“Charity is no substitute for justice withheld.”
The very first question from human lips after the fall from Eden was, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” The answer to that question and its obvious follow-up query, “If so, to what degree?” has provoked and challenged good people from then until now.
The premise of Just Generosity is that we should be our brother’s keeper, but we have abandoned that responsibility both in American secular society and in our churches and congregations.
This is an attempt to, as the author writes, “define the problem of poverty, sketch a biblical framework within which to address the issue, outline a comprehensive vision for addressing it, and then develop a concrete agenda for ending the scandal of widespread poverty in the richest nation on earth.”
Sider’s book is thus not strictly about charity or philanthropy but about implementing significant structural (read: government-funded) changes to prevent widespread poverty. While damaged by a tiresome tendency to chastise and caricature the rich and by an equally predictable predilection to deify the poor, it still contains a serious attempt to address the thorny issues of poverty and our responsibility as citizens under God.
There is little question about the scope of the problem. About 30.5 million Americans live below the official poverty line with the bulk of those being children and single mothers. And 43 million people are without health insurance. Inner-city schools with 70 percent dropout rates are not uncommon. But there will likely be much heated debate about Sider’s agenda for changing the face of poverty.
The first part of the book is devoted to developing a biblical vision for reordering our economic system using Old Testament law and society. According to Biblical law, private property was not an inalienable individual right because only God is an absolute owner. No one else had absolute property rights. Individuals and families could benefit from the use of the property but they had no inherent permanent claim on it. Further, there was an obligation to not only help the poor with charity but to provide “an equality of economic opportunity” to allow them to remain respected members of the community.
“Any economic system that exaggerates the individual right of private property at the expense of mutual responsibility for the common good defies the Creator’s design for human beings,” Sider writes. “According to both the Old and New Testaments, God destroys people and societies that get rich by oppressing the poor. No matter how justly we have acquired our wealth, God demands that we act generously toward the poor. When we do not, God treats us in a similar way to those who oppress the poor. God judges societies by what they do to the people at the bottom.”
The remainder of the book is a plan for how contemporary society can realistically implement what Sider sees as the Bible’s view of poverty. Not surprisingly, Sider casts government in a starring role, not just because of the extent of the problem but because government is, pace Sider, “an aspect of community and is inherent in human life.” Government should be included as an active partner with the various corporate and private initiatives, in Sider’s vision. And the state “rightly acts to demand patterns of justice and provide vital services.”
For instance, Sider views it as “immoral” that 43 million people lack health insurance, and he thinks universal access to health insurance is necessary for our society to reflect the Bible’s vision of a just people. And everyone deserves the guarantee of a job that pays after-tax compensation well above the poverty level. Also, parental choice and comprehensive school vouchers are the only way of providing equal access to quality education. Finally, Sider argues, welfare needed to be reformed but it should not be abandoned.
The book will give some readers the hives and others will discount it as more liberal blather and bleeding heart pronouncements from the comfortable position of a tenured academic.
To others it will sound like a recap of the current administration’s trendy policies of “new markets and opportunities,” based on comfortable road trips with legislators and corporate leaders visiting pockets of poverty.
Still others will question whether there is real-world evidence to justify the view that a society can eliminate poverty by relying on a proliferation of government-funded social programs.
Certainly, it is simplistic to use as a model for the problems of the United States a theocratic society with a common Biblical law, language, culture, monarchy, history, and experience. Sider’s defense of labor unions as safeguards against selfishness, and his abundant trust of government are naive. And his easy categorizing of the rich as greedy and politically corrupted is unfair.
Still, there is much to be gleaned from Just Generosity. The society he proposes is utopian but his call to draw on the Judeo-Christian tradition in this country is worthy of serious consideration.
Sider asks, “Do enough Christians really care? . . . Will we take the path of generosity and justice? Or will we slip slowly into ever greater self-gratification?”
Yet perhaps the real question is not whether we are our brothers’ keeper. From a Judeo-Christian perspective there can only be one answer: “Yes, I am.” The question to pose to Ron Sider is whether we can be our brothers’ keeper without Big Brother becoming ours.
W. Fred Smith is president of the Fourth Partner Foundation in Tyler, Texas.