Not Unbridled Socialism Nor Self-Help Ideology

From time to time I hear conservatives who profess Christ talk about the need to shrink or get rid of welfare programs because welfare supposedly enables the poor by undermining their initiative to seek a better life. I don’t doubt that to some degree this is true, and I am quite sure that there are many who abuse the welfare system, but even in light of these problems the proposals to radically scale back welfare to promote personal initiative strikes me as profoundly inconsistent with a Christian worldview. When a person confesses to being a Christian that person is essentially making the claim that he or she has been freely lifted out of his or her spiritual and moral poverty through the riches of Jesus Christ. Having said this I realize that I have to be careful in applying spiritual truths to the political realm. Consequently, I acknowledge that our dependency upon God is qualitatively different than the kind of interdependency we were designed to express in the political arena, and that our dependency upon God leads to sharing in God’s glory, whereas certain types of political dependency can actually undermine human dignity. So, my criticism should not be seen as a tacit endorsement of unbridled socialism, on the other hand it is meant to be a sharp criticism of the self-help ideology that seems to dominate the political thinking of my conservative brothers and sisters in Christ.

Of course a big part of the debate regarding welfare is about the proper role of government in alleviating poverty, and honestly I am not sure how to respond to this matter except to say that in the Old Testament God did establish political structures to prevent people from going into poverty, and I am talking radical structures that completely trespass upon the sacrosanct principles of capitalism. In saying this I realize I am getting into hermeneutics, which is a relatively complex matter. Nonetheless, given what I know of human nature, and our capacity to be self seeking and acquisitive, I think Christians should factor in God’s willingness to curtail and at times undermine natural economic dynamics through the use of political structures.

8 Responses to “Not Unbridled Socialism Nor Self-Help Ideology”

  1. Roger Green  

    Too many of those attacking the poor are getting way too rich. the rich Do get richer, etc.

    What we need are more years of jubilee in the OT sense of the word.

  2. K.L.B.  

    I concur w Roger. I have more to write, but it’s late now, and I need rest.

  3. Olivia  

    What I would question is whether these people who criticize the welfare system have ever been in a situation, not of their choosing, which brings them to a point of needing some assistance. Secondly, I wonder if those who advocate handouts without seeing the abuse of the system first hand should be quite so eager to do promote welfare. If not, perhaps they should reconsider stating their rather set opinions.
    Being rather young and naive, I am sure I don’t understand the various complexities and nuances of the question of reducing or doing away with welfare, but it seems to me that more people in America today are receiving welfare than in the early years (though again, I don’t really know anything about anything). Further, having recently been introduced to a side of life I knew existed but had never experienced (the working poor and the people of the ghetto, in all their ghetto splendor), I must say that there seems to be a sort of injustice when drug addicts and teenage mothers of 4 (she’s 21 and has four kids, ages 7, 5, 2, and 1) can live on welfare, and the working poor, who work full-time, sometimes 2 or more jobs, pay taxes, are law-abiding, and in school attempting to better their situation, cannot receive assistance with health insurance.
    It used to be, or at least this is what my grandfather tells me, that people had pride. To accept a handout, no matter how poor, was to admit failure and be viewed in shame. Charity, to those who were forced (notice the use of the word FORCED) to accept it due to their very difficult circumstances, was a matter of shame. Today, there are welfare families; that is, a family in which multiple generations of people have lived their lives on welfare.
    Another thing I wonder about is the appropriate response to those on welfare who are addicts. Most rehab programs describe the need of the addict to hit “rock bottom,” the absolutely lowest point in their lives before they are able to shake the addiction. Though we may not give money to the addict on the corner, if we buy him food and water, is he not then provided for? How difficult, then, is his life, really? How can he reach that moment of epiphany, when he realizes he needs to leave his addiction behind? Because there are those who love him, somewhere, who wish you’d stop giving him the money he uses to score or keep himself fed for a little while longer, so he can stay a little while longer away from home.
    So…it is my opinion that what we need is a system that is kept and keeps its clients accountable, and asks them to “pay it forward.” What person couldn’t do a couple hours of volunteer work a week to receive hundreds of dollars in unemployment, foodstamps, EBT, and health insurance? What person would cry “Fie” if they had to contribute somehow in order to receive?
    What say you?

