In the wake of the disaster, many are looking back at Haiti’s history to see what has kept this nation in generations of economic despair. As the AP reports:
Two years ago, President Rene Preval implored the world to commit to long-term solutions for his nation, saying a “paradigm of charity” would not end cycles of poverty and disaster.
“Once this first wave of humanitarian compassion is exhausted, we will be left as always, truly alone, to face new catastrophes and see restarted, as if in a ritual, the same exercises of mobilization,” Preval declared.
Indeed, after the early days, weeks, and months following the disaster pass, the “paradigm of charity” needs to give way to the “paradigm of prosperity” if Haiti is to ever achieve its potential.
I have to admit that my first few reactions to the news of an earthquake in the Caribbean weren’t especially charitable. I thought first that the scale of the reports had to be exaggerated, that things couldn’t be as bad as the media was breathlessly reporting. Then I wondered how long it would take for the environmental movement to make use of the disaster to advance their agenda. Neither of these reactions are particularly noble on my part, obviously. Blame it on my dispositional skepticism, I suppose.
But by all accounts, the human toll in Haiti after the earthquake is vast. In a world of digital media and on-demand news reporting, we can oftentimes see instantaneous first-hand accounts of these kinds of events. Here’s a kind of informal poll for PowerBlog readers: are you planning on donating specifically to address the need resulting from the earthquake in Haiti? And if so, which agencies or charities are you specifically supporting?
Put some specific suggestions in the comments for other PowerBlog readers to consider. Do you use denominationalministries, stand-alone aid agencies, something else, or nothing at all? There are the typical guides to disaster giving, which often point to large groups like the Red Cross, to whom my fundamental skepticism also applies.
One curious response has been to send outdated sports apparel to devastated areas.
A few weeks ago Hunter Baker posted some thoughts on secularism and poverty, in which he wrote of the common notion that since private charity, particularly church-based care, had failed to end poverty, it seems only prudent to let the government have its chance.
Hunter points out some of the critically important elements in creating a culture of prosperity and abundance, what Micah Watson calls “cultural capital.”
But it’s worth examining in more detail the point of departure, that is, considering the relationship between the church’s approach to charity and the creation of the welfare state. Lester DeKoster and Gerard Berghoef write of this in a brief essay contained in their book, The Deacons Handbook: A Manual of Stewardship, first published in 1980.
DeKoster and Berghoef argue in “The Church and the Welfare State” that “The Church is largely responsible for the coming of the modern welfare community.” But they also contend that the diaconal office is the key to answering the challenge posed by the welfare state: “The Church could be largely responsible for purging welfare of its faults and problems. IF enough deacons caught the vision!”
The church helped to bring about the welfare state in two ways. First, the Church embodied the idea of loving self-sacrifice in service of others. “The Word which the Church proclaims demands charity and justice for the poor. As this Word has permeated at least the Western world, an alerted public conscience has demanded public welfare,” write DeKoster and Berghoef. “The Church is the parent of the welfare community.”
But this “welfare community” became secularized when the Church “did not, and perhaps in some respects could not, measure up to her own ideals. Not all the starving were fed, not all of the homeless given shelter, not all of the oppressed and exploited relieved. The cries of the needy ascended to heaven. The Lord answered with the welfare state. The government undertakes to do what the Church demands and then fails to achieve by herself.”
In this sense, the welfare state is understood to be God’s preservational (thus imperfect) answer to the failed duty of the Church:
Thus the Church is, both by commission and by omission, author of the welfare state. Deacons start from here. Government has undertaken to do what conscience, tutored out of the Scriptures, demands but fails, through the Church, entirely to achieve.
In the brief essay Berghoef and DeKoster go on to outline some practical steps that can be taken to address this failing and rein in the scope of governmental responsibility. Some of these specifics need updating given what has happened in the United States over the last thirty years. But the vision of The Deacons Handbook, that the core of the answer lies in the diaconate, is a worthy and compelling insight.
Hunter will be pleased to note that among the practical advice given by Berghoef and DeKoster is that the meaning of the First Amendment needs to be reconsidered. Their advice for the deacon? “Do a study of what is so readily called ‘the separation of Church and state’.” This aligns with the argument Hunter makes in his new book, The End of Secularism.
This much remains true:
What is important, with an eye on tomorrow, is to discern what constructive relations may be developed between alert diaconates and public welfare. And it is immediately obvious that diaconates are uniquely qualified to amend what are commonly perceived as defects in the welfare system.
In a column in this past Saturday’s religion section, Charles Honey reflects on the second great love commandment in the context of the national health care debate.
Honey’s piece starts out on a very strong note, detailing the perspective of Dr. John Vander Kolk, director of a local non-profit initiative focused on the uninsured:
“Where would we see Jesus in our culture?” asks the member of Ada Bible Church. “He would be down there with his sleeves rolled up, helping the people that don’t have any access (to health care). That’s what we’re being called to do.”
