Today at Ethika Politika, I examine a few rules of prudent stewardship that follow from the teachings of the Cappadocian fathers on poverty, almsgiving, and fasting. One of the great challenges in this area today is how best to live out in our present context the statement of St. Basil the Great that “the money in your vaults belongs to the destitute.”
In particular, I highlight these three guidelines to help guide prudent practices:
[W]e must be wary of simplistic, one-sided policy proposals when life itself is, in reality, far more varied and complex.
It is not enough to have the right principles or the best intentions; we must also take the time to wade through the mess of conflicting studies and statistics, as well as the lessons of history, to discern what truly “works” — what makes compassion both effective and dignifying rather than mere moralizing sentiment, ineffective at best and counterproductive at worst.
The standard for determining what is “overabundance,” especially given a context where we enjoy great wealth but also face a high cost of living, is the conscience … and our sensitivity to it often depends upon our degree of spiritual formation.
There’s some evidence that the distress associated with poverty, such as worry about where your next meal is coming from, can create a negative feedback loop, leaving the poor with fewer non-material resources to leverage against poverty.
In 2011, a study by Dean Spears of Princeton University associated poverty with reduced self-control. His empirical study attempted “to isolate the direction of causality from poverty to behavior,” resulting one possible explanation “that poverty, by making economic decision-making more difﬁcult, depletes cognitive control.” A working paper from NBER from earlier this year examined “Poverty and Self-Control,” and Bernheim, Ray, and Yeltekin found that “poverty damages the ability to exercise self-control.”
A working explanation runs along these lines: there is a finite amount of mental energy that each person has, and the more of it that is spent on things like worry and concern for acquiring basic needs each day, the less there is available for things like planning, making sound financial decisions within a limited timeframe, and other choices related to economic success over the long-term.
It can be difficult for social sciences, especially those like economics which often rely on models of rational actors, to account for the factors which lead to seemingly irrational behavior. But an anthropology informed by Christian theology, which recognizes the spiritual nature of the human person, including the anxiety that often attends to material insufficiency, goes a long way towards providing a coherent explanation and understanding of the complexities of poverty. The poor often experience a kind of despondency that can be crippling. Worry can create feedback loops which tend to reduce a person’s perspective of what is possible, a kind of poverty trap from which it can be difficult to escape.
Johnny Cash and Willie Nelson capture this dynamic well in their performance of “Worried Man,” from VH1 Storytellers (1998):
In the full recording of the Storytellers album, Johnny tells the genesis of this version of the song. He had encountered a beggar in Falmouth, Jamaica, who said, “Mr. Cash, I’m a worried man. I’m a very worried man.” Johnny thought, “Man, here’s a new approach. I’ve never had this one before.” Johnny asked what was worrying him, and the bum responded, “I got a wife and nine pikni [children] and no job. That makes me a worried man.”
As Robin Klay and Todd Steen explore in their article in the forthcoming issue of the Journal of Markets & Morality, the Christian virtue of hope is an important antidote to the devastating effects of worry, uncertainty, and depression. In “Christian Hope and God’s Providence in the Context of Economic Change and Development,” Klay writes about her experiences of the “‘stubborn hope’ of poor people, who, having very little, are nevertheless determined to use their labor, knowledge of markets and local resources, and small investments to open up a better future.”
Emily Badger at The Atlantic Wire posts a common sense story regarding the debate about whether or not the dispersing of poor people out of inner-city housing projects into suburban neighborhoods, through government housing voucher programs, increases crime rates. The article reflects recent research by Michael Lens, an assistant professor of urban planning at UCLA.
A growing stack of research now supports [the] hypothesis that housing vouchers do not in fact lead to crime. Lens has just added another study to that literature, published in the journal Urban Studies. He looked at crime and housing data in 215 cities between 1997 and 2008 – controlling for national and regional crime trends, demographic and income variables, employment rates and more – and found “virtually no relationship” between the prevalence of Housing Choice Voucher Program households and higher crime at the city level or in the suburbs. In previous research, Lens and colleagues had investigated the same question at the neighborhood level.
