The United States is facing a crisis in social values! Some may think that such a crisis has to do with being too lax in regard to abortion, homosexuality, and crime. Others may think it means that we are not giving greater support to the 2nd Amendment, to cutting national and state budgets, and limiting spending on social programs. Even more may think it simply concerns loyalty to God, family and country. But, none of these constitute the values crisis of which I speak.
What it does have to do with is a more than obvious deviation from the Judeo-Christian tradition of the enormous value given to caring for the poor, the downtrodden, the widow and the orphan, the stranger and the prisoner, the afflicted and the needy. Churches and synagogues have moved farther and farther away from their own heritage -- and from Biblical principles -- in these areas. Moreover, our national governmental entities, that were purportedly built on Judeo-Christian laws and principles, have essentially been moved to support a wholly different theology or ethic: one of prosperity for the few, backed up by a system that now actually discriminates against the poor, the afflicted and the needy. Instead of a system of equal justice and non-discrimination, we now have a system that supports the perpetuation of rules and laws that take from the poor to enhance the standing of the rich. Instead of righteousness “flowing down like living waters” we are dealing with a “trickle-down” theory of benefits to the middle class and the poor and the downtrodden.
As more proof of the moral bankruptcy of the radical right, we now have in Congress a bill known as HR 1, in which are found some budget cuts that will have a devastating effect upon those who need help the most. A recent letter received regarding this spells out some of the devastation: “when Congress can seriously debate forcing veterans into homelessness and cutting food aid to pregnant women and children, while giving tax breaks to billionaires, something is very, very wrong.”
To go a bit further, a recent column by Mark Bittman in the NY Times points out the following: “I stopped eating on Monday and joined around 4,000 other people in a fast to call attention to Congressional budget proposals that would make huge cuts in programs for the poor and hungry. Who are — once again — under attack, this time in the House budget bill, H.R. 1. The budget proposes cuts in the WIC program (which supports women, infants and children), in international food and health aid (18 million people would be immediately cut off from a much-needed food stream, and 4 million would lose access to malaria medicine) and in programs that aid farmers in underdeveloped countries. Food stamps are also being attacked, in the twisted “Welfare Reform 2011” bill. (There are other egregious maneuvers in H.R. 1, but I’m sticking to those related to food.) These supposedly deficit-reducing cuts — they’d barely make a dent — will quite literally cause more people to starve to death, go to bed hungry or live more miserably than are doing so now.”
Too many Americans now hold fast to attitudes that show disdain or fear in regard to the less fortunate, as did that well-dressed Tea Party demonstrator who yelled and screamed near-obscenities at a counter demonstrator who was obviously less fortunate than he and who was, in fact, disabled (perhaps you saw the incident on your TV evening news last summer!). They fear the poor as different and dangerous, regarding them generally as dirty and apt to act in a criminal manner. Even more vividly, such Americans view the poor, the immigrant, the unfortunate, the handicapped as indecent, filthy, impure, gross, lewd, coarse, disgusting, bawdy and offensive! Not all Americans feel this way, mind you, but enough of them to warrant the judgment that too many now buy into this set of adjectives.
Moreover, a suspicion prevails that the less fortunate are simply lazy or inferior and that their condition is their own fault. Thus, the principle is now expounded in many quarters that the poor should be able to pull themselves up “by their own bootstraps.” Unfortunately, these same expounders keep finding ways to put obstacles in the path of the less fortunate so that they have a Herculean task if they try to pull themselves up to another level. Let us count the ways: removal of funding from community action groups; removal of access to free legal aid; school-aid formulas that send disproportionate amounts of aid to suburban districts while inner-city districts deteriorate; destruction of bargaining rights for the working poor who join unions; cut-backs for inner-city health clinics; the limiting of health-care access to those who can afford it; the encouragement of large grocery chains to avoid building within ghettos, keeping food prices there higher than average; punishment of the homeless as vagrants; attacking of Medicare and Medicaid as well as healthcare reform; privatizing of social security or getting rid of it altogether. Need we go on?
We have come to a point where the rich and powerful have decided that government, and corporations, should promote, not the welfare of the people, but the avaricious attitudes and acquisitiveness of themselves, and their cohorts. They believe the outright acclamation that “greed is good.” They hire lobbyists to do all they can to get legislation passed that favors their class, their position, their companies, their way-of-life. Their large companies, making billions each year from a captive consumer population, give back as little as possible to their government or their society, many paying less than 5% in taxes, and giving less than 1% to charities. Even their churches - and they do love their churches - fail, to a large degree, to support anything other than their own congregations, structures and activities. The Biblical mandate to support the poor and less fortunate falls on deaf ears and hardened hearts.
The Bible contains more than 300 verses regarding the poor and social justice, as well as God’s compassion and deep concern for both of these. It is more than simple compassion that God exhibits, however, for in many of those verses, He is depicted as being on the side of, and walking in the shoes of, the poor and the weak. This flies in the face of the tepid response of most churches and synagogues to the call for support of the poor. It challenges our growing belief, stoked by the rich and powerful, that the poor should lift themselves up, or that the government should stay out of social programs and let “faith-based” communities take care of the needs of those less fortunate. With the growing crisis in all areas of poverty and need, those solutions are bound to bring about an enormous calamity!
One more important attitude or principle must be addressed: the attitude that “rugged individualism” should be the norm for our society. Again, such a principle flies in the face of the biblical attitude that we are responsible for the well-being of each other. It flies in the face of the principle that the people of God are a united entity, and that our outcomes and our destiny and our salvation are not tied just to individual belief and action but to the quantity and quality of a society’s response as a whole. The society that the bible envisions is an interdependent one, with a mutual responsibility placed upon all of us to care for each other. The “contract theory of government” from John Locke, that motivated many of the Founding Fathers, is clearly built upon these principles. The Declaration of Independence enshrined such principles in our nation’s fabric by asserting that:
“We hold these truths to be self-evident:
that all men are created equal,
that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.
That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed,
That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government…, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.”
It is incontrovertible that Government, deriving its powers from the consent of the governed, is seen here as the instrument by which people in a society might achieve their God-given, natural rights. Today, we hear far too often that government should not secure the rights of all the people to Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness, but rather that government should be limited in its scope and that poor people should be on their own in their quest for a better life. We do hear constantly a drumbeat that focuses on special privileges for the rich and powerful, and that secures those privileges through the moneyed system of unlimited campaign ads by third parties, through well-paid lobbyists working to influence legislation and regulations in favor of large corporations, through special junkets, parties and campaign contributions for officials to spur their vote in the right direction, and through a revolving door of public office to private sector positions that enhances the ability of the rich and powerful to get what they desire, but not what is good for society as a whole.
Against all of this stands the message of a Book that has, in the past, inspired the foundations of our democracy and many of the progressive movements that have expanded civil and economic rights for the American people as a whole. Lately, the overwhelming message of that Book seems to have been lost in a 30-year onslaught against the very fabric of our Democracy. Radical right-wing conservatives, under the guise of religiosity and “values” issues, have despised and denuded the vehicle by which people might achieve rights and support, and some protection against the forces of oppression and injustice, of hate, of discrimination, of taxation without representation, of the diverting of wealth from poor to rich, and the granting of special privileges to a chosen few. As a result, we now have a Plutocracy (governance by the wealthy) that is also an Oligarchy (a privileged few dictating to the vast majority).
We are in a crisis of governance, and as in all such crises, it is a good idea to return to our roots and to ask: what can we learn from one of the primary foundations of the Judeo-Christian tradition that can inform the further progression of our rights and liberties? More next time….