In short, Jesus Christ showed us that anyone who follows Him is expected to address the most pressing needs of others. You can describe Jesus’ health care strategy in four words: whoever, whatever, whenever, wherever. Whoever needed to be healed received His healing touch. Whatever affliction they suffered from, He addressed it. Whenever the opportunity to heal arose, He seized it. Wherever they happened to be, He took care of it.
But it is after this shared perspective that the respective pieces on health care and the Christian faith part ways.
Honey’s piece continues to argue, in the vein of the Forty Days for Health Reform, that the gospel imperative is best met through government action. “For many, it’s about treating others as you would want to be treated — seeing to it that they get the decent medical care you and I would expect. It’s just not that complicated.”
Barna, however, ends on a note of personal challenge. He writes,
Government clearly has a role in people’s lives; the Bible supports its existence and circumscribed functions. It is unfortunate that when God’s people, collectively known as the Church, fail to exhibit the compassion and service that He has called us to provide, we are comfortable with the government acting as a national safety net. In a society that has become increasingly self-centered and self-indulgent, we simply expand our reliance upon the government to provide solutions and services that are the responsibility of Christ followers. Some Christians have heeded the call, as evidenced by the medical clinics, pregnancy centers and even hospitals across the nation that were initiated and funded by small numbers of dedicated believers who grasped this responsibility. Imagine what an impact the Church would have on society if it truly reflected the model Jesus gave us of how to care for one another!
This echoes the words of Abraham Kuyper, who in an address on the social question of poverty, wrote, “The holy art of ‘giving for Jesus’ sake’ ought to be much more strongly developed among us Christians. Never forget that all state relief for the poor is a blot on the honour of your Saviour.”
In this week’s commentary I argue that the shape of the debate over the public health care option over the next four years should focus on the critical role played by mediating institutions of civil society: charities, churches, and voluntary organizations.
While President Obama’s health care speech last week was in part intended to dispel myths about the proposed health care reforms, it perpetuated some myths of its own. Not least of these is the idea that “non-profit” must mean “governmentally-administered,” or that we do not already have non-profit competitors for profit-driven corporations in the health insurance industry.
To be sure, there is deceit, half-truth telling, and rumormongering running rampant in this health care debate. But this goes not only for the opponents of the president’s plans but also for his supporters, an accusation popularized by Joe Wilson’s shameless outburst at the president.
From the transcript: AUDIENCE MEMBER: You lie! (Boos.).
For exhibit A, see this Facebook video of Robert Reich, who says that the public option’s “scale and authority” and “bargaining leverage” do not amount to a governmental subsidy: “The public plan would not be subsidized by the government or have the government set the rules for anyone.” Of course, as I note in the commentary, relying on governmental bureaucracy and authority is most certainly a form of subsidy.
And why wouldn’t groups other than the government have this “scale and authority” or “bargaining leverage” to negotiate lower prices? Because their power doesn’t ultimately lie in the threat of coercion and they can’t arbitrarily raise taxes to increase revenue. This is of course the same reason that so many corporations and businesses go rent seeking; the government’s coercive regulatory power is the ultimate trump card. A gun is a great bargaining tool.
For a more thorough fisking of exhibit B, check back with the PowerBlog later.
I’m becoming more and more convinced that the talk of health care as a ‘right’ is so vague as to border on willful and culpable obfuscation. I certainly advocate a rich and complex description of ‘rights’ talk, such that simply calling something a ‘right’ doesn’t end the ethical or political discussion. Some ‘rights’ are more fundamental and basic than others, and various ‘rights’ require things of various actors.
But when it is asserted that access to health care is a ‘right,’ what precisely is the claim? Is it analogous to the claim that access to food and water, too, are rights? Very often these rights are equated in contemporary discussions: food and water, shelter, and health care.
One the one hand, however, it’s very odd to assert that health care, at least as practiced in its modern form (with X-ray machines and flu shots) is a right, at least in the sense that it is something that the human person qua person has a claim upon. If that’s the case, then all those millions of people who lived before the advent of the CAT scan were all the while having their rights ‘denied’ them (whether by God, fate, cosmic chance, or oppressive regimes bent upon keeping us from advancing medical technologies). It would also follow that all of those living today without access to these advanced technologies, simply by basis of their geographical and cultural location, are having their rights similarly denied. (This raises the troubling implication, not to be explored in any detail here, that the debate about health care in the industrial and post-industrial West amounts to a series of tantrums by the coddled and privileged about the requisite level of health care, which by any standard already dwarfs what is available to the global poor, who do not have access to what has the best claim upon ‘rights’ talk, even the most basic health care services.)
This raises the further question, if it be granted that health care is in some sense a right (which I am not opposed to granting), “What precisely does that right entail?” Clearly we can’t mean, in the context of the history of humankind, that this is a right to arthroscopic surgery or titanium hip replacement. That would be a bit like saying my right to food means that I have a claim to eating filet mignon. Just because someone else can afford to eat filet mignon doesn’t mean that my right to not starve gives me a similar claim upon filet mignon.
