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Now when you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap to the very corners of your field, nor shall you gather the gleanings of your harvest. 10Nor shall you glean your vineyard, nor shall you gather the fallen fruit of your vineyard; you shall leave them for the needy and for the stranger. I am the LORD your God. (Leviticus 23)
A story: “In the middle of the Great Depression, the mayor of New York City was the five foot tall son of Italian-Jewish immigrants, Fiorello H. LaGuardia. LaGuardia was a seriously energetic little guy. It was not unusual for him to ride with the firefighters, raid with the police, or take field trips with the kids from the city orphanage. On a bitterly cold night in January of 1935, the mayor turned up at a night court that served the poorest ward of the city. LaGuardia dismissed the judge for the evening and took over the bench himself—-something a quirk in New York City law enabled him to do.
Within a few minutes, a tattered old woman was brought before him, charged with stealing a loaf of bread. She told the mayor that her daughter’s husband had left, her daughter was sick, and her two grandchildren were starving.
However, the shopkeeper, from whom the bread was stolen, refused to drop the charges. “It’s a real bad neighborhood, your Honor,” the man told the mayor. “She’s got to be punished to teach other people around here a lesson.”
LaGuardia sighed. He turned to the woman and said, “I’ve got to punish you. The law makes no exceptions. Ten dollars or ten days in jail.” But even as he pronounced sentence, the mayor was already reaching into his pocket. He extracted a bill and tossed it into his famous hat, saying, “Here is the ten dollar fine which I now remit; and furthermore I am going to fine everyone in this courtroom fifty cents for living in a town where a person has to steal bread so that her grandchildren can eat. Mr. Baliff, collect the fines and give them to the defendant.”
The following day, New York City newspapers reported that $47.50 was turned over to a bewildered woman who had stolen a loaf of bread to feed her starving grandchildren. Fifty cents of that amount was contributed by the grocery store owner himself, while some seventy petty criminals, people with traffic violations, and New York City policemen, each of whom had just paid fifty cents for the privilege of doing so, gave the mayor a standing ovation.”
That’s a good story, isn’t it?
It’s so good, it really ought to be true.
As many of you know, I’ve spent the past 18 months or so engaged in a project I began by calling my Year of Thinking Dangerously. I am…or at least, I was (I’m not sure any more) a liberal democrat.
But I decided that it was important for my intellectual and spiritual development to engage in substantive, meaningful conversations with conservative Republicans.
I’ve learned a lot through this project. The first thing I learned is that there were a lot of basic, important and not even particularly complicated or obscure ideas that I’d never really thought about before.
Like what it actually meant when I’d say something like “Oh, well, everyone surely has a right to decent housing.”
Here’s what someone had to explain to me—-a middle-aged woman who considered herself fairly well educated—-about what we in America mean by “rights.”
A “right” is not a guarantee that all Americans will have what any well-organized society should, at a minimum, be able to provide its members—-enough to eat, for example, or a job.
What the Founding Fathers spelled out in the Bill of Rights is a specific list of things that I, as a citizen of the United States, can expect my government to affirmatively protect and what my government will refrain from infringing.
In the experience of the FFs, governments by their nature have a strong tendency to infringe. It is a government’s power and capacity to infringe that feared most, and thus sought to constrain.
As an American I, for example, have the right to freedom of conscience — I have the right to determine for myself what is best, and to refuse to participate in activities I believe to be wrong. This, by the way, is the same right that allows Quakers and other sincere pacifists to avoid being drafted to fight in our nation’s wars.
Many early settlers to the colonies knew a little too well what it’s like to be subjects of a government that tells them just which God to believe in, what forms their worship must take and how, exactly, their faith could be exercised and demonstrated to the world.
Given that experience, the Founding Fathers were moved to take freedom of religion and freedom of conscience very seriously.
As they identified it, my right to freedom of conscience is exactly the same as your right to freedom of conscience. My right to be a Unitarian-Universalist is exactly the same as your right to be a Congregationalist, a Muslim, a Jew, a lapsed Catholic, a Gaia-worshipper, or an atheist.
When a person exercises his or her rights, there is often some cost to the rest of us. We Unitarian Universalists, for example, have to put up with the behavior of those we consider to be religious nutters — y’all, for instance! Or … remember the Hare Krishnas who used to solicit money in the airports? And the Mormon missionary who turns up at the front door, the Fundamentalist who swears he can turn away hurricanes with his prayer — but (and this is important) the Hare Krishnas, Mormons, and Oral Roberts (may he rest in peace) … they all have to put up with the Unitarians too.
