Friday, December 18, 2009

Is Giving Alms Enough?

This is my follow-up to the posting about “The Amazing Booths” (Dec. 8). As I indicated then, I have the highest admiration for William and Catherine Booth and for the work of the Salvation Army, which they founded. I also have deep appreciation for local organizations, such as Harvesters, Love INC, and In As Much Ministry, and for those who volunteer to work with and who support those worthwhile groups.

But the question I raise is this: is giving alms (food, clothing, and other necessary items) enough? On the one hand, at the beginning the Booths and those who worked with them thought giving physical assistance was not enough, for they also expected those who received material help to receive spiritual help as well.

“Soup, Soap, and Salvation” was a slogan long associated with the Salvation Army. But now the Salvation Army, as well as the other organizations I mentioned, seem to place little emphasis on salvation, in the sense traditionally understood by evangelical Christians.

The main question that I have about groups that conduct praiseworthy charitable activities, though, is this: should they work more on the cause of poverty and physical needs instead of just focusing on the current needs of the persons they minister to?

Certainly, people need help now, and in no way do I want to belittle the assistance given the needy by organizations like the ones listed above. But the causes of poverty need to be addressed seriously also. But how can that be done effectively? Here we face strongly opposing ideas.

Hélder Câmara (1909-99) was a Brazilian priest who became an archbishop. You probably have heard his oft-quoted words: ““When I gave food to the poor, they called me a saint. When I asked why the poor were hungry, they called me a communist.”

Other South American priests who espouse “liberation theology,” a theology seeking to find ways to free people from extreme poverty and oppression, are, in fact, Marxists to a degree. They, of course, do not accept Marxist ideology or atheism, but they understand history largely as class struggle. And they believe that systemic changes must be made for the sake of the poor. The liberation theology they developed stresses God’s “preferential option for the poor.”

Liberation theology, both the South American version and the Africa-American version in the U.S., is sometimes criticized as fostering violence. I in no way condone violence, but I am far more opposed to the violence done against the poor of South America or against the African-Americans in this country than I am of the violence committed by desperate people. And it is unquestionable, I think, that there is systemic violence. That is why the system needs to be changed.

With regard to societal change, the extremes seem to be conservative capitalism seeking to maintain the status quo on the one hand and Marxism/Communism seeking structural change by violent revolution on the other. As usual, I want a position between the extremes, and perhaps that position is best found in some form of democratic socialism, which I probably will write more about later.


  1. Just a question about the question of "enough". I am this weekend finishing up the last two batches to student papers and looking forward to some time for reading and thinking. I am hoping to have time once again to think deeply about these provocative blogs. Toward those ends I'd like to ask about "thinking friends": Is "enough" conceived as measured by them, or, alternatively, as by God, or, still otherwise, as by those who stand in need of any help they can receive from others who would render it? In a word, who determines what enough is?

    A related question came to mind in reading a response by CT to an earlier statement on realism and idealism; I became aware of the use of the pronoun "we." Who is "we," I wondered. Is it the readers of this blog,or, more broadly, Xians who think like contributors of this blog, or, still more broadly, a political entity like the U.S. that must make policies by which all must live despite the feelings of some few? Just who is "we"?

    The way the "we" question is answered necessarily shapes any serious thinking about responses to caring for the poor or shaping public policies that envision systemic change.

  2. Great question Leroy regarding what is enough, especially with MH's addition concerning who defines "enough." I think there are positions between the extremes you reference. Mark Buhlig and I are sitting here in South Texas having spent a couple of days on site visits along the Mexican border discussing various projects being undertaken in Cooperative Baptist Fellowship's Together For Hope counties. "We" outsiders, Mark and I, spent time with residents of these counties who are doing great things to address poverty on an individual and systemic basis --- dealing with education, health care, legal issues, political issues, economic issues (jobs, development, etc.), etc., and the effort is a collaborative effort between the church (and various denominations within the church), federal government (including the Mexican government along the border), local government, school districts, state governments and agencies, and the list goes on and on. I agree we must address the need for systemic changes, as is all too apparent here in the Rio Grande area of South Texas, on the Kickapoo Reservation, and in the colonias.

    These are questions that must be addressed. What is enough? Who decides?

    In peace.

  3. Between two posisitions and views of MPH and Mr. Chris Thompson, allow me to propose a third position and view through a Christmas card which said: "God knows the greatest need we have. If the need is information, He will send us an educator. If the need is technology, He will send us a scientist. If the need is money, He will send us an econom. If the need is entertainment, He will send us an entertainer. The greatest need of our lives is forgiveness of our sins, God then send us a Saviour. Merry Christmas!

