The Role of Civil Society (2) (and last)

I kind of got off on a tangent there at the end of that last post. On a more positive note, Sider's comments about the potential of Civil Society give me the most hope, and I believe, offer us the most potential. Sider considers everything that is not directly controlled by the government to be part of civil society. Things like businesses, universities, faith communities, social clubs, and other non-profit organizations. One place I slightly disagree with Sider is his lumping of the family in with the rest of civil society. True it is not controlled by the government, but in my mind it is so unique and so foundational, that it needs to be it's own category.

Theologically, I would want to put the Church in it's own special category as well, as a Christian I want it to be all that it can be, an entirely unique community, united and filled with the Holy Spirit. One that is so ubiquos as to be a part of everything else we do. Not the Church as institution but the church as people, living and being the people of God. However from a public policy perspective, I would go ahead and group the actual churches we have, the governing bodies, warts and all, in with mosques, and synagogues, that is, faith communities. And then group those as one category that is part of Civil Society.

In my mind then, there are three primary prongs of attack on the issue of poverty. In no particular order, Family, Civil Society, and Government. I would add that personal choices and responsibility are a theme that must be emphasized within each of these areas.

Going back to Sider and his value for Civil Society, like we were saying, this may be the area with the most potential for overcoming the policy deadlocks we are in. Conservatives trumpet personal choice and the family, good. Progressives, the government, good. Hold on to that. THEN, hit the accelerator with this third avenue of approach, at least in this country, we are gaining ground, but all too slowly. Civil society has the potential to put us over the top. These institutions are largely untapped resources in a fight for justice for the least. Granted, many organizations within the realm of Civil Society have ending poverty or a similar goal as their primary end, but what I mean is that as a comprehensive avenue of attack, these resources are largely untapped.

Two of my favorites are business and education. Non-profits and faith communities working against poverty is a given, but business and education, now there is some room for growth. In an information society, education and continued education are what land was to most previous generations, it is a key to unlocking a great deal of potential and resources.

On the business front, while I often come off sounding like a communist, (cause Jesus sounded like a communist) the power of the "market" and the principles of business are tried and true, and can help end poverty when brought under the Lorship of Jesus Christ (or possibly ethics in general, for the larger public). I firmly believe that attacking poverty through charity is incredibly limited. Don't get me wrong, it has a place, but I think the hard truths found in business, a place where the balance sheet must be reconciled, has a great deal to offer the least advantaged. (Now I'm starting to sound like a Republican, I know.)

The 19th century showed us business as it's worst. A world ruled by oligarchs who had money and power as their primary end, and a world in which government was largely unable or unwilling to stop the abuse of the the poor. (think child labor, brutalized mine workers for example, and the horrible excess of the rich and powerful.) Government regulation helped bring an end to this. Now, leaders who are ethically grounded (I would argue for Christian ethics, but even without that.) these leaders are showing us a new way forward. A world where ethics, and economics collide and are utilized to help end poverty.

The idea that businesses can help end poverty is grounded in scripture, most specifically, the Mosaic law. In that agrarian culture, the land owner/farmer was required to leave the corners of their fields unharvested. Then the poor would come out and "glean" that is, harvest those corners. Role that into the 21st century.

One: Gleaning was a law, i.e. government regulation. Government regulation can be an excellent thing for the fair minded business owner because it creates a level playing field by forcing everyone to do the right thing, a right thing that assists the poor. I may want to pay my workers higher living wages, but I literally cannot because my competition does not, (can you say Wallmart) and frankly I as a business owner, particularly a small business owner, may not be getting rich, I'm barely making it. So I really can't pay what I ought to pay my workers, and make any profit in many instances. But when the government mandates an even playing field, one that includes fair and living wages, then I can do the right thing, the thing I want to do, and compete with my competitors based on other real factors. Things like cutting costs (other than in the payroll), quality, or innovation.

Two: Gleaning involved work on the part of the poor. They had to literally get up and go get their food. There is a place for free handouts, say from the church as a way of mediating grace, or for those that literally can actually not work, but the principle of gleaning involves working for your food, as one generally should. (Unfortunately, so many in this country are working over 40hrs/wk and still hardly making it. For those people, we find the church and government compensating for the evils of the "market".)

Three: Where did this "charity", this free food that was gleaned come from? From a profit. Profit is not a bad thing. Neither is wealth put to work, (i.e. money invested and/or gaining interest) It is wealth squandered on indulgences and the laziness and entertainment of the wealthy while others starve that is evil and which God condemns with the strictest penalties.

