Tuesday, April 17, 2012

O Brother, Where Art Thou?

By Jeff Fulmer
Originally posted 4/14/12 at Hometown Prophet 

“Am I my brother’s keeper?” (Genesis 4:9). That was the question a defensive sounding Cain asked God after he’d killed Abel. Christians know the answer is, “Yes, I am my brother’s keeper,” and most are willing to lend a helping hand to their fellow man. Whether it’s building a Habitat for Humanity house, volunteering at Room at the Inn, or serving meals at the mission, they are actively working through their churches to assist those in their own communities, as well as remote villages thousands of miles away.

And yet, at the same time, many of these same Christians are opposed to the government doing the very same kind of work. It’s as if tax dollars are in a separate category and should never be used for social programs that offer a life preserver to a person struggling to keep his or her head above the poverty line. At the mention of government assistance, many conservative Christians suddenly become suspicious of free-loaders and disdainful of any sort of bureaucratic waste.

I’m genuinely curious why it’s acceptable for individuals and churches to help the poor and why it’s not okay for their government to get involved in similar activities? I don’t think it’s an issue of separation of church and state. Many of these same people are the first to want our country to have Christian values. Well, healing the sick, helping the poor, and fighting injustices were the values that Jesus cared about in his day. Of course, these principles are not the sole domain of Christian ethics; they are universally accepted by most people as the way healthy societies should treat their citizens. 

Perhaps, conservative Christians are opposed to the amount of money that government spends on these issues. It’s a fair question, and it is certainly easy to find examples of waste within big, federally funded programs. We all know about the welfare mother who’s milking the system or the laid off guy who’s cashing unemployment checks while not even trying to find a job. Of course, it’s also pretty easy to find stories of redemption and recovery, if we’re willing to look for those too. 

The reality is only the government has the means to put programs into place that can help large segments of people: Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP) and Head Start reaches disadvantaged kids; Emergency Food Service and Medicaid supports the indigent elderly; and food stamps and HUD’s public housing provides some basic sustenance and shelter for the poor. These are all programs that can insure, house, and feed literally millions of people on a scale that all the well-meaning Christians are not capable of doing by themselves. 

I’m not sure if the homeless person really cares if he’s getting assistance from a church or a “good Samaritan” or Uncle Sam. If God takes note of these things (and I believe He does), then I think He’s pleased when someone is helped, whether that assistance is coming from you or me or churches or a government program. If we truly want the United States to be a nation after God’s heart, caring for “the least of these” is a pretty good place to start. 

“Are we our brother’s keeper?” It’s not an abstract ideological question. It is literally a question of life and death for many of our own brothers and sisters. At its root, it’s about compassion rising above apathy; replacing suffering with relief; hope triumphing over defeat. At the same time, there has to be accountability, and not every government program is a good one. But I had rather waste a little money giving someone a second chance than save a little money and let them slip through the cracks. 

A few weeks ago, I saw Allison Kraus and Union Station at the Loveless Barn in Nashville. During the show, I learned one of her band members (Dan Tyminski) overdubbed George Clooney’s voice on “Man of Constant Sorrow” in the movie “O Brother Where Art Thou?” Learning that George Clooney didn’t actually sing didn’t take anything away from the movie experience. Sometimes a brother just needs a little help. It doesn’t matter who fills in; the important thing is that everyone pulls together to make things as good as they can be. Do you agree?

Jeff Fulmer is the author of the book "Hometown Prophet."

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