Who gets to have how much of what is the age-old wrangle that animates turf wars from schoolyard to Congress – the ultimate political question which Christ keeps rephrasing as a moral one. Politics concerns itself with power and control, morality with beneficence and disarmament.
To contextualize this, consider the divergent reactions of Jesus and His disciples to the sight of a hungry crowd. The political-minded disciples, foreseeing a public relations disaster for their Master’s “campaign,” counsel Jesus to send the crowds away to buy their own food. But Jesus says, “They do not need to go away; you give them something to eat!” (Mt 14:16).
In John’s account, Jesus takes the initiative himself (“Where shall we buy bread for these people to eat?” Jn 6:5), testing the Apostles’ faith, for He knows they will feel that the vast numbers are beyond their control and capacity to feed without outside help. In the face of human need, however, the inclination of an Incarnate God is never to manage and control from afar but to get down and serve, reaching out from deep within. It is the difference between merely administrating and building real community, between politics and morality.
We can legislate the works of mercy yet dehumanize the subjects: treating the “poor” as a problem to be solved and the “rich” as pockets to be picked. That would be how an approach to poverty reduction works which essentially outsources to a higher agency the impulse that tugs at the conscience before a needy neighbor. For Jesus, the poor person is always my neighbor, never a statistic in a sociological class.
Purely political responses to social problems are not strictly faith-based ones – though they may be motivated by moral concerns. Government is an agency of coercion. It is not a builder but a tool of community, consigned to when people must be forced to behave in ways they would otherwise not voluntarily. Agencies, be they corporate or governmental, can provide services that result in material benefit for people, but they cannot really “care” and create bonds. Only people can.
Of late, we have become aware of challenges to our religious liberty, which includes the ability to give voluntarily according to one’s conscience. The defense and preservation of economic liberty is crucial. Before calling on higher authority to ease the burden of conscience in the face of the human need, the Christian response always begins with a journey inward. If we invite the coercive power of government to give us a hand to fulfill our desire to care neither should we be surprised when that same power forces us to pay for the kind of “care” others may feel equally important – like abortions, contraceptives and sterilizations, subsumed under the name of health care.
Coercing people to do good simply substitutes moral poverty for material poverty. An impersonal bureaucracy is no substitute for the response of personal conscience. St. Vincent de Paul, the 17th-century French priest known for his great charity toward those in need, once said, “It is only for your love alone that the poor will forgive you the bread you give to them.”
We need only ask ourselves whether the moral authority and influence of the Church has grown or diminished from what it was in this country even a few decades ago when we did not have the “help” of government. Perhaps the best benchmark of the effectiveness of any social outreach is the extent to which it builds community. How well does it create a bond of love and respect among people, be they rich or poor, black or white, young or aging? The tone of our current socio-political climate certainly must give us pause.