My mind is very much with chronically unemployed people I have met lately who are really desperate for some work and money, but won’t go on unemployment and don’t want to use the local food pantry.
You know why? Because they don’t want to “take anything from government.” And you know where they get that idea, right? Fox Nation.*
I have shifted my approach from the pastoral to the political. Are you driving on paved roads? I ask them. Getting your mail delivered? Checking books out from the library? Did you get a public school education? Then you’re “taking from the government,” my friend, and that’s what a strong government is THERE FOR. If you are entitled to unemployment benefits, please collect them! I speak for many Americans when I say that the reason we pay taxes is so we can have a nation of people who are not starving and abandoned, and that includes YOU! As I would want it to include me if I were in need!
And P.S., no, I don’t much care if your work was under-the-table domestic employment for which you were not taxed. So you used to make a living fixing fences or babysitting or cleaning houses? I wish nothing for you but another source of income and food on your table. You are not my enemy. You are my neighbor and I desire your happiness and well-being. I trust that you can contribute to the greater good of the community in some way that is not financial, if your finances do not currently (or maybe ever) permit you to contribute to the national treasury. Okay? Are we good on that? That’s how I roll.
It all gets so twisted up in people: their desire to live “free” from government interference, and then their sense that they’re totally on their own when their free enterprise fails them. And the reason for this is unnecessary shame propagated by the spin doctors of the fiscal right wing.
I have a small Ministerial Discretionary Account out of which I can write little checks that might cover a utility bill or get someone a bit of gas or food, but it’s not enough to do anything significant like get someone back on their feet or into housing. It’s a Band-Aid, if that, a gesture of care and goodwill from my church community (I contribute some wedding and funeral fees to it throughout the year, and we take up a Christmas Eve Offering to replenish it) that doesn’t amount to a whole lot in terms of real monetary aid.
And yet Fox Nation thinks that people should be able to take care of themselves, turning to the church and whatever other private sources of income they should be able to scrounge up when the bottom falls out of their lives. Because God forbid anyone “take” anything from the government. This is where the toxic, empty rhetoric about hard work and bootstraps has gotten so many Americans: they’re starving to death on a point of pride, on a notion of self-reliance peddled by fat, wealthy pundits who are deeply invested in keeping poor people angry at each other instead of at America’s tax-dodging elites. “I don’t want to take anything from the government.” No, but they’ll take from the church if they can — the church’s charity is acceptable because the Fox Nation nasties haven’t yet started attacking accepting religious charity as being a sign of parasitic moral failure. The local church — most of which have a tiny bit of money to help needy people keep body and soul together and little or no infrastructure to assure the fair and equitable distribution of aid. The local church, with its part-time office staff and erratic hours of operation, its sole pastor dispensing tiny bits of money out of a tiny account — the local church with its canned food drives and ability to offer one meal a day or maybe one meal a week to hungry neighbors — the local church that is supposed to fulfill Jesus’ gospel commandments without ever challenging the larger society to do the same.
We’re supposed to do justice, love mercy and walk humbly with our God, the emphasis on humbly, so that we don’t upset the social order lest we be accused of being too political.
Meanwhile, the powerful are spending billions of dollars promoting their own gospel message of salvation by self-reliance and hard work, even though the American economy has permanently changed and employment prospects with it.
As a pastor, I am pretty sure I’m expected only to care about the pastoral needs of those who come to me for help, and not to think about their politics. Well, of course I do. How can I avoid it when I hear these people repeating the very slogans I have heard coming out of the mouths of the Rush Limbaughs of the world? It’s like listening to a woman who has been raped say, “I was wearing a short skirt that night so I guess I deserved it.”
I see what this scrambling for tiny bits of money does to people’s sense of self, to their families, to their relationships, to their emotional well-being. I see how it isolates, how it warps the personality, how it breeds self-directed rage that turns outward and creates an atmosphere of bitterness and loathing.
I think of the man who broke bread and gave it to his friends and said, “Here, TAKE. This is my body.” What I have is yours. Who I am is for you. My life is your life. Please, do me the honor of TAKING. Take and eat.
And yet these same shame-peddlers would make “take” a dirty word, some kind of perversion of the natural order. And they would dare to refer to this as their vision of a “Christian” nation.
It all makes me sick. To press a tiny bit of money into someone’s hand and say, “Please take this” and to see them flinch. Now I say, “Please have this with our blessing.”
* Fox News and all the pundits who toe that same line.