By Faith J. H. McDonnell (@Cuchulain09)
I heard this once in a sermon: A psychology professor with no children lived next door to a family with numerous rambunctious sons. Whenever the professor heard one of the parents scolding a child he poked his head over the fence and said, “Tut, tut, Mr. Smith. You should love your boy, not punish him!”
One day after the professor had spent hours repairing his driveway, one of the neighbor boys jumped into the wet cement. When the professor came roaring over and lifted him up by the shirt collar, the boy’s father poked his head over the fence and said, “Tut, tut Professor! Don’t you remember? You must love the child.”
The professor yelled back furiously, “I do love him, in the abstract, but not in the concrete.”
A recent program entitled “Competing Visions of the Common Good: Rethinking Help for the Poor,” held at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI), sought to explore the different ways in which political and religious leaders and the public seek to care for those in need. In a discussion moderated by AEI president, Arthur C. Brooks, the speakers presented two ”competing visions” for helping the poor, one abstract and one concrete. It’s important to have a theoretical framework for helping the poor, but when all is said and done, what is really needed are some concrete ideas to help people to escape from poverty and become self-sufficient.
Sojourners’ founder and prolific author Jim Wallis presented precepts on the poor and the common good from his latest book, On God’s Side: What Religion Forgets and Politics Hasn’t Learned About Serving the Common Good. And congressional human rights champion U.S. Rep. Frank Wolf (R-VA), also an author, presented both legislative and more subsidiarian ideas to help the poor and serve the common good inspired by his own personal Christian faith.
Wallis declared that politics “is destroying the common good” and that many people have grown cynical. He said that a vision for the common good needed to be contra-libertarian, contra-secularist, and contra-liberal all in one, but didn’t really explain what that would look like and which facets of each of those political positions should be expunged and which retained. Both personal responsibility and social responsibility are critical to the common good he noted, including an emphasis on work, education, and family life. The longest chapter in his book is the one on the importance of family life, he revealed.
The biblical metric, in other words, the way in which the Bible measures the righteousness of a society, is how the poor are being treated, said Wallis. He confessed that neither the free market nor the government can end poverty, but he would not say that big or too intrusive government was a problem. It’s the wrong question, he said, to ask whether the government should be “big” or “small.” What is important is that the government protect and promote the common good.
Congressman Wolf said he was “compelled by his faith” and by scripture passages such as Isaiah 58 and Luke 4 to “champion the cause of the vulnerable” both at home and abroad. He declared his frustration with the false perception of the Republican party as only caring about the rich when so many initiatives to actually help and empower the poor have come from political and theological conservatives both now and in the past. Referring to one of his personal heroes, British parliamentarian/abolitionist William Wilberforce, Wolf spoke of a new plan to promote a “Wilberforce Agenda” that shatters “the caricature that defines conservatives as uncaring and largely concerned with the interests of the well-to-do.” The plan is being led by the 21st Century Initiatives group.
One example provided by Wolf that will part of a Wilberforce Agenda, is initiatives to combat hunger in America. “There is no scarcity of food in America,” he declared, yet one in every six struggle with putting food on the table.” The congressman is dismayed that 96 percent of the funds for food assistance comes from the federal government. He plans to introduce a bill in Congress creating a Hunger Commission with such provisions as offering incentives for farmers to set aside land for the Biblical practice of “gleaning” by the less fortunate, and for supermarkets, schools, law firms, etc. to collect food for local food banks. He added that the governor of every state should be urged to appoint someone to focus on the problem of hunger in each state.
Another example of a Wilberforce initiative is to bring about prison reform. Wolf said also he plans to introduce a bill proposing a “Chuck Colson Prison Reform Recidivism Commission,” named in honor of the late founder of Prison Fellowship, Charles Colson. There are currently 2.3 million people behind bars in America, he said, and the U.S. “has reduced opportunities for betterment.” But he drew hope from the undeniable success of faith-based prison reform programs such as Prison Fellowship’s Inner Change Freedom Initiative.
Wolf added that caring about justice and mercy extended “beyond our borders.” He lamented that “our moral clarity is gone.” We are “supporting the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt” while Coptic Christians are living in fear, he said. And “we are silent” about the egregious human rights abuses perpetrated by the North Korean regime.
At the end of the event, AEI President Brooks concluded the discussion by “underscoring the need to reform entitlements, since the failure to do so will ultimately lead to austerity measures that will hit the poor the hardest.” If, instead, America is able to strengthen the free enterprise system, “we can maximize human liberty, increase opportunity, and provide the best life for the most people,” Brooks said. When issues remain in the realm of the abstract, it is easy to believe that no entitlements reform is necessary, but in the world of the concrete, mathematical realities are acknowledged.
If many in the U.S. government have not learned, as the title of Wallis’ book says, about serving the common good, others like Wolf and some of his colleagues have been serving the common good throughout their tenure in Congress. Wallis believes that many leaders will go whichever way the wind blows on various issues so that the “only way to change Washington is to change the wind.”
So it is really up to the American people, particularly Christians with a Biblical mandate to do so, to help the poor. We should all help to change the wind in Washington by supporting such Congressional initiatives that would give freedom and encouragement to local communities and churches to help the poor in the concrete.