It took me two Fridays to finish Olasky's book. One would think that the subject matter would leave the reader depressed, yet that was not the case with me. The first half of the book documents the success story of fighting poverty in America prior to the twentieth century. The prevailing thinking for meeting the needs of those who could not help themselves was Christian based. Man is made in the image of God and therefore each individual has a dignity arising from this fact. Each man, woman, and child was thought of in terms of being one's neighbor, and to help our neighbor is the second greatest of God's commandments. This mindset insured that society would not experience "compassion fatigue." Furthermore, the aim of charity was not just to feed, house and clothe everyone. The aim was to not only to meet human needs but also to lead people to Jesus. Charity was dispensed on an individual basis. Those responsible for the care of others determined the need of each applicant. Those who were only after handouts were refused until their attitude changed. Those who could work were given employment. Families of those in need were sought out to relieve their relative's distress. Keeping families intact was a high priority. Not only were the recipients of aid benefitted. The individual basis of charity-giving brought giver and recipient into close contact. Those wanting to help had to go where those needing help lived to determine the needs. Thus, they were living out one of the primary definitions of charity, to suffer alongside of. Olasky gives convincing evidence that this approach worked not only in rural America, but the genuine needs of those inhabiting crowded cities were met. The success rate for people not only working themselves out of poverty, but also accepting Christ was impressive.
Of course we live in a different world. The approach to fighting poverty changed in the early twentieth century. The emphasis upon the individual was discarded, along with any concern for the salvation of souls. Social workers became more interested in the masses. This led to people receiving aid whether they needed that aid or not. This of course has led to the creation of a permanent welfare class. As people looked to the government for their well-being rather than their families, the social fabric that is the family has been has been broken for many. A reader of this blog emailed me statistics of government giving verses private giving. This reader's point is that the needs in this country are so great that only the government can meet them. However, what these statistics reveal is what Olasky refers to in the title of his book. So much tax money is doled out in innumerable government programs; often the same group of people are receiving money from different programs. This has created a dependent class in this country. But not only that, the motivation for private charity has been removed. No longer are individuals seen as our neighbors. Those in need are lumped into one mass which the government can best handle, therefore, individuals no longer feel the obligation to help. They might send money to a charitable orginization, but they no longer suffer alongside those in need. Those in need have no one encourageing them to raise themselves above the poverty line. The church as well as the needy have suffered from "The Tragedy of American Compassion."
But Olasky does not let the church off the hook. He does not just want to end the current welfare system and leave it at that, as some conservatives want to. He calls the Church back to what Wesley would call "Social Holiness." The church must again go where the truly needy live and to suffer with them. Churches should not just be places for a handout but a place where the less fortunate are embraced, encouraged, and yes, exhorted to change. Change not only their life-styles that keep them in poverty, but to fulfill family responsibilities and to accept Jesus as their savior. This is not an easy task, but if the Church is really to be the Church, than we must reclaim our station as the best source of charity. The success of the Church to meet the needs of the survivors of Katrina as opposed to the Federal Government's failure should give us hope that the current tragic status quo can and will be reversed.
Hopefully this Friday I can spend time with another intellectual, in this case, a group of intellectuals. I will be reading "The Incarnation and the Arts." It is a book of essays edited by Jeremy Bigbe. I don't know how far I'll read on Friday as I will be attending a banquet sponsored by the prison ministry I am involved with, Jesus is the Way Ministries. Not only am I looking forward to the food and fellowship, but I am also anticipating to hear testimonies about how God has led people out destructive lifestyles. On Sunday, my church will be hearing from a ministry that delivers women from drugs and criminal behavior. The testimonies given I am sure will be worth attending.