Poverty, the Limits of Materialism, and George MacDonald

Christianity Today recently put together a peculiarly insufficient list of ways to help the poor that was ably and summarily criticized by Peter Greer, whose work with Hope International stands somewhere in the nexus of awesome and jaw-dropping.

But they also in the same issue ran a particularly good piece by my friend Mark Galli, in which he rightly points to the role governments play in making macro-economic decisions.  While he didn’t quite specify closely enough that their role should be to free up enterprise to create jobs, the alteration wouldn’t be foreign to the piece, even if an improvement.

But what really caught my eye was this bit:

Thus the church’s most characteristic antipoverty efforts are those that are utterly personal. I believe we instinctively understand this. This is why among the many antipoverty interventions offered, we evangelicals are so fond of child sponsorship, for example. It is not only a proven strategy for making a difference—it works—but more importantly, it is very relational and very personal.

Mark’s point here is perceptive, and unwittingly echoes a line from George MacDonald that has haunted me since I came across it:  ”We are infested with a philanthropy which is the offspring of our mammon worship.”

The line is, frankly, worth repeating.  Read it slowly, and then again:  ”We are infested with a philanthropy which is the offspring of our mammon worship.”

The alternative to that is aptly summarized by MacDonald’s protagonist who utters the remark, Robert Falconer:

“But it is right to do many things for [the poor] when you know them, which it would not be right to do for them until you know them.  I am amongst them; they know me; their children know me; and something is always occurring that makes this or that one come to me.  Once I have a footing, I seldom lose it.  So you see, in this my labour I am content do the thing that lies next to me.  I wait events.”

Or as he says it elsewhere, “No desire for the betterment of the masses, as they are stupidly called, can make up for a lack of faith in the individual”–a faith, presumably, in Falconer’s world that is not gained through the abstracting notions of humanity, but rather the intimate acquaintance with particular people.  ”We must do,” after all, “before we can know.”  That was Falconer too.

That to say, there is a humanity contained in the personal relations that the exchanging of gifts or monies can only approximate, but never truly capture.  Beyond jobs, and on their way to them, many folks in poverty need a helping hand that isn’t strictly metaphorical:  someone to watch the kids or help out with the chores.  As Mark points out, the types of giving that Christians are often drawn to attempt to integrate this dimension into our charitable efforts.  And so much the better.

But even still, a degraded and reductionistic materialism is ever at the door, seeking to erode our sense of the humanity of those involved by the abstract nouns of “social justice” and “end of poverty.”   And, for that matter, “job creation.”  The patterns of speech have a way of distancing ourselves from the situation, or more accurately, from the people who are in it.

Our charitable efforts must be person-first, if they are to be properly “ours” at all.  The only other alternative is to perpetuate the very materialism that often sits near the headwaters of the problem itself.

 

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  • Matthew Gillikin

    Have you read “When Helping Hurts” by Brian Fikkert and Steve Corbett? They are both at the Chalmers Center, which is cited in the Greer article you mention. It’s a great book and offers gospel-centered definitions of poverty and poverty alleviation that are tied in with best practices for community development.

    • Matthew Lee Anderson

      Matthew,

      I’ve only skimmed it. But it seems to be one of the best resources out there on the subject. I may have to give it a closer read at some point.

      Matt

  • http://menliketreeswalking.blogspot.com Matthew

    I completely agree! And not. You are exactly right, and that line from MacDonald is so amazing. A materialistic worldview will color what we think human flourishing ought to be.

    However, I want to be careful to point out that even as much as there ought to be more a role for community organizations and churches to attack poverty by building up social capital and distributing time, energy, and money on an individual basis, there is also very much a place for standardized “social justice” measure administered by the government. Health care, for example, is something that requires both individual relationships and a high degree of systematization and organization in order to effective for people. Food aid, I feel, is another– if everyone on WIC went to their local church instead, I think we’d find that our ability to do a lot of other good works would be impeded.

