Don’t Heap Contempt On the Poor, Ever. Even if you think they ‘deserve’ it.

So, some colleagues (whom I also count as friends) and I came across this ridiculous list of “20 Things the Rich Do Every Day” on Dave Ramsey’s blog. While I hear that Ramsey’s work has been helpful to many, we were taken aback by the context-free presentation of these (unverified) statistics, all of which paint the rich as enlightened, healthy, intelligent, benevolent, disciplined and the poor as…well, the opposite of all that.

Some things on the list were patently ridiculous, such as #7:

“70% of wealthy parents make their children volunteer 10 hours or more a month vs. 3% for poor.”

(Could that have something to do with the fact that poor children of working age have to, you know, GET PAID for their work?)

Anyway, Caryn Rivadeneira, Marlena Graves, and I have offered our responses to this piece in a group post. Below are some of my thoughts from that piece. Click through to read the entire three-part post.

From Proverbs, we might conclude that God rewards the hardworking with wealth, while poverty is the result of laziness. The book is full of aphorisms like, “A slack hand causes poverty, but the hand of the diligent makes rich” (10:4) and “Do not love sleep, or else you will come to poverty; open your eyes, and you will have plenty of bread” (19:13).

This idea—that people who are poor are poor simply because they haven’t cultivated the right habits—gets labeled as biblical, but tends to foster a contempt for the poor that’s anything but.

Scripture reminds us many times poverty itself is by no means a cursed state (Prov. 15:16) and condemns contempt for the poor: “Those who oppress the poor insult their Maker, but those who are kind to the needy honor him” (Prov. 14:31). Deuteronomy 15:7-8 warns Israelites not to be “hard-hearted or tight-fisted toward your needy neighbor. You should rather open your hand, willingly lending enough to meet the need, whatever it may be.”

The Bible doesn’t indicate that people must be worthy of such generosity; no provision made for excluding the person from charity because of laziness. We see that kindness and generosity are to be given without reservation, without restriction. Perhaps this is because all good things—including the ability to work hard—come from divine grace. The prosperity that can follow hard work is not exclusively our natural and inevitable reward, but in fact a gift from God.

{Read the whole piece here.}

“Open Thy Hand Wide”: Moses, Calvin & the Origins of American Liberalism

This morning I saw that Al Mohler–a prominent spokesperson for what is called conservative evangelical and, most interestingly for the purposes of this discussion, Reformed, Christianity had shared a short piece in the National Review with the alarming subtitle:

“Schools see it as their job to make kids reject their parents’ conservative values.”

The author, Dennis Prager, is perhaps not known for moderation in his opinions, but I found the piece a fascinating example of exactly the kind of polarization in thinking that Marilynne Robinson describes in the introduction to her book The Death of Adam, a collection of essays that all

“assert, in one way or another, that the prevailing view of things can be assumed to be wrong, and that its opposite, being its image or shadow, can also be assumed to be wrong. They undertake to demonstrate that there are other ways of thinking, for which better arguments can be made.”

In the post, Prager pits equality against liberty, a “secular America” against a “God-centered one” and “multiculturalism” against a “unifying American identity.” His values–and those of his readers–are the older, more traditional values. He assumes that one either must regard America as

 ” ‘the last best hope of earth’  or else little more than an imperialist, racist, and xenophobic nation.”

It is notable that the article is titled “Conservative Parents, Left-Wing Children,” as if “liberal” were too kind a word to apply to these prodigals. Re-reading Robinson’s When I Was A Child I Read Books recently, I enjoyed her discussion of the term as it occurs in English Puritan translations of the Bible, and in Puritan thought more generally.

“in Renaissance French, liberal meant ‘generous,’ and of course the word occurs in the English Puritan translations, the Matthew’s Bible and the Geneva Bible, which were followed in their use of the term by the 1611 Authorized [King James] Version.”

Robinson, who is well-known as an admirer of John Calvin’s who just so happens to have read the man’s works carefully and extensively (perhaps exhaustively), argues that the concept of ‘liberality’ comes from Deuteronomy 15:13-14 and is “central to American social thought from its beginning.”

