The stimulus package that passed in Congress exposes the truth about American self-reliance: it has limits. Lawmakers have acknowledged that a pandemic is an unforeseeable crisis outside of our control. Even Republicans who decry government handouts most of the time, concede now that trouble has befallen us and it’s not our fault.
Welcome to the world of the poor. Most people are poor for reasons outside of their control:
They fled an abusive parent or partner and became homeless.
Their mom died from cancer, so they quit school to help raise siblings.
They were in a debilitating car wreck and will never work another day in their lives.
A pandemic hit and they got laid off.
Pick your crisis.
Tragedies happen every day that plunge people into poverty. Do we understand their need for help every day?
The Good Samaritan understood. He did not judge his neighbor for traveling between Jerusalem and Jericho: “Everybody knows this is a dangerous road lined with robbers. It’s your fault for walking here alone.”
He wasn’t skeptical about his plight: “I don’t believe they took everything from you, including your clothes. You’re just trying to make the situation look worse than it is.”
He did not tell him to try harder to help himself. “Pull yourself up by your sandal straps.”
Ah, those miracle-working bootstraps that define American individualism. That concept of self-reliance is so embedded in the psyche of ultra conservatives, that when congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez dared to challenge it, over 9,000 people had something to say about it on twitter.
Barack Obama referred to it as “Social Darwinism – every man for himself. … It’s a bracing idea. It’s a tempting idea. And it’s the easiest thing in the world. But there’s just one problem. It doesn’t work. It ignores our history. Yes, our greatness as a nation has depended on individual initiative, on a belief in the free market. But it has also depended on our sense of mutual regard for each other, of mutual responsibility. The idea that everybody has a stake in the country, that we’re all in it together and everybody’s got a shot at opportunity. Americans know this. We know that government can’t solve all our problems – and we don’t want it to. But we also know that there are some things we can’t do on our own. We know that there are some things we do better together.
Obama and AOC are punching bags for conservatives who hate policies that smell of socialism. But many liberal politicians are Christians. And many liberal policies align with what the scriptures tell us about loving our neighbor. The poor traveler recovered because he was willing to accept a hand out. The Good Samaritan was hailed as the ideal worshipper because he was willing to give a hand out.
What of the priest and the Levite who passed by on the other side?
The story in Luke 10 tell us they saw the beaten and bleeding man lying naked in the dust and they chose not to help. Whatever their reason – fear, selfishness, scorn – they did not make the cut in Christ’s definition of those who love their neighbors.
We can certainly debate just how much government should help those who fall on hard times and for how long. But the spirit of concern politicians have now for the economic hardships facing all 329,000,000 Americans must extend beyond this pandemic to the 40 million who face poverty every day.
Only the federal government has the power to direct trillions of dollars to a cause like poverty. And in truth, it won’t take that much. It will take a combination of money and policy and the rest of us being the Good Samaritans this pandemic is proving we can be.
Think of it: Everyone in the country is rallying to help others with hand outs. Creditors are offering loan forbearance. Landlords are deferring rent payments. Jails are releasing prisoners who committed minor crimes. It’s astonishing what a pandemic can do to bring out the good in us.
The people I know who were poor before COVID-19 have always needed these good will gestures. Of course they need mental health counseling to heal from their trauma. They need financial counseling, job training, education, transportation and affordable housing too. But what they get instead is judgment, scorn, and accusation. They get barriers to self-reliance like low wages and predatory lending. Worst of all, they get Christians who stop long enough to stare, judge, and tell them they need to get saved. “Forsake the sin that plunged you into poverty.” That’s not what the Good Samaritan said.
Politicians and Christians who insist on blaming the poor for their poverty are Levites and priests who make a choice not to be helpful. Only now, when all of our families, and all of our colleagues, and all of our restaurants, retailers, and stock portfolios are suffering; only now are we willing to give and receive a hand out without shame and without judgment.
This pandemic is godawful and I can’t wait for it to be over. But it’s teaching us valuable lessons about what government can do to help those who can’t help themselves. It’s teaching us all to have mercy. It’s teaching us that we need each other.
But a Samaritan, as he traveled, came where the man was; and when he saw him, he took pity on him. He went to him and bandaged his wounds, pouring on oil and wine. Then he put the man on his own donkey, took him to an inn and took care of him. The next day he took out two silver coins, and gave them to the innkeeper. Look after him, he said. and when I return I will reimburse you for any extra expenses you may have. Luke 10.33-35