12.13.2007

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?

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