Sunday, July 16, 2006

'How would Jesus vote?' continued: the role of government

Part two of the discussion on Jesus and the role of government. Brian, a friend of mine and a pastor in Indiana, believes that government oversteps its role and interferes with the true Christian mission. I contend that fighting for social justice is the real heritage of Yeshua.

Brian originally wrote:
"It is entirely Christian to lift the poor and afflicted, etc., but it's not the government's job to do that. America's heritage of charitable giving existed long before the federal government stepped in. Schools, orphanages, hospitals, social service agencies (like Red Cross and YMCA) were all started by Christian groups seeking to address those concerns, long before the government was involved in any of it. It's great that we have a government that does that, however, enforced giving (taxation) forces people to give in ways they may not like."

I replied:

"It is exactly the government’s job to help its citizens and enable the oppressed and afflicted to pursue their own happiness. That’s the whole idea of government by the people and for the people. Charitable non-government organizations like the Red Cross and YMCA are great in their sphere of influence, but they don’t do nearly enough, and many independent charities that are subsidized by the government wouldn’t be able to function without that subsidy. Even with all the charity and government money that is given for social programs, millions of people, including millions of children, live below the poverty line, don’t receive the quality of education as children in areas of higher socioeconomic classes, and usually live the lives of ignorance, poverty and/or crime that those factors so often predict."
To which Brian responds:

"The largest single government welfare program was President Lyndon Johnson's 'Great Society.' and its 'War on Poverty.' The scope of it dwarfed President Roosevelt's New Deal during the depression. The result of the Great Society is abject failure. With the exception of the Civil Rights Acts of 1964-65-68 and their provisions for equal treatment for all irregardless of skin color or ethnicity, little good has come. Government agencies that govern these Great Society programs are models of inefficiency, waste, pork-barrel spending, and all manner of nonsense."
Ah, taking one of President Johnson’s greatest accomplishments and calling it an abject failure--touché. It’s effects must now be so ubiquitous that you’re not even noticing them. Most of the government programs that have helped improve things since the 60’s, and that now help people, are the legacy of the Great Society initiative:

-Civil Rights (as you acknowledged)

-Head Start, and the Primary, Secondary, and Higher Education Acts

-food stamps, upon which many families depend so their children don’t go malnourished

-Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid

-the National Endowment for the Arts, the National Endowment for the Humanities, and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting

-the Department of Transportation and Federal Transit Administration (including the very important National Traffic and Motor Vehicle Safety Act which has by now saved millions of lives--inspired by a hero of mine, Ralph Nader),

-numerous consumer protection acts to prevent dangerous products and shady business (also largely thanks to Ralph)

-the beginning of protecting the environment and natural heritage with the Clear Air, Water Quality and Clean Water Restoration Acts and Amendments, the Endangered Species Preservation Act and the Wilderness Act, and other measures.

“Inefficiency, waste, pork-barrel spending, and all manner of nonsense” are buzz-phrases spread by the programs’ enemies to give people a negative impression. No organization or program runs with perfect efficiency, including charitable agencies, part of the proceeds of which go to the agency. For-profit businesses, of course, generally serve the interests of the company executives, the shareholders, and the board--and they don’t often do too much for employees and consumers (i.e., the people, and especially the poor ones).

The Great Society started out with many ambitious goals--some of which were realized quickly, others of which took some time, and yet others which, for the deep, underlying root of the problems they sought to address, and/or the conservative opposition to the measures implemented, are still as yet unrealized. The War on Poverty is one such an aspect of the latter. It achieved a lot in its time, such as bringing the portion of Americans living below the poverty line from 22.2 percent to 12.6 percent between 1963 and 1970--the most dramatic decline over such a brief period in the past century. However, funding for the programs became very difficult because of the costliness of the Vietnam War. Important programs of the War on Poverty, such as the Office of Economic Opportunity, were dismantled by Nixon and Ford--and then even deeper cuts were made by President Ronald Reagan in favor of his record spending on (largely unused and Cold War paranoia-induced) military buildup. And today, advocates for measures to help those in poverty are still fighting the conservatives to get them passed. It’s hard to carry out your goals when you have your hands tied behind your back.

So if they’re always shot down while they’re still ideas, how do we know how they work in practice? Look at the places where a majority of government are in favor of working on these issues, and are able to pass measures to improve life for people. These are places like the northeast and northwest, which are among the lowest-poverty, highest-quality of life places to live in the US.

Brian continues:

"What does this mean? Simply that more dollars don't solve the poverty problem. Most of the world lives in poverty but I would assert that most of the world is happier than most Americans. (Obviously, areas that are infested with disease and other maladies are the exceptions. ) It is a blessing that so much American revenue is used for the fighting of hunger, disease, and poverty around the world, but even here in the wealthiest nation on earth, there is poverty. Why? Because more money doesn't end poverty. Even Jesus Christ Himself said, 'the poor you have with you always.' The truly poor are those who have great wealth and who do not surrender it freely on their own - not by taxation, but by charity and love."

