Once upon a time two people lived beside a large lake. One was quite rich and had a powerful speedboat. The other was quite poor, and had only an old and leaky rowboat. One day these two were both out on the lakeshore, when out in the lake they saw someone drowning.
Whose responsibility was it to go to the rescue: the one with the fast boat, or the one with the boat so bad that anyone taking it out might soon need rescuing too?
Or should the drowning be rescued at all?
There has been much talk of late, in the context of Occupy Wall Street, that the protesters are just greedy, lazy, selfish, and spoiled. “We don’t owe them anything” is a continual refrain, in particular from the GOP and Fox News commentators. The number of veterans I’ve seen at the occupations puts that idea to shame all by itself, but to me the comment reveals a deeper problem.
Do you have a dollar? That’s power. Do you have a billion of them? That’s more than a billion times more powerful. Do you have the right to vote, as a citizen? That’s power too. Do you have the right to vote in Congress as a legislator? That’s still greater power.
Do you have power? Then you have responsibility.
Look, everyone knows that, and none more than Jesus of Nazareth. A rich man asked him what to do: Jesus told him to give away all his wealth to the poor. Another time the Nazarene made explicit to everyone: “Come… inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food. I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me” (Matthew 25.34-36). If you are giving someone food, that means you had food; if you are giving someone clothing then you were not naked. Which means you had power, however little: power to help someone in need. And thus, in the opinion of the man from Galilee and thousands of other authorities from Moses to Stan Lee, a responsibility to use that power. Jesus did not charge the hungry to feed the hungry, the naked to clothe the naked, or the prisoners to visit the imprisoned.
Yet so often that is what politicians call for. “Shared sacrifice,” they say. “Everyone’s feeling the pinch.” And they call for sales taxes (which hurt the poor most), and they call for cuts to services. In one egregious case, funding for education plans was saved by transferring funding from school lunch programs, which is telling the hungry to feed each other for sure. Yet the calls to look to those who still have wealth, in particular those who got that wealth through the shell games and long cons of finance which brought us to this pass, are always go unheeded, or are dismissed as “class warfare.” Sometimes this is because of that persistent and pernicious notion of Americans: “Someday I’ll be one of the rich, too, so don’t raise taxes on them!” But Jesus teaches us that the poor will always be with us, and history teaches us that the poor will always be a huge majority. Sometimes the reluctance to tax the wealthy comes from a distrust of political leadership in general. I would say, however, that oftentimes this distrust was well-earned because the politicians betrayed their responsibilities; they now represent the wealthy instead of their people.
These days, however, the normal line is that “The rich earned it, so they should be able to keep it.” To that, some would say that the rich may have earned it, but not without help from society as a whole, so the rich in fact owe their wealth to us all, and therefore owe us a return on our investment. Even if that were not true, however — even if every cent of every billion-dollar fortune was entirely earned by the sweat of the billionaire’s brow with no labor from any workers, with no instruction from any teachers, with no electricity from any power grid, and no genetic material from any parents — there would still be that fundamental responsibility for the powerful to help the weak. It is written in every scripture and in every heart. If it were not so, how could any parent look at their newborn child and not see a leech? Yet we cradle those powerless ones in our arms and give our lives to them. To care for those who need our help is at our deepest core. To do otherwise is neglect and abuse of the bitterest sort.
It seems that in American society, when some drowner needs to be rescued, we have gone from sending out the rich person’s speedboat, to sending out the poor person’s rowboat, to saying “Let that struggler drown, it’s their own fault for being out in such deep water!” We have gone from clothing the naked to stripping bare the poor. We have gone from feeding the hungry to breeding famine for the sake of profit. Americans all know how we have been caring for the sick in this country. As for visiting the prisoners… well, you can visit if you want, but it costs $25 an hour.
If we Americans wish to walk that path, we can. We can cross over to the other side of of the road all we want. But I ask you, if we cannot help our neighbors, who will help us? Are we so foolish to think that we shall always be strong? We will not be; no nation ever lasts forever. Even the tallest tree should fear the storm if it stands alone with no forest around it. Real strength is found in partnership, not dominance. We can, if we desire, keep walking the lonely path. But when that road leads us to ruin (as it always has and always will), when the hungry take their food from those who have kept it from them, when even the sick rise up in revolt and the prisoners become lords of the prison, when all the injustices we have inflicted upon earth come back to us sevenfold, we shall fall. And we shall look up from the wreckage of our wealth and say to our neighbors, to our to our world, to our children, to our God, and shout, “Save us!”
And, from the lowest panhandler to the heavenly throne, they will look down and whisper, “No.”
Or America could go a different way. We can care for each other, as we have been told to do, and in turn be cared for: not to break the bonds of friendship but to build them. In that world we could endure down to the latest generation. All that is required is that we fulfill our responsibilities to each other and use our power not for ourselves alone, or even first, but for each other.
The choice, as always, rests with the powerful — for what does power give but the ability to choose? We know how the great souls chose. But the world does not yet know what we shall do. Think on that.