Similarly, just because some people can afford the greatest medical care available in the history of humankind (whether by the providence of God, fate, or cosmic chance), it doesn’t follow that I have a right to health care in that particular form. My basic claim to health care merely on the basis of my humanity is something more like the right to ramen noodles than it is to filet mignon.
This only describes what I am due by rights. It’s the least that’s required by the standards of justice.
And what might love require? “He went to him and bandaged his wounds, pouring on oil and wine. Then he put the man on his own donkey, took him to an inn and took care of him.”
Ron Sider: “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.”
Jim Wallis: “I often point out that the church can’t rebuild levees and provide health insurance for 47 million people who don’t have it.”
There’s more evidence that amidst the economic downturn people are becoming more careful and intentional about the kinds of charities they fund. We’ve seen that those likely to continue to flourish are those that have cultivated a “family-like” connection with their donors.
Often more local charities do well in this kind of climate. And, of course, the focus of the charity matters, too.
Robert J. Samuelson reports (HT: Theolog) that charitable giving was down $308 billion in 2008, and will likely be down even more this year. This will undoubtedly be due to less excess out of which to give, as well as potential changes to the tax code discouraging high levels of giving by the wealthy.
But Samuelson points out an exception to this trend. Feeding America, a group dedicated to providing resources for local food banks, has seen funding jump by 42%. Ross Fraser of Feeding America said, “Charities such as ours do well when times are hard. If you have to choose between giving to the ballet and feeding a hungry child, who’s going to win?” As Samuelson writes this dynamic “compounds the pressure on other nonprofits: colleges, hospitals, and environmental groups.”
Givers can be quite savvy, giving to the areas they perceive to be the most pressing. That’s why giving patterns can change quickly and respond to broader economic and social trends. With unemployment up and foreclosures on the rise, it makes good sense that food banks and other similar aid groups would have a competitive advantage relative to other kinds of non-profits.
Joan Lewis, EWTN’s Rome bureau chief, covered Pope Benedict XVI’s general audience address on Wednesday, July 8 , during which the pontiff publicly commented on his landmark social encyclical “Caritas in Veritate” the day after it was officially released by the Vatican. Below is a summary of Benedict’s address to visitors in Rome, including Lewis’s own translation.
Yesterday, the Vatican released Pope Benedict’s third encyclical, “Caritas in veritate,” along with an official summary of the 144-page document that has six chapters and a conclusion. In addition, there was a very worthwhile two-hour press conference with summaries of the document’s salient points, as well as a Q&A session between reporters and Cardinals Martino and Cordes, Archbishop Crepaldi and Prof. Stefano Zampagni.
But surely the best summary of Pope Benedict’s just-released encyclical is the one he himself gave at today’s general audience, held in the Paul VI Hall and highlighting the moral criteria that must underpin economic choices.
In only 1,300 words (the encyclical has 30,466), the Pope explained the document’s contents and his intention in writing it. He began by explaining that Caritas in veritate was inspired by a passage from Paul’s Letter to the Ephesians where “the Apostle speaks of acting according to the truth in love: ‘Rather, living the truth in love, we should grow in every way into him who is the head, Christ’.” Thus, said Benedict, “charity in truth is the principal driving force behind the authentic development of every person and of all humanity. For this reason, the entire social doctrine of the Church revolves around the principle ‘Caritas in veritate’. Only with charity, illuminated by reason and by faith, is it possible to pursue development goals that possess more human and humanizing values.”
I had occasion to ask a leader in a denominational global relief agency today whether he had seen any decline in North American interest in addressing international poverty, given the recent economic downturn. He said that he had among some of the major foundations and donors, who were being inundated with more local requests for funds (food banks, and so on). But he also said that among most mid-level and smaller givers, they were matching if not exceeding previous patterns of giving.
When I asked him to elaborate about why he thought this might be, he said that in times of challenge and crisis, those of us in the first “third” of the economic world are able to often gain better insight into just how advantaged we are. What if you were faced with a debilitating illness or unemployment in a country that doesn’t have the resources available in the United States? It’s a truism that economic instability affects those with the least amount of financial cushion.
It’s very likely that some churches are going to be saying that being involved on the other side of the world is a nice extra, but we can’t afford it right now. We have to focus on the needs at home. Hopefully that won’t be the only response, because when the world economy goes into a slump, people at the poorest end of the spectrum are usually the ones who suffer most, and therefore the giving and relief efforts are needed all the more.
Certainly some churches will “scale back,” as Wuthnow says. But other individuals and churches will keep the scales balanced, so to speak, or perhaps even “scale up.” A great deal of the difference seems to do with the kinds of relationships that are cultivated between all the parties involved.