Sunday, January 12, 2014

The Gold Standard: A Philosophical Dialogue On the Nature of Poverty

Cast of Characters
Benjamin: A modern Socrates.
Pastor Fred: Pastor of the church which
has been robbed.
Scene
A street outside a church.
Time
Midday.

Benjamin, taking an afternoon walk, encounters Pastor Fred
sitting head in hands outside his church in apparent
distress.
BENJAMIN
Are you alright Fred? You look awful.
FRED
I’m not surprised. Someone broke into the church last
night and stole the big screen TV from the community
room.
BENJAMIN
I’m very sorry to hear that. However, if they needed
it that badly perhaps we should consider it an act of
desperation and forgive it as such.
FRED
Desperation!? How can a night time robbery, that was
obviously planned, be considered desperate? There is
plenty for those who know how to ask for it.
BENJAMIN
There is plenty enough that’s true. However, the way
it trickles down to those on the bottom is perhaps not
all that efficient.
FRED
It’s too efficient if you ask me. I pay enough in
taxes as it is, and those taxes pay to provide for the
poor.
BENJAMIN
Very true. And yet, even then it is hard to get by for
most. Only the smallest portion is allotted based on
what the government considers an acceptable standard of
living, while those who live with more than an
abundance are unwilling to part with even the smallest
percent.
FRED
That is only right, one should keep what one earns. Of
course we should give to the poor and needy, but not as
a legal obligation. It should come from the heart or
not at all.
BENJAMIN
This is well taken, and is a commendable ideal. How
would you implement it?
FRED
As it has always been done, through the church.
BENJAMIN
But Pastor, the churches already do this and yet
someone still felt compelled to steal your TV. If all
of their needs have been met, what may have motivated
their action’s?
FRED
Obviously the thieves were not content with what they
had been given. They were probably drug addicts.
BENJAMIN
How do you know they are drug addicts?
FRED
Well I don’t know, but it wouldn't surprise me.
BENJAMIN
Let us assume for the moment that they were not. Let
us assume that, like you they were angry.
FRED
What reasons would they have to be angry? I’m the one
who’s been robbed.
BENJAMIN
Perhaps it was the anger of frustration, the
frustration of a desire for luxuries they could no
longer afford with work being denied them.
FRED
That’s no excuse.
BENJAMIN
No, but it is not as easily dismissed. The addict we
assume cannot control himself, someone stealing sober
is acting out of more complicated motivations, or so at
least we can imagine. Is it not possible we jump to
the most convenient cliché to strengthen our own black
and white thinking?
FRED
Alright, just for the sake of argument, let’s assume
you’re right. It still doesn't change the fact that
they stole, and it still doesn't make it right.
BENJAMIN
I don’t claim a different set of reasons make it right,
only that the reasons may be more complicated than they
at first appear. Here, you once told me you were nearly
arrested for vagrancy. Tell me that story again.
FRED
I hardly see how that applies, but oh well. Some time
ago I was working late at the soup kitchen. While
preparing the food I managed to spill the larger half
of it on myself, soaking my clothes. I was forced to
change into some donated clothing that had seen better
days.
BENJAMIN
And what happened when you left for home that night?
FRED
I was stopped on the street by two police officers who
thought I was homeless. They didn't believe me at
first, but I managed to explain the odd circumstances.
BENJAMIN
But while you were still under suspicion, how did you
feel?
FRED
As though I had been stripped of my dignity, as though
I were less then human.
BENJAMIN
Exactly.
FRED
And how does that relate to the thieves?
BENJAMIN
It may not relate at all. But it does offer another
plausible explanation.
FRED
That they had lost their dignity?
BENJAMIN
Perhaps not so much lost it as found it
unrecognized. Perhaps when one is assumed to be
something repeatedly, out of exasperation one decides
to give into expectation and act the person the world
desires to see.
FRED
And what sort of indignities might they have
encountered, as I believe that is what you are getting
at?
BENJAMIN
Well, starting with the very churches you would have
dispense charity.
FRED
Do you mean to imply my church disrespects the poor!?
BENJAMIN
Certainly not. Your own church, I know, never turns a
man away, but there are those that do, or put
conditions upon God’s unlimited love. What happens
when the criteria for acceptability is not met? Where
then are the poor to go?
FRED
To Hell! Like the thieves who stole from my church.
BENJAMIN
Now Fred, I know you don’t mean that.
FRED
No I don’t. I’m just frustrated. It took months for
the congregation to save for that TV, now we must begin
all over again.
BENJAMIN
Yet, at least the loss is not irreplaceable. Your
congregation will recover quickly, whereas those who
stole from you have probably gained little to
compensate them for their effort by comparison.
FRED
You want to speak of effort, what of our effort’s? And
the efforts of everyone who works hard to earn a living
in the expected way? If a man cannot enjoy the fruits
of his brow then why bother collecting to begin with?
BENJAMIN
Perhaps the question is not why collect the fruits but
rather, need we collect so many? You and I have had
many talks about the history of the church. I’m sure
you remember our discussion of Luther. One of his
complaint’s against Rome was its acquisition of worldly
wealth.
FRED
I can see what you’re doing Benjamin. You mean to
accuse my church of the same vice. Don’t my
