Category: Public Policy

Readings in Social Ethics: John Chrysostom, On Wealth and Poverty, part 1 of 3. There are six sermons in this text, based on the parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus. This post deals with the first pair. References are to page numbers.

Sermon 1:

  • There is danger in luxury: “In this way luxury often leads to forgetfulness. As for you, my beloved, if you sit at table, remember that from the table you must go to prayer. Fill your belly so moderately that you may not become too heavy to bend your knees and call upon your God (27).”

  • Our use of earthly and natural goods must be oriented toward higher and spiritual goods. Another way of saying this is that our desires and consumption must be rightly ordered: “…let us accustom ourselves to eat only enough to live, not enough to be distracted and weighed down. For we were not born, we do not live, in order to eat and drink; but we eat in order to leave. At the beginning life was not made for eating, but eating for life. But we, as if we had come into the world for this purpose, spend everything for eating” (27-28).
  • It is a natural and perhaps unavoidable feature of human nature to compare our situation with others: “the sight of another person in good fortune laid on him [Lazarus] an extra burden of anguish, not because he was envious or wicked, but because we all naturally perceive our own misfortunes more acutely by comparison with others’ prosperity” (30).
  • “You should think the same way about those who are rich and greedy. They are a kind of robbers lying in wait on the roads, stealing from passers-by, and burying others’ goods in their own houses as if caves and holes. Let us not therefore call them fortunate because of what they have, but miserable because of what will come, because of that dreadful courtroom, because of the inexorable judgment, because of the outer darkness which awaits them” (36-37).

Sermon 2:

  • A non-material definition of wealth and poverty: “We ought to consider this definition of poverty and wealth. So if you see someone greedy for many things, you should consider him the poorest of all, even if he has acquired everyone’s money. If, on the other hand, you see someone with few needs, you should count him the richest of all, even if he has acquired nothing. For we are accustomed to judge poverty and affluence by the disposition of the mind, not by the measure of one’s substance” (40).

  • Using one of his favorite metaphors, Chrysostom compares life to the drama acted on the stage. Wealth, luxury, and the trappings of affluence are temporary and transient: “…when death arrives and the theater is dissolved, everyone puts off the masks of wealth or poverty and departs to the other world. When all are judged by their deeds alone, some are revealed truly wealthy, others poor, some of high class, others of no account” (47).
  • There are sins of omission and sins of commission. We have negative duties as well as positive duties. We can act justly in one sense while acting unlovingly, and therefore sinning, in another sense: “Indeed Lazarus suffered no injustice from the rich man; for the rich man did not take Lazarus’ money, but failed to share his own. If he is accused by the man he failed to pity because he did not share his wealth, what pardon will the man receive who has stolen others’ goods, when he is surrounded by those he has wronged?” (49) This latter point is an argument from the lesser to the greater, showing that in some sense sins of commission are judged to be more weighty than those of omission.
  • Whence comes the responsibility to share our wealth? From a sense of stewardship and the absolute sovereignty of God: “By this we are taught that when we do not show mercy, we will be punished just like those who steal. For our money is the Lord’s, however we may have gathered it” (49).
  • How do we manifest responsible stewardship? “Therefore, let us use our goods sparingly, as belonging to others, so that they may become our own. How shall we use them sparingly, as belonging to others? When we do not spend them beyond our needs, and do not spend for our needs only, but give equal shares into the hands of the poor. If you are affluent, but spend less than what you need, you will give an account of the funds which were entrusted to you” (50).
  • What duties are incumbent upon us in our giving? Should we be liberal and promiscuous in our charity? Chrysostom argues the affirmative: “For if you wish to show kindness, you must not require an accounting of a person’s life, but merely correct his poverty and fill his need” (52).
  • But don’t we have a responsibility to give only to those who deserve it? On the one hand, no, for gracious giving is by its very nature unmerited: “Charity is so called because we give it even to the unworthy” (52).
  • But if we must talk of desert, Chrysostom urges us to see that “need alone is the poor man’s worthiness; if anyone at all ever comes to us with this recommendation, let us not meddle any further” (53). In this we image the grace of God, to give liberally as his gifts have been given to us, who do not deserve them.
  • Don’t the needs of the poor, even as construed by Chrysostom, go beyond the realm of the material?

Readings in Social Ethics: Gregory of Nyssa, Love of the Poor. The source is the translation of selections from the piece in an out-of-print anthology: Social Thought, ed. Peter C. Phan, Message of the Fathers of the Church, vol. 20 (Wilmington, DE: Michael Glazier). The parenthetical references below are to page numbers.

  • The poor have a responsibility to give as they are able. Working together to assist the poor is advisable: “Nevertheless, give what you can; God asks for nothing above your powers. You can give a loaf yourself, another will give a cup of wine, another clothing; thus one man’s hardship will be relieved by your combined aid” (131).

  • But even one family can make a huge difference: “The flow from one river-source brings richness to many a spreading plain; so the wealth of one household is enough to preserve multitudes of the poor, if only a grudging uncharitable heart does not fall like a stone to block the passage and thwart the stream” (132).
  • An argument for equal shares: “All things belong to God, the Father of us and them. We are all of the same stock, all brothers. And when men are brothers, the best and most equitable thing is that they should inherit equal portions. The second best is that even if one or two take the greater part, the others should have at least their own share” (133).

Next week: John Chrysostom, On Wealth and Poverty.

Readings in Social Ethics: Gregory of Nazianzus, On the Love for the Poor. The source is the translation of selections from the piece in an out-of-print anthology: Social Thought, ed. Peter C. Phan, Message of the Fathers of the Church, vol. 20 (Wilmington, DE: Michael Glazier).

