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.