parishioner’s deserve a nice sanctuary and pleasant
surroundings?
BENJAMIN
I’m not making an accusation, just raising a point you
may not have considered.
FRED
I am well aware of the debates in the early church you
are alluding to. But the church serves a function in
the community of spiritual uplift. A shabby looking
church is something few would want a part of, or have
confidence in.
BENJAMIN
True, you have a point, but let me propose a different
thought. A few moments ago you were willing to condemn
the thieves to Hell, correct?
FRED
Yes, but I was speaking out of anger.
BENJAMIN
Precisely, in anger. Nevertheless, I’m sure you would
agree that the soul of someone, such as a murderer for
instance, is deserving of Hell?
FRED
I would certainly say I believe murderers to be in Hell
if anyone is.
BENJAMIN
Why is that?
FRED
Isn't it obvious? Murder is a terrible crime.
BENJAMIN
So you would agree that murder is a very great sin?
FRED
Of course.
BENJAMIN
And murder is a sin deserving of eternal punishment?
FRED
I would think more so than any other.
BENJAMIN
And theft is not?
FRED
I do not feel so.
BENJAMIN
But why?
FRED
Do I need to explain such a thing? When you take a
human life you presume to act like God, who alone can
decide questions of life and death.
BENJAMIN
Yet, if you were less the forgiving fellow I know you
to be, you could easily make such a judgment feel
appropriate, and could perhaps understand if any one of
your parishioners with similar anger made the same
condemnation?
FRED
I suppose that would be understandable, yes. But what
do you mean by all this?
BENJAMIN
What is the difference between a soul such as the
murderer and the thieves who stole the TV?
FRED
The magnitude of the crime of course. Theft is not the
same thing as taking a life.
BENJAMIN
And what is theft?
FRED
The taking of that which does not belong to us.
BENJAMIN
Just so.
FRED
What point are you trying to make?
BENJAMIN
That theft and murder are two different crimes.
FRED
We already know this.
BENJAMIN
But the implication is still unspoken.
FRED
Which is?
BENJAMIN
That a dispassionate observer would not condemn the
thief to Hell, but for the murderer would.
FRED
So in my anger you are saying I made a rush to
judgment. Yes, I will admit it was un-Christian of me,
but we are all imperfect.
BENJAMIN
Quite so, and we forgive the imperfections in others
that we find in ourselves more readily.
FRED
You mean to say that I’m a thief as well because I do
not give enough.
BENJAMIN
No, merely to suggest that, just as the dispassionate
person would not send the thief to Hell for theft, that
we cannot feel that what is stolen is of equal worth to
the thief. To murder is to take a life, to steal is
merely to take what is not our own.
FRED
But the murderer too takes what is not his.
BENJAMIN
True, but I doubt you would equate a human life with an
object, even less with something so abstract as money.
FRED
Where are you going with all this?
BENJAMIN
I’m getting there, I just wish to be sure we have come
to the same place together. What we have discovered
seems can be stated thus: what is owned by us is not
us. That we view an act such as murder or rape
differently than mere theft.
FRED
But it could be argued just the opposite, that what we
own is an extension of ourselves. When a man has built
a fine house for himself, is it not a part of him, of
the image he projects to others?
BENJAMIN
But Pastor, would that not be the sin of pride?
FRED
Pridefulness is indeed a sin, but only in excess. A
little pride taken in our appearance and
accomplishment’s is natural, and even perhaps
beneficial.
BENJAMIN
That is true, but it is pride in excess that I am
referring to.
FRED
And what of our labor? (If you wish to be
abstract.) Is that not something we own as well?
BENJAMIN
The capacity for labor is something we do possess but
not all possess equally, nor is it equally valued by
all. Like a talent, we may possess it, but a talent
for making pleasant sounds is of little value in the
land of the deaf.
FRED
If someone is unable to find work that’s why government
programs exist, and that’s what I pay taxes for.
BENJAMIN
“Are there no prisons? Are there no
workhouses?” Forgive me Fred, I couldn't resist. Let
me take a different approach. What did we determine in
the relationship between theft and murder?
FRED
That murder was a more serious crime than theft.
BENJAMIN
So we agreed that not all crimes are of equal weight?
FRED
I believe so, yes.
BENJAMIN
And I think you would agree that the judgment of a
crime should be impartial, and free from the emotions
of anger and disgust?
FRED
Certainly.
BENJAMIN
Well then, if we have determined that the magnitude of
a crime, as well as the image of that crime distorted
through the haze of anger are things we must consider,
would you then defend the hoarding of wealth?
FRED
Not in excess.
BENJAMIN
Would you then acknowledge that, if one has acquired
enough wealth to feed, clothe, and house himself
adequately, any more than this would constitute a sin?
FRED
Depending on the circumstances.
BENJAMIN
And what are those?
FRED
I don’t know. I would have to take it case by case.
BENJAMIN
But Fred, if we've already determined that crimes such
as murder and theft can immediately be recognized for
what they are, and with what severity we might judge
them, why so picky with the sin of greed? Let’s call a
spade a spade.
FRED
It’s not so black and white as that. It’s...
complicated.
BENJAMIN
Yes, it’s always complicated when it’s our own action’s
we are considering, funny how that is. The gold
standard is in the end the only standard, and a crime
becomes no crime at all if it’s big enough.

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