatly affect the top 10% percent income folks that Herbert talks about in his column.

Can change happen peacefully? I hope so. But it will not if the agenda of some to balance the national and state budgets on the backs of the poor is successful. Those who want to cut programs of assistance to the poor and even the elderly, and to remove health care, etc., recite the usual mantra that these programs are in essence "handouts" to the poor, and the poor are "freeloading off of hardworking Americans," etc.

Occasionally, of course, that occurs. NO ONE, not even Democrats or (gasp!) socialists, are in favor of allowing people to freeload when they are capable of contributing. BOTH SIDES of this argument are against "freeloading," and we try to set up our programs so that freeloading does not occur. People who CAN contribute MUST contribute. Again, we're not 100% successful with that, but that's the goal of even Democrats.

So please: those who think assistance programs are all about allowing "freeloading," get off it. Stop lying.

Both sides also agree that there are some people who, for various reasons, either cannot contribute (the disabled, etc.), or who have already contributed enough (such as the elderly who have worked hard all their lives, paid into Social Security, and would like to have a few years of retirement and relaxation as they close our their lives in peace). There are some elderly, however, who have such a great retirement package via their investments or private retirement programs that they don't need Social Security. If that is the case, then it would be for the best of our society as a whole for them to give it up. What that level is should be determined by a discussion at all levels of our society.

Where the disagreement seems to take place, it seems to me, is on the question of public assistance to people who are physically able to work, but have other obstacles: lack of education, children to raise, etc. Sometimes their own bad choices have contributed to their status.

Folks who typically want to cut programs for these folks tend to understand their status as completely the result of their bad choices, so completely their own responsibility. Therefore, since their status is completely their own fault, no one else has the responsibility to help them. Do they live in a depressed area where there are few jobs? Well, they should move somewhere else. Do they have too many kids to take care for, and lack education to get a job that pays well enough to support them all? Well, they should have used birth control. They should have gone to college. They should get off their rear ends and get SOME kind of job -- even if it means that they have to leave their kids in day care, and they can't really afford day care, or by the time they paid for daycare they would not have enough money left to pay rent and buy groceries. Well, it's their own fault. They could have made better choices at age fourteen or fifteen or sixteen, and their lives would have been better. It is their own fault, so no one else has responsibility to help them.

On the other side are those who can look at such situations and admit that our society does NOT give everyone equal opportunity. In theory, of course we do. But I know (and have written about it in the past) that many people -- especially people of color in America -- do not perceive that there is equal opportunity. They do not grow up with positive role models continually telling them that they can do whatever they put their minds to -- that they can go to college, grad school, or that they can achieve good things in their lives -- all the things I learned to believe about myself because I had good parents and a good social situation. There are those who believe that we as a society have contributed to this situation and as a society should address it. (Certainly there are those who grow up in negative surroundings that indeed rise above them. But, look at the statistics: there are many more who do not. ) Yes, people make bad choices. Some people, it seems to me, are probably unteachable in this regard. But as a society we have to keep trying. And the only way to do that is to have programs that the rest of us pay into, hoping that some people will find their way to "get on their feet" and eventually to contribute. It may mean we need to provide day care for their children so the adults can either go to school or get job training. If we do that, we're also going to need to find a way to guarantee them jobs after the training is done. There has to be hope. If there is no real hope of a better life afterward, the program will certainly fail.

Health care also has to be a concern. I'm baffled by our folks in Oklahoma who complain that "Obamacare" is going to cost "us" (who is that?) money. We have many more insured in OK now, so it is definitely helping some people. We've receive federal money to help with that.

But the biggest factor is this: people without health insurance will still get medical care, but it will be at the ER, and in the end it costs the rest of us much more than if they had health insurance and could go to the doctor before something becomes an emergency -- or they will not have to use the ER as their "regular doctor." Preventative medicine is cheaper in the long run than crisis medicine. So, if we take health insurance away from people covered by the federal health insurance law, we'll all still pay for their health care. It will just cost us more. The federal plan is cheaper for society as a whole.

So why is it that so many people now seem to be on the "balance the budget bandwagon"? I don't have a good answer for that. I'm in favor of balancing the budget, but not of removing the protections for the poor and elderly, and so on. So, where do we cut?

Where do we spend the most? Look it up. Here's one assessment: military spending is 54% of the federal budged, and approximately $1,449 billion. Non-military is 46% and $1,210 billion (2009 figures).

So, when Bob Herbert points out that we're trying to remove "social programs" and have entered another war, I'm depressed and even incensed. And more depressed because so many Christians think that removing the assistance to the poor and needy and carrying on three wars -- and spending the greatest part of our nation's money on them -- is somehow "right," or "righteous," or "just" or "holy." It is none of those things.

Just a few select pieces of evidence from the Bible (there are many others). The prophet Amos condemns the practices of the rich Israelites who are "building houses of hewn stone" (5.11), "lie on beds of ivory, and lounge on their couches, and eat lambs from the flock, and calves from the stall" (in other words, they're giving themselves great feasts), "who drink wine from bowls and anoint themselves with the finest oils" (they have the very best of spa/health care -- 6.4, 6) -- who in essence are "living the good life."

But, they "trample on the poor and take from them levies of grain . . . and push aside the needy in the gate"; they "trample on the needy and bring to ruin the poor of the land . . . buying the poor for silver and the needy for a pair of sandals" (6.11-12, 8.4, 8.6). In other words, though they're living the good life, they don't care for the poor among them. They enjoy the good life at the expense of the poor -- thus they trade the poor for their new pair of shoes and their comfortable houses.

