Thursday, February 12, 2009

justice for all

In my study of "justice" and trying to better understand Jesus' charge of meeting the needs of the poor, I have wrestled with the concept "distributive justice" [see a good, but technical article in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy]. The phrase means, basically, "fair distribution among all people." Distributive justice explores the social welfare topic of what equality means, who should be equal, how equality is expressed and what the measurement of equality is. More simply, distributive justice seeks to address questions such as, "How much should I help the homeless man on the street?" and "Should I feel bad about my higher standard of living. I did, after all, work hard to get here" and "What basic services should everyone be entitled to?"

If we're not careful, we can swing the social pendulum too far in either direction. Extremely far to the right and we conclude that, as free people, living in a capitalist state, every person has equal chance to provide for themselves and succeed. The only limiting factor is human will and determination. After all, you can be President if you just put your mind to it! So, society/government shouldn't step in to interfere with the progress of free individuals. Of course, this extreme position doesn't account for the uncontrollable factors that can limit an person's ability to reach their dreams [download "The Downward Spiral of Poverty"].

Swung too far to the left, socialism comes to light. Equality is ensured through government intervention in health care, income, housing, etc. This neutralizing force destroys the entrepreneurial spirit and rewards those who self-limit themselves through bad decisions.

I appreciate the insight of Ronald Nash in his research, Social Justice and the Christian Church. Nash explores both sides of the issue and concludes that distributive justice means "equal opportunity, not necessarily equal outcome." It is equal means, not equal results. This is a significant reflection. Because it it shows me where I fit into alleviating the problem of poverty. Justice means that I practice and promote equality among people--the kind of justice that meets the basic needs of freedom, food, shelter, clothing and dignity. My job isn't to raise all people up to a particular standard of living. I can't be responsible for the outcomes of my assistance. All I can do, in the Spirit of Jesus, is seek to level the playing field of the poor around me by helping them enjoy the basic opportunities I enjoy. Beyond that, I trust God to be in charge for the outcome.


Anonymous said...

The fact that you have arrived at the conclusion of doing what's right and leaving the outcome to God validates advice that I was given some years ago. Let me tell you a story.

It was probably 11 or 12 years ago that my wife and I were vacationing in NYC. While making our way down the street, I saw in a corner not far from me a rather roughed-up looking man. He was sitting propped up against the wall and held a cardboard sign that said, "Dying of AIDS Please help." He was unshaven, with sunken cheeks and eyes. This was either a first-rate Broadway makeup job on an actor, or the real deal--a homeless man dying of AIDS. I believe it was the latter.

Our eyes never met, though I couldn't stop looking at him. I was frozen, not knowing what to do. After a few moments, I walked on to catch up with my wife. I think I said a prayer for the fellow. But for the rest of that day, and really, for some weeks afterward, the sight haunted me. What should I have done? I sought pastoral advice to deal with the gnawing in my soul.

I used to be rather cynical about the homeless: "If I give that guy a buck, he'll only go spend it on booze. Pearls before swine, you know." My pastor in essence said, so what? His advice helped me to understand that, as you concluded, we are not responsible for the outcome. We are accountable to God for what we do. The homeless are accountable to Him for what they do with what we give.

I got off the fence after that. If I am carrying cash (which isn't that often anymore), I give to someone who approaches me for a handout. I'd rather be potentially foolish with my money than to spend days and weeks wondering, "what should I have done?"

Vanessa H. said...

Thank you for posting this, David! I always appreciate your wisdom and perspective.