She quotes Calvin’s sermon on that text:

“If we thank God with our mouthes, confessing that it is he which hath blessed us, & in the mean while make none account of such as he has sent to doe us service in the increase of our living, by taking paynes and toyle for us; all our thanking of him is but lip-labor & utter hypocrisy.”

and again on the question of begging and provision for the apparently unworthy:

“if a man forbid begging, & therewithal doe no almes at all it is as much as if he did cut the throtes of those that are in necessitie. Nay, we must so provide for the poore, and redresse their want, that such as are stout beggars and apparently seeme not to be pitied may be reformed.

We do this not because they are deserving, Calvin says, but because of the image of God in them. From Calvin’s Institutes: 

“The Lord commands us to do ‘good unto all men,’ universally, a great part of whom, estimated according to their own merits, are very undeserving; but here the Scriptures assists us with an excellent rule, when it inculcates, that we must not regard the intrinsic merit of men, but must consider the image of God in them, to which we owe all possible honor and love.”

Robinson then shows how John Winthrop, in his famous address to the newly arrived Puritans in Massachussetts in 1630 (“A Modell of Christian Charity”) makes a similar argument for generosity, and how that man known little more than for one fiery sermon, Jonathan Edwards, made a similar case again, going further to insist that

“The proper objects of our liberality are not limited to ‘those of the same people and religion’ [yea, a plea for tolerance and multiculturalism from this "intolerant" Puritan father!?] because ‘our enemies, those that abuse us and injure us, are our neighbours, and therefore come under the rule of loving our neighbours as ourselves.”

Edwards, like Calvin and Winthrop, insist that there can be no exception or excuse to liberality. Edwards, in a most un-libertarian fashion, even says that relief provided “by the town” (of which he does not, apparently, disapprove) still does not excuse the Christian from her obligation. Here is Edwards:

“[I]t is too obvious to be denied, that there are in fact persons so in want, that it would be a charitable act in us to help them, notwithstanding all that is done by the town.

Nor is there any sense that charity is only for those who are completely destitute:

“It does not answer to the rules of Christian charity to relieve only those who are reduced to extremity.”

Finally, Robinson again:

“There is clearly a feeling abroad [in that National Review piece!] that God smiled on our beginnings, and that we should return to them as we can. If we really did attempt to return to them, we would find Moses as well as Christ, Calvin, and his legions of intellectual heirs. And we would find a recurrent, passionate insistence on bounty or liberality, mercy and liberality, on being kind and liberal, liberal and bountiful…[t]hese phrases are all [Jonathan] Edwards’s and there are many more like them.”

So going back to where I started–that “Reformed” Christian leader’s recommendation of the piece that urges a return to “Judeo-Christian” and “traditional American” values, I can only paraphrase the inimitable Inigo Montoya from The Princess Bride:

“You keep using those words. I do not think they mean what you think they mean.”

And that probably goes for those who’d claim the label ‘liberal’ but who see religion–and especially Christianity and certainly people like John Calvin and Jonathan Edwards–as enemies of their cause. I suspect that the truth may be far less easily divided along ideological lines.

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Please Stop Calling Your Relatively Privileged Life “Crazy” and “Messy.”

A few weeks ago, I asked folks on Twitter–and specifically, my colleague Amy Simpson, who has recently published a book on mental illness and the mission of the church:

What do you think about the way people use words like “bipolar,” “crazy,” and “manic” when they really mean “moody,” “energetic,” “quirky” and even “fun”?

It’s part of a pattern I’ve noticed lately–and maybe you’ve noticed it too.

People with beautiful headshots, flawlessly designed websites, and enviable accomplishments insist that they are really just a ‘mess.’ Or that their families are ‘crazy.’ Or that their homes and lives are every bit as complicated and frustrating as everyone else’s…meanwhile, their Instagram feeds show nothing but beauty; if ‘chaos’ is there, it’s only ever of the picturesque kind.

From Flickr User Tanja. CC license.

There’s nothing picturesque about true squalor of the sort that Jeannette Walls endured.                              From Flickr User Tanja. CC license.

