Wednesday, October 10, 2012
Personal Responsibility Toward the Least Among Us
By Rick Marschall
Special to ASSIST News Service
SWARTZ CREEK MI (ANS) -- A provocative blog this week by my friend Craig Bubeck on the site "Internet Monk" addressed the role of Christians in the political process. Drawing upon his own reassessments, he dealt especially with this season’s hot buttons: the role of morality in civic affairs; loyalty to nation and party; and the legitimacy of coerced charity as practiced by government.
He makes the point that too many Christians automatically reject state-mandated charity, when (recalling Jesus’ admonition to show love “to the least of these”) believers should applaud charity, no matter what the source; and that “values voters” tend to compartmentalize acts of love and charity. The church’s domain, many think.
Craig’s essay did provoke thoughts. I believe I have fairly stated his theses, and my own thoughts are based on his, not the second round of debating-points. I think that a lot of sincere citizens -– sincere about their love and country and love of God, including therefore love of fellow men -– do not often enough admire or support acts of charity when committed by government agencies.
However, the “other” side of the question (and it IS a foundational question facing Christians and all Americans) concerns how many governmental acts of charity are acts of love. That is to say that Jesus’ bedrock challenge, the element of love, should be the yardstick by which we formulate national policy and our own responses. Long-term, does the state’s co-option of charitable impulses -– picking winners and losers, deciding between those in need, attaching strings to aid and comfort -– assist the least of these amongst us solely? Or does it, ultimately, interfere with the prerogatives of churches and individuals? Is it a distinction with a difference?
The widow was praised for giving a mite, all she had. The rich man, in the parable, is not praised for, at least, giving something. There is nothing in Jesus’ story about mandating that the widow give, or setting her donation level, or rejecting the rich man’s donation. Love, in the heart, was the Lord’s determinant. Likewise it is evident, even to the extent of using a Roman coin in another of the Lord’s lessons, that “giving unto Caesar” meant the things of Caesar’s -– first amongst them money and taxes. Surely the “things of God’s” meant the currency of love, deposited in the heart.
"The poor you will always have with you." Many Christians do not dig deeply into yet another verse. It is not easy so to dig; my suspicion is that the parables and admonitions of Jesus seem to meet us less than halfway in order to oblige us to think a little harder than usual.
The statement about the poor is some times, at least subliminally, regarded as a reminder that "there are always those who are less fortunate than ourselves." Perhaps a sanctified defeatism, that poverty will never be totally eradicated? Yet St. Augustine viewed Christ's words not as a statement of fact or a statistical view of society, but a command, a challenge, a commission from God Almighty.
In the Augustinian view (in his "Confessions") Christ was saying that no matter how severe the relative poverty -- or, that is to say, also the relative comfort-level -- of our neighbors, we must retain the spirit of charity. We believers, that is. In the original tongue, "charity" meant "love," the act of Christian loving and compassion.
It would seems clear that such an impulse, a holy command rather than a feel-good, do-good suggestion, would find little fulfillment in the cultivation of systems that would transfer personal responsibility, and personal commitment, to others. In fact when governmental agencies assume the impulses and instincts toward charitable impulses -– and sometimes virtually outlaw them, by sanctions against churches and faith-groups -– we witness a war against religion.
A giant step in my political and ecclesial maturity was when relatives from Europe (where in many countries three per cent of citizens attend church, and where “state churches” are a matter of course) told me that many people attend church three times in their lives: baptism, marriage, and funeral. When the clergy is paid by the state, the Bible recedes to a book on the shelf among driver’s manuals and counselor’s handbooks; and the clergy is relegated to a list of state-supplied counselors you may call on, or not.
My own relatives in America, my grandparents, shared Great Depression era stories with me. A propos cheering “charity” when dispensed by the government, I recall that my grandmother, who sold cookies (not apples, as in the common images) on street corners, frequently confronted by “block captains” that government assistance for her family was tied to registering and voting with one of the two political parties. Render unto Caesar -– Washington D.C. -– indeed.
Simply: it is seems to me that if Christians perceive that there are problems in society, they ought to act more Christian than, perhaps, they previously have been acting; and should encourage fellow Christians and churches and faith-groups to respond better. That includes monetary gifts and it certainly includes physical involvement.
But when Washington says it can do such things better than Christians can -– but moreover, and increasingly, attaches conditions regarding Christians’ freedom of conscience about things like abortion, homosexuality, reliance on the Bible’s instructions and God’s commands -– we ought to reconsider the extent of “rendering unto Caesar.”
Surely Jesus did not categorize conscience and liberty, much less the charitable impulse, as things that are primarily the government’s domain.
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“Be Thou My Vision,” a beautiful Irish hymn of the fourth century, associated with St. Patrick, seems appropriate to hear in relation to this message. This version is by the trip Selah:
Click: Be Thou My Vision
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This story is the personal opinion of the writer and does not necessarily reflect the views of the ASSIST News Service or ASSIST Ministries.