Thursday, September 06, 2007

Two failed ways for the church to talk about the poor.

In listening to the dialog about how and whether the mainline denominations should be talking and acting about poverty, I have two criticisms. First, let me explain my view with an analogy about natural law and what Lutherans call "second use of the law."

ANALOGY: There's a narrow curving road which winds through a forest and by a few daycare facilities. There's a posted speed limit on the road. There's a tower overlooking the road. There is a rumor that in the tower sits the local sheriff with a radar gun and at the end of the year he will come down from the tower and mail speeding tickets to the owners of cars he has caught speeding. Occasionally on this road, cars drive at excessive speed . There are two consequences to the speeding: the cars bang into trees and they bang into kids playing in the yard at the daycare centers by the road. As a result, both the drivers and kids playing in the yards both get bloody noses.

In this analogy, I'm trying to make a case that there are two different kinds of consequences. One is natural law: clearly visible cause-and-effect reactions in the temporal realm, such children with bloody noses and fenders wrapped around tree trunks. The other is a kind of spiritual consequence: there is some Person overlooking the whole scene who will judge the quick and the dead for their actions. The unpleasantness of natural law consequences which are borne by the irresponsible parties (driver's own bloody nose) may act as an "invisible hand" to reduce the tendency for folks to do the irresponsible behaviors that lead to them. If they're smart and care. But not reduce it 100%. And half the natural-law consequences are born by a third party (the kids). The spiritual consequences, however, take place regardless.

Now back to reality. The mainline denominations of Christianity, in their national assemblies, have often passed resolutions about social justice problem, things like wage fairness, the apartheid wall in Palestine or the plight of tomato pickers. Conservative critics of these denominations have oft criticized these resolutions. Among the criticisms I've seen two different kinds of complaints:
  • "I have a different way of helping these people."
    Typically this has meant that they want to talk about sexual morality instead of economic justice. They want to engage in law and gospel preaching, which calls sinners to repentance and informs them of God's grace, on the kind of sins or personal vices which can break up marriages. I will help the poor not by talking about how we treat the poor but instead about how marriages can stay together.
  • "I have a different way of helping these people."
    This time it means that these persons have excelled in acts of personal charity in the private sector, whether it is going on mission trips to build houses and preach the gospel or volunteering for direct relief agencies in their towns such as the soup kitchen.
Now back to the analogy. Consider the folks who want to help the poor by preaching on sexual morality. This to me seems like saying you will remain silent on the issue of speeding but will strongly urge the daycare facility to put up a slightly bigger fence and light the yard. It's hard to say that these are bad things to be in favor of, but it's kind of an obtuse way of helping the daycare kids, and it remains silent on the issue of the consequences the drivers will eventually face with the Sheriff in the Tower on the Hill.

On top of this, natural law does in fact provide a curb to irresponsible behaviors in the social justice realm. If there were "wage exploitation," it's likely workers will want to work elsewhere or "rise up" and cause trouble. Smart businesses have learned to keep workers moderately happy as a way of staying in business. Governments that oppress people have troubles with the people. Corporations that pollute excessively may pay more in energy costs or lawsuits, or have unhealthy workers, or lower property values. These are all "natural law" curbs on injustice, but none are an excuse for silence in response to the sin. There's the Man on the Hill to consider. We know that every sexual sin has a natural law consequence that will eventually provide some curb to the behavior, but we don't refrain from calling sexual sinners to repentance.

Consider the folks who want to instead focus exclusively on the private charity. My view is that this is like setting up a first aid stand for the kids who were hit by the reckless drivers. Attending to the physical needs of your neighbor directly are a great thing to do-- it is commanded of God, but it doesn't do much to address the rate of injury. It too offers silence on the topic of what sorts of reckoning the drivers will face with the Sheriff on the Hill.

The tradition of the Christian church (from John Bunyan to John Paul II) has frequently been filled with preaching about abuse and neglect and exploitation of the poor. In one place in Mere Christianity, C.S. Lewis summed up sin as "greed and trickery and exploitation." A few papal encyclicals have even gone so far as to say that one cannot rely on the market mechanism alone to absolve oneself of the responsibility to pay a living wage.

Post originally written in 2007; edited in April 2012

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