Warning: this post represents Steve at his most preachy and bleeding-heart liberal level.
A while ago, during the thread dealing with the hypothetical of a somewhat lavish Scouting camp, I got a little exorcised. Many, including myself, had a hard time dealing with the prospect of spending tens of thousands of dollars on what is essentially a vacation, when there are so many that desperately need money for food and survival. BCC alum Mathew put the screws to some of us a bit, thusly:
On a side note, I call upon all those who would rather see the money go to Africa or some such similar place to immediately make a meaningful sacrifice in terms of their lifestyle and donate the money to a meaningful cause (I’m looking at you Steve Evans). Please then allow the rest of us and our kids to enjoy life a little despite the obvious moral deficiency that arises due to not spending summers living in the bush.
I’d like to address this obvious moral deficiency.
The past week or so, I have been riveted by the news coverage of food shortages and riots that seem to be ever-increasing in their frequency and ferocity. Poor harvests have caused short-term crises in various parts of the world, but the global food price increases have been linked to many more difficult causes, including the demands of biofuels, increasing levels of meat consumption, and most notably the price of oil, which is the key to fertilizers, transport and any form of industrialized food-growing. The gist of it all is that common staples such as corn, rice and wheat now cost as much as double their pre-2007 indexes.
The Economist and The New York Times, safe havens both for bleeding hearts such as myself, have each dealt with the crisis in a poignant and deeply unsettling way. This NY Times piece was in part the catalyst for this post:
In the sprawling slum of Haiti’s Cité Soleil, Placide Simone, 29, offered one of her five offspring to a stranger. “Take one,” she said, cradling a listless baby and motioning toward four rail-thin toddlers, none of whom had eaten that day. “You pick. Just feed them.”
Appropriate reactions to this include crying, nausea, anger, and blogging.
Poverty is not a new problem. Moses addressed it thusly: “For the poor shall never cease out of the land: therefore I command thee, saying, Thou shalt open thine hand wide unto thy brother, to thy poor, and to thy needy, in thy land.” I doubt that economic disparity in ancient Israel was as pronounced as today, but I trust that my co-bloggers will be able to redress this if I am in error.
Our scriptures are rife regarding how we are to act towards the poor. I see no point in repeating the Topical Guide on this point. I could spend some time debunking the use of scripture as a means of justifying not giving to the poor (chief offender: Mosiah 4:27), but again I don’t think doing so would be fruitful, because on average I think we all agree that the words of God are clear concerning the poor. Instead I turn again to what Mathew said to me, and I ask, what is the moral justification, in scripture or otherwise, to permit the average Mormon in North America to “allow… us and our kids to enjoy life a little despite the obvious moral deficiency that arises due to not spending summers living in the bush.” In other words, is there a convincing or helpful reason that we choose not to give to the poor?
This post was originally meant to be much longer than it is. I unfortunately could not come up with any convincing rationales. Common arguments, such as the need to tend to one’s own family first, or Mosiah 4:27, or referring the interlocutor to one’s fast offerings or tithing, seemed to come up short to me*. Similarly, I considered the objection that is sometimes raised by those in a taxation/social welfare context, namely that forced donation to the poor is an evil, that the dole is an evil, and that just giving food or money to the poor will be ultimately wasteful and counterproductive for society as a whole. I am a firm-believer in self-reliance, but before the image of the starving Haitian mother begging someone to feed her dying children, these lines of reasoning tend to collapse. I would prefer indolent children to dead ones.
Ultimately, Mathew’s call for me to put my money where my mouth is was timely and appropriate. The question that remains is, “how much should I give?” This is, I believe, the most dangerous of the possible deceptions as we consider giving alms. I fear that much of my charity is considered in the light of taxable income and fiscal appropriateness, while the proper measure is that of the widow’s mite:
And Jesus sat over against the treasury, and beheld how the people cast money into the treasury: and many that were rich cast in much. And there came a certain poor widow, and she threw in two mites, which make a farthing. And he called unto him his disciples, and saith unto them, Verily I say unto you, That this poor widow hath cast more in, than all they which have cast into the treasury: For all they did cast in of their abundance; but she of her want did cast in all that she had, even all her living.
Today I am writing a check to Oxfam. The amount of the check will probably not sizeable to anyone with real wealth, but to me and my wife it represents a sacrifice in lifestyle. We will be less comfortable because of this donation. I plan on doing more, as I do some research and prayer about it. In turn I turn it back to you, readers. What will you do for the poor? I have no counterargument to Christ’s words:
When the Son of man shall come in his glory, and all the holy angels with him, then shall he sit upon the throne of his glory: And before him shall be gathered all nations: and he shall separate them one from another, as a shepherd divideth his sheep from the goats: And he shall set the sheep on his right hand, but the goats on the left.
Then shall the King say unto them on his right hand, Come, ye blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world: For I was an hungred, and ye gave me meat: I was thirsty, and ye gave me drink: I was a stranger, and ye took me in: Naked, and ye clothed me: I was sick, and ye visited me: I was in prison, and ye came unto me. Then shall the righteous answer him, saying, Lord, when saw we thee an hungred, and fed thee? or thirsty, and gave thee drink? When saw we thee a stranger, and took thee in? or naked, and clothed thee? Or when saw we thee sick, or in prison, and came unto thee? And the King shall answer and say unto them, Verily I say unto you, Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me.
Then shall he say also unto them on the left hand, Depart from me, ye cursed, into everlasting fire, prepared for the devil and his angels: For I was an hungred, and ye gave me no meat: I was thirsty, and ye gave me no drink: I was a stranger, and ye took me not in: naked, and ye clothed me not: sick, and in prison, and ye visited me not. Then shall they also answer him, saying, Lord, when saw we thee an hungred, or athirst, or a stranger, or naked, or sick, or in prison, and did not minister unto thee? Then shall he answer them, saying, Verily I say unto you, Inasmuch as ye did it not to one of the least of these, ye did it not to me. And these shall go away into everlasting punishment: but the righteous into life eternal.
*I should note that there are many members of the Church who do, in fact, give much of their time and money to helping the poor, who indeed have devoted their lives to the task. Before such people I bow low and hope to become more like them.
PS — the title of my post is the topic of a fine exegesis by Julie Smith, here. It has actually little, I think, to do directly with my actual post.