There are no birdcages sprouting stalagmites and stalactites of bird droppings. There are no snotty-nosed, unwashed, half-dressed, hungry children who’ve never visited a dentist in their lives. There is food in the fridge and on the table, and it isn’t even growing mold or crawling with roaches or undulating with maggots. In fact, it’s from Trader Joe’s and may even be organic! There is no broken glass or police officers showing up because the neighbors heard screaming. There is electricity and running water and indoor toilets.

Yeah, there’s raised voices and tempers and conflicts. But that makes you human. Not crazy. Not dysfunctional. Not “a mess.”

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This weekend, I read and then immediately re-read Jeannette Walls’ instant classic of a memoir, The Glass Castle. It disturbed me deeply, but reminded me very much of one of my favorite books, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. It is hard to resist a story of a girl triumphing over seemingly insurmountable adversities.

One of the things that I appreciated deeply about the book is that while it ends, ultimately, on a note of grace, and while there are glimpses of light even in the most dismal of episodes as her truly dysfunctional parents (both probably bipolar, and one a severe alcoholic), Walls never glamorizes the poverty that they endured. She does not romanticize any of it. She makes no attempt to paint her childhood as in any way quirky, cute, or picturesque.

Without lapsing into melodrama, she portrays it as the nearly unmitigated horror that it was.

And while she and two of her siblings managed to endure and make something of their lives, she makes no attempt to hide the fact that one of them–her younger sister, Maureen–didn’t seem to. Nor does she disguise the scars–some of them literal–that they bear because of their parents’ recklessness and refusal–or inability–to care for them properly.

There are two things that I keep thinking of as I reflect on this book.

The first is that while it is easy to celebrate the hard work and grit and good luck that allowed someone like Jeannette Walls to triumph and to tell her story with such grace and elegance, there are millions of children in the US who endure terrible suffering and do not emerge victorious but instead become the victims of their parents’–and society’s–failure to help them while help is still possible.

As I think each time I reflect on Anne Frank, how many stories like hers never got to be told? How many stories of triumph over poverty, ignorance, and mental illness could be told in this land of plenty and opportunity, if resources were directed away from war and toward the kinds of programs that make it possible for all children to succeed?

The second is that I’m really tired of seeing words like “bipolar,” “crazy,” and “messy” thrown around by middle and upper-middle class folks who have beautiful headshots and gorgeous websites and lovely homes and the time and resources to document their “messiness” and “craziness” on Instagram. Not wanting to make your kid a costume for a school play or serving a frozen Trader Joe’s meal for dinner is not a “mom fail.”

Losing your temper with the kids moments after you were laughing uproariously with your girlfriends does not make you “bipolar.” Running from school to music lessons to sports practice to a church event might mean you’re overscheduled–but not that you’re “manic.”

These words describe serious and scary symptoms of serious disease. Millions of children–in the US–would count it a huge step up to be eating Annie’s Organics mac & cheese made from a box or making do with a less-than-Pinterest-ready birthday party.

In her memoir A Good and Perfect Gift, my friend Amy Julia Becker noted the pain she felt when a friend described her Ivy League-educated husband as “retarded” because he couldn’t remember to take out the recycling. The words were like a slap: no, he clearly did not have an intellectual disability. But Amy Julia’s own beloved daughter, born with Down syndrome, did.

Using words in that thoughtless and inaccurate way may seem harmless, but it trivializes the real struggles of real people.

So let’s not make light of real suffering by calling our generally okay, pretty much functional, and actually pretty privileged lives “messy,” “dysfunctional,” and “crazy.”

And as we celebrate people like Jeannette Walls (whose book spent almost 2 years on the New York Times’ bestseller list) let’s remember the people who never lived, much less wrote, stories of triumph.

The ‘Best’ Healthcare In The World (Or, “At Those Prices, It Should Be!”)

A number of folks have pointed me to this article in the New York Times: “American Way of Birth, Costliest in the World.”