  4. I think "enough" is determined by the needs of the individual recipients. Some are newly poor and some are chronic poor. Both could be the result of systemic causes or could be a learned lifestyle, and both could be teaching that lifestyle to their children.

    All could likely benefit from counseling, but they will have different responses to any offer. While I hope the immediate needs are met, I also hope the opportunity to address any underlying issues is also available. I would add City Union Mission and Kansas City Rescue Mission to Leroy’s list of worthy charities, and I think they are doing more, but maybe not “enough”.

    Obviously, systemic issues are more of a challenge. One systemic cause that I think does not receive enough credit (pun intended) is a government that emphasizes spending as the solution to all threats of economic downturn. That combined with penalizing savers and investors with tax policy that changes with each president encourages a volatile economy.

    While I am skeptical democratic socialism will work, I look forward to the discussion. I would like to hear more from Chris about the changes occurring in Texas.

  5. I appreciate the thoughtful comments made by the above Thinking Friends, and I am adding one more sent to me in an e-mail by another TF who, to this point, has not given me permission to use his name. But I thought his comments deserved to be read by more than just me, so here they are:

    "I volunteer at at one of these ministries and question it every week because I feel it just keeps people coming back and not doing anything to get out of their situation.

    "True, authentic and disciplined education is the socialistic middle ground I would promote. I think we've had this conversation so forgive give me if this is a repeat.

    "We need to return to a rigorous grade school eduction that focuses on making sure that nearly every child is equipped with fluent reading skills. We need to start now to push most of our tax dollars to that level and make it like the traditional military school with uniforms, strict discipline and lots of one-on-one instruction for those that struggle to keep up. Additionally, we need to do away with all the indoctrination, political correctness and politics that has found its way into the schools, and we need to test teachers and fire the incompetent ones. At the junior and senior high levels we need to teach that there are no safety nets that existed for their parents and each person is on his/her own to make it. There are several generations already lost but we can start working on this generation of grade schoolers with this strategy. With one cycle of this tough strategy high school and college kids would once again flourish. This to me is "teaching to fish" as the old saying goes. Anything more socialistic is unsustainable and is just the re-distribution of wealth which does not work because it discourages hard work and initiative."

  6. In response to some of the postings, we know that (a) training, without jobs and opportunities, doesn't work; you simply create a more educated unemployed sector, and (b) more testing in education simply creates teachers and districts that teach to the tests (as I've been told by administrators and teachers alike).

    I just visited a school district in Presidio, Texas (a border town near Big Bend Park in Texas), and witnessed some outstanding developments and initiatives within a district that has increased graduation rates and enrollment in colleges, due, not to more testing and not to weeding out the best teachers (as the district loses too many teachers each year for them to be weeding anyone out), but to the genuine care for students and involvement of the entire (fairly impoverished) community and visionary leadership that believes that increased access to resources (through technology, for instance, as the town has few paved roads but has wi-fi throughout the town due to a license owned by the schools), creativity, and student/community buy-in and ownership in the future, can lead to increased quality of life in a very remote and impoverished region.

    Many of the responses refer to the individual, not the system that may have created the issue, but, fortunately, many, including evangelicals (Jim Wallis for instance), note that we need to re-focus our energies on systems, not just individuals. For instance, we need to incentivize companies to keep jobs in the United States, we need to work towards improving and sustaining economic safety nets, we need to continue to address the discrimination that plagues places of employment, we need to provide (yes, I'll say it) universal healthcare and step into the 21st century like other industrialized nations, and we need to convert the "me" that is otherwise a characteristic of our society (the "individualism" that plagues us) to a "we."

    We, as a society, have spent far too long blaming the individual for society's ills, and have for too long propogated the myth of "self-made" people. Behind every so-called self-made person is a school system that provided an education, a community that supported that person (including a family), a mentor, spouse or friend that provided guidance and support,a funder that provided the money or other resources, and a society that provided opportunities and privileges and encouraged hopes, dreams and visions. When these systems are broken, when opportunities and privileges are limited to the few, when there isn't a supportive community, when education and educational resources are not available to all, equally, then we all suffer.

    In peace.

  7. Mmmm. Thoughtful contributions, all. I'd like to hear more about the Presidio, TX developments. I'd also like to explore the major "paradigm shifts" (sorry for that--it's an old phrase, but still captures from me what is at the heart of much change)that seem to be at work in the list of things Presidio, TX is doing. How did these initiatives happen?

    I agree that individualism is overstressed; but, at the same time, history tells us that it is also often the insight, enthusiasm, sweat, imagination, money, etc. of an individual or a few individuals (you and Mark are possible cases in point...) that precipitate or galvanize a community movement. Is there a way to think about models of social change that do not diminish either individual or communal effort and contribution?