Why I’m Politically Apathetic: Part 3
Last time I wrote, I spoke about how there is hope in spite of the government’s shortcomings.
I want to continue my thoughts a little bit, because there’s so much to be said in this area, though I’ve only really scratched the surface.
It seems that government is a necessity for our way of life, and that’s very likely true, but I want to emphasize that in spite of the good government proposes to do, it often does more harm than damage.
The Spirit of the Lord GOD is upon me, because the LORD has anointed me to bring good news to the poor; he has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and the opening of the prison to those who are bound; to proclaim the year of the LORD’s favor, and the day of vengeance of our God; to comfort all who mourn; to grant to those who mourn in Zion—to give them a beautiful headdress instead of ashes, the oil of gladness instead of mourning, the garment of praise instead of a faint spirit; that they may be called oaks of righteousness, the planting of the LORD, that he may be glorified. They shall build up the ancient ruins; they shall raise up the former devastations; they shall repair the ruined cities, the devastations of many generations.
– Isaiah 61:1-4
This passage in Isaiah prophesies the ministry of the Messiah. There are a lot of things the Messiah will do. He will do everything from bringing good news, tending to brokenhearted, releasing prisoners, warning of God’s vengeance, comforting, bringing joy, and they will praise the Lord. These people who receive this ministry are the ones that Isaiah prophesies will be called ‘oaks of righteousness’ planted (set in place or established) by the Lord.
If that wasn’t awesome enough, what Isaiah records next is very interesting. Speaking of the ‘oaks of righteousness’ (i.e., the people who receive he says, “They shall build up the ancient ruins; they shall raise up the former devastations; they shall repair the ruined cities, the devastations of many generations.”
It’s not the Messiah who’s doing this work now, it’s the ‘oaks’ he has set in place. These are the people who are repairing the devastations of many generations.
So what does this mean?
In short, it means the Messiah (Jesus) will go to the broken people and heal them, and these people who seemed like reeds in the wind will become like oak trees, standing firmly in right relation to God. And then these oak trees will be the ones to continue the work of restoration. As they were loved and restored, they will go and do likewise.
Now lets go back to government.
Over the past several decades, governments around the world have become increasingly involved in social work. Poverty, among other issues, is a constant source of government programs to eradicate it. It sounds nice and all until you realize that in the end, many governments are actually creating poverty by their monetary policies… but that’s a can of worms to be opened at a later time.
Just for fun, let’s pretend governments really do altruistically want to end poverty. It will still accomplish little in the end.
Why do I say that?
Because, to governments success is measured statistically. Statistics has to do with the collection of data in large quantities. So, when it comes to change, governments are interested in significant statistical change. Government programs are intended to statistically change the lives of many, usually by providing financial or material assistance in some form. This all looks nice, but the problem isn’t the material or financial assistance. Most of what is done, is actually very helpful to people. The problem lies with how it’s done.
We see a problem in society that we would like to change, so allocate tax revenue to fix this problem. It’s very business like. What’s easy to forget, in trying to bring statistical change, is that these statistics are actually representative of individuals. The problem with targeting individuals that fall into a particular economic or social category with blanketing policies is that we’re not treating people like individuals at all. We’re treating them like cattle. Just round them up and push them through the system. They’re much easier to deal with when they don’t have a face, a name, a personality, an individual need, etc. They will eventually begin to own that. In the same way that they’re treated by the government as nameless, faceless numbers in a scheme to statistically improve their standard of living, they will eventually look to the government as a faceless, nameless organization who doesn’t actually care about them and therefore there’s little or no guilt when they take advantage of the system.
And that’s it in a nutshell. We like systems because we don’t feel guilty. The government has done something to improve the lives of its citizens, and the citizens benefiting from the government program don’t feel guilty for milking it for all its worth. It’s impersonal.
I had a neighbor named Rodney.
I used to live in a nice part of town, less than 5 minutes from the beach. I surfed a few times a week, lived near most of my friends, it was great. But I asked God to move me. I knew that my life was more significant than surfing and hangouts. Yeah, I helped out with the youth and the college students at my church, so I was doing something. But sometimes that something doesn’t quite cut it, and we know it. God had called me to missions, and I wouldn’t feel right being sent as a missionary to a foreign country when I could hardly go to the people in my own city. All the rich folks were very kind, but there didn’t seem to be too much I could do to serve them. Their lives were so together, so it seemed. So I asked God to move me to where the people who needed him were, where I couldn’t just retreat to my luxury apartment near the beach if they got too much for me. I wanted real people, with real problems, and I didn’t want to have the option to escape them because I will escape, given the opportunity.
Long story short, I got laid off from my job and had no option but to break the lease on my apartment near the beach, and I moved into a small apartment in a borderline middle-class/low-income neighborhood with 4 other guys. It was the only place I could afford. That’s when I met Rodney, our next-door-neighbor. He was a kind soul. He was an obese (maybe 300 pounds?) African-American man with Cerebral Palsy, bound to an electric wheelchair for most of the day. On top of that, he had another man living with him, acting as his caretaker, but he worked a lot so he was rarely home to look after Rodney. Every so often we’d here his bellowing call outside our door: “Hellooo! Hellooo! Hellooo! Hellooo!….” until someone would answer him. When i first met him, he would ask me for an apple or some old bread to feed the ducks at the park or ask if I could walk a block or two down the street to pick something up for him that he dropped. I was happy to help him out. Most of the time it only took a few minutes out of my day to give him a hand. Then one day one of my roommates came home and told a story about Rodney, how he’d needed help getting from his wheelchair to the toilet. He didn’t make it in time, so he made a mess of the bathroom and his wheelchair and my roommate had to clean the whole thing up.