Your Unitarian neighbor might be irritated or even alarmed should you put up a bright orange sign on your own front lawn that says “Jesus Is Lord” … but she can’t expect the government to send the guys with guns to come and take that sign away. Instead, she has exactly the same right to erect an orange sign on her front lawn that says “In My Opinion, Which I Impose On No One, Jesus Was Merely a Teacher and Moral Exemplar, To Be Honored But Not Worshipped.” (Unitarians need really big signs.)
If a right isn’t universal — if I have the right to put an anti-Trump sign on my lawn, but my neighbor doesn’t have the right to put a pro-Trump sign on his lawn — we are are no longer talking about a right. We’re talking about a privilege.
This logic — that a right that is not universal is not a right at all — is what eventually opened up those miraculous fruits of the Founder’s genius, the Bill of Rights and the Constitution — to black men, and then to women, so that all might seek happiness and enjoy the blessings of liberty.
It’s embarrassing to admit this, but I had never thought that much about my rights as an American. I didn’t think of what it would actually mean if a government guaranteed a right to decent housing enshrined in the Bill of Rights. It’s not that it’s all that complicated … I just hadn’t thought about it.
Let’s ignore the problem of defining “decent housing” and declare that a “decent” house means four walls and a roof to keep out the rain … a heating system and a flush toilet.
Someone has to build the house. Any carpenters here? Someone has to install the heating system and the plumbing — anyone here know how to do that? Okay, so does my government-secured right to decent housing mean that carpenter, or roofer, or the plumber, and the furnace guy have to build me a house whether they want to or not? Do I have the right to their labor and materials? Will the government force them to do it?
Of course not!
The government will buy the materials and hire the workers for me … but that just means that the government will be forcibly taking the money from other Americans. We don’t usually think of paying taxes as something we are literally forced to do. But if you test it — if you stop paying — The guys with guns will show up. (Just ask Al Capone.)
Rights are not a zero-sum game. If a right is not universal — if I have the right to speak and you don’t, or if I have the right to take money out of your pocket but you don’t have the right to take money out of mine, we aren’t talking about rights anymore. We’re talking about privileges again … or maybe … we should be talking about charity?
Yup — I’ve been American for over five decades, and I’ve only just figured out what “rights” are. This makes me — or at least, should make me — really humble when it comes to criticizing anyone else’s grasp of basic civics.
In the story of Fiorello LaGuardia and the old lady who stole a loaf of bread, the shopkeeper is the bad guy, right? The greedy rich man who is willing to prosecute a poor woman to teach the other poor people a lesson.
The rich are always greedy and unkind in our stories — like the rich man in the Gospel of Luke who, having made poor Lazarus’s life miserable, finds himself suffering in hell for his sins. Lazarus gets to witness this, a little Biblical schadenfreude that most of us can sympathize with, at least if we think about the rich people we don’t approve of.
That is, we might dislike the Koch brothers while being warmly disposed toward George Soros … or vice versa. While those most enthusiastic about taxing the bejeesus out of millionaires seldom cite Oprah as one of those who has no moral claim on the fortune she is lucky enough to possess.
Vermont Senator and former presidential candidate Bernie Sanders was questioning the nominee for Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price the other day, and he asked Price whether Price believed that Americans have a right to health care.
“Well,” said Price, ”We’re a compassionate society.”
“No, we’re not a compassionate society!” Bernie snapped. “We’re not compassionate in terms of our relationship to poor and working people. Our record is worse than virtually any other country on earth. We have the highest rate of childhood poverty than any other major country on earth … So I don’t think compared to other countries we are particularly compassionate.”
It’s funny how easily I would have accepted this assessment; how passionately, if automatically, I would have agreed with the Senator two years or so ago. Now, I was moved to Google it.
It turns out that America is the most compassionate country on earth, at least as measured by charitable giving by individuals as a percentage of GDP. In America, we give at 1.44%, nearly twice as much as our nearest competitor New Zealand at 0.79%, Canada at .77% not to mention the UK — which came in fourth globally at a measly .54%.
Okay, but what good is all that charitable giving if American kids are still living in dreadful poverty?
Well … it depends on how you define “poverty.” In a new article for the journal Education Next, researchers Michael J. Petrelli and Brandon Wright demonstrated that when cross-national poverty rates are calculated rationally by comparing absolute poverty rates, rather than relative to a nation’s overall income, it is clear that American kids aren’t significantly poorer than those of other countries. Indeed, a significantly lower proportion of American children live in poverty than those in Ireland and the United Kingdom, and our proportion of poor kids is about the same as Germany’s and even Finland’s.
Moreover, because the United States is wealthier than most of our international competitors, many of the US households that are counted as poor on a relative-to-American-Rich-People measure would be considered middle-class on an absolute measure, since the amount of money they earn would put them far above the median incomes of folks in other nations.
