Criminalizing Poverty; Today’s Principle of the Undeserving Poor by Thomas Martin Sobottke


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“Ah, you who make iniquitous decrees,
who write oppressive statutes,
to turn aside the needy from justice
and rob the poor of my people of their right,
that widows may be your spoil,
and that you may make the orphans your prey!

What will you do on the day of punishment,
in the calamity that will come from far away?
To whom will you flee for help,
and where will you leave your wealth,
so as not to crouch among the prisoners
or fall among the slain?
For all this his anger has not turned away,
His hand is stretched out still.”

-Isaiah 10: 1-4

“He has told you O mortal, what is good;
And what does the Lord require of you
but to do justice, and to love kindness,
and to walk humbly with your God?

-Micah 6:8

“Then he will say to those at his left hand ‘You that are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels, for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not give me clothing, sick and in prison and you did not visit me’ Then they also will answer, ‘Lord when was it that we saw you hungry, or thirsty, or a stranger, or naked, or sick or in prison and did not take care of you?’ Then he shall answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these you did not do it to me.’ And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.”

-Matthew 25:31-46

“. . . the moral test of government is how that government treats those who are in the dawn of life, the children; those who are in the twilight of life, the elderly; those who are in the shadows of life; the sick, the needy, and the handicapped.”

-Hubert H. Humphrey, former U.S. Senator from Minnesota and Vice-President of the United States 1 November 1977

“A decent provision for the poor is the true test of civilization.”

-Samuel Johnson, Boswell, Life of Johnson

. . . finally the tables are starting to turn, talkin’ bout’ a Revolution, whoa oh.”

-Singer Songwriter Tracy Chapman

“It may be argued that the insistence upon complete sincerity has to do only with man’s relation to God, not with man’s relation to man. To what does such a position lead? Unwavering sincerity says that man should always recognize the fact the he lives always in the presence of God, always under the divine scrutiny, and that there is no really significant living for a man, whatever may be his status, until he has turned and faced the divine scrutiny. Here all men stand stripped to the literal substance of themselves, without disguise, without pretension, without seeming whatsoever. No man can fool God. From him nothing is hidden”

-Howard Thurman, African- American Twentieth Century Theologian, and Ethicist, Jesus and the Disinherited

There is a brooding selfishness in American life in the first decade or so of the Twenty-first century. Liberals, progressives, social justice concerned Christians, justice activists, the poor themselves, and leaders who for some strange reason are paying attention to “the least of these” don’t have it. They are trying to limit the damage done by others and to promote the well- being of all. It is not a blame game but an accurate depiction of just who the good guys presently are. There is no law or requirement that that stay as it is. Those who do not heed the plight of those most vulnerable in human society here and around the globe can join us in the great struggle to do right and good and to follow ethical pathways both religious and secular.

The Republican Party, Tea-Party Conservatives, many but not all great men of capitalist enterprise, much too often the richest one percent of us, and a large class of people caught in the middle and who themselves are falling closer to the ranks of the poor and needy but who believe correctly they are being victimized, all want to see the poor and most vulnerable people among us as the villains when in point of fact it is the very rich, corporate society, conservative politicians who know the base of their support is so afraid, so squeezed by present day life, so angry, so looking for someone to blame. They simply protect their wealthy and selfish patrons and deflect things downward—they turn the masses against themselves and enjoy the spectacle like some Roman Emperor and the Roman elite in the heyday of Rome in the Coliseum.

The conservative middle class American looks down below them at the poor instead of looking upward to the most privileged members of society here and abroad who are in truth most responsible for their shortage of what America promised them and what they too need. It is not that anyone would even think of “gouging the rich” or denying them the predominant fruits of their labor and granting their wish to rest the story of their lives primarily on wealth and power and achievement for the ultimate record, Howard Thurman’s “divine scrutiny” meaning God making each of us fully accountable for what we have done and left undone, for what we have said and left unsaid, for what we face and what we deny to be true. For how compassionate, merciful, and generous we are to others or how we lack compassion and mercy and generosity.

Even if you hold no religious belief and are agnostic or atheist or fully secularized, any sort of moral ethics will lead you to where religious leaders and the Creator they worship and take heed of are regarding the poor.

The prophet Isaiah more than once reminds us that governments and leaders that make the laws and enforce them upon their peoples are accountable to God too. It isn’t enough for God, the Creator, Yaweh, Christ, Allah, or Buddha or other conceptions of the divine that individuals decide for themselves how to deal with the poor. Governments are in front of divine accountability just as are each one of us.

And no government politician or aristocratic leader is excused from taking care justly of all of the people they govern and have responsibility to look after. It is really that simple.

There is no shortage of ethical constructs whether they be based upon religious belief or not that do not include: generosity over selfishness and greed, that do not make us all accountable as a community of beings living in compassionate concern for one another and especially those our society somehow cannot elevate to a place where their needs are fully met as described by that wise Jewish Rabbi from the depths of humble Galilee, to some the expression of God as the Son of the Father God. What Jews themselves would call “Abba.”

