Saturday, December 8, 2012

Conservatives Care for the Poor and Needy, Mr. Colbert

I watched The Colbert Report when it first aired and have watched many, many episodes since then. It's funny. Even when I disagree with him, I can't deny that it is funny. I also give him credit for not being mostly obnoxious, unlike other comedians in the same vein/political outlook (Stewart, Maher, etc.). And hey, I can't deny that it's nice to have such a popular guy in showbiz who I believe does truly try to live his Catholic faith faithfully.  But as a rule, he is of the politically traditional (if I may use that word in this context) Catholic Democrat type.  This quote that was recently shared on G+ illustrates it:
Colbert Maligns Conservatives
This was said in response to a Dec 2010 column by "Papa Bear" (as his character lovingly refers to Bill O'Reilly). You can catch the segment this is taken from here. Doing so better situates the quote above for the criticism I offered on G+, which you can read at the link above. Colbert in this segment specifically, if satirically, positions Jesus as a liberal Democrat. I was taken to task for making a political generalization related to this myself. So I thought I'd point out the context and expound more here to show where my comment was coming from.

Colbert's The Colbert Report corpus related to this topic speaks for itself. He takes every opportunity to distort and mock conservative (Republican) positions on social matters while presenting the liberal (Democratic) positions as the blessed and holy way. The whole show, in its very fundamental, satirical conception, is intended specifically for this purpose (and to make money). His statement above fits right in with all that, and his intent is here, again, to distort a conservative position rather than engage with it fairly.  Of course, doing so wouldn't be funny and wouldn't please his audience, so he can't afford, quite literally, to do that.

Colbert is selective in his biblical references. St. Paul said, "Now we command you, brothers, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that you keep away from any brother who is walking in idleness ... If anyone is not willing to work, let him not eat." The context of that passage is specifically about humans living in community, that is, in society, and is explicitly a command from The Apostle using his Apostolic authority quite directly ("in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ").

On the other hand, the passages that Colbert alludes to have to do with individual works, freely chosen as a way to personal holiness and perfection.  In the segment, Colbert quotes Matthew 5:40; the context there is Christ contrasting the "eye for an eye" mentality of equal retribution for wrongs. Christ, in contrast to eye for an eye, teaches a giving mentality; that is, he is illustrating with some concrete examples that it is more blessed (this is in the context of the Sermon on the Mount--the Beatitudes) to respond with generosity, even when we feel we are being put upon or wronged in some way.  The context is not a command for how we must live together in society but rather an exhortation to personal perfection.

Colbert also alluded to the story of the rich young ruler, in Luke 18 as further evidence to contradict O'Reilly. Here again, the context is important. This is an individual who comes to Christ to ask, "what must I do to inherit eternal life?" As with the woman at the well and as with the scribes and Pharisees seeking to stone the adulteress, Christ, being God, sees into these individuals' hearts.  With the young rich man, he pulls out the thing that was keeping him from the path to life--his attachment to his wealth. Christ's directive was to him as an individual; it is not meant as a blanket command for every person, much less as a guide for how to structure society here on earth.

And if Colbert is so hip to Christ's words here, it does beg the question, why hasn't Colbert sold all that he has and given it to the poor? He is, self-admittedly, a rich man.  His own way of life belies the flaw in his argument. Because he well knows this passage is not intended to be taken in the rhetorical way that he is using it in his argument.

So how did Christ relate to this world? Did he come to give us a guide to how to structure our society, i.e., our government? When questioned at his trial by Pilate, what did he say? "My kingdom is not of this world." As Colbert rightly noted, Christ could have come down off the Cross. He could have set up an incontrovertible temporal kingdom and ruled with a Divine iron fist to enforce truly "Christian" behavior. But he didn't. Why?