  • The basis for our responsibility to help others is our shared human nature, the identity as created in the image of God: “We must, then, open the doors to all the poor and all those who are victims of disasters, whatever the causes may be, since we have been told to rejoice with those who rejoice and to weep with those who weep (Rom 12:12). And since we are human beings, we must pay our debt of goodness to our fellow human beings, whatever the cause of their plight: orphanhood, exile, cruelty of the master, rashness of those who govern, inhumanity of tax-collectors, brutality of blood-thirsty bandits, greediness of thieves, confiscation or shipwreck” (6).

  • A prayer of supplication: “May God preserve me from being rich while they are indigent, from enjoying robust health if I do not try to cure their diseases, from eating good food, clothing myself well and resting in my home if I do not share with them a piece of my bread and give them, in the measure of my abilities, part of my clothes and if I do not welcome them into my home” (19).
  • The true natural and primal state of human beings is freedom and plenty: “Freedom and wealth were the only law; true poverty and slavery are its transgressions” (25).
  • Our task is to look at this primal state as normative, rather than the state of human society as marred by sin: “You, however, look at the primitive equality, not at the later distinction, not at the law of the powerful, but at the law of the Creator. Help, as much as you can, nature; honor the primitive freedom; respect yourself; cover the dishonor of your family; assist those who are sick and aid those who are needy” (26).
Blog author: jballor
Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Here’s a new NBER working paper, “Why are Immigrants’ Incarceration Rates so Low? Evidence on Selective Immigration, Deterrence, and Deportation,” by Kristin F. Butcher and Anne Morrison Piehl.

Here’s the abstract:

The perception that immigration adversely affects crime rates led to legislation in the 1990s that particularly increased punishment of criminal aliens. In fact, immigrants have much lower institutionalization (incarceration) rates than the native born – on the order of one-fifth the rate of natives. More recently arrived immigrants have the lowest relative incarceration rates, and this difference increased from 1980 to 2000. We examine whether the improvement in immigrants’ relative incarceration rates over the last three decades is linked to increased deportation, immigrant self-selection, or deterrence. Our evidence suggests that deportation does not drive the results. Rather, the process of migration selects individuals who either have lower criminal propensities or are more responsive to deterrent effects than the average native. Immigrants who were already in the country reduced their relative institutionalization probability over the decades; and the newly arrived immigrants in the 1980s and 1990s seem to be particularly unlikely to be involved in criminal activity, consistent with increasingly positive selection along this dimension.

Some Christian churches are joining the New Sanctuary Movement, an organization that vows to “protect immigrants against unjust deportation.” But what about the laws of the land? Brooke Levitske looks at the highly charged immigration issue and concludes that “the New Sanctuary Movement’s lawbreaking solution is neither a prudent civic response nor a necessary act of compassion.”

Read the complete commentary here.

Children in a summer program in the Atlanta Public School System.

Jonathan Kozol misses the point again in his op-ed in today’s New York Times. Last month’s Supreme Court decision is not a dismantling of Brown vs. Board of Education but a continuation of it. It continues in the spirit of Martin Luther King that children will not be educated according to race.

One wonders if Kozol, and others, actually like racial minorities. What’s so wrong with predominantly minority schools that represent the real demographics of the neighborhood the school is actually located? Predominantly black and Latino schools are not the problem. Poor performing schools are, regardless of the racial make-up. This is the point that Kozol misses entirely.

Kozol says nothing about ways to improve failing schools. His well-intentioned concerned is only located in getting a small group of minorities away from other minorities. This is not what Brown vs. Board of Education corrected. Brown vs. the Board of Education prohibited districts from using race to prevent children from attending schools in their own district. Remember, Linda Brown was denied admittance to a school in her district because of race.

Kozol is correct that educational choice provisions should be enhanced to give parents more freedom to make decisions about where their kids go to school. Parents should be free to remove their kids from failing schools if they choose. However, we have a duty, as a nation, to do more than shift people away from bad schools but to improve low-performing schools so that parents do not have to make geographic decisions that introduce additional stress into already overburdened lives.

Sadly Kozol remarks, “In the inner-city schools I visit, minority children typically represent 95 percent to 99 percent of class enrollment.” Kozol sees all minority schools as a problem that needs to be solved by getting minority kids in the same building as white kids. What’s so special about white kids that minorities will suffer unless they are in the same building them? Kozol actually intimates an unbelievably weak correlation that minority kids at white, suburban schools perform better.

Mr. Kozol should visit the dozens of predominantly minority private and parochial schools to be introduced to a law of education: students perform well in challenging and affirming academic environments with involved parents regardless of race.

Kozol has confused race and class. Public schools in America are separated by class not by race. The black and Latino middle-class (and up) put their kids in good schools because they live in school districts with quality public education or pay for private education. As long as our neighborhoods are segregated by class (which may appear racial) we will have education disparities between school districts. Government cannot force mixed classes to share the same neighborhoods.

Common sense thinking about our public schools should focus on two areas: (1) improving the education culture at low-performing schools which includes teachers, administrators, parents, and students; and (2) giving parents greater and greater control over their education choices for their children.

I wrote about this nearly five years ago here. I write this as a former high school teacher and administrator.

Blog author: jballor
Wednesday, July 11, 2007

This is a not-so-compelling argument that “information should be free.”

Logos Research Systems Inc., which produces Libronix biblical and theological research software, was vandalized this past weekend by “a man throwing Froot Loops cereal and pieces of paper out of an apartment window in the shipping department building Saturday morning.”

The Bellingham Herald reported that he “told officers he felt the company was charging him money for Bibles when he could get them for free.”