If you’re the kind of person who scrolls through the comments section–not an activity I recommend!–you’ll see that I commented twice in response to the clever little embedded questions in the article. Having given birth once in the US and once in the UK, I had some things to say. In the case of this article, the comments are really telling. For example:

Screen shot 2013-07-02 at 10.54.35 AMI suppose one could justify the extraordinarily high cost of maternity care in the United States if the United States had corresponding extraordinarily high rates of maternal and infant health.

Instead, we have extraordinarily low rates of maternal health among developed countries. We’re 49th in the world.

A few years ago–before the Affordable Care Act had passed–I inadvertently facilitated another woman’s ire when I mentioned how excellent my maternity care had been in the UK, and how much I thought the US could improve maternity care. It’s not possible–America has the BEST healthcare in the WORLD! she cried–before calling me a ‘delusional Communist.’

To which I can only say: read Amnesty International’s report, Deadly Delivery (available free) and then we can talk.

In fact, I can say more than that, because I have actually experienced more healthcare services in more countries than anyone I know, and of the developed countries in which I’ve experienced healthcare, the US is the most expensive and least efficient.

As I wrote in jubilant response to the SCOTUS decision on healthcare, it’s by dumb luck and generous government insurance programs in liberal states like California and New York that healthcare bills haven’t bankrupted me and my family.

It should be within everyone’s ability to take care of their health–and that of their children–without going bankrupt.  A recent guest post on Timothy Dalrymple’s blog suggested that Christians who lean left in politics are “Loud on Poverty” and “Quiet on Abortion.”

But might not those things go hand-in-hand? Can anyone read the Times article and not wonder how many abortions happen  because women cannot afford maternity care, and can’t envision alternatives?

Last year I said:

As far as partisan politics go, no less a Republican than Richard Nixon tried in 1974 to make a ‘Medicare for all’ move. You know who opposed it vocally? Ted Kennedy. So what is this about? Massive change in what each party stands for, or total partisan bullsh*t all around?

I really don’t care which initial is in parentheses after a politician’s name. I just like to see policies that are good for the people who don’t have enough money to buy a dental cleaning, MUCH LESS A SENATOR. Besides, didn’t Jesus expressly say something about doing good to those who CAN’T do anything in return?

If we truly value human life, we must strive to find ways to put quality, humane, and affordable care within everyone’s reach.

I’m sorry this post is turning out a bit rambly and excerpt-happy, but my dad recently shared with me reflections on his first visit to a VA (Veteran’s Association–dad is a proud Air Force veteran) doctor, and I think it is relevant:

As I drive home I think back through all the people I have spoken to who have been in this particular
health care system for a while—men and women, young and old, healthy and sick, pregnant or not—and all have said,
without reservation, that they have found the care to be excellent.  In fact, to date I have not heard a
single complaint.  That’s correct: not a single complaint.  Compare this with the constant complaints we
hear about health insurance plans, and the difference is stunning.

But how can this be?  This is a federal program—it’s socialized medicine!

Of course I’m brand new to the system, so perhaps my initial impressions mean nothing.  Perhaps
tomorrow I’ll find myself face to face with the infamous “death panels” of which we’ve heard so much.  

But somehow I doubt it.

Health = Morality = Nothing New

I LOVE this article by the Princeton University Classics Professor Brooke Holmes, which appeared in yesterday’s Huffington Post

“The moralization of obesity is all too familiar these days. As America has gotten heavier, blame has become something of a national sport. Yet the ancient roots of Warren’s Plan are a reminder that the association between health and morality is nothing new…”

“…ancient authors are clear-eyed about the relationship between health and wealth. The author of a handbook on diet that was later attributed to Hippocrates imagines two audiences for his advice: people who lack the money and the time to take care of themselves on a regular basis; and people who can afford to devote themselves to their health. When Plato assigned different doctors to the free man and the slave, he was talking about two models of care. The slave’s doctor barks orders like a dictator before rushing off to his next patient. By contrast, the doctors of rich elites take the time to explain to their patients what’s wrong with their bodies. And not everyone was sitting around reading Plutarch. Health, the ancients knew, is a product of leisure, education and quality care.

Read it all here!

{have a great weekend!}