Because Christ--being God--is big into personal freedom. Of all beings, God could force every other creature to hum along in perfect tune if he wanted to. So we can obviously read in God's refusal to do this that he values letting we humans exercise our free will, he values each of us choosing to exercise authentically free faith, hope, and love. And it is the last of these freely exercised virtues that Christ exhorts us to in speaking of generosity with the poor. But it is always a free, personal, individual generosity; never forced.

Christ tells us in Matthew 5 that the way of individual perfection is that when someone asks me (as an individual) for help--or even when they try to take from me--that I should respond with generosity.  He does not, by this, say that I should force others to give. The typical liberal Democrat philosophy fails on this point. It fails by presuming, contra God's own example, to enforce individual perfection through external means. However, conversion and individual perfection always start on the interior as motivations of the heart in response to God's free gift of grace.

The typical liberal Democrat philosophy also fails on holistic, contextually situated adherence to Scripture. In addition to the passage from St. Paul's second letter to the Thessalonians quoted above, The Apostle also directs, in his second letter to the Corinthians (again, precisely in his Apostolic role in setting up and ordering Christians communities), "Each one must give as he has decided in his heart, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver." I couldn't have said it better.

There is no foundation in Scripture for taxing anyone (much less the rich, specifically or disproportionately) in order to provide for the poor. Taking care of the poor and needy, while a central tenant of Christianity, is always directed as a free choice of individuals, not a principle of civil government. Christian communities are directed to provide this care, but their means for doing so comes from the free participation of the Christian members.

Further, there is specific direction by St. Paul to not provide for those who do not work (those who are "idle"--a concept that is more than simply not working, to be clear). God is not unjust. He does not command or force us to give more than we can. He does not make us care for those who can rightly and justly care for themselves. The initiative towards the poor and needy is always towards those who are authentically poor and needy, not those who are idle. There are conditions, contrary to what Mr. Colbert asserts, and the conditions are found in justice.

The challenge for us is to be animated by a principle of generous charity while not impoverishing ourselves. It would not, for instance, be just for the provider of a family to forsake providing for his or her family and impoverish them so as to care for the poor and needy around them. Nor would it be just for a debtor to forsake his debts to give to the poor.

Some few are called to individual total self-impoverishment (the rich young ruler, St. Bridget of Ireland, St. Francis, and others, for example), but not all. And those who are called must respond in individual freedom, not coercion, and justly in regards to their obligations.

In as much as our government does provide for the poor, it must be done so justly--especially given that  its means for doing so comes from coercion (i.e., taxation). The government in these cases has a stricter duty to ensure that only those who are truly needy receive such assistance. It would be unjust for the government to be animated by an uncritical principle of generosity.

And therein lies another flaw of government care for the needy--the duty for just distribution is greater and therefore requires more overhead to ensure it, inevitably reducing what can actually be given to the needy. This is also why caring for the poor should be as local as possible, as personal and as individual as possible--because by being so, it is much easier to both discover the need and to know that the need is authentic and does not come from idleness.

All of this is in pretty stark contrast to the typical liberal Democrat presumption that the government, especially the federal government, should be tasked with caring for the poor and needy.

And about Colbert's caricaturing conservatives (and he is by no means alone in doing so) as selfish and uncaring for the poor and needy, there have been studies that show either that conservatives give more to charitable causes or, at least, equally (depending on the study). The concrete data proves the caricature wrong, in addition to the theoretical and Scriptural exploration above.

So, Mr. Colbert, who is "factually incorrect" and "borderline heretical" in this matter? It seems to me that your position is more correctly characterized that way than O'Reilly's. More than that, in caricaturing your political opponents as you have, you are guilty of violence to their characters and to the truth.

Conservatives have good, solid foundation for their political views, and as I read it, they are actually more Scriptural and Christian, not less, than the typical liberal Democratic view, both on this issue and other social issues for sure.  Caring for the poor and needy does not have to be done through government, and it seems to me that not only does it not have to be but quite possibly it shouldn't be. This is not a matter of selfishness but rather of disagreements about right and just political ordering.