Poor Shaming

Poor Shaming December 4, 2013

We should help the poor and not shame them. Put succinctly: sinners should be ashamed, the poor are not sinners by being poor.

Traditional Christians have a noble history helping the poor and American evangelical Christians have embraced that heritage. Whether measured by charitable giving or work in rural or inner city areas, Christians are there.

If you go to a rural community, then you almost surely will find local churches with full time pastors reaching out to the struggling and poor in their community. If you to an inner city, you will find a church acting as a light in a store front or historic houses of worship.

These pastors, one of them is my Dad, do not get the publicity that others get, but the provide programs, food, education, and person-to-person help in areas that are often forgotten. The millions they help do not, perhaps, become rich and few are famous, but millions escape the dysfunctions of poverty.

And yet I have never talked to such a pastor who has not said that more help is needed. Sadly, people who see more government as the solution or Utopian libertarians make all the noise, but in all the sound and fury help is not coming. Winners are winning, but more Americans face perpetual loser status and no Christian can rest content with that state of affairs. 

Socialism and Rand-libertarianism are consistent intellectually, but a broken human world defies simplistic cure-alls. Liberty is good, but being free to starve is death. Having a social safety net is good, but being swathed from womb to tomb stifles human innovation.

Christians do not want a social Darwinian world where only the fit survive, but neither do we wish the fit to be kept from thriving. America has an expensive, inefficient social safety net: Obamacare will help some, but at high cost and with a great loss of liberty.

We might need better government social programs, but I doubt we need more programs. We especially do not need expensive government programs driven by the desires of the middle and upper class or any subsidies of big businesses. We cannot morally borrow money from the tyrants of Beijing to practice short-term charity at home that will make future Americans debt slaves.

And yet many rural and urban poor are all but ignored. They suffer from malignant neglect, not so much from the state, but from the civilization. They have freedom to be hungry, freedom to be educated in outdated government institutions, freedom to live in neighborhoods where crime is dominant. They face a barrage of “sales” ads encouraging hedonism, materialism, and barbarism. Pop culture mocks morality, scoffs at education, and presents few positive role models. Against this underpaid, overworked, teachers and pastors, themselves subject to ridicule by the entertainment culture, face an overwhelming task.

What should we do?

One thing we should not do is have rich Christians give advice to the teeming masses from their Olympian sofas.

It is not helpful merely to tell the poor to “stop acting like poor people.” Poverty is not a behavior, it is not always caused by behaviors, and so cannot be treated fully through behavior modifications.

The problem is not moralizing itself. Moralizing has fallen out of favor, but reminding a community of basic ethics is a good thing. “Papa don’t preach” is easy to say, but sometimes Papa must preach in order to draw lines of what the family aspires to be.

Moral scolding should come from people with moral authority. Sinners should feel shame for sin, but those willing to extend practical mercy if the sinner repents should speak this hard truth. “Repent!” is a message best preached by the Jeremiah who is willing to share the doom of the fallen city.

But surely it is obvious that moral failing, a bad work ethic, or bad choices are not the only ways people become poor in the United States. Poor people tend to raise poor children, because it is hard to be poor and being poor contributes to bad choices.

Poverty is no shame to the poor, but sustained poverty is a shame in a wealthy nation. The first reaction of an “outsider” to a poor person must be compassion and not moralizing.

Starting off poor, even in a land of opportunity, is tough. Moral living makes poverty less likely, but moral living is a more difficult choice for the very poor. The child surrounded by ugliness, with limited opportunities, and loss of hope is more likely to choose badly.

Living as a Christian helps with some of the causes of poverty, but not all. We all know instinctively that we are responsible for our behavior, but we cannot always control the outcome. Many poor people play by the rules only to be cheated. A person is responsible for his or her behavior, but not always for the result.

Christian charity does not stop with the deserving poor, but Christian civilization should work to make the deserving poor a rarity. Injustice, ignorance, and want of common comforts breed many evils. As a citizen and Christian, I must oppose injustice and soften the blows of a broken world.

In a just society, good behavior leads to good results. When it does not, it often points to something wrong in the culture. Sometimes the game is rigged against a class of people or group and such social cheating is no game to the suffering poor.

Charity is given out of love and duty for a Christian. Hospitals, schools, and food kitchens have always been created by Christians to give free or nearly free aid to the poor. The professionalization of “charity” and the growth of government has caused us to forget those tasks.

We need to build first-rate Christian schools that can charge radically reduced tuition for the poor. We need to build first-rate hospitals that provide free non-government medical care to all God’s children. We need ways for each church to make sure that nobody needs to go without healthy food or shelter.

Historically, the Roman Catholic Church has done better than most communities in doing these tasks. Hopefully, the Francis papacy will reenergize these instuttions and the government will allow religious based institutions the freedom to do work free from onerous or politically motivated regulations.

For the rest of us, the call is so daunting that we might do nothing. Instead, we in our own neighborhoods we should adopt a cause: medicine, food, education, housing, or food. We should research the organizations where we give and get personally involved in helping the poor.

Against us there  are many regulations and foolish attempts at making Christian organizations compromise their Christian values, but it does not matter. We must act because we love all God’s children and we must act wisely, because we would not harm through misplaced charity.

God loves the poor, embraces the poor, and shows solidarity with the poor. As His sons and daughters, we must do the same.

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