Micah, another prophet gives us direct and straightforward advice when he says we must do justice, and not meaning retributively catching criminals but doing right by others, to love kindness rather than an Ebenezer Scrooge like hardness of heart that feels no compassion. Those of you who demand cartoon examples can simply consult both the Peanuts Christmas special and the Grinch cautionary tales each Christmas season.

This fall too many conservatives and members of the Tea and Republican Parties and the people who like them so much in our fading middle class of fear and loathing are saying that the poor are undeserving and lazy and shiftless and really don’t need unemployment assistance, food stamps, welfare, a major increase in the minimum wage, Medicaid, and even Social Security and Medicare which are earned by those employed over their entire lives.

The poor are the criminals that are sucking the rest of us dry and making us so miserable it is argued.

Only one real head-to-head example of misplaced priorities and the ridiculous reality of what it is here will be needed.

The poor amongst us get the equivalent of $87 for Food Stamps or the Federal SNAP program while the great corporations get $870 by that ratio in Federal subsidies for their already bloated profitable organizations.

We are in the process of cutting a total of $45 billion from Food Stamps when we don’t dare touch an equal amount of tax dollars given to oil companies who already have plenty of cash to drill for oil and fill their stockholders Christmas stockings each year. But the majority of people using the program when more than one person uses it—and that is overwhelmingly most of them, at least one person in that family is working. Yes, they are doing precisely what Republicans have been bellowing on the floor of the House of Representatives as they move to cut the program.

If you work for $7.25 to even $10.00 per hour and to escape benefits your employer(s) give you less than forty hours to prevent that and any overtime accruing, you are just going to need two jobs to provide a base for at least minimal Goodwill clothing and a tiny apartment and taking the bus to work—putting food into the mouths of your children. You can do the math. Or you can try it. And you will need food stamps to get the rest of the way there—just barely. Cut that and a lot of people won’t just be hungry each night and less healthy-some might starve and die and private charities can’t fill that gap.

When those rich, well-placed, smiling bastards on Wall Street or in Congress or riding the conservative radio or television bubble of fantasy bloviate about those horrible undeserving poor being so well off on Food Stamps take note that each meal for each individual or family member individual comes to $1.47 each. Try eating on that three times a day.

Food banks and churches and charitable organizations who remain attuned to this crisis are screaming at the government not to do this to people. It is especially heart-rending when we consider that the largest groups who use Food Stamps and depend upon them most are the elderly and children.

What does that say about the state and condition of our American civilization? Our level of true civilized behavior? Even our accountability before the “divine scrutiny” of Howard Thurman.

Consider that in Matthew 25:36-41 it is the Son of God, the Christ speaking to his disciples and a group of the privileged -Pharisees and Sadducees, the high Jewish priestly class who controlled the Law given by God, who ran the Jewish faith in Roman occupied Judea back in Jesus’ day.

If you go and find your old “What would Jesus Do” WWJD bracelet or make a new one that says, What would God Think of You bracelet WWGTOY how do you think you’d make out come Judgment Day?

Even those of us who are trying to do what is right, just, good and loving kindness itself fall short of the divine standard too. But God accepts us if we take heed of him and try and we actually do better and want to please him by helping others less fortunate all we can.

Instead of fear, hatred, scorn, victimization, criminalization, villanizing the poor and most vulnerable people among us we can all open our hearts to what is good and righteous and just in our ethics and even in religious belief.

How any conservative Republican or Tea Party person who claims any connection to Christianity can take the position they are doing on Food Stamps and what is left of our shredded public safety net are practicing we surely must know the height of hypocrisy.

None of us can judge the other for God. God’s judgment belongs to God. We all sin. We all screw up but God’s justice and mercy and grace can find every single one of us—provided we want to be found and we act like we want to be found and to abide with the Creator in love. If not, well, God has put himself on record how we’ll do if we fail.

The good feeling all of us, and that includes those with no faith belief desired or practiced can get from helping and loving kindness to others less fortunate than we are all the time and as hard as we can practice benevolence and humility about our own flaws—all of us, we will all feel so much better. And this world will be a much better place to live our lives in.

And we will not have to hide from the “divine scrutiny” or Jesus’ teachings on the poor and helpless or those of other faiths too. We won’t have to be so angry, fearful and defensive that we strike out at the very people who are hurting the most.

No, we cannot blame, hate, or condemn those who are heartless and cruel. We can simply bear witness to it and pray, hope, and pull for those that disagree with us so vehemently and who act so heedlessly of the good. We all must continually awaken ourselves to true human justice, ethical pathways that God the Creator or that ineffable something bigger than the individual mortal human in ourselves guides us to know, to feel, to do, despite our selfishness constantly telling us like the devil to take the easy road, to do for us and not for others.

Yes, those of you in Congress or out there in politics or who vote for those telling you the poor are your enemies and you must condemn and destroy them and they are unworthy—you can change and come join us who are struggling still to do what is good, just, right and in keeping with the instructions of the divine in each of us. It is never too late to join us. It is never too late to truly love one another in compassion and with care for social justice for all.

Dr. Thomas Martin Sobottke
For Struggles for Justice

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