Yeshua was referring to the fact that you need to spend your efforts on helping the poor as they are people always among you--not saying that they will always be poor. What you’re right in is that it is not the amount of wealth that is the reason for poverty and hunger. There is more than enough to go around. It is the distribution of wealth. In the United States, 10% of the population owns 71% of the wealth, and the top 1% controls 38%. On the other hand, the bottom 40% own less than 1% of the total wealth. Dollars do solve the problems--that is, when they’re not spent on frivolous and excessive consumerism by a culture that is at the whims of marketing. Dollars buy food; dollars buy textbooks and interactive learning systems, and better and more teachers and school counselors; dollars help set up after-school and community programs; dollars buy medicine and medical treatments; dollars buy sanitation and a clean and healthy environment. Dollars do make life better; it’s just in how they’re spent.

I asked:

"Is there anywhere that the Constitution says that the government shouldn’t address and work on public issues?"
To which Brian answers:

"There is nowhere in the Contitution that says government should do it, either.
On many issues, both liberals and conservatives might say 'Jesus is on our side.'…. Whether or not Jesus is on any particular side on these issues is debatable. However, the limited government of the Constitution certainly couldn't have anticipated a bureaucracy in Washington that is bloated on its own spending, not even flinching as it spends trillions of dollars that belong to the people it supposedly represents."
The Constitution was written by men who envisioned a changing world, and allowed room for the governing of the nation to reflect that changing world and meet the needs of the people. At the time our nation began, life was simpler and more pastoral. Every family had the means to pursue their own happiness; there wasn’t need for the government to do anything to enable them pursue it. However, the Industrial Revolution allowed the means of production (power and wealth) to be concentrated in the hands of the few, at the expense of the many. It was a huge change in the world, and a whole new ball game. Never before had barons and magnates been able to gain and wield so much political and economic influence.

Brian reflects:

"A preacher (I believe it was Tony Campolo) once said that we know we are truly Christian when our hearts are broken by the same things that break the heart of God. The federal government has proven that it only works to perpetuate itself. More gratuitous back-slapping, more monuments to ego and self, more war-making machinery, more of the same."
It’s a good thing I’m not an experienced public servant who takes great pride and satisfaction in his or her work, or I might be offended by that. Let me remind you that a measure just went before Congress to raise the minimum wage of American workers, many of whom, at the current wage, are living below the poverty line. It was a wonderful opportunity to improve the lives of millions of hard-working, poor Americans, yet it was defeated--by the small-government, pro-business conservatives, at the opposition of the progressive, liberal lawmakers who introduced it. They did, however, vote to raise their own pay! I believe there is pinpointed the embodiment of your gratuitous back-slapping and monuments to ego and self.

Those who work for social justice and try to enact beneficial programs are not working for the benefit of the government. They understand that the government is there for the benefit of the people. It is the powerful representatives of big business who are out to serve their own interests. The idea of the trickle-down effect, that what’s good for business is good for everyone, is a myth. Business interests are the interests of shareholders, company executives, and board members. It is solely about profit, and it is profitable to take advantage of people; it is profitable to deny your employees, and cheat and brainwash consumers. It only widens the gulf between rich and poor, and allows the wealthy to better grind upon the faces of the underprivileged.

Finally, Brian states:

"I believe it is responsible to vote in such a way that those who represent us will empower us as individuals to do what we are able, without the constraints of bureaucracy."
I believe it is responsible to vote in such a way that those who represent us will empower us as individuals to do what we are able, without the constraints of limited means and the oligarchy of rich businessmen. Right now there are inner city and underprivileged children who have all the inherent potential of anyone else to become something great, but will never become doctors, never become engineers or artists or visionaries of the future, because they are now living in poverty, not getting the right nutrition, not getting a good education, and do not have access to the things that can make their lives something more. They drop out of school, fall into crime or low-paying jobs for the rest of their lives, and their contribution is lost. If I were a God, that’s what would break my heart. It’s what breaks my heart as an empathetic human; it’s a tragedy.

Ending, he says:
"After all, the Sadducees, Pharisees, and Sanhedrin were a government bureaucracy. Look at how well Jesus related to them ;-)"
The Sadducees, Pharisees, and Sanhedrin did not have political power; they had religious authority only, and were subject to the Roman government--of which Yeshua said, “render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s.” However, what power they did have was theocratic, not democratic. The kind of government set forth in the Constitution, and the kind progressives strive for today, is government by the people, for the people. Considering the people he blessed in the Sermon on the Mount, and the people among whom he made his ministry, I think Yeshua would have related pretty well with the people of such a government. You might even say it more closely approaches the Kingdom of God of which he spoke.


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