    • Matthew Lee Anderson

      Matthew,

      I agree that health care requires a great deal of organization and systematization. But it’s not clear to me why that organization requires the administration of the state. The Catholic hospital system (and the Baptist, and the Mormon!) are pretty vast complexes that provide a lot of services.

      Just a thought in the other direction. : )

      Best,

      Matt

      • http://menliketreeswalking.blogspot.com Matthew

        Matt,

        2 things there– the first is that Baptist or Mormon systems are rarely big enough to actually cover a geographic area appropriately. If you’re visiting your mother on the other side of town and get chest pain, it’s unlikely that the ER will have your records. If your doctor just got you an expensive scan last week at the Baptist hospital and the Mormon doctor is holding your chart right now… well, you’re probably getting another expensive scan. This is still a problem when the government pays for everything but local hospitals don’t have access to one another’s records, but it’s one area where government systematization might be helpful.

        More prescient is the observation that just about every hospital in the U.S. today taking care of the poor accepts Medicaid/Medicare (yes, including all those valiant faith-based hospitals), which, while not a perfect system, is certainly better than having the poor fend for themselves in terms of healthcare coverage. If it weren’t for those programs, the Baptists and the Catholics would go bankrupt tomorrow. The government is the only entity big enough that it can guarantee to pay for a certain level of healthcare for everyone, and I think it should.

        • Matthew Lee Anderson

          Matthew,

          I agree size is a limitation, and there’s no question Medicare and Medicaid have helped pay for health care for many people. The question is whether that is ultimately sustainable for a government. I am not convinced that it is, even though you might be right that we have reached the point where that is the only plausible option.

          That said, it’s not clear to me that the government is always and everywhere the only such institution that could provide sufficient health care for a country, or whether that is simply the case that’s being made *in light of* the health care system that has emerged over the past 100 years in America. For instance, had insurance never been tied to employment and been treated as a benefit, health care costs might not have risen like they have. And then we’re in a totally different world with a different set of rules. But it’s a Gordian knot now, and you’re right that it may take the sphere of government in order to fix it. If, that is, the government can print enough money for the operation.

          Best,

          matt

          • http://menliketreeswalking.blogspot.com Matthew

            I think that it depends on just how much of a “right” health care is or ought to be. For example, if a parent chooses not to have their children seen by a doctor for preventive medicine and vaccinations, their parents can be arrested and their children taken from them for medical neglect. There is no one but the government that can guarantee health care for the infant, because there are some parents out there so neglectful that they won’t even bring their children in for shots. This gets trickier as people get older and have a greater degree of freedom & moral agency, and I certainly don’t think that the government ought to drag people in to get their cholesterol checked.

            In the end, as well, people who don’t take care of themselves and don’t have any sort of health care coverage end up costing us all more when they get sick of entirely preventable causes and leave the workforce at age 50, even if private insurance pays for their care (because we all pay higher premiums.)

            Finally, though, I can’t imagine a system in which everyone in America has basic access to health care that doesn’t involve some sort of government intervention or supervision. Perhaps this is simply a failure of my bureaucratized imagination (I would certainly hope so, because as a doctor I like having to deal with the government only slightly more than having to deal with insurance companies.) I would like to hear about any proposal for one if you have them! I understand that there are plenty of places where people with diabetes who are working a minimum wage job can go; I would like to see a suggestion that makes it possible for any person to get the necessary, basic preventive and chronic health care.

          • http://www.mereorthodoxy.com Matthew Anderson

            Matthew,

            Lots of good stuff in here, and I agree the problem is finding a constructive solution through it all.

            That said, there is a difference between a government judging those who fail to respect and acknowledge people’s rights, and government providing the means by which people’s rights are respected. Take an analogous case (that may or may not hold up–I just thought of it): property. The law punishes those who steal, regardless of whether they are stealing from someone who is adequately protected (i.e. there’s no remedy for imprudence on the part of the owner). And while the government might incentivize prudence though providing tax credits and the like, that does not entail that the government is the guarantor of the property, such that they are culpable if the minimum level of prudence is secured.