Misperceptions about the extent and severity of US poverty result from the odd way the Census Bureau reports on poverty. The Census Bureau defines a family as poor if its income falls below certain thresholds. But in counting income, Census proceeds as if programs such as food stamps, the Earned Income Tax Credit, and housing vouchers do not exist. This explains why a poor American is able to spend an average of $2.33 for every dollar of “income” they have.
The government’s own data show that the typical poor family in the US has air-conditioning, a car, and cable or satellite TV. Half of the poor have computers, 43 percent have Internet, and 40 percent have a wide-screen plasma or LCD TV. The US Department of Agriculture reports that only 4 percent of poor children were hungry for even a single day in the prior year because of a lack of funds for food. And the average poor American has more living space than the average, non-poor individual living in Sweden, France, Germany, or the United Kingdom.
All of which is pretty darned good news, isn’t it?
America is actually pretty compassionate, and our compassion is working! It’s doing what compassion is supposed to do, namely helping children and poor people live better lives.
But let’s go back to the myth … the parable! about Fiorello LaGuardia, the widow, the grocer, and the loaf of bread. In the story, he is a failed Samaritan, a guy who had the chance to love his neighbor as himself by showing mercy, and he flunked.
What should he have done?
Let the old lady have the loaf of bread.
Just that loaf … or the next loaf? The loaf after that? Since man does not live by bread alone, maybe he ought to give her a chicken too, or a can of beans? Is the whole burden of this woman’s support, her grandchildren’s support, to be borne by the grocer?
How about all the other poor people in the neighborhood, the ones who have also been stealing stuff? We might say that all Americans have the right not to starve to death, but does that mean they all have the right to this guy’s bread? If so … how long before the grocer goes out of business, and the neighborhood becomes a food desert?
This is where the problem with the language of “rights” arises. If the old woman has the right to the grocer’s loaf of bread … to his flour and salt and time … it means the government will “secure her right” by forcing him to hand it over.
Okay, but what about the “fine” that LaGuardia collected. That spread the cost of looking after this women and her children more broadly didn’t it: the policeman, the petty criminals, the traffic offenders and the Mayor himself all pitched in.
In the story, it says the coins were handed over voluntarily, but let’s face it, you’re in a courtroom, with a police officer standing there and the Mayor of the city — the head of the government — is passing his hat around. That’s a tax.
The Bible tells us that, like the poor, taxes will always be with us and by definition we are forced to pay them. The force may be merely and politely implied — the cop in the courtroom didn’t actually pull out his gun and the IRS doesn’t post a SWAT team on your front porch in April — but if you fail to throw your coin in the hat or send in that check, it will reveal itself.
Charity, by definition, is not taken from you by force but freely given, like gratia gratis data. A truly compassionate country, therefore, can not simply be one whose inhabitants pay high taxes. Nor is a compassionate country one whose inhabitants have a government-secured right to take other people’s stuff, time and resources. A highly-taxed country whose government guarantees the right to free bread may be a fine and functional place … but it isn’t necessarily a compassionate place, and in time it will tend to run out of grocers and become a hungry one.
I don’t know about you, but I am glad to know that the United States does not have the highest rates of poverty of the major countries, and that poor people in America are actually doing pretty well in material terms.
Our taxes pay for at least some of this material well-being, along with the additional, purely voluntary giving of people … like you. The folks who do not reap to the very corners of your fields or gather all the fallen fruit of your vineyards, but leave the extra for the needy and the stranger.
We don’t have a choice about rendering unto Caesar what is Caesar’s … and we don’t have to kvetch about paying taxes … well, not too much anyway.
We still have a choice about rendering unto God the things that are God’s, by giving charity, caritas, agape, love; by loving our neighbor as ourselves.
Our neighbor doesn’t have the right to this love, the way he has the right to annoy us with his yard signs, or perplex us with his beliefs … but because ours is a generous country, he’ll get it anyway. He will receive our time and effort, the coins in our pockets, the salt in our cupboards and the strength in our hands.
In this time of transition and tumult, might I humbly suggest that along with the grapes and the grain, we extend the principle, and offer our neighbor another thing he has no right to: our understanding. Our interested inquiry and sincere listening. The respect that is expressed not just by nodding and smiling, but by taking our neighbor’s ideas seriously, challenging them thoughtfully — and, yes, by Googling his facts.
Since I have come to see political polarization and political tribalism as an obstacle to love, I consider breaking out of my personal polarization a spiritual project … and an urgent, patriotic duty. Talking to people we don’t agree with about important issues may be the biggest contribution you and I can make to the great American experiment, now 240 years underway, begun when the founding fathers agree to hold these truths to be self evident: That all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness.
God bless those brilliant FFs! God bless ‘em for their distrust of government, for they expanded and expandable definition of “men” and “freedom,” and bless them for their faith in us, in We the People!
God bless America!