Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Friday Night Frozen Dinner and an Intellectual: "The Tragedy of American Compassion" by Marvin Olasky, Part I.

This book was recommended to me in seminary by Professor Matt Friedeman who blogs at www.evangelismtoday.blogspot.com . While I expected to agree with Olasky (editor of World magazine and a professor at The University of Texas) , it was an unexpected surprise that Olask'ys book reignited my passion for that part of the Gospel concerning meeting the physical needs of those most vulnerable in our society. I'm not advocating a welfare state. In fact, this book has made my antimosity toward the welfare system even stronger. Yet the Church is to reach out to rescue those who are less fortunate. Wesley declared that there is no holiness without social holiness. Yet the purpose for social holiness is not just to meet present needs, but to transform individuals, to lead them to Christ.

This book is a history of how the U.S. has tried to meet the needs of the less fortunate. Jesus told his disciples that the poor would always be with us, and America has never lacked those who lived in poverty, even before the rise of big cities and industry. Yet the solution our ancestors pursued was different from those who advocate a primary role for government. From the very beginning of colonial setlements, the Church took a leading role in relieving the distress of the poor. Private charity was the venue through which the poor, widowed, disabled and orphaned had their needs addressed. Yet the goal was never just to give money, food and clothing indiscrimately. It was the task of private individuals to determine true need; only those who could not meet their own needs were helped. Those deemed able but unwilling to work were turned away. Those truly in need were not only cared for but encouraged to change harmful lifestyles and personal habits that kept people in economic bondage. The overwhelming evidence indicates that those who were not Christian were not turned away, but were exhorted by the Church to be saved. The success rate for conversions while this was the dominant mode of relieving distress is impressive.

From our Colonial beginnings, the Church and private organizations warned against just throwing money at the poor without determining true need and encouraging personal transformation. The fear, which has been unfortunately realized, was the creation of a permanent dependant class. The American Church warned the state and Federal government not to follow Britain's example of Government Charity, a system which indeed created dependancy, waste and corruption. Some states tried to emulate the British, but these efforts proved to be failures and the attempts were abandoned. With the Industrial Revolution and the rise of big cities, many thought the church could not provide for the needy; the task would be too big. Yet Olasky documents how the Church and private charities adapted to the situation; the needs of most of the deserving poor were met in all major big cities up to the beginning of the twentieth century. Many churches provided so many services that their efforts rival that of today's mega-churches. The effort was focused on changing individuals, one at a time. And, as the author shows, it worked.

However, there were those who appeared in the late nineteenth century who had other ideas as to how to deal with the problem of need. There were the Social Darwinists who were against helping anyone in need because they applied Darwin's theory of "the survival of the fittest" to human beings. The American Church was successful in countering their efforts. Yet there were others who were passionate about meeting the needs of the poor, but rejected the emphasis on the individual. They advocated focusing on the masses, and they did not make a distinction between the deserving and the undeserving. Nor were they concerned with anyone's soul. Many of these advocated a new civic religion where the elite in government were looked upon as the new "gods" providing for the welfare of all of us. These were the seeds for the current dependancy class and the intrusion of government into the affairs of private individuals. These were the seeds of the government slowly assuming power over our destiny. And, as I will argue in a subsequent post, this was the beginning of the end of a dominant church influence over the life of our nation. This was the beginning of the church becoming "irrelevant" in modern culture. The rest of the book documents what has happened to us as a nation as we have moved away from private charity to government control. I think two more readings will finish the book. Until next time.

("The Hand" has been considering how to improve these posts. Some articles have been either too long or the paragraphs too long and hard to seperate from one another. I have been asked to put spaces between paragraphs, which is easily done. Yet to shorten the articles, I will have to omit information and quotations I would like to pass on to my readers. Therefore, "The Hand" will feature a new series entitled "Quotes and Facts" which will give further insights into people and issues not covered in other regular features such as "Friday Night Frozen Dinner and an Intellectual." Another series, "Clouds of Witnesses", will tout individual Christians and their works that could not be brought to the reader's attention in these book reviews. If you have any other suggestions for improvement, don't hesitate to let "the Hand" know.)

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