            That to say, the distinctions between “government intervention” and “supervision” and “provision” need to be weighed carefully on the question.

            Best,

            matt

          • http://www.twitter.com/mariachong Maria

            Matthew, that’s a really good and clarifying distinction of the government as an adjudicator to preserve rights, and the government as a provider of resources.

            I’d like to add that as societies grow in technology, wealth and resources, the government often serves as a facilitator to spread the costs and benefits of large-scale resources evenly among residents. A good example of this is electricity and our highways/transportation system.

            Perhaps neither are “essential” services, but are foundational resources for an industrialized society. Governments (including municipal authorities) manage these kinds of social benefits to spread the cost more equitably and make sure even marginalized groups (rural farms, low density states like Wyoming) have access.

            I personally feel health care is one of these foundational social resources that wealthy and technologically-advanced nations are no longer viewing as a privilege, based on material standing. I would even suggest that as countries have greater wealth and a longer history of democracy, that things like clean water, electricity, health care, education transition from optional perks to benefits available to the majority of citizens.

            I understand the concern of many that as intervention/involvement increases, that government might become intrusive, prescriptive or bloated–to the detriment of our individual rights and long-term financial stability as a nation (see Greece and Ireland as examples).

            But–other nations have successfully transitioned into universal health care with access for all citizens, and have remained financially solvent. I lived in Australia for a year, and it’s amazing how mundane (like clean water and electricity) having free health care is. It feels weird to me that we’re one of the only industrialized nations without a progressive, compassionate health care system set up for our citizens.

            I hope it was okay for me to comment on your discussion here. This is one of my favorite topics as a Christian thinker and writer. My friends and I discuss this all the time!

          • Matthew Lee Anderson

            Maria,

            All very good points, and I don’t have much to add to them right now.

            However, this came through my RSS reader this morning and I found it interesting and potentially relevant to this whole discussion: http://www.theatlantic.com/business/archive/2012/03/why-obamacares-medicaid-expansion-will-reduce-health-care-access/254275/

            More to come on all this, I hope.

            matt

  • http://twitter.com/giftsoutright Matt Miller

    I’ve been reading a lot of Wendell Berry lately, and I’m growing increasingly convinced that working for the renewal of local community may be a far better way to help the poor than programs and donations. I recognize the danger of quietism here, but in many ways I think local actions are actually more demanding than founding global organizations.

    Dickens was really good on this topic too, while we’re talking about Victorian writers: the portrait of the charitable lady in _Hard Times_ who utterly neglects her own family is really biting.

    • Matthew Lee Anderson

      Yes, the localist route is one available option here. I don’t think it’s the right one, but it’s certainly becomes a lot more plausible once the countours of the problem are identified.

      And yeah, Dickens. Been reading a lot of that guy the past year or so. But not Hard Times (yet!), which makes me want to go forth and buy it.

      Matt

  • http://www.twitter.com/mariachong Maria

    Great thoughts. I agree that generosity is to be personal. Radical change can be made on the micro level. (Perhaps the majority of change in on this level, one person at a time.)

    However, a quick glance at history and we can see that governments are the single largest influence in bettering people’s lives on a macro scale. Things like worker safety laws, minimum age requirements for workers, free elementary and secondary education, clean water, food safety, electricity for rural communities are just a few improvement initiatives provided by governments of most industrialized nations.

    I’d say there’s a bell curve: 1) Bottom: minimal government aid (with low quality of life, great divides between haves and have-nots, inefficient or few resources) 2) Top of the curve: wise government aid (high quality of life, general well-being of society, basic needs easily accessible) 3) Back down to wasteful/over-use of government interference (low quality of life, high taxes, high unemployment, over-regulation, repressive policies).

    For me, the bottom line is that mankind is sinful. Societies, corporations, institutions reflect this. God provided governments as a means of mitigating the harm we humans do to one another.

