CREATED EQUAL Is a Great Story

CREATED EQUAL Is a Great Story

“Eah ya got ‘nud jah?” the sweaty, African American man said as he handed back the glass Mom had given him.

“Whut,”? I asked.

“Eah ya got ‘nud jah?”

“Momma, I cain’t unnerstan this man. Whuts he wont?”

“He wants more water, honey. It’s awfully hot outside. Here, give me the glass.” She refilled it and handed it back to the man who walked into our backyard every week, dumped our garbage cans into his large metal one, slung it on his shoulder, and hauled it back to the county truck at our curb.

I was about eight years old, and the only black men I met were the ones that collected the trash or trimmed the hedge across the street from my grandma’s house. I had no idea of the life these men led or of the events swirling through our country in 1968. But the Civil Rights movement was about to make itself known in powerfully negative terms in my small southern world. By the time I reached eighth grade in DeKalb County, just outside Atlanta, racial gang fights were regular events. And dodging them was an art form for this pudgy 13-year-old.

I did not understand the roots of the anger in my black classmates. All I knew was I felt like I was paying for something I hadn’t done and over which I had no control, and I was angry. Little did I know that they felt the same way. And as a people, they’d had enough of it.

About the same time that I was waking up to racism, future Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas was coming to terms with his anger about the injustice. In the new documentary, Created Equal: Clarence Thomas in His Own Words, we learn how this coastal Georgia, Gullah-Geechee speaking boy, grew up from poverty to become one of the youngest men ever appointed to the bench. And how the once-radical leftist became a bastion of conservative jurisprudence.

Schooled by his grandfather’s fierce work-ethic—“Old man Can’t is dead. I helped bury him,”—and Irish Catholic nuns sympathetic to racial oppression, Thomas was bound for the priesthood. But when Martin Luther King Jr. was shot, a white seminary classmate’s comment, “I hope he’s dead,” unleashed a fury in Thomas that drove him from the ministry and into the arms of campus Marxist revolutionaries in Boston. “I’m angry with my grandfather. I’m angry with the Church. If it’s a warm day, I’m angry. If it’s a cold day, I’m angry. I’m just angry. I’m angry. I’m sort of flying, lashing out at every single thing. Nothing is right.”

But a night of violence with campus radicals shook him to his core and drove him back to the Church where he asked God, “If you take anger out of my heart, I’ll never hate again. Anger and hate,” he says, “are just other forms of slavery. Other people are controlling you.”

He would need that resolve when leftist ideologues tried to torpedo his nomination with bogus sexual assault charges during confirmation hearings. “We know exactly what’s going on here. This is the wrong black guy. He has to be destroyed,” he says in the film. Thomas’s humanity, faith, and courage are reminiscent of Jacky Robinson’s in the movie 42 as he withstands without rancor the vicious assault on his character that he termed “a high-tech lynching for uppity blacks.” Watching his story unfold helped me better understand mine and strengthened me for the cultural battles we face today.

Black history month has come and gone, and the film is no longer playing in theaters. But it will be air on PBS in May, and no doubt be available soon on DVD and streaming services. In these culturally confusing, racially tense times, it goes down like a cold drink of water on a hot summer day.

OUTGROWING POVERTY

My heart went out to the young man on the phone and the woman who had taken him in. He had fallen in love with her at work and needed a place to stay and, well, one thing led to another. He had only been out of prison for a few months, still trying to get back on his feet, and his original housing arrangement hadn’t worked out. Her power was about to be cutoff on this damp, cold night.

I had helped in enough of these situations to know that a few bucks weren’t going to keep the heat on, and it was too late in the day to involve the church or other agencies, so I went to the ATM, pulled out $350, and handed it to her in Wal-Mart so she could get the money order and pay her bill.

That’s what Christians are supposed to do right, help the poor? Then why did I feel robbed when she unceremoniously kicked him out before the next billing cycle? Well, frankly, because I had been. I was a voluntary victim of my own hyperactive empathy, unbiblical anthropology, and upside-down economic theory. The only reason I’m sharing this is so that you won’t think me a cold-hearted capitalist if you keep reading.

Nobody likes poverty. No one enjoys seeing other people suffer with only thin blankets between them and a frigid night. Everyone with a conscience informed by Jesus’s Good Samaritan wants to, and should, help in an emergency. But the only way to help people get out, and stay out, of chronic poverty is to help them outgrow it. That’s a lot harder than pulling a few hundred bucks out of an ATM on a cold November night.

Prevailing models of aid view economic resources as limited. There are the haves and the have-nots, and the only way to help the have-nots is for the haves to hand it over. That’s called wealth redistribution, which is completely different from wealth creation. If we’re going to help people get out and stay out of chronic poverty, we need to believe in the expandable economic pie. World Magazine’s Joel Belz reminds us of this in his tribute to American Catholic philosopher (and lifelong Democrat) Michael Novak, who died last month.[1]

Novak often referenced eighteenth-century economist Adam Smith, saying, “The really unusual insight of Adam Smith is in effect a theological insight—that the world is not a finished system. If it were finished, then the urgent need would be for a distributive system. But God made the world differently, with the potential for constantly creating new wealth.” Finding the causes of poverty is not difficult, but we need to find ways to help the poor create wealth.

The first way to help people outgrow poverty is to help them believe that God has given them the power to create wealth, to provide for themselves. Doing this restores their dignity as creatures made in his image who have power, some ability to determine their own destiny.

Another Novak quote corrects the unbiblical anthropology undermining our attitudes toward the poor as well as our ideas about helping them: “Socialism is a system for saints. Democratic capitalism works because it’s a system for sinners.” If we’re going to help each other, we have to be truthful about human nature–that we are prone to oppression and greed, as well as fraud, and indolence. Socialism is brilliant, if we can count on rich and poor alike to ignore economic incentives, but we cannot.

Pure, unregulated, free-market capitalism will almost always favor the strong over the weak, or uninformed. That’s why we needed, for example, some of the credit agency and loan industry reforms passed by the last administration, the “democratic” in Novak’s capitalism.

But the “sinners” part of the equation covers the poor as well as the rich. Behavior that gets rewarded gets repeated. Many single young women now see having babies in order to collect more government assistance as a de facto career path. Marrying the father is out of the question because he would be expected to provide for his own, thus reducing the monthly stipend. The result is that more children are born to more unwed mothers. Perverse economic incentives reap a cycle of increasing dependence as well as the social pathologies that arise from families without fathers.

The biblical view of human nature takes these things into account. That’s why in the Bible, help for the poor recognizes the difference between a crisis and a chronic need. Ongoing, versus emergency assistance, was always predicated on the idea that the receiver performed some kind of work (Deut. 24:17-22).

The bedraggled man at the end of the off-ramp held a crude sign: “I have a wife and child and another on the way. Will work today.” Reliable reporting tells us that these guys often pull in hundreds of untaxed dollars a day. Even so, avoiding his pleading gaze as he made his way along the line of cars was almost more than I could take. Everything in me wanted to pull out a twenty and hand it over. But he kept a respectful distance and I, feeling like an absolute shmuck, kept my wallet in my pocket.

Perhaps the hardest part of helping people outgrow poverty is overcoming our hyperactive empathy. And I don’t believe that God will ever judge us for handing a few bucks to a beggar. But I am utterly convinced that he will ask us one day, “Why did you, in the most prosperous economic system ever developed by man, allow poverty to perpetuate itself, when you knew how to help people outgrow it?”

[1] https://world.wng.org/2017/03/system_for_sinners