I know I'll be the skunk at the party if I dis charities like World Vision. Having spent a lot of time in Haiti, where there may be a greater concentration of NGOs than anywhere in the universe, I have to say, that concentration dribbles bits of aid here and there and never does anything to change the fundamentals. More to the point, though, most of these NGOs, including many supported by churches, are actually part of the problem. No one is saying that providing hungry kids with a breakfast three times a week is in itself a bad thing. But what is being provided alongside the calories is a pernicious idea called development, which is in most cases just the same old imperial war on autarky and subsistence. The West telling the rest that they all ought to be more like us (because we are the superior form, as you can tell by how we are all running off the carbon cliff and destroying topsoil, water, fisheries, and species). We have cars and box stores, dammit, and we can read and write advertizing and public school propaganda.
The average salary for a World Vision employee is $58,000 a year. The average household income in Haiti is $400 a year, and when that is adjusted with the elimination of the incomes of wealthy Haitians, it is half that. When the middle-income Haitians, who do not receive aid from charitable organizations, are factored out, most of the Haitians who are left probably average something like $150 a year per household. There are variances there for wage workers who make more but have greater overhead and peasants who make less but grow food for their own subsistence, but the reality is that you could fire 100 people at World Vision, combine their salaries (not counting benefits), and put together $5,800,000, which could double the income of 38,666 Haitian households, who could spend the money on what they think they need instead of what a nice foreigner thinks they need.
Their mission is more benign than many NGOs. I met a few of them in Haiti, where they have left behind some solar water pumps that no local knows how to fix. I even caught rides in their nice, leased, four-wheel drive vehicles. When I was there as part of the 1994 military invasion, I had beers with a couple of them. They were nice, middle-class Americans (white and black), committed to the idea that Haiti needed charity from nice middle-class Americans, and not altogether aware of how much Haiti really just needs foreigners to leave them be. We have been at the source of their problems for quite some time now. The bad foreigners create the dependence on the good foreigners, who never push to get the bad foreigners out. World Vision at least beats the drum for "resilience," a concept for which I have a great deal of sympathy, but again . . . it is being parachuted in as a "developmental" mission by nice people with college degrees who will retire in Indianapolis or Raleigh or Portland.
Resilience, which is associated with relocalization, and thousands of air miles combined with jillions in perdiem allowances is kinda contradictory. And the institutionalization of charity, which the church started with a string of flop houses across Europe (see the appendix), has removed the element of intimacy from caritas as it was described by St. Paul.
I was happy they were going to provide benefits to same-sex couples, because I know how hard it is to get by here in the great Northern metropole (the reason salaries are so high here is it requires so damn much money to live in the US). It is disappointing that they took that decision back when put under pressure, but the reality for non-profit corporations is that they chase funds . . . and those who write the checks call the tune.
I don't know specifically what their thinking is about marriage, divorce, and sex; but I do know that anyone - left to right - who tries to transpose what those things meant between 2,000 and 6,000 years ago in the Middle East and North Africa onto our modern practices and institutions by the same names is seriously deluded. Apples. Oranges. No, apples... model airplanes.
I'm not here to argue about various "Christian" approaches to the subject of sex, at least not in isolation. And my objection to institutionalized charity, such as it is, is certainly not restricted to World Vision, who are just one little noodle in the alphabet soup of Big Charities (used as a noun to mean institution). I'm picking on them because they are in the news alongside Hobby Lobby, a for-profit, privately-held, chain-store corporation, that sells household knick-knacks and hobby materials.
Roma Apples. Golden Delicious. Both have corporate charters that are registered with the Internal Revenue Service, but World Vision is a non-profit corporation.
My point in stating the uncomfortable things about NGOs (non-governmental organizations, more technocrat-speak) is that there are all these really big background issues that are being ignored in the current dust-up between liberal-liberals and conservative-liberals over Hobby Lobby's owners' objections to birth control in the new public-private "health care" scam; and between "conservative" Christians and "liberal" Christians over same-sex marriage.
What is interesting about all this rearrangement of the deck chairs on the Titanic is how many contradictions are being exposed and concealed in the same instant. As I said, I will leave behind World Vision, charitable institutions, Western-guided "development," white men's burdens, liberal guilt, and Christian confusions about sex.
