Overcoming Evil With Good?

In Mark’s account of the Good News we find this statement about Jesus:

9He told his disciples to have a boat ready for him because of the crowd, so that they would not crush him; 10for he had cured many, so that all who had diseases pressed upon him to touch him.

One of the participants in our Bible study yesterday told a story about a friend who’d taken some homeless people into his home, and then been robbed by the people he’d helped.

Wouldn’t it be wonderful if people returned kindness for kindness? If the people we helped didn’t respond with indifference, or hostility, or even theft and violence? But the world doesn’t work that way. And it didn’t work that way for Jesus.

We’d like think that people Jesus healed would repay him with gratitude and kindness, but instead we find — long before his crucifixion — their selfish desire for more blessing made them indifferent to the danger of crushing the very one saving them.

I see two lessons in this passage. First, we should ask whether we are sometimes like the crowd. Do we focus on the ways Jesus can bless us so much that it gets in the way of, and even endangers, what Jesus is trying to do for people around us? That’s something we should think about.

Second, when we do good deeds, we should be aware, as Jesus was, of the dangers that might accompany them. Note that Jesus doesn’t simply allow the crowd to crush him: he instructs his disciples to be ready to help him escape. But notice also that he doesn’t stop healing people. We don’t have to be peoples’ meal tickets or punching bags, but their ingratitude or hostility doesn’t mean we should stop trying to help.

The Morality of Coercive Welfare

A very good opinion piece appears in the Wall Street Journal. Groups ranging from the “religious left” to the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops have advocated for government programs meant to help the needy. There are two problems with that approach.

The secondary and minor problem is whether those programs are effective in producing the desired result. Too often, we get more, not less, of what we subsidize. Welfare programs become traps, where people who find work lose more in benefits than they obtain from employment. It’s debatable whether a particular program is effective, and if it’s not, what adjustments might make it better.

But the primary and greater problem is whether government intervention in the economy is morally right. The bishops and the religious left generally think it is. I disagree, and the authors make a good case for my position:

Wealth and poverty are catalysts for bringing the rich and the poor together in community, and community is the hallmark of the church’s mission on Earth. Government is not community. Government is one of community’s tools, a coercive one we use when it is necessary to force people to behave in ways they would not otherwise behave voluntarily.

The state is a powerful tool, and in a crisis, we may use it because there is no better tool at hand. But we should always do so reluctantly and temporarily. The clerics of the middle ages surely were as concerned about heresy as today’s bishops of are about poverty. And while the welfare state can’t be equated with the Inquisition, the difference is more one of degree than of kind.