An inescapable network of mutuality

So Franklin Graham says that churches, rather than governments, are responsible for meeting the needs of the poor. Either one or the other, zero-sum, in competition, etc.

This is not the view of most Christians or of most Christian churches. Nor is it an easy view to reconcile with the Christian Bible, which is full of admonitions to both the community of believers and to those in government that they are responsible for caring for the poor, the powerless, widows, orphans, strangers, aliens, victims, the sick, the naked and “those who do not know their right hand from their left.” This is presented as a responsibility for everyone — for kings, priests and prophets, for the nation and for the blessed community, individuals and groups. All groups and all individuals.

So, for example, when a deadly tornado devastates a town, who is responsible to help?

Well, among others, you are. Me too, of course. And not just us — everybody.

Responsibility — ethical obligation — is boundless and universal. All are responsible for all. No one is exempt.

Now, if that were all we had to say or all that we could know, we would likely be paralyzed, overwhelmed by an amorphous, undifferentiated ocean of need. We would be unable to respond effectively, specifically or appropriately to any particular dilemma. And we would come to feel powerless and incapable, thus becoming less likely to even try.

But that’s not all that we can know or all that we have to say.

We are all responsible, but we are not all responsible in the same way. We each and all have roles to play, but we do not all have the same role to play, and we do not each play the same role all the time.

Relationship, proximity, office, ability, means, calling and many other factors all shape our particular individual and differentiated responsibilities in any given case. In every given case. Circumstance and pure chance also play a role, sometimes a very large role, as when you alone are walking by the pond where the drowning stranger calls for help, or when you alone are walking on the road to Jericho when you encounter the stranger who has fallen among thieves.

Different circumstances and different relationships and different proximities entail different responsibilities, but no matter what those differences may be, all are always responsible. Sometimes we may be responsible to act or to give, to lift or to carry directly. Sometimes indirectly. Sometimes our responsibility may be extremely indirect — helping to create the context for the proper functioning of those institutions that, in turn, create the context that allows those most directly and immediately responsible to respond effectively. (Sometimes our indirect responsibility involves giving what we can to the Red Cross or other such organizations to help the victims of a disaster.)

But what Martin Luther King Jr. called this “inescapable network of mutuality” is like the Kevin Bacon game and none of us is ever more than six degrees separate from any direct responsibility. If we fail to fulfill our indirect responsibilities, then those more directly responsible will have a harder time fulfilling their roles. (And that, in turn, will make things more difficult for us in our own direct contexts, because that’s how mutuality works.)

What I’m describing, yet again, is subsidiarity. That’s the Catholic term for it, but it’s not exclusively a Catholic idea or even exclusively a Christian idea. It is, rather, an idea that is shared by everyone in every free society. It is part of what makes free societies possible — a prerequisite for democracy, for free markets, for human rights.

The only alternatives — various forms of tribalism or the brutish “war of all against all” of Hobbes or Ayn Rand — are not attractive. Nor are they compatible with human freedom. Hobbes knew this. Unlike Rand, he was not foolish enough to confuse a free-for-all with freedom for all.

(But doesn’t freedom have to mean the freedom to accept or to deny such mutuality, the freedom to deny any and all responsibility? Freedom can accommodate a certain amount of such irresponsibility, but beyond a certain threshhold or tipping point, the denial of this differentiated, but boundless and universal mutuality begins to leave power unchecked. And that power — political, clerical, financial, corporatist — will exploit its irresponsible freedom to deny freedom to the powerless. Orwell’s vision of a “boot stamping on a human face — forever” isn’t concerned with whether that’s a government boot or a corporate or ecclesiastical boot.)

And but so my point here is that responsibility to meet the needs of those in need is never an either-or situation. This responsibility is never exclusive. Yes, “Let the churches do it.” The churches must do it. It’s part of their job. But not only the churches. And let the government do it. The government(s) must do it. It’s part of their job. But not only the government(s). If either of those actors were left to handle this alone, they would be forced to go beyond their capacity, their competence and their proper bounds.

None of which is saying anything new or innovative or anything other than what the majority of Christians have believed for centuries. That neither Franklin Graham nor Marvin Olasky understands this is troubling. That they fail to understand this and yet are still treated as influential and respected spokespeople on this subject is even more so.

  • Anonymous

    Hah, I was actually thinking of Less Wrong when I wrote my post (mostly about how writing a morality system for a computer is something we currently haven’t the faintest idea how to do, and the number of good ideas that end up leading to disaster is staggering). But yes, I don’t think we’ll be able to make morally perfect agents at any point in the near future. (For no other reason than our inability to define such an agent).

    My point was more that we are clearly not morally perfect agents, or even as close to those as one can theoretically be, so any attempt by us to be morally perfect involves climbing uphill first.

