I am beginning to despair that we can have a rational, non-partisan discussion about any significant issues in our current political environment, and that is especially true of issues that relate to the poor. The only way I can see around this polarization is to shift the discussion from how we address our concerns for the poor (the programs, budget, and apparatus of our welfare system) to the underlying issues of why we are concerned about the poor, the hungry, the needy, the disenfranchised, and the aliens in our midst (i.e., those general categories of the needy to which the Bible so often gives attention). Focusing on programs and methods without consideration of the compelling motives that must undergird our efforts will always lead to disagreements, disputes, misunderstandings, suspicion, and partisanship.
In a recent series of Bible study lessons, my friend Dr. Janice Catron pointed out that two emphases are central in Scripture: loving God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength (she called this “simple-minded, single-hearted worship of the Lord God”) and loving your neighbor as yourself (which she simply called “caring for one another”). These two emphases are distinctly separate, but they also are inextricably bound together. In some ways God is the “theory” and our neighbors are the “practice.” The former is “abstract” while the latter is absolutely “tangible.” Some do effective and compassionate ministry for the poor and needy without the “theory” of a divine imperative. Others so emphasize the “abstract” that they never connect the heavenly vision with the earthly compulsion toward tangible action. I am afraid that without some kind of moral imperative we will never give adequate attention to the needs of the poor. On the other hand, I also am afraid that ministries to the poor will never succeed without some moral expectation for personal responsibility and ultimate self-sufficiency.
Self-centeredness is evident on both extremes of our economic spectrum. The rich resist efforts to take their money via taxes to help the poor. Some of their objections are so strong that they will aggressively contribute to groups and organizations that advocate withholding or limiting assistance to the poor. I suspect their contributions far exceed what their tax bills would be. On the other hand, many welfare folks have a sense of entitlement to government assistance and “disability” payments. They think they are entitled to everything they want or need without putting out any effort—including full cable TV service, mobile phones, and their “smokes.”