  4. Roger Green  

    Olivia – your comments require more time than I have.
    Suffice to say:
    1. There is some validity in what you say
    2. There are people getting corporate welfare – the Haliburtons, the overcompensated executives – whose profiteering despite economic slowdown makes a lot of people think the game is rigged, so what’s the point? I’ll get mine anyway I can.

  5. CEbury  

    I would also agree Olivia makes good points. There is a critical emotional detachment made by many (believers) when differentiating help for the “poor”: drunken vagrants & criminals supporting personal drug habits vs. impoverished willing-to-work families. Although shows like Intervention are certainly turning some of those ideas around about addicts.

    However, it may be part of the OP: did/would Christ make this distinction?

  6. Roger Green  

    CEbury’s last point is great – no, I’m guessing. Then again, His presence and love may have been transformative.

    Oh, there are more working poor every year:

  7. Anthony Velez  

    Olivia – I appreciate your initial statements about how people’s partial ignorance may make it easier for them to hold unwavering and absolute positions, as I am sure this is a contributing factor to the larger debate of welfare in America. Also, I too feel the injustice that there are people who work very hard and barely get by, while there are those who abuse welfare and barely work at all.

    Regarding the issue of pride in your Grandfather’s sense of the word, I think this is exactly a place where theological truths may not readily translate to the political realm. Socially it may be appropriate to exhibit that kind of pride but spiritually it is exactly that kind of pride that will keep people out of heaven, because the Xian testimony is that humanity post fall is in a dire place, a place more akin to the drug addict than the hard working poor who just can’t seem to get a break. The idea is that when you get a genuine sense of sin, as in something more than just unsavory behaviors, but rather a reality that profoundly blights us, then metaphorically we are broken in a manner more like an addict who has so lost himself that he chooses drugs over dignity. But, regarding our relationship to God, the irony is that our pride is the addiction, and it’s that kind of pride that keeps us from the only real dignity we can have. The result of that kind of pride is that we easily fall prey to the thinking that we can overcome our problems through more discipline, or greater application of will, or more intelligent application of resources, etc.

    Having said this, I again draw attention to the fact that this theological truth does not directly apply to the political realm, which is to say that people’s dependence upon government should not be like people’s dependence upon God, as dependence in the former sense can lead to enablement and indignity, whereas in the latter sense it leads to glory through participating in the very life of God.

    Having processed all this, what I am now moving towards regarding this matter is that when I hear political calls for scaling back or dismantling welfare I sense underlying pride from people who are moderately well adjusted according to worldly standards, and who have never had the experience of really being dependent, which honestly and simply turns me off and makes me angry. And, at this point I want to retrieve the theological dimension when addressing political issues by saying that Xians, above all others, being receivers of profound grace, should exhibit that grace in all issues they address. To clarify, this exhibiting of grace need not necessarily take the form of adherence to particular political doctrines (although maybe it should), but it should be seen in how they refer to people who are on welfare, how they refer to single moms, and drug addicts, etc, and it should prevent Xians from referring to such people with any less dignity than they refer to themselves. What I often hear however, though more tacit than explicit, is that people on welfare are the unsavory rabble who drain society.

    Regarding the relationship between epiphanies and bottoming out, I think the idea that the latter will lead to the former primarily emerges from American self-help ideology, because the thinking goes that once a person who is in the thrall of negative, or addictive patterns of behavior finally bottoms out, that person will finally find the will to overcome the momentum of their lifestyle. Certainly people have to want to change, but often people don’t want to change because they don’t believe they can, because their experience has told them that the resources needed for genuine change, whether it be spiritual, social, psychological, or economic, is not available to them. So, I think what we are talking about is the intimate and complex dynamic between systemic realities and personal idiosyncrasies, and that any genuine welfare reform needs to be sensitive to these dynamics. And again, when Xians discuss these matters their language and attitude should consistently express the grace upon which they stand.

  8. Anthony Velez  

    Roger – I like your pointing out that there are other types of welfare beyond just personal welfare. And you pointing this out reminds me that another example of welfare would be government grants for higher education, which few people criticize as the payoff is less disputed. So, what is it that is so inflammatory regarding welfare to cover people who are not employed?

    Chris – I like your raising the question as to whether Jesus would make a distinction between those who supposedly deserve help and those who don’t. From one perspective, none of us do, no matter how well-adjusted and functional we might be by worldly standards. On the other hand, the purpose of grace is to enable us to move out of sinful patterns of existence, not to cover us while we stay in such patterns, and so I think welfare should express this purpose.