  • P J Evans

    They think that money spent on space exploration is leaving the planet, the way they talk about it leaving the economy. Really, money only leaves the economy if it’s physically destroyed. Spending it on things (even things you don’t believe in) means it’s going to businesses and their employees and their suppliers and their employees, and on and on.

  • P J Evans

     For Muslims, I understand that that 10 percent is after necessary living expenses – it works out to about 2 or 3 percent of their gross income, what with taxes and all.

  • Rikalous

    [Mayor Jack] Scott has heard all the complaints, and he
    isn’t apologizing. He said he doesn’t want run-down mobile homes parked
    all over town years from now.

    So, the hypothetical appearance of the city in a few years takes precedence over people, you know, having homes right now?

    To make matters
    worse, he said, the city is imposing a mean double standard when it
    refuses to let residents live in FEMA trailers but is using a nearly
    identical structure for police headquarters.
    Scott said the city can use small trailers because it’s for the common good.

    “It’s temporary and we know it’s temporary,” said the mayor. “We’re trying to provide services for everyone.”

    Now, I’m no expert, but isn’t people having shelter conducive to the common good?

  • http://twitter.com/FearlessSon FearlessSon

    They think that money spent on space exploration is leaving the planet, the way they talk about it leaving the economy. Really, money only leaves the economy if it’s physically destroyed. Spending it on things (even things you don’t believe in) means it’s going to businesses and their employees and their suppliers and their employees, and on and on.

    From what I can tell, the politicians and the money sources that fund them actually do understand this, but they argue in bad faith to get the common people desperate for money on their side.  This allows those companies with a literally invested interest in maintaining the economic status quo to do so without fear that the government will step in as referee and give free-shots to the other teams. 

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=659001961 Brad Ellison

    Now, I’m no expert, but isn’t people having shelter conducive to the common good?

    And the asshole says his conscience is clear.  Most likely his conscience is clear, and he sleeps like a baby, comfortable in knowing that he’s worked to make his neighbors homeless.

  • Anonymous

    i appologize - at somepoint between wordpad and the comment box, i dropped the word “those” – as in, “i don’t understand THOSE churches”. and earlier “leaves those churches complaining”, although the “those” is in the sentence preceeding, so i think i left it off there because it would seem redundant.

    i was not – and will not! – attempt to paint with a brush that broad; if nothing else, it would ignore the churches i HAVE worked with/for [soup kitchen, a small DV shelter in GA, etc] that were in no way definable as “far right” or “fundamentalist”

    i’m sorry that my imprecision was confusing! and i agree – the disconnect *is* with those specific churches that fall under the umbrella of “far-right conservative fundamentalism”.

  • Anonymous

    all i can say to that is, if that’s what they want, they DESERVE to have it taken from them.

    i don’t mind mild prolestysizing [i did NOT spell that right. sorry, sigh] – i mind “convert to our way NOW or starve”.

    didn’t Jesus say some stuff about “not judging”? and didn’t he eat with people who were “sinners”? i sometimes wonder if this specific breed of “Christians” even READ the words that Jesus said - do they just skip the Gospels?

  • hf

    A collective unconsciousness, if you will.

    Haha, nice.

  • Caravelle

    Off-topic yet INCREDIBLY COOL : the world’s oldest museum :
    http://io9.com/5805358/the-story-behind-the-worlds-oldest-museum-built-by-a-babylonian-princess-2500-years-ago

    They’re not kidding when they call that country “the cradle of civilization”. They’re so old, they had archeologists digging up the place 2500 years ago.

  • Caravelle

    Off-topic yet INCREDIBLY COOL : the world’s oldest museum :
    http://io9.com/5805358/the-story-behind-the-worlds-oldest-museum-built-by-a-babylonian-princess-2500-years-ago

    They’re not kidding when they call that country “the cradle of civilization”. They’re so old, they had archeologists digging up the place 2500 years ago.

  • Anonymous

    SHINY. (And it was a woman running the show! *is gleeful*)

  • MaryKaye

    Daughter wrote:

    The town where I
    live won a large Pepsi Refresh Grant for a new library and playground,
    after about six straight months of applying and not winning.  Here’s how
    they did it:  at the town holiday party/Christmas Tree lighting, people
    were stationed at the front door with laptops.  They stopped everyone
    over 13 who walked through the door, signed them up to be Pepsi Refresh
    voters, as well as for daily reminder emails.  And it worked–we won in
    January.

    I am not sure this is a good thing.  Grant writing (I do it as a scientist) is already a huge drain of time and effort.  Rewarding persistence sounds like a great thing until you look at the pragmatics–six months of applying and failing, followed by a huge volunteer effort, that’s a lot of work away from your core mission.  My community center just got new windows by this route–ballot box stuffing–and we did really need the windows, but we were dunning people to log on daily and jump through hoops, and that is not what we ought to be doing.

