What Is Our Responsibility to Those in Need?

Three years ago, I purchased a short book titled The Moral Underground in which the author, Professor Lisa Dodson, paints a rather depressing picture of the way some corporations treat their low-income workers.  Her conclusion is that “helping the less fortunate in this context becomes a form of civil and corporate disobedience.”

Time magazine listed three of Dodson’s examples of civil disobedience:  (1) a supervisor alters time cards so that employees can take better care of their families; (2) a school nurse keeps cots in her office so those with difficult home environments can get a few hours of needed rest; and (3) a doctor thumbs his nose at insurance regulations in order to provide medicine for an entire household.

This type of “guerilla” assistance is also mentioned in the biography Mountains Beyond Mountains.  In it, Dr. Paul Farmer occasionally appropriates the medical supplies and equipment–from various Boston area institutions–he needs for his foreign humanitarian missions.  As an example, “The first microscope in Cange (Haiti) was a real one, which he stole from Harvard Medical School.  ‘Redistributive justice,’ he would later say.”

An even more aggressive position is taken by Rev. Tim Jomes, an Anglican priest.  He advised members of his congregation to shoplift if they hit hard financial times.  According to Rev. Jones, society’s actions toward those in real need leave few viable options.  His superior strongly disagreed, say the “Church of England does not advise anyone to shoplift.”

SLC pastor Corey J. Hodges, who opposes situational ethics agrees with Jones’ superior:

When people try to quantify sin, the result is a subjective criterion.  Usually the sins that one struggles with are justified while all others are condemned. . . .  Instead of condoning theft, Jones should encourage his parishioners to give to the poor.

As an individual on a fixed income, I have limited economic resources for helping end poverty.  And many parts of the current economic environment are skewed toward the rich.  So how can I, as an individual, help level the playing field?  How can I improve the safety net, given the current economic and political situation?  I think most would agree that Jones’ approach is not an inspired one.

Hodges, however, implies a black-and-white situation, and ignores large gray areas that can and should be exploited.

For example, some consider the organization that I work for has been skewed toward helping larger resource users (those with political clout).  By overtly, and sometimes subtly, encouraging our employers to look at the situations of those in real need, we can do more good than as individual donors.

What if a church requires a tithe for full-service membership?  And what if individuals don’t like the way the money is spent?  Are we obligated to pay the tithe, or are we morally obligated to use some of our “tithing” money to more directly help the poor (without going through the church)?

I encourage each individual to look to his or her conscience to determine what level and nature of support he or she can provide.  We must all look at our jobs, religions, clubs, and families to see how we can push the boundaries to those in need.

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This entry was posted in anarchism, Books, humanism, Philosophy, Religion, Social Justice, Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to What Is Our Responsibility to Those in Need?

  1. Manal says:

    Great article. Unfortunately, the majority corporations think with commercialization in mind, not the well being and hard times faced by their employees. While I do not condone Rev. Tim Jomes solution, he highlights a key result of lack of finance. The sad truth is that low income, poor working conditions and lack of jobs among many others causes individuals to turn to corruption because they have no other way out, this is especially apparent in a large number of third world countries. I agree though, on thinking hard about what we can do as individuals to make an impact, however small.

    • rogerdhansen says:

      Hi Manal, I spend about 1-1/2 months each year in Uganda. There is so much need in Africa, and we as Americans could be doing a whole lot more. And so could the various religious organizations. Roger

  2. Shelley Ashfield says:

    I’ve heard it said that one saves the world by saving one man at a time; grander schemes trouble the romantic and the politician. I am just one normal person, but in my lifetime, I have sponsored one man for his green card; I have birthed and raised one child to adulthood; I have taught one man English, saved his teeth, and arranged vehicles for himself and for his family overseas. I am in the process of rehabbing one house in the “bad” part of town. I do this on one normal income, making sure I do not take inordinate time from my normal duties working full time and caring for an elderly husband. One thing at a time becomes a big enough adventure in and of itself.

  3. A. Scott Howe says:

    Roger, good article as usual.

    I think there are multiple ways and levels that we can help those in need. Dealing one-on-one with individuals should be an important aspect of service that all should participate in, because the benefits come immediately as they are needed (both to giver and receiver).

    However, I think there are long term issues we can work on that could have major impacts down the line. I don’t agree that the playing field should be leveled as much as the needy should be lifted up. All can and should be rich, rather than take from rich to feed the poor.

    As you know, I advocate for more spending on space technology. There are literally unlimited resources that can be attained with the right infrastructure in place, and it will stimulate jobs and education as never before. This is where there will be huge impacts down the road.

    • rogerdhansen says:

      Hi Scott,

      I don’t disagree with you. But I think there is a limit to how high we can “lift” everybody. The earth can only handle so many pollutants, the earth has only so many resources, etc. But like you, I’m a great believer in technology and its ability to make the world better for everyone. And I would like to see the federal government spend a lot more money on R&D (research), both theoritical and applied.

      But I think there does need to be a better (fairer) distribution of wealth. How this should happen, I’m not sure. But it would probably mean reducing our standard of living in the US and western Europe some. But I doubt that this adjustment would affect our lives that much.

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