I am very interested in the science of economics. Though I don't know a great deal about it, I think it is fair to say that if we all gave everything away... (and followed Jesus?) Who would provide for the "all of us" that were being blindly and naively spiritual. That is not what Christ wants. (from all of us anyway, however he may want you to be a monk.) Rather, it is creating a culture, an economy, a world, in which the Biblical concepts of justice, love, and grace, are followed and balanced in such a way that no one need suffer the worst effects of poverty. Should one suffer consequences for poor choices, of course. But there is such a thing as grace and forgiveness. Moreover, the majority of people who are suffering today are suffering from a combination of poor choices
and unjust systems. And for quite a few it is something like a debilitating disease (and the cost associated with it) or a poor local economy that is wrecking the most havoc.

Many people find themselves rock climbing without a rope. The culture/government mandate that one climb the cliff, but does not provide the necessary safety equipment. Then when one makes a poor personal decision, "sins", uses drugs, takes out a loan they can't repay, or just as often simply "slips", gets injured, or laid-off from their job, they fall to their financial death. They "sinned", they made poor personal choices, but the fact that that results in financial death, whose fault is that?


The Role of Civil Society

What follows is the final post in this series on Ronald Sider's book Just Generosity. It is a synapse of the third chapter, A Comprehensive Strategy.

A Policy Impasse
Progressives offer government as the answer to poverty. Conservatives offer family values and right conduct. The truth is a combination of these things. When Progressives openly attack faith communities and ignore the value of the family, and conservatives ignore the debilitating effects of unjust systems, some large corporations, and the potential of some government intervention, they both contribute to the reality of poverty in this country.

The Indispensable Role of Civil Society
Civil Societies are those things that are neither created nor controlled by the state. Things like families, churches, business, unions, and all the various non-profit and civil clubs the contribute to our culture. Sider argues that in addition to certain government regulations and programs that seek to alleviate poverty, as well as moral conduct by individuals; it is Civil Societies that have the greatest potential to overcome poverty. One of Sider's primary concerns is the strengthening of the two parent family. Those trying to function outside of the two parent family are far more likely to find themselves affected by poverty.

Beyond the family, all manner of institutions and organizations have the potential to help overcome poverty. Religious Organizations, Civic Organizations lite the Rotary Club, Businesses, Universities, Unions, they all have a role to play.

What both Sider and I do not want to see is the continued abuse of rhetoric by those on both the left and the right.

When conservatives say that the government should not do what the Church is responsible for, are they really prepared for their local congregation to raise approximately $500,000 annually, their share of what federal and state governments do for the poor annually.

When progressives, ignore the value of the two parent family, arguably the singe institution with the most potential to overcome poverty, and are openly agnostic, ignoring the contribution of faith communities, they are being incredibly naive, and downright harmful to our efforts to overcome poverty.

But what I find maybe most egregious, is the abuse and hoodwinking of conservative communities, namely evangelicals, by powerful interests that have money and power as their primary end.

While some progressives may be openly antagonistic toward people of faith, it is those Republicans that align themselves with Christians by speaking their language for the sole purpose of power and money that are the most evil in my mind. These powers want smaller government, (at least in some areas; the money making military industrial complex is not among them), and seek to create profits by exploiting the poor. There is an old saying about holding your friends close and your enemies closer, and that is exactly what some very powerful, and evil institutions are doing to faith communities. They speak our language, and trumpet our values, (abortion, family values, etc...) so that we don't poke our nose into their real interests. When did a government "for, by, and of the people" become the enemy? Well it is, for those that don't want the prying eyes of government regulation, the Biblical concept of justice, that would keep them from engaging in illegal and harmful activities that abuse the least among us, the people Jesus cared most about.

The Rest of the This Series
Just Generosity
What Does Poverty Look Like
A Biblical Foundation
Scripture On Poverty

His Forgiveness

I had the opportunity to preach about the the "sinful" woman who anoints Jesus' feet with her tears and perfume, this past Saturday. (Luke 7:36-50)

I decided to go away from the three point format, and just narrate the story, helping us to engage the text and the story; the forgiveness offered by Christ, and our corresponding repentance. Not so much in a "your a sinner, confess" kind of way, but more in a "I think we all know were sinners, receive the forgivness of Christ" kind of way. Jesus says three times, that her sins are forgiven. I believe this woman is typical of many of us who struggle to receive the forgiveness he offers. When we come to Christ honestly and with the right attitude, that's it, were forgiven.

We then tried to make the service as experiential as possible, giving people an opportunity to write their sins on small pieces of paper, and then burn them via some candles sitting in watter we had set up. I shortened up the sermon, allowing more time for worship, reflection and the grace and forgiveness of the Holy Spirit.