Monday, October 15, 2012

Thief Development

Went to bed meditating on an old scripture and woke up with some new insight (new for me, anyway).

Anyone who has been stealing must steal no longer, but must work, doing something productive with his own hands, that he may have something to share with those in need.  (Eph 4:28)

This is part of the old self/new self contrasting section in Ephesians, and it seems to identify three groups of people.  Working backwards in the passage, the first group is the needy.  These are the people who are not able to meet their own needs through work.  There are several specific types of people put in this category in Biblical times:  orphans (who had no parents to provide for them), widows (who had no husband to provide for them, in a time when few opportunities were available for women to provide for themselves), and the disabled (the lame, blind, diseased and so forth who were not able or allowed to work).

The second group of people here are the workers.  And notice that, of course, this is the expectation, the default -- that you will do something productive with your own hands.  And notice that there is also the expectation, the default, that you will share what you earn from your work with the needy.  This is an instruction given to born-again believers (again, the old self/new self contrast).  Giving to the needy is not optional.

And then there's a third group: the thieves.  They are not workers -- they don't do something productive with their own hands to provide for themselves; they simply take things from those who do.  They are also not the needy -- those unable to provide for themselves and voluntarily supported by those who do.  These words are spoken to believers, and the instruction is that those believers who have been stealing -- who have been getting by on other people's work -- must stop that and start working so they can help the genuinely needy.

Now, here's the political hot button question this implies:  when you look at today's various welfare recipients in America, which category are they in?

The fact is that the majority of them are, in fact, the needy.  They are either unable to work to provide for themselves, or the work they get is not enough to provide for themselves.  But it is also a fact that there are some receiving welfare who are thieves -- they could provide for themselves, but they choose, instead, to simply take what others have earned for their own support.  The basic fault in the welfare system is its real inability to distinguish the needy from the thief -- and its tendency to turn the former into the latter.

In my opinion, the reason the welfare system has this tendency to create thieves is because of how it separates the worker from the needy.  When the giving relationship is close and intimate, it is one that builds up both the giver and the recipient.  The recipient sees someone believing in him enough to sacrifice his own hard-earned wages to give him a hand-up . . . he feels personal responsibility to the giver to use that sacrifice well.  The giver sees the recipient as someone worthy of compassion and not contempt . . . he has a stake in the recipient's well-being . . . and he comes to see his financial resources not as a reward from God for him to indulge in, but as a tool given by God to use in the world. 

I've experienced this relationship myself.  It is the ideal, obviously.  But it is an ideal rendered impossible when giving becomes an impersonal, distant obligation/entitlement relationship as it does in the welfare system.  I'm not going to try to argue that the welfare system should be eliminated (as if that would even be possible now).  But I will argue that any additional effort to meet the needs of the needy (those without healthcare, perhaps?) through an impersonal, distant obligation/entitlement relationship (Obamacare, anyone?) is not the way to go.  The last thing we need is another institutional method for thief-development.

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