It didn’t take long before we all had our own stories of helping him use the toilet.
He was a big guy. First we had to help him take his pants off first, then get him close to the toilet, then he would pull on a handle bolted to the wall and we would help lift him onto the toilet. Then he’d go. He was too big, coupled with the loss of motor function due to the Cerebral Palsy, to wipe himself, so yeah we’d get to do that too… at least we had gloves. And the smell, I’m not sure I can describe it other than I almost vomited several times. We’d dig through his bedroom for some clean clothes, put them back on him and that was that. He was always very thankful for our help, and no doubt somewhat humiliated by the experience himself. But we dreaded it. He would ask at all the wrong times. I remember coming home from work exhausted, cooking dinner and looking forward to a nice meal to end the day and hearing, “Helloooo! Hellooo!” Dang. I wish I could say I was always helpful and loving, but there were times when my attitude stank worse than the experience. I couldn’t just leave him like that, though… at least not when he’d seen me. I pretended not to be home until he stopped calling at one point, but then I felt horrible and wished I’d helped him.
I discussed what I had done with one of my roommates that night. I mean, we just live next to him, why should we always have to clean up poop? Shouldn’t someone be there with him? Why doesn’t he have a caretaker? It’s not right to leave him alone and pass all of his problems off on us. My roommate said something to the effect of: “I wish there was just some way that the government or our taxes could get him a caretaker or something.” … “Yeah!” I thought… “but,” he continued, “like you said before, maybe churches should be the ones taking care of people who need help, because we’re supposed to be loving our neighbor.” Crap. He used my own words, my own ideas. For the first time, I actually had to own up to them.
Love is personal.
It’s based on relationship.
Take away relationship and love is impossible.
The government cannot love you. It can work to make statistical change, but the government cannot love you because its impersonal and therefore incapable of relationship with you.
People can love you though.
The same common denominator in the failure of governments (people), is the very thing that makes up for their lack.
Ironic, isn’t it?
When Jesus came, he picked out the screwed up people and restored them. That’s what Isaiah is talking about in the passage above, it’s all about restoration, but Jesus doesn’t just do everything, he leaves work for us to be done as well. We get to step into the work he’s already started, which is to raise up what’s been devastated or destroyed.
I asked God to move me to the people who need him, and I got exactly what I asked for. And it wasn’t easy. In fact, everything in me wanted to run because it was so inconvenient to me. So inconvenient that I felt it was better to pay for someone else to do it.
For most people, that’s what government programs are. We see problems in our society, like poverty, and we want them gone because we don’t feel it’s fair for them to live the way they do, but we don’t care about them enough to do anything ourselves. Its easy to discuss the problems with these people or our governments and why their solutions never work, but most of us won’t do much about it.
Why not just use some of our tax revenue? That’ll help me feel less guilty.
Why not toss them a few bucks? That’ll help me feel less guilty.
Even handing out food can make us feel nice, but how many of these people do we actually know? Are we just trying to meet their needs, or do we have relationship with them?
I think much of our shifting the weight of social issues to the government has come because it’s become inconvenient for the church to do it. We like services and teachings and guest speakers and revelation and all kinds of other things, but what does it say in Isaiah about our work?
“They shall build up the ancient ruins; they shall raise up the former devastations; they shall repair the ruined cities, the devastations of many generations.”
Sorting out rubble and rebuilding ancient ruins is not fun work, nor is raising up what has been devastated, nor is repairing ruined cities or any of that from several generations. It’s hard work. It’s often tedious.
Sorting out peoples lives, helping them rebuild, is hard work. It’s difficult. Missionaries send photos home of exotic places, but it’s hard working with people in different cultures, understanding them, learning what loves looks like to them. Sometimes we think money or material goods will solve peoples problems, but often it’s spending time with people and hearing them and building relationship with them that changes their lives. Most people run when things get tough, but love doesn’t run away. Love stays and love keeps going back.
But love is often inconvenient. We think we’ve done a homeless person a favor by buying them a sandwich. Did they really want it or did they just want beer money? Who knows. I’ve seen plenty of homeless people reluctantly accept food that they didn’t want and end up leaving it behind because someone thought they were doing them a favor. Have we actually stopped long enough to find out what they really need? Are we willing to eat a sandwich with them and talk to them, or is it just about meeting their needs so we don’t feel guilty for walking away?
Relationship is difficult, but it’s what changes people.
Government programs look nice, but without relationship, its meaningless. People will often take free stuff from an organization whether they need it or not, but taking advantage of people you’re in relationship with has social consequences. It’s much easier to separate the lazy apart from the ones who are truly in need and deal with them accordingly, and actually knowing the person or family in need allows you to operate in love rather than out of guilt, but it will cost us.
I want to conclude with this: “Lovers always outwork workers.”
Part of why we have such a hard time loving people in need is we’ve forgotten Isaiah’s prophecy. Many reading this will likely have met Jesus in some form and had our lives restored by him. We know how broken we were when he saved us. But we’ve forgotten how he loved us in our darkness. For any of this to change, we need a revelation of God’s love for us. We need to remember his deep love for us even in our brokenness, in our uselessness, in our selfishness and shame. He wasn’t too busy or cleaned up for us, but it was his delight to save us out of our mess and call us oaks of righteousness. As we learn to live out of a place of knowing his love, we’ll be able to give it out. As we grow in relationship to Jesus, we can’t help but give away the love he’s giving to us. That when we do our part in love. Loving your neighbor becomes easier as we know we’re loved, and when we realize that we are indeed the oaks of righteousness that Jesus says we are, we’ll want to restore the devastations of many generations. The hard work of restoration becomes a delight, and where the world gives money and programs, we’ll give love.
It will cost us, but it will be worth it.