“Although communities with a higher prevalence of voucher households appear to be higher in crime,” Lens writes, “there is no evidence that this is due to voucher households increasing crime.”
Lens’ findings should not sound too surprising given the fact that poverty does not cause criminal behavior in the first place. In fact, immoral behavior has never been a function of class but a matter of moral fortitude. Granted, poverty most certainly introduces particular temptations (Prov 30:8) but so does wealth (Prov 22:16). Poor people do not have more moral limitations than those who are wealthy. To assume such is make human dignity a function of class and once we cross that road, the poor find themselves the victims of patronizing oppression.
The piece explores in some depth the point that tithing is really about the radical call to Christian generosity, pointing to the biblical example of the Macedonian church: “Each of you should give what you have decided in your heart to give, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver. (2 Corinthians 9:7)”
I was just reading from the Little House books last night to my son, and one of the chapters I read included the narrative of Laura’s missionary church in western Minnesota as the recipient of Christmas gifts from a church in the more established parts of eastern Minnesota:
There had never been such a Christmas as this. It was such a large, rich Christmas, the whole church full of Christmas. There were so many lamps, so many people, so much noise and laughter, and so many happinesses in it. Laura felt full and bursting, as if that whole big rich Christmas were inside her, and her mittens and her beautiful jewel-box with the wee gold cup-and-saucer and teapot, and her candy and her popcorn ball.
Giving can really mean the world to the recipient, and it is a significant spiritual exercise and discipline for the giver as well.
If American Christians simply gave a tithe rather than the current one-quarter of a tithe, there would be enough private Christian dollars to provide basic health care and education to all the poor of the earth. And we would still have an extra $60-70 billion left over for evangelism around the world.
As I’ve said before, seeing evangelism as something for “leftovers” isn’t quite right, but the point still stands that to whom much has been given, much is expected. And American Christians have certainly been given much.
I think we might be able to bring Jonah Goldberg and Johnny Cash together on this point, to say that there always ought to be a “libertarian in black” in the room, asking the right questions about what government policies do for the people, particularly the poor.
Yet I wonder, might there be room for another man (or woman) in black as well? Might we also benefit from having a monk in the room? (No offense intended to any Trappists, who traditionally wear white, but honestly, what are they going to say?) (more…)
AllAfrica.com published a press release from the Guttmacher Institute, the research division of Planned Parenthood, summarizing a new study that “the poorest countries are lagging far behind higher-income developing countries in meeting the demand for modern contraception. Between 2003 and 2012, the total number of women wanting to avoid pregnancy and in need of contraception increased from 716 million to 867 million, with growth concentrated among women in the 69 poorest countries where modern method use was already very low.”
Around the developing world, “Roughly three-quarters (73%) of the 222 million women in developing countries who want to avoid a pregnancy but are not using a modern method now live in the poorest countries, compared with 67% in 2003,” according to the report. “Furthermore, women in the poorest countries who want to avoid pregnancy are one-third as likely to be using a modern method as those living in higher-income developing countries.” Thankfully, between 2003 and 2012, “there was a shift away from sterilization (declining from 47% to 38% of all modern method use in developing countries) toward methods with higher failure rates, namely barrier methods (increasing from 7% to 13%) and injectables (from 6% to 9%).”
For those who value human dignity, this is actually good news. The “lagging behind” of birth control availability and success is the greatest hope for the developing world. In addition to the rule of law and sustained property rights, what Africa needs is more people, not less, in order for many countries to build the types of sustainable economies that allow real needs to be met in the long-run. In Centesimus Annus, Pope John Paul II explains why: (more…)
After a disaster strikes, very few organizations have the vast resources and expertise to feed so many people as Southern Baptist Disaster Relief. They have received praise from countless victims and organizations, including The American Red Cross. After Katrina, they were the first to have hot food tents up and running, feeding tens of thousands three meals a day in many communities along the Gulf Coast.
