24 December 2020

Christmas Eve -- and a country in turmoil

"Happy New Year!" Elektrostal's 2020 holiday tree on Lenin Square, with Kristall ice hockey arena in background. Source.
(Elektrostal was my home from 2007 to 2017.)
The hour of Christmas nears. I want so much to listen to the music of the season, and to enjoy our Christmas tree and its ornaments, gathered over the four decades of our marriage. But there's a discordant static in the air, generated by the friction and distress of a country in turmoil, a president unresponsive to alarm signals on all sides in favor of his obsession to remain in power, a Congress at a loss for what to do next. Maybe we could ignore all this noise, if our circumstances were happy and isolated enough that our neighbors' health and economic distress made no difference, and we could therefore wrap our gifts and play our happy Christmas music in ignorant bliss.

I doubt that simple happy bliss is your lot today, or you would not have read even this far. I'm grateful that I have some help in describing this strange moment: Elizabeth Spiers, who claims not to be religious as an adult, but grew up Southern Baptist, wrote an op-ed in the Washington Post that carves up responsibility for our plight with surgical theological precision: "Mike Pence and the GOP are waging the real war on Christmas."

In case the paywall keeps you from reading this whole article, let me summarize some main points.

Her starting point was a Turning Point USA event two days ago at Mar-a-Lago in Florida, at which public Christian vice president Mike Pence was a speaker. While exhorting his audience to keep up the fight for Trump's second term (interrupted by chants of "Four more years! -- four more years!"), he warned of the dangers of what "the Democrats and the radical left want to do...." Now, nobody expects to get a fair and accurate account of Democratic policies and plans from someone like Pence, but these words struck her as revelatory: "They want to make rich people poorer, and poor people more comfortable."

(I'd like to add what Pence says his side does want: to make everyone richer because "a rising tide lifts all boats." Have we actually seen this happen during these last years, when the increasing gulf between our richest and our poorest, already growing at an accelerated pace, has gained speed in COVID times?)

Spiers reveals the assumptions behind the implication that the poor must not be made more comfortable -- 

In the modern Republican version of Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol,” the Tiny Tim situation is unfortunate, but private insurance shouldn’t be obligated to cover his preexisting condition, and we certainly can’t give Mom and Dad unemployment just because they lost their jobs — they’ll have no incentive to find new work! After all, it would be grossly unfair to ask Ebenezer Scrooge, a self-made man, to pay a bit more in taxes.

Republicans don’t have to state the case for this callousness overtly because it’s articulated over and over again in policy. In Dickens, Scrooge tells the men soliciting donations for the poor that the poor can go to the workhouse or prison, and if they can’t, they can just die, and reduce the surplus population. If that sounds overly cruel, it’s worth examining GOP policies that try to force people who can’t work to do so, throw people who haven’t been found guilty of a crime into prison because they can’t afford bail or leave them to die for lack of health care. At least Scrooge is honest about his morally abhorrent end goals. Democrats want a War on Poverty; Republicans want a war on the poor. [Links in original.]

Spiers pinpoints the irony: the "war on the poor" is being waged in part by evangelical Christians, the very people whose Gospel requires aid and comfort to those who suffer -- and not just those deemed worthy of help by those with the capacity to help but held captive by their love of wealth. Jesus is quite clear that he is helped -- or rejected -- whenever we help or reject someone in distress. In the feasts of loaves and fishes, there was no means test.

Gospel values, it turns out, make sense as policy values as well. In Spiers's words,

The problem with poverty is not, as the GOP would have it, systemic laziness and bad judgment on the part of the poor. It is the condition itself, which is not conducive to human prosperity and certainly not a de facto crucible in which character is forged. Without any kind of economic safety net, poverty often perpetuates itself no matter how hard the poor struggle to alleviate it. Class mobility via the market is nearly impossible when basic needs aren’t met. Even when people can participate in the labor market — and not everyone can — they need to be able to eat and take care of themselves first. In this context, making the poor more comfortable isn’t just the morally correct position; it’s the only sustainable policy prescription for long-term mitigation of poverty.

Elizabeth Spiers allows that there are many nuances and alternatives in working out exactly what would make up a "sustainable policy prescription" -- but they don't include patronizing and self-serving platitudes claiming that helping poor people does them a disservice.

Marley's ghost; source.
She ends her column by an observation that she might not call "evangelistic," but I do. It is a call to "repent and believe the Good News," but she puts it in the context of Charles Dickens. She points out that Ebenezer Scrooge, after all, did repent and change. Are Republicans (and all of us, for that matter!) willing to do the same? 

One further point, beyond what Spiers wrote.... Another argument that Christian conservatives often use to insulate themselves from pitching in more generously to the cause of poverty reduction is that there is nothing biblical about the government aiding poor people. The Bible assigns that task to the family of faith.

It's true that the Bible asks us to be obedient to the rulers (except when they contradict God, or when God counsels disobedience), but the Bible is also utterly realistic about what rulers will demand of us, and the corruption that can ensue. Now, thanks to a revolution, we citizens of the USA have become our own rulers, with a charter (the U.S. Constitution) that makes "the general Welfare" part of our common mission as a nation. When private philanthropy cannot reach the scale necessary to comfort the poor who somehow haven't earned the Republican Party's compassion, isn't it our democratic right and duty to fulfill our common mission through governmental mechanisms of our choice and that are accountable to us?

To sharpen the point further, we are in the midst of a pandemic, our legislature has already approved emergency assistance at the very moment it needs to be in place for people whose health, or housing, or food security, might be in danger. (Apparently, our wannabe Caesar is choosing to play politics with this aid; so far he has refused to sign the bill.) Is there a biblical precedent for government assistance in crisis? The first example that comes to mind is Joseph organizing Egypt's emergency storehouses, Genesis 41:46-56.

At any rate, let's put more effort into searching for good answers to this question of our national obligation to comfort the poor, and less effort into dodging it under cover of "biblical" piety. After all, few spectacles are more harmful to the reputation of the Gospel than celebrating the birth of the Prince of Peace while refusing to see him appearing among us here and now.

A PS to last week's coverage of the conflict at Earlham School of Religion: Chuck Fager tells us what he's found out. Since then, there has been an online worship-sharing among those who are concerned about these developments, to be followed this coming Monday by a strategic follow-up meeting.

Hamilton Nolan: Merry Christmas, Americans.

Margaret Fraser spirals around: "Ministry kind of creeps up on you, and it’s only by looking back that we see pieces that complete a picture."

Molly Olmstead: The USA's most famous nun, Helen Prejean, confronts death. (Part of slate.com's series on the 80 most influential Americans over 80.)

Russian opposition leader Aleksei Navalny, in Germany for treatment for Novichok poisoning, has published a video in which he apparently pranks one of the members of the team that poisoned him with intent to kill. The video (subtitles available) -- note the number of viewers. Some of the fallout in the Russian Internet. On the one hand, this whole episode is an amazing gift (just in time for Christmas) for all those who slog away in the struggle against authoritarianism. On the other hand, what additional risks might Navalny now face upon his return home?

More from Navalny (in Russian) ... the pluses and minuses of contemporary medicine, from one who has experienced both.

Justo L. González reviews how his self-understanding as a minister, theologian, and historian has changed over his decades of service. (I reprinted one of his articles here. In that article, he comments on the "teach a man to fish" dictum which Elizabeth Spiers also mentions.)

Camas Friends Church presents our Virtual Choir:

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