    It’s like coupons.  Coupons can save you money, but they represent spending your time and effort doing administrative tasks that do not benefit anyone.  A company that gives you a good price for the asking is doing you more good than a company that gives you a not-so-good price and offers a rebate or coupon to get you down to the good price, because you end up spending time and effort on makework.

    I don’t think grants can be avoided because when resources are limited the money-giver needs information in order to allocate them well.  But I dislike anything that trends toward applying over and over, or requiring a lot of relatively non-informative efforts from the grantee.  I guess the ballot-stuffing is supposed to measure support, but yeesh, it’s somehow not a very clean way to do so.

  • Lori

    And the asshole says his conscience is clear.  Most likely his conscience is clear, and he sleeps like a baby, comfortable in knowing that he’s worked to make his neighbors homeless.

    It sounds like his conscience isn’t so much clear as absent. I can only hope that after the next election he’ll be out of a job.

  • Lori

    This weekend I read a book that had some things to say that seem relevant to this discussion. The book is  The Heart and The Fist by Eric Greitens.

    Greirtens was a public policy major as an undergrad and took maximum advantage of some opportunities that were presented to him to spend summers doing humanitarian work. On one trip he helped a former professor who had gone to work for UNHCR monitoring aid to victims of the Rwandan genocide. Greitens spent part of his time in a large refugee camp across the border in Zaire. Many of the workers in the camp were American evangelicals and he talks about the mixed feelings he had watching them work.

    At their worst, the evangelicals seemed indifferent to the feelings or experiences of the men and women around them. One day I was photographing an outdoor church service in Goma. Karen stood up to preach, and a refugee translated as she spoke. Karen explained to the crowd of genocide survivors sitting on rocks under the high son, “If you do not make Jesus Christ your personal savior, you will go to hell.” She pulled a book from her chair to demonstrate, “It is a law, like the law of gravity.” She held the book out with a straight arm and then let it fall. It thudded on the platform.

    “It is like the law of gravity. It is the law. Accept Jesus, or spend eternity in hell.”  

    After Karen spoke, I asked a man what he thought of her sermon. His answer came back
    to me through a friendly translator” “She had a beautiful message.”

    I said, “Tell me what she said.”

    “She said that we cannot always carry everything on our own,” the man explained through the interpreter. “If we try, we will drop things. We must ask for God’s help to carry our burdens.” Apparently Karen’s translator had taken some liberties with her sermon.

    But if Karen and some of her friends were sometimes out of touch, they also rose every day with the sun and spent hours tending to the needs of sick children, ordering supplies, distributing food, tracing children and reuniting families. They may have been culturally clumsy but every day I came to admire them more for one simple reason: They were in Rwanda. They were working. I was visiting for weeks. They were working for months.

    The
    Heart and The Fist, pages 81-82

  • http://twitter.com/FearlessSon FearlessSon

    “She said that we cannot always carry everything on our own,” the man explained through the interpreter. “If we try, we will drop things. We must ask for God’s help to carry our burdens.” Apparently Karen’s translator had taken some liberties with her sermon.

    It seems like the translator “got” Christ’s message better than Karen did. 

  • Lori

    That was my thought. I suspect that the evangelical group owed much of their welcome in the camp to translators like that one. 

  • http://www.facebook.com/ron.biggs Ron Biggs

    I worked for an online company one time that was heavily staffed by
    people of the predominant and virtuous religion of the region. The
    people of this company were genuinely trying to do their jobs well, but
    “well” seemed to include employing slight-of-hand and morally
    questionable practices for attracting and tricking people into parting
    with their cash and stashing that parting into unrecognized renewing
    autopilot.

    I questioned one of the elders of the company who had an equal status
    in his church why their religious strictures did not apply in business.
    His answer was astonishing: they were unrelated. Personal life was
    personal; business was business.

    All this to say that the business of business is to make money. The humanity of the business (in that it has to be staffed by humans with their human concerns) is not there, except where a business (as stated in their Community Involvement blurbs) attempts to garner warm fuzzy feelings with which to clothe its brand identity. (Skeptic much?!)

    But you touch on another point.  Recently the US Supreme Court recognized corporations as having free speech and also, in a separate action, lifted restrictions on political donations to candidates (as tho it were an actual voting entity, like you and me), although it did say that, unlike individual humans, corporations have no “right to privacy.” (weird).

    I mention this because it occurs to me that, with “rights” as citizen constituents, comes the responsibility pointed out in this post.

    Oh man, more govt intrusion on big business and the free market to accomplish wealth re-distribution (or “the Nanny State”).

  • Daughter

    I’m a grant writer too, so I understand time concerns.  The Pepsi Refresh grant doesn’t take more time than the normal grant–at least not to develop the grant itself; once you submit it the first time, you can resubmit the same grant month after month.  You’re right, though; the extra work is that of rallying people to vote for your cause.


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