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On Charity - We are commanded to be our brother’s keeper

It was one of those headlines that reaches out from the front page and grabs you by the throat. “Food banks have less to work with as they try to meet holiday demand: Donations of U.S. surplus food, private cash down” -- USA Today.

The story detailed the steady decline in value of federal help, in food and cash, given to U.S. food banks. It’s down from $418 million in 2001, the first year of the Bush regime, to $201 million in 2006. So much for compassionate conservatism and Christian charity in a regime that prances around parading their piety and proclaiming their faith in the Gospel. Despite the results of the last election, many of these people remain unchastened.

At no time in the past century has the Judeo-Christian ethic of being our brothers’ keeper been so overwhelmed by the crass selfishness of accumulated wealth. Self-appointed Christian leaders who declare the nation to be in the midst of a Christian Revival insist the Judeo-Christian ethic is limited to voluntary charity, ignoring the warnings from those who administer private charity that there never have been sufficient charitable resources to meet the need.

Charity, for all its importance, is not designed to help the poor. Charity is deliberately designed to make the well-to-do feel good about themselves during seasons we are supposed to “help others.” The rest of the year self-styled conservatives and Libertarians practice Ayn Rand’s “Virtue of Selfishness.” The poor remain an out-of-sight, out-of-mind disposable low-wage workforce to serve those who can still afford to live well.

“If the poor folks in the floating army of ‘temporary’ labor don’t make it they have only their own lack of ambition and character to blame,” we are told by economic moralists who are usually on the payroll of some tax-exempt “think tank” or comfortably tenured at some prestigious research university.

People with more experience in the real world know living on the streets is often just a missed paycheck away. An injury, an illness, a lost job, a layoff.

Food stamps do not pay for a roof over your head. The house goes first. Then bankruptcy, which now leaves you with nearly nothing to start over again. You move into the car. The car breaks down. You go to the shelter. The shelter closes or says you have been there long enough. You move to the street. The street is wet and cold. You move under the bridge. It still happens to ordinary people every day.

We feed them a token meal at Thanksgiving. We plunk spare change in a little red kettle to send them a token box of food at Christmas. We declare our duty done. We pretend their misfortune is their own fault the rest of the year - until it happens to someone we know. Then we realize the problem is not so simple.

This is not Marxist criticism. It is an Old Line Protestant criticism of the neo-Victorian reactionary reflection that private charity is sufficient and the Libertarian libel that government welfare is immoral coercion.

It was the late Pope John Paul II -- not Marx -- who criticized the “I’ve-got-mine-Jack-you-get-yours” attitude that claims income tax cuts for the well-to-do are more moral than providing bare-bones health insurance for the working poor or food for the hungry.

In a public relations triumph of symbols over substance the Bush regime announced earlier this month that people once determined “hungry” by the Department of Agriculture, will now be labeled “food insecure.” By a stroke of a publicist’s pen, hunger officially no longer exists in the United States.

We will shortly be celebrating -- in case the commercial excesses of the season cause you to forget -- the birth of a Nazarene carpenter who spent most of his short life among poor social outcasts by choice. He never shrunk the tent. He never excluded anyone. His admonition to his followers was explicitly clear, "Whatever you do unto the least of these, you do unto me."

Whether in the conservative writings of the Early Church fathers or the liberal writings of Social Gospel in the early twentieth century, the message about our personal and collective responsibility for the poor has not changed much in 2,000 years. We are commanded to be our brother’s keeper. Nothing has come along to absolve us of that responsibility.

Russell Sadler

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