Helping the Poor Not Be: The REAL Culture War

help the poorReturning to yesterday’s post about poverty (here), Goodman points out that it is wrong to think that “the behavioral problems of the underclass are caused by poverty. “ Saying this gets it exactly backwards. It is their “behavior” that “is what is making them poor and keeping them poor; not the other way around. One hundred years ago almost everyone in the whole country was poor by our standards. That didn’t keep our ancestors from building the greatest country on earth.”

He is likewise correct in rejecting the idea, was put forward at a recent Aspen Institute meeting, that “These are all our kids.” Well in fact, as Goodman say, “they aren’t all our kids. They are in the custody of some adults rather than other adults. And the adults who have custody are all too often bad parents.” This doesn’t absolve civil society, much less the Church, from our responsibility toward these children. It does however help us understand that our responsibility is not, save in the most extreme situation, to take charge of children with bad parents. Rather our job is to help people learn how to be good parents by first of all being (or becoming) morally good people. How do we do this?

The Quakers opposition slavery is illustrative. Public witness and argument was certainly part of what they did but what they did first was make sure that no Quaker owned even one slave or profited from slavery.

Traditional Christian moral censure against fornication, adultery, abortion, sodomy, drunkenness and divorce as well as the Christian community’s valuing of all morally licit forms of profitable human labor don’t reflect a Gnostic contempt for the body or a “puritanical” distain for pleasure. Rather both in what it forbids as well as what it commands the Gospel reflect a sound understanding of what it means to live a full and flourishing human life.

At the end of his post, Goodman quotes Nicholas Kristof, writing in The New York Times. Kristof says that:

Since President Lyndon Johnson declared a “war on poverty,” the United States has spent some $16 trillion or more on means-tested programs. Yet the proportion of Americans living beneath the poverty line, 15 percent, is higher than in the late 1960s in the Johnson administration.

Goodman is right to reject Kristof suggestion that the solution is more federal spending. Why? Because the cause of the entrenched poverty is cultural and so any “real war on poverty” must “attack the culture that produces poverty.” The “culture” I’m referring to is not simply the culture of the poor but, and especially, the culture of the wealthy and well-connected. It is the cultural failure of the strong that is harming the weak and I would argue that civil society, and especially religious societies such as churches, synagogues and mosques, and not government (even Christian government) are the only one’s able to wage, much less win, this cultural war.

Turning for a moment to Christian specifically, I would ask you to consider two things.

First, the central pastoral challenge facing Christians in America who care about helping the poor is the same challenge that the Christian community has always faced:  How is it that through the Church’s “teaching, support, sacrifice, [and] worship” are we able to transform, by God’s grace and our own efforts, “utterly ordinary people” into women and men of “extraordinary, even heroic, Christian virtue”?  How, in other words, can our communities sustain lives of Christian virtues so that we can “be better people than we could have been if left to our own devices” (compare, Stanley Hauerwas and William H. Willimon, Resident Aliens: Life in the Christian Colony.   (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1990.  3rd printing), 81).

The second thing I would ask you to consider is that:  Based on the evidence that Goodman, Murray and others have offered, churches are forming Christians whose characters are not much more faithful to the demands of marriage life then what is seen in the general culture. Or, to put the matter differently and more directly, when as Christians we fail to be our best selves, we fail not only Christ and each other but the very poor we would help.

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory


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