Most state Baptist Conventions have their own disaster relief agencies that in many instances have the capacity to function independently without national denominational assistance. Here are a few facts that give a sense of their commitment and network for disaster relief:
Southern Baptists have 82,000 trained volunteers—including chaplains—and 1,550 mobile units for feeding, chainsaw, mud-out, command, communication, childcare, shower, laundry, water purification, repair/rebuild and power generation. SBDR is one of the three largest mobilizers of trained disaster relief volunteers in the United States, along with the American Red Cross and The Salvation Army.
Below is a short report from ABC World News Tonight on the work Southern Baptist Disaster Relief is coordinating in Moore, Oklahoma. The community of Moore sustained severe damage as well as loss of life when an EF5 tornado with wind speeds over 200 mph touched down on May 20.
One of the powerful scenes after Hurricane Katrina was church organizations cutting their way through the roads with chainsaws so they could set up hot meal tents the very next day. Church responders have transformed into “well oiled machines” and are being praised by The Red Cross and federal agencies.
Because of Katrina, and tornadoes like the ones that decimated parts of Tuscaloosa, Ala. and Joplin, Mo., churches in those communities can offer a level of expertise to the local houses of worship in Oklahoma. Christian organizations, who have already mobilized for Oklahoma, are vital not just in the initial response, but will remain a force in the community long after the news cameras and headlines vanish.
One of the most significant problems after Katrina was that some victims, because of the shock of having everything decimated that they physically own, often became paralyzed by inaction and fall into long-term dependency. Many church agencies are now highly trained to handle these situations and can come alongside victims to help them take the first initial steps important for putting their life back together.
It is becoming much harder to make the once valid criticism that evangelical churches in America do not focus enough of their efforts and attention to serving the poor and meeting physical needs. Natural disasters, many of which have hit some of the most religious regions of America, have mobilized armies of evangelical volunteers and workers who are transformed by the words of Christ who commanded us to simply “love each other.” (John 15:17)
Yesterday in conjunction with this week’s Acton Commentary I looked at Tim Riggins’ gift of freedom to his brother and the corresponding sense of responsibility that resulted. When Tim takes the rap for Billy, Billy has a responsibility to make something of his life. As Tim puts it, that’s the “deal.”
When Tim feels that Billy hasn’t lived up to his end, it causes conflict. Tim’s gift has created an obligation for the recipient. This reality is on clearest display in this exchange between the two brothers:
Billy: “How long are you going to hold it over my head, man?”
Tim: “The rest of my life if I feel it needs to be.”
This hints at the shadow-side of much of our gift-giving as human beings, as this good thing can be turned into a way of manipulating, controlling, or holding “it over” someone.
Consider these words about Augustine and their implications for the kinds of gift-giving that we ought to pursue:
A person who sorrows for someone who is miserable earns approval for the charity he shows, but if he is genuinely merciful he would far rather there were nothing to sorrow about. If such a thing as spiteful benevolence existed (which is impossible, of course, but supposing it did), a genuinely and sincerely merciful person would wish others to be miserable so that he could show them mercy!
The “spiteful benevolence” that drives much gift giving is actually intended to keep the recipient in a state of dependence, in a relationship that gives power to the giver which can be lorded over others. This, I think, is actually one of the key dynamics of much of the modern international aid movement. Aid can become a tool of a kind of neo-colonial policy.
It is this debased and corrupted form of gift-giving that has led so many to the extreme position which argues that true gifts require no response and inspire no responsibility. But as I argue this week, this abuse of the reality of gift is no argument against its proper use: “The connection between gift and gratitude invigorates a life of stewardship and responsibility.”
Americans continue to be fed the false narrative that poverty causes crime rates to rise. While it is true that not having material needs met makes people vulnerable to do things like steal—even the Bible teaches that (Proverbs 30:8-9)—the ongoing reduction of morality and materiality is doing nothing but setting the stage for the failure of well-intended programs because we are missing core moral issues. One such idea is a New Haven, Connecticut plan to reduce crime rates by giving more welfare. The problems there were recently introduced in a New Haven News article: (more…)