In this country, it always seems to come back to choice. But choosing is the prerogative of the wealthy and the powerful. In my neighborhood if I want food, for instance, I can choose to shop at one of several grocery stores. If I feel like something different, I can eat at one of the many restaurants nearby. Or I can eat fast food.
But … if I lived on a different side of town, I often wouldn’t get to choose between bad food and good food; generally speaking, I could choose between bad food and no food—which is to say, I wouldn’t get much of a choice at all.
It’s all about choice, isn’t it?
- The wealthy and the powerful choose where to go on vacation; the poor and the powerless often just “choose” to stay home.
- The wealthy and the powerful choose which health plan, which doctor, which hospital they want to patronize; the only choice the poor and the powerless usually have to make is whether to go to the clinic or to the emergency room.
- The wealthy and the powerful choose politicians who look and talk like them; the poor and the powerless get to “choose” politicians who look and talk like … the wealthy and the powerful.
- The wealthy and the powerful choose upon whom to lavish their charity; the poor and the powerless get to “choose” if they’ll take it or do without. Not much choice.
Americans like the idea of charity because it allows us to maintain the illusion that the haves and the have-nots are a result of virtue or vice, and are therefore a product of choices. I am where I am because I made good choices. And if you’e in a bad situation, it’s because you made bad choices.
Charity, a mechanism for voluntarily deciding who gets a portion of what we have, is an especially apt exercise of choice, since it reinforces the modern American belief that only the stuff we choose has any value. To choose to give to charity is to take advantage of the power and resources at your disposal to give to those whom you think are worthy of your attention.
The problem, though, is when we disagree over who’s worthy.
Saying to an unemployed single mother on Food Stamps, “You have choices; you should just get a job and buy food for your kids with your own money,” may very well be like saying, “The Lottery’s an option you seem not to have explored very seriously. You should just win the lottery if you want your kids to eat.” The response to which is, “Great plan, Einstein. Why didn’t I think of that?”
“But if charity only underwrites current power arrangements, what’s the answer?”
I like the Jewish vision of giving. Hebrew doesn’t have a word that equates to the English word “charity” (with its assumption that giving is done from a position of power, that is, relying on the choice of the giver to be generous). The word used for helping the poor and the powerless in Hebrew is one we translate in English justice or righteousness. On this account, giving is an act of justice, not charity.
What I find especially interesting, though, is that in Judaism this act of justice is an obligation. You have to. In contrast to modern American assumptions about charity being done as a favor to those who don’t have, Judaism views giving as something owed by those who “have” to those who “have not.”
Viewed as an obligation to act justly toward those who don’t have the means to make the choices modern Americans value, giving takes on a completely different tone: Giving is something the “haves” are a responsible to do in virtue of their having.
In America, we’ve formalized this idea of giving as an act of justice through our system of taxation. Religious people have a moral obligation to pay taxes—not just so we can have bigger bombs and better bridges, but because those who “have” in almost all religious traditions have a duty to defend and support those who “have not.” Arguing that support for the poor should come from a choice to give to charitable organizations doesn’t, as Sean Spicer might say, pass the religious smell test.
Unfortunately, charitable organizations can’t do enough to feed all the people who need food. Non-profits can’t provide healthcare to all the people who need healing. Religious charities can’t teach Calculus and Physics to all the people who need to know those things, or tend to all the elderly and disabled who can’t afford to take care of themselves.
We need programs funded by tax dollars to do all that. So, as a matter of religious devotion, we have an obligation to participate in a system that helps care for those who need our help. Which is why, as a country that prides itself so loudly and so often on its religious devotion, we need a president who is an example and not an exception of what it means to pay taxes.
My deepest fear is that the argument to take money from those programs that support the folks who need it most, under the guise of an emphasis on personal responsibility and a need to make everything a matter of personal choice, is just a cover for selfishness (at best) or something even more despicable (at worst).
In this country it always comes back to choice—except when it comes to the president being honest with the American people about his taxes. Then . . . there’s no choice at all.