by Bob Lupton I have never placed a political campaign sign in my yard. Not that I am disinterested in who gets elected to public office. That’s clearly important to me. But to go public with my political biases is likely to alienate about half of the supporters of my non-profit. It’s better for business, I have found, to keep my political opinions to myself, to talk out of both sides of my mouth when necessary, and keep my mouth shut when in doubt.
Some might call me spineless. I prefer diplomatic. I can usually see both sides of an issue and when I can find common ground between differing opinions I do my best to steer the conversation toward mutual understanding. When that doesn’t work I try to offer some conciliatory comment and then change the subject.
But there is one subject I have always been very straight about: caring for the poor. This is a conviction. There may be disagreement about just how best to do this caring, but for me compassionate and just treatment of the poor is a non-negotiable. It is a Divine mandate. And I will go to the mat over this one.
Because I have been politically elusive, my Democratic friends often pigeonhole me as a Republican with a big heart. My Republican friends peg me as a Democrat who is opposed to entitlements. Both camps seem to think I’m an anomaly. That’s probably good for keeping diverse friends and satisfied supporters.
But after forty-plus years of living and serving among the poor, I have witnessed nearly every expression of care that good people have visited upon the less fortunate – from feeding the homeless, to counseling pregnant girls to keep their babies, to patching widows’ roofs, to advocating for addicts who need treatment. I have done all of these and hundreds more. And I have been joined by countless others whose hearts compel them to help those in need. Sometimes our service has made a difference (though its really hard to tell, especially in the short run). Sometimes we have inflicted unintentional harm (and that too is hard to tell, since we never quite know what is behind the smiles). One thing I am quite sure of, however: it is much safer being a supportive listener than it is being an eager helper. And another thing I have learned: when you do for others what they have the capacity to do for themselves, you are likely doing them a disservice.
After four decades of serving, the romance is gone. I am left with an unvarnished view of the realities of urban poverty. But the Divine calling imposed upon me to become a neighbor to the poor has never been lifted. And because my commitment and voice and heart remain on the side of the poor, my Democratic friends want to embrace me as a fellow liberal (who has a few right-wing tendencies!). And because I have seen the destructive effects of subsidizing poverty and oppose dependency-producing entitlements, I am accepted by Republican friends as a fellow conservative (but with a heart!). Lately, however, (ever since I came out of the closet with Toxic Charity) I fear this delicate balance I have maintained for so long is beginning to “list to the starboard” (that’s tilt to the right). I have begun to publicly declare that the only thing that will enable the poor to emerge from poverty is a decent job. And the primary creators of decent jobs are business people who believe deeply in the free enterprise system. Coming out on the side of capitalism identifies me with Republicans. You see why I’m in trouble now, don’t you?
In one of my recent Urban Perspectives I said: For-profits and not-for-profits represent two fundamental divisions of our economy: wealth creation and wealth transfer. Business is the wealth creator; all others exist on the transfer of that wealth… How strange that business creators, so essential to our well-being, are so often viewed as somehow less spiritual, less compassionate than those who live off the wealth they produce! Strange, too, how we esteem sacrificial non-profit “servants” but malign as greedy capitalists the for-profit producers who underwrite their charities.
One minister friend responded: Interesting post. I've always loved your even handed approach and refusal to tow the liberal or conservative line. But some of the language in this one surprised me. Capitalism could be baptized but it is not God's final revelation. Some of the language you use here of Ordained For-Profit sector sounds like a myth that profit-driven life will bring the kingdom.
My more liberal friends are suspect of the free enterprise system. They point out to me the excesses, the CEO’s who live in opulence and cut their minimum wage employees to thirty hours a week to avoid having to provide health insurance. They say that a system propelled by greed is anything but righteous. They have ready examples of the Enron’s that defraud their employees and the BP’s that destroy our environment. The for-profit sector is not to be trusted, they contend. Wealth producers, if not carefully controlled and regulated, will more than likely exploit their workers, despoil the environment, cut safety corners, avoid (if not evade) paying taxes, conceal health hazards, and squeeze every penny to the bottom line.
My liberal friends have a point. A competitive economic system can indeed produce winners and losers. And without oversight it can lead to cartels and monopolies. Unchecked greed can certainly be very destructive. All true. But then a socialistic system can produce similar inequities and injustices (minus the wealth creation). Obviously, no economic system is without its shortcomings. But recent history, ever since the collapse of the Soviet Union, and the subsequent economic struggles of many European Union member countries, it has become abundantly clear that socialism has failed to deliver on its promises. We are also witnessing the dramatic expansion of economic vitality (and poverty reduction) in China and India as they have cracked open the doors to free enterprise. With all of its potential for exploitation and excess, the capitalistic system is certainly winning the day.
Because capitalism and political freedom are so often linked together, it is tempting to connect them with Judeo-Christian values. That’s what my pastor friend was concerned about when he referred to the “myth that profit-driven life will bring the kingdom.” Because capitalism has worked so well for us (most of us), making us the most prosperous nation in history, it is tempting to equate it with Shalom. In Judeo-Christian teaching, Shalom, or wholeness, prosperity and peace, is the end to which all righteous people aspire, both here and in the hereafter. Associating capitalism with Shalom may be tempting, yes, but as my minister friend rightly points out: “Capitalism could be baptized but it is not God's final revelation.”
I am convinced that the only thing that will enable the poor to emerge from poverty is a decent job. I am further convinced that the best chance of creating decent jobs lies with our free market capitalists. Does this mean that capitalism is the Divine design for bringing about Shalom? I suspect not. Nor is any economic system devised by flawed humanity. But in spite of its bent toward self-interest, even with its excesses and inequities, capitalism has an historic opportunity to create shared prosperity that can benefit every person on the globe. What capitalism needs in order to fulfill its promise is sanctified self-interest.