EDITORIAL: Is it possible to help without hurting?
Aug. 12--Last week, the Washington Post and the Kaiser Family Foundation asked 1,686 American adults an interesting question: Which is generally more often to blame if a person is poor: lack of effort on their own part, or difficult circumstances beyond their control?
The study found that religion is a significant predictor of how Americans perceive poverty. This was the sentiment of about 46 percent of the Christians polled, compared with 29 percent of non-Christians, blamed poverty on lack of individual effort.
Among evangelicals, 53 percent blamed lack of effort, and Catholics were split down the middle. By comparison, only 31 percent of those polled with no particular affiliation blamed lack of effort, as did just 32 percent of black churches.
From a religious perspective, the question is, to what degree is poverty a sign or symptom of sin?
The short answer is that we can't know what is in someone else's heart. We can't know all the chances they've had or haven't had. We can't know that, if they'd made a different choice somewhere down the road, they wouldn't have ended up right where they are somehow. It's hard enough discerning the subtle advantages that have put some of us ahead without us even realizing it. It simply isn't for us to say.
But there are a few things we do know. The New Testament says a person unwilling to work shall not eat. We know that Jesus cared for the poor, for those in prison, and exhorted us to do the same. Some of the emptiest wallets belong to the fullest spirits.
Maybe the question under the survey's question is, how do we help without hurting?
In an unfallen world, we wouldn't have to wonder, when we give someone money on the street, whether we're helping them or enabling them. The politics of being a blessing to our neighbor wouldn't be so muddled. It wouldn't be so hard to find the line between being truthful and being cold-hearted.
Perhaps we hold money in too high esteem as a vehicle for our sentiments, for assessing worth. The poorest person is worth no less to God than the richest. Jesus doesn't ask us to give our neighbors money -- that's not what he did. He invested time and compassion. He listened to them and granted them dignity.
It costs us nothing but the mental and spiritual work to see the dignity in the lowest of our society. But it's step No. 1 to making things better.