    You’ve made some good points in this discussion, but any attempt to downplay the role governments play in human rights, access to basic services and justice…is frankly naive and possibly harmful. I don’t think anything in the Bible points to humans having noble impulses in general. Although government cannot change human nature, it can prevent the weak and marginalized from being oppressed, marginalized and exploited by those with greater resources and power.

    Word like “job creation” and “social justice” sound like abstractions. But when a parent has a good job and can pay rent, or a minority student has access to the same college admissions process that Caucasian students have had for decades before the Civil Rights movement…these are absolutely not abstractions.

    Again, it’s amazing that perhaps you or I can be a mentor to a kid who comes from a family without a single college-graduated person. We can tutor a neighbor or help them navigate the tangle of the FAFSA.

    But without progress on larger social justice issues concurrent with personal altruism, this kid might get rejected from college due to race, denied promotions due to race, barred from purchasing a home a neighborhood due to race and then die of a heart attack at a younger age than his contemporaries of Caucasian ethnicity. See what I’m saying? Government programs and progress helped make sure that kid has equal opportunities. We get to help him figure out quadratic equations and whether 2011 income includes food stamps.

    Thanks for letting me share my opinion here.

    • Matthew Lee Anderson

      Maria,

      Thanks for sharing your opinion. It’s very helpful and provocative. Lots in there to respond to, and I don’t have time to get to it all. Your bell curve idea, in particular, is quite interesting. I’ll have to think more about that. Have you seen any sociological or comparative government work done on it that I could read?

      That said, I don’t mean to “downplay” the role of government in establishing justice or securing rights. I think how it does that should be judicious and careful (see my post today about “conscience”), but it’s absolutely imperative that it do so. I am not a libertarian, nor am I an anarchist.

      But, too much more to say on all this for me tonight. My hope, though, is that this won’t be the last such conversation about all this around these parts. And that you’ll join us if we have it again! : )

      Best,

      matt

      • http://www.twitter.com/mariachong Maria

        My quality of life/government intervention bell curve was meant as a quick visual and is entirely conjecture!

        I’m just trying to distinguish between these three types of societies:

        1) Impoverished nations with few government services
        2) Industrialized nations with some public programs and services
        3) Industrialized nations struggling to maintain the crippling weight of overly-extensive public programs & subsidies.

        Perhaps there are some other variations also. I could spend time getting figures (child mortality, income, availability of clean water/electricity, doctors per thousands of residents, nutrition, entitlement/welfare spending versus GNP, unemployment, etc.) to back this up.

        However, perhaps it’s not necessary, as my point isn’t the theoretical graph/curve. I’m just saying there is a continuum of nations that have laissez-faire government to highly-socialized and regulated nations, e.g., 1) Uganda, Somalia 2) US, South Korea 3) Greece, Italy, Ireland. In my opinion, I wouldn’t want the US to slide in the direction of (1) or (3).

        I do strongly feel that investment in infrastructure (roads, education, nutrition, health care, research) has a lot to do with maintaining productivity. Left out of my comments so far is an entirely different topic of spiritual health and morality, or as David Brooks has been talking about lately, character. Which is an asset no nation, no matter how progressive or materially-blessed, can continue to flourish without.

        • http://www.twitter.com/mariachong Maria

          Someone shared this on Twitter today. An interesting discussion on inclusive versus exclusive governments. One offers more freedom, creativity and sharing of resources. As members become wealthier, a large circle of citizens benefit. The other holds power and wealth more tightly and in a smaller group of influential citizens, resulting in a large divide between rich and poor.

          The author suggests that economies flourish under the first (Britain in its golden age) and crash in the latter (Venice in decline as the leaders sought to control trade and curtail merchants).

          Creating economic wealth
          The big why: Nations fail because their leaders are greedy, selfish and ignorant of history
          http://www.economist.com/node/21549911?fsrc=scn/tw/te/ar/thebigwhy