I posted this picture on my Facebook account recently and oh my! People do feel strongly about Wall Street, and the Wall Street occupiers, about personal responsibility, government incompetence, and who’s to blame for the mess we’re in. My friends fall broadly into two camps:
BLAME THE GOVERNMENT. We’re in this mess because the banking system is greedy and corrupt, and the government is either: a) spending too much; b) beholden to special interest groups; c) in bed with a global economy that is unsustainable at every level and ultimately isn’t delivering on it’s promise to make the world a richer, better place; d) all of the above.
Of course, these people were understandably upset by the picture I posted because they think that the draconian Tea Party slashing is ultimately unfair to the majority, and that push to de-regulate the banking industry will only create more oppression and widen the already gaping chasm that exists between the wealthy minority and the rest of us.
PEOPLE ARE TO BLAME. That’s what the guy who made this poster clearly thinks. He’s saying that we’ve been living off of bubbles for at least 30 years. He’s saying that people bought houses on speculation, knowing they could do zero down, “flip them” and make a killing. Of course, it was all a giant pyramid scheme, and he’s saying “people never learn.” They’re trying to make a quick buck, and when it failed, they want to the blame the government. He’s saying that hard work, living within your means, and saving a bit along the way will enable you to rise above the current malaise. We don’t all need 55-inch flat screen TVs. We don’t need to replace our iPad with an iPad 2, because “that first one is too heavy.” And he’s saying that people who expect the government to protect them from their own greed, or laziness, need to wake up and smell the coffee. They need to take responsibility for their situations, put down their protest signs, and get a job, even if it pays minimum wage, and get on with living.
“Hurrah” say all the red people, as they read this person’s impassioned plea for personal responsibility. They all hope that if a new president comes into power, he’ll dismantle the so called “socialist programs” even more, forcing people to take responsibility for themselves. They like this man and his sign.
WHO’S RIGHT? The answer to that question reveals the inherent limitations to politic as we know it because the answer is honestly, “it all depends…” It’s criminal that more corruption wasn’t prosecuted throughout the mortgage crisis, especially since the FBI warned of this as early as 2004. But of course, the guilty parties weren’t just banks and obscurely packaged derivatives. Like drug dealers, they’re only responding to the market of personal greed that drove the whole entire mess. So don’t just blame the banks.
On the other hand, the notion that everyone can just get educated, get a job, and get on with life, rising above the present crisis, is naive at best, and intentional self-deception at the worst. As one who’s spent some time living with people in poverty I know that the reasons are myriad: domestic violence, mental illness, broken family situations. And did you know that nearly half of the foreclosures are rooted in a health care crisis because we, one of the wealthiest countries in the world, spend more than any other nation on health care, and deliver a quality that’s among the worst in the developed world. The person holding this sign doesn’t mention mental illness, physical abuse, rape, or cancer treatments that cost $300k, wiping out a lifetime of savings in a few weeks time because that person has sent out 300 resumes, but still can’t find a job after being downsized.
SUMMARY: The left blames the system. The right blames the individual. The real answer is never that easy. Where needed, people need to be called to personal responsibility and held accountable for their inaction or destructive actions, rather than enabling such to continue through subsidizing unhealthy behavior. In other words, if you reduce the complexity of our collective problems to sweeping generalizations and sound bytes – your posited solutions will be inadequate. Real solutions will must include the realization that there are both systemic, and personal issues contributing to people’s messes — and both will need to be addressed.
The government can’t address the personal side of this equation effectively at all. It has neither the bandwidth, nor the moral authority to do so. This is where the church comes in because the church is called to build loving relationships with people, and it’s in the context of those kinds of relationships that people will find both the guidance and strength to take next steps – some of which require subsidies, while others require confrontation and painful consequences. This is messy. This is time consuming. And this is the calling of the church. It’s why our church has a homeless shelter, and emerging partnerships with ministries that cross the social divide between wealth and poverty in order to provide the kind of caring relationships that can both liberate and empower people.
It’s hard, and the key to our own joy and transformation as I write about here. The more popular response today is to speak in sound bytes about the evils of the other party. But that kind of response, while popular today, has nothing to do with the kingdom of God.