When the Son of man shall come in his glory, and all the holy angels with him, then shall he sit upon the throne of his glory: and before him shall be gathered all nations: and he shall separate them one from another, as a shepherd divideth his sheep from the goats: and he shall set the sheep on his right hand, but the goats on the left. Then shall the King say unto them on his right hand, Come, ye blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world: for I was an hungered, and ye gave me meat: I was thirsty, and ye gave me drink: I was a stranger, and ye took me in: naked, and ye clothed me: I was sick, and ye visited me: I was in prison, and ye came unto me. Then shall the righteous answer him, saying, Lord, when saw we thee an hungered, and fed thee? or thirsty, and gave thee drink? When saw we thee a stranger, and took thee in? or naked, and clothed thee? Or when saw we thee sick, or in prison, and came unto thee? And the King shall answer and say unto them, Verily I say unto you, Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me.
For Christians, I don’t know how the message could be any clearer. This is about salvation. In my reading, those that provide for the poor, the hungry, the stranger, the sick, and those in prison will be welcomed into heaven.
It is also instructive that Jesus directed this advice specifically at those he called “the righteous”. These are the people who aspire to perfection, go to church, and keep the commandments.
During Jesus time, many pious Jews thought that bad things happened to bad people. So they felt no compassion for those that Jesus described. Instead most blamed the poor, the sick, the hungry, the homeless, and those in prison for their plight. The self-righteous Jews figured that these people were being punished by God for something. And clearly who are they to question God.
Jesus was very clear in what he said. He didn’t qualify those in need in any way. Instead he said that their NEED is the only relevant qualification. It doesn’t matter why someone was hungry or sick or homeless or in jail. Our response is all that is important. That response will determine how we are judged in the afterlife.
We find ourselves in a very similar situation today when we attempt to have a conversation about race, poverty, and crime.
First a few facts.
According to the Census Bureau, fully 38% of African-American children under 18 now live in poverty.
67% of African-American children live in single parent households, and nearly all of those doing the actual parenting are women. The courts, according to HHS, have awarded child support to 45% of these African-American mothers, but less than half actually get any money. Doing the math, that means that 80% of those custodial mothers get no funds from the fathers of those children. About half of white women actually receive the support the courts have awarded.
This raises the obvious question of where the African-American men are.
A million of them are in prison. That’s 43% of our prison population even though they represent only 13% of the population. One out six African American men have at some time been incarcerated. Even that is a decrease from the past decade.
Maybe because they commit more crimes?
African-American defendants are more likely to be given jail or prison time for the same or similar offenses for which white folks are given probation. African-American men also receive longer sentences than white men sentenced for the same or similar offenses.
This is, in part, the sorry legacy of our failed war on drugs. In the 80’s, “ghetto” drugs like crack cocaine carried penalties up to 100 times more severe than a similar offense for a similar amount of the “yuppie” powder version of cocaine. When these drug laws were originally passed in 1986, the thought was that crack was more potent and addictive. Studies have since disproven that claim. The U.S. Supreme Court finally ruled the sentencing disparities unconstitutional.
On the employment front, only 52% of African-American students graduate from high school and the rate for African-American boys is even worse according to the Department of Education. The economic consequences of that lack of formal education are well known – lousy jobs with lousier pay and a downward economic spiral from which there is no escape. The economic consequences of an arrest record are also severe. 70% of employers run criminal background checks and 50% won’t hire those with a criminal record.
New research also suggests that children raised in poverty actually suffer physician damage to their brains which impair their cognitive abilities as adults. Testing has already discovered that rich kids perform better than poor kids at a number of standardized cognitive tests. Researchers have now discovered at least one cause. During the first couple of years of life, our brains “wire” themselves based in part on the stimulation that we receive from our environment. Stressful environments inhibit the full development of this wiring. Even the tone, language, and vocabulary that a young child experiences during the first weeks and months of life can have a profound effect on later academic success.
It’s a statistical avalanche of negativity – grinding poverty, early developmental deficits, poor educational opportunities, failing schools, few jobs, and way too much interaction with the criminal justice system.
We cannot and should not ignore that some of this is self-inflicted even while we acknowledge the historical and socio-economic hurdles faced by African-Americans. Whether or not you respect the women trying to raise you and the young women around you, or if you stay in school, or take responsibility for your own children are all choices that can be made regardless of external pressures.
But it most certainly is not all self-inflicted.
There has to be some other reason why, for example, if a white man and African-American man with the same educational credentials apply for the same job the white man is twice as likely to get the job. Or why, when both African-American and white little girls were given a choice between a white doll or one of color, even the African-American girls preferred the white doll. Or why we still have such a profound ignorance of Africa and African-American history.
There also has to be a reason why race and poverty have become so politicized. Why African American voters, for example, voted in higher rates than whites in the last two elections. One opinion is encapsulated in a Romney quote that became a pivotal moment in the 2012 election.
There are 47 percent of the people who will vote for the president no matter what. All right, there are 47 percent who are with him, who are dependent upon government, who believe that they are victims, who believe the government has a responsibility to care for them, who believe that they are entitled to health care, to food, to housing, to you-name-it — that that’s an entitlement. And the government should give it to them. And they will vote for this president no matter what. … These are people who pay no income tax. … [M]y job is not to worry about those people. I’ll never convince them they should take personal responsibility and care for their lives.
Romney was correct in suggesting that 47% of those who file income tax forms pay no net income tax, though that doesn’t mean that they aren’t tax payers. Two thirds of those paying no income tax did pay payroll taxes (FICA and Medicaid) and virtually everyone pays some state and local taxes/fees. He was also wrong in suggesting that this cohort votes primarily democratic. 55% of the “47%” are elderly. They voted 56% to 44% for Romney. Roughly 60% of the “47%” had incomes above $50,000 a year. They supported Romney 52% to 46% and those with incomes above $90K supported Romney 54% to 44%.
So what segments are left that voted for the president no matter what?
The voter segment that gave Obama the largest margin of victory was African Americans (93% – 6%).
Even though Obama won two elections, this open issue has not been resolved. It remains the most difficult one that I think our democracy faces. One only need look at the range of responses to the Treyvon Martin killing to understand the depth of the division.
What do we do as a country to deal with the stark realities of institutional poverty, crime, and violence in the African American community?
One choice is to blame African Americans for their condition.
This view was summarized by Ted Nugent in his comment about problems of crime and violence in the African American community. He said African Americans could “fix the black problem tonight,” if they would put their “heart and soul into being honest, law-abiding, [and] delivering excellence at every move in your life.”
“racism against blacks was gone by the time I started touring the nation in the late 60s” and by the 1970s, “nothing of consequence existed to deter or compromise a black American’s dream if they got an alarm clock, if they set it, if they took good care of themselves, they remained clean and sober, if they spoke clearly, and they demanded excellence of themselves and provided excellence to their employers.”
There is great risk, at least for Christians, in this choice as Jesus explained.
The other choice is to follow Jesus recommendations. Feed the hungry. Help the stranger. Clothe and shelter the homeless. Heal the sick. Care for those that are in prison.
That’s not to say that these aren’t complex issues. They are.
This is also not to say that all people need to develop individual responsibility. They do.
But Jesus said clearly that the individual responsibility He is concerned about is that of the righteous. THAT responsibility is to care for the less fortunate regardless of how they got there.
Jesus never said this would be easy. But he did promise that the reward for those willing to take on this task would be great.
He provided every righteous Christian a choice.
Just like any other issue of personal responsibility, how you respond is up to you.