Lately I have heard arguments about funding different social service programs through government funding. I’ve heard arguments about this related to food and health and education. All of these have been hotly “debated” for a long time. The arguments are pretty familiar too. “We shouldn’t do x because then it forces us to spend tax money on the program and that goes against my belief in x. Why are you coercing me into paying for something I disagree with?!?”
The amusing thing about this argument is that regardless of where you are on the political spectrum, you can use that argument and fill in the x with anything you like. Don’t like social service programs/welfare, the argument works. But it also works if you don’t think we should be spending money on developing weapons of mass destruction too.
We seem to think that because we decide that something should not be done through government action or funding, that it makes the thing non-political. Like if the government is no longer doing something, it’s outside of the realm of politics all of sudden. I’m curious what definition of politics would argue that though.
Take hunger programs. I hear the argument that Jesus calls on us to feed people. Most people are in favor of that. The division happens over the means. Specifically, should government be involved in feeding people. One argument is that Jesus’ call to feed the hungry is an individual mandate. Another argument says that the context of Jesus saying that is related to the judgement of nations, not individuals. So who is right?
Frankly, if we are more concerned with determining who is right in an argument, we’ve lost focus of what Jesus is talking about.
When we, as a society, decide what the government will do and not do, and what it will fund and not fund, we are making political decisions. We are making intentional decisions. Intentional decisions about what we value and are willing to put our money where our mouth is. We are declaring what our values are. We are deciding what is important, and what is not.
In essence, we are declaring publicly what we put our faith in. What we claim with our words is one thing. Our actions and how we actually invest and spend our money publicly declare what we actually value.
While it’s a fun exercise to fight about the role of government, that argument feeds no one and protects no one. While it’s a great intellectual exercise to argue over government action versus restricting government from certain actions, that argument changes nothing. One size does not fit all when it comes to the challenges we face.
The same would be true of government action, as well as private individual action. Instead of focusing on a dualistic argument of either/or, we would be better off agreeing that there is a problem first. Then examining what are the options available to us.
Sometimes government involvement is the worst thing that could be done. But that’s not always true. There are plenty of times when government action will be beneficial to dealing with a challenge. It’s not a simple yes or no answer. It’s not an either/or situation. Challenges we face are rarely if ever that simple. Challenges and problems are often very complex and require complex solutions. To say that government is always the problem or always the answer is short-sighted. It removes possibilities. It pigeon-holes government and individuals and private efforts.
Instead of either/or, why not look at both/and. Why not look at what works and what doesn’t. Why not get away from universal statements that rarely apply across the board anyway. Why not look at the fact that people are involved – and people are messy, unique, have culture, history, and complexity. We could pretend to believe that we’ll know the outcome based on whether government is involved or not. But a better measure might be what is the attitude of the people engaged in the problem and challenge. Do they want it to change? If they don’t it really doesn’t matter who does the action – it’s bound to fail. If the people want it to change, they will find a way to make it happen.
Problems and challenges are never as simple as we assume. And their solutions are not as simple either. Often, solutions to challenges require a multi-pronged approach. But that should make sense. I’ve never seen a problem or challenge that siloed itself or compartmentalized itself. Usually the problems and challenges we see are more widespread. They are like icebergs. The challenge and problem that we see is just what’s above the surface.
Feeding the hungry sounds simple. But the reality is that someone who is hungry is never just hungry. They likely face some or all of these challenges, and a whole range of other ones too – broken relationships, poverty, health challenges, education challenges, transportation challenges, work-related challenges, justice system challenges, addictions, etc. We should not assume we have solved the hunger problem for someone when we have given them food. In reality, we haven’t even scratched the surface. We’ve taken care of an immediate need. But because we refuse to see the interconnectedness of these challenges, we haven’t even started to deal with the problem – a problem that goes beyond just that person and what they do. And that’s not talking about the indirect systems that impact all of this that are too numerous to name.
This might feel overwhelming. And it should. Now imagine being the hungry person who expends a great deal of energy just surviving each day. Instead of asking the question of whether government should be involved with feeding people, maybe a better set of questions would be – what’s the ideal? Are we living into that? What can we agree on? What is preventing us from moving in a better direction? What are the things that conflict with our pre-established beliefs? Are those beliefs helpful in this situation? If not, are the beliefs more important than moving towards the ideal?
I think we owe it to people to start asking better questions – questions that have been ignored because the answers might be inconvenient and cause us to rethink our beliefs. When we ask better questions, we’ll get better answers. We’ll open up to more possibilities. And we’ll find it easier to work with people, rather than label them. Because we’ll discover that we don’t know as much as we think we do and that we need other people to help solve problems – Others who are different, bring different skill sets and ways of thinking, others who believe different things, others who have different cultural expectations. When we expand, life has a chance to thrive. When we turn inward on ourselves, we become protective and worried about ourselves and being right. No one thrives in that situation. The best you can hope for is survival. And even then, the chances are slim.
Are we up for the task? Or are we afraid? Are we afraid what we would find? Are we afraid of losing our privileges? Are we afraid of losing control? Are we afraid we might not be right? The attitude we have will determine how successful we will be. If we decide we aren’t up for the task, then we’ll find a way to fail.