“Adapting one’s mission to the priorities of the poor is key to redemptive service.” – Robert Lupton in Charity Detox Chapter Five
The Blame Game
I believe American Christians are as good-hearted as any people anywhere. It is this belief that keeps me in the game, choosing to work with the church to serve others.
That being said, we have some uphill cultural struggles to overcome if we are to be effective, strong, and grounded when it comes to answering God’s call to do justice and to love mercy. First among those struggles, I believe, is our uniquely American bias to make everything about individual responsibility, while having a rather shallow conception of community responsibility. Most of the time I think we are not even aware we are doing this.
Matthew Desmond, author of the 2017 Pulitzer Prize winning book Evicted, recently wrote a feature article in The New York Times Magazine in which he highlights our long history of blaming individuals for their poverty (Americans Want to Believe Jobs are the Solution to Poverty. They’re Not. September 11, 2018). “Americans,” he said, ”often assume that the poor do not work.”
Desmond writes: “According to a 2016 survey conducted by the American Enterprise Institute, nearly two-thirds of respondents did not think most poor people held a steady job. Slightly over one-third of respondents in the survey believed that most welfare recipients would prefer to stay on welfare rather than earn a living. These sorts of assumptions about the poor are an American phenomenon. A 2013 study by the sociologist Ofer Sharone found that unemployed workers in the U.S. blame themselves, while unemployed workers in Israel blame the hiring system. When Americans see a homeless man cocooned in blankets, we often wonder how he failed. When the French see the same man, they wonder how the state failed him.”
The noteworthy thing about our tendency to blame the poor for their poverty in the U.S. is that the facts about those in poverty, Desmond argues, don’t support our widely held assumptions. You can read more here: https://www.nytimes.com/2018/09/11/magazine/americans-jobs-poverty-homeless.html
What if it is possible that we have some re-wiring to do if we are to serve others in ways that produce life-changing results? Robert Lupton describes this reorientation process as moving from asking the question “What’s wrong with these people?!” to asking “What’s wrong with us?”
We like to be right. That’s human. But bias is bias. A tendency to hold individuals accountable at all costs while ignoring the social fabric that abandons or upholds individuals is a bias that can get in the way of the redemption God may want to bring about through our service.
I believe faithful service will require having some faith in the people we are called to serve. What if we have been wrong all along? What if we have blamed others so that we do not have to blame ourselves for our failure to act in the ways of justice and love? Faithful service will mean holding a more balanced approach between individual responsibility and community responsibility.
Redemption is always possible. My prayer today is that God would show us how to see, where to look, how to listen, and draw us forward, together, in Jesus’ Spirit, for the sake of the world God so deeply loves.