You can read the judgment passages for yourself. It's harsh, to say the least. When Amos pleads: "let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream" (5.24), he's pleading on behalf of the poor. He's not just saying "avoid the big sins like idolatry and adultery." "Justice" and "righteousness" are attributes of God and are frequently used either in tandem or synonymously. Also, in fact ONLY God is truly "good" (says Jesus -- Matthew 19.17, Mark 10.18, Luke 18.19). We tend to define "justice" as "getting what one deserves," and as opposite of "mercy." But in the Old Testament, especially in the prophets and the Psalms, they seem to point in another direction. Notice Psalm 72.1: "Give the king your justice, O God, and your righteousness to a king's son." The writer then proceeds to describe what practical effects will ensue if God does that: "
May he judge your people with righteousness, and your poor with justice. May the mountains yield prosperity for the people, and the hills, in righteousness. May he defend the cause of the poor of the people, give deliverance to the needy, and crush the oppressor" (72.2-4).

If the king does this, he should be rewarded (v. 11), "
For he delivers the needy when they call, the poor and those who have no helper. He has pity on the weak and the needy, and saves the lives of the needy. From oppression and violence he redeems their life; and precious is their blood in his sight" (72.12-14).

"Justice" and "righteousness," then, are not just keeping oneself away from the "big sins," nor are they the opposite of "mercy." In fact, they are the very definition of "mercy." And "mercy" is the very definition of "justice and righteousness."

This is why so many theologians have pointed out that God has a "preference for the poor." Jesus never said "blessed are the rich." He said "Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God" (Luke 6.20).

Hey -- don't blame me, I didn't make this stuff up.

I don't know if Bob Herbert would agree with all of this, but I suspect he would with good bits of it.

But in the final analysis, Christians have to be on the side of the poor. And to those who say "I AM on the side of the poor -- I just think we should do it individually, or that it should be churches that assist the poor, not government": I challenge you with history. It has never been done. It may be true that if Christians all pooled their money we could do away with world hunger. It doesn't matter if it's true or not. It ain't happening. Poverty and hunger and disease are huge problems. They will not be addressed by small institutions -- nor no institutions. I suspect that excuse is just another way for we Christians to be selfish. It may not be for you, but it is for many. So, that claim is empty and needs to be abandoned.

Others will fall back on the words of Jesus: "the poor you always have with you." I'm pretty sure that wasn't a statement of a social program, and we shouldn't take it as one. That was a statement directed toward those who grumbled about the woman who anointed him with perfume just before his death -- here was an opportunity that would never occur again, and there would be plenty of time to do good for the poor later on (Mtt. 26.11, Mark 14.7, John 12.8). That's all. He's not claiming that poverty should not be addressed or cannot be solved.

Simply put, the new budgets I'm seeing proposed are immoral. They demonstrate what we as a nation value, and they are showing more and more clearly that we as a nation are selfish, therefore immoral. Do we as Christians have the guts to stand up and tell this to our legislators? To our neighbors? To our church leaders? To our President? To our state governors? If we let this opportunity go by, we are just as guilty as the Israelites addressed by Amos.


Gary said...

Colbert's "Jesus is a Liberal Democrat" comes to mind. The fact is: we've got to realize that Jesus wants us to serve the poor and help the needy -- without condition -- and truthfully, we just don't want to do it.

While it may be true that people end up in bad places partly due to their own stupid choices -- myself included -- people who suffer are suffering nonetheless. They should be aided and comforted and loved in the name of Jesus. They should be given restoration to a right state. Or, in Paul's wording, "justification".

You can go to and tell the President exactly what you think. I've done this on two issues so far (LRA Disarmament and Uganda Recovery Act; Violence Against Women Act), and I'm going to do it again.

It was great hearing from you yesterday. Sorry I didn't pick up!

Beach Bum said...

I have thought for a long time that the only thing keeping the social unrest at bay in this country is the pacifying nature of credit cards.

I'm healthy middle class because my wife is an attorney but I'm a blue collar technician type who interacts with many lower-paid workers. They see the abuse of the rich who award themselves hundred-million dollar bonuses while they pray just for the standard 3% annual cost of living increase.

The middle class people I know, while many of them are good people, live in some delusional world unconnected to those suffering here in America and overseas. I hate to write it but their attitude is generally that they have theirs and everyone else with less probably put themselves their bad situation.

Social unrest is coming to this country and because I believe the majority of Americans do not have the same since of community and fairness that ultimately allowed the Civil Rights movement to succeed back the 60's I believe it will be bloody.

chip said...

Thanks, Gary. I've recently been challenged by an old college friend (who considers himself very "conservative") to write a book on why I think Jesus would be a liberal Democrat -- he suggested maybe a "point/counterpoint" type of thing, like "Hannity and Colmes" (sp? Are they on FOX or CNN? I've heard the names but don't watch much network news). Anyway, he may have a good idea. The trouble is that the people who generally need convincing of that sort of thing won't listen, for the most part. I've been trying to make this and similar arguments (as you know) for some time, and I doubt I've convinced anyone. Generally, people are going to think what they think regardless of what ideas are presented to them. Sad, but true. Fortunately, "generally" doesn't cover "everybody."

Beach Bum -- love the "pacifying nature of credit cards" line. Nice shot. Right on target, and a great line. If Marx had had a credit card. . . .???? how history might have been different. Easy credit kills. That's why Dave Ramsey is so popular these days.