We can jump right into Hobby Lobby, birth control, religious "freedom," and the kind of absolute moral incoherence if liberal society which leaves us at the end of the day with access or lack of access to the levers of bureaucratic power. There are not only the incommensurable premises held apart by liberal-liberals and liberal-conservatives - kind of Rawls versus Nozick political cage fight - with regard to whether the religious convictions of the Hobby Lobby owners have any standing in the legal debate about medical insurance plans; there are equally irresolvable argument s about the distinction between the "public" and "private" domains, about the sovereignty of one's God (as one understands that God) and the sovereignty of the secular state. the definition of property, the question of how money moves across the public-private borderline (and what money is), and the seemingly endless capacity of a political fiction called "rights" to encircle more "needs" and service commodities. Many are talking about a "right" to birth control, and a "right" to health care, and the arguments for and against Hobby Lobby's position, which will be subjected to the scrutiny of courts soon enough.
At some point in the past, Justice Scalia wrote, regarding the issue of religious freedom and eating mescaline cactus, that "To permit this would be to make the professed doctrines of religious belief superior to the law of the land, and in effect to permit every citizen to become a law unto himself." It is not common for me to agree with Justice Scalia, but he has a point. We may differ on whether or not people ought to obey the law when it comes into conflict with religious beliefs. I think Christians ought to refuse to support warmaking, up to and including breaking the law. That's because I think God as revealed in Jesus of Nazareth is sovereign over all powers and principalities. But Scalia doesn't address that in his narration of the court's majority opinion. He says that allowing religious belief to trump the laws of the state undermines the power of the state. Dead right he is; and so be it.
I'd say that in-cludes the Hobby Lobby issue, but it doesn't con-clude the issue. Corporations are chartered by the state, regardless of ownership, and technically (!) the people are sovereign, and therefore the corporation cannot exist with its liabilities limited as they are, etc., without the guarantee of the state, which means the state has an interest in corporations. Trickier still, in this thicket of competing narratives, is the contrary idea, sealed by the same court, that corporations, when it comes to campaign spending in elections, are considered legal "persons," an idea that would support Hobby Lobby's position that it can hold beliefs. Perhaps if we really wanted to test this, we could have Hobby Lobby sold to the Native American Church, and the employees could have peyote shakes during the team meetings at the beginning of each shift. It would make for some interesting conversations at the check-out counter.
I don't really have a strong opinion on the current controversy at Hobby Lobby, because I support people who put God before the state (even when I vehemently disagree with their conception of God), I have serious doubts about the whole notion of expandable "rights" that includes a right to birth control pills or anything else, and I agree with the Catholic Church's similar position regarding hospitals, even though I emphatically disagree with my own church's official position on birth control. The problem is, Hobby Lobby and the American Roman Catholic Church want the protected status of state-chartered corporation at the same time they want independence from the state on the matter of his health care scams (I support a single-payer system, not because it is a "right," but because it makes better financial and practical sense; though I do believe there must be restrictions on what "services" are delivered, based on plain capacity.). It's like they want to have their cake and eat it, too.
So there, I'm really the skunk at the party now, because I deny the fiction of "rights" that are in any way definable using the logic of liberalism; and I specifically deny that there is a "right" to "health care" or education. In fact, I am on record as being opposed to compulsory public schools, which are critical state institutions for sorting children into separate social classes as early as possible and creating conformity of thought in accordance with nationalist propaganda.
"Health care" is a vast technocratic monopoly, with an interlocking directorate between government, medical schools, insurance companies, and a metastatic pharmaceutical industry. The latest "health care" law was yet another gift by the government to the insurance industry, which is why I call it a scam. Just one more policy to transfer wealth from the bottom to the top. Still, we demand our "right" to them as if they are something that they are not.
If there were a truly public medical system, this Hobby Lobby thing would disappear; but, again, when we accept the underlying circumstances (which on examination is an unsustainable slow-motion disaster) and pretend the real issue is whether Hobby Lobby can pick and choose what services they provide under a government mandate that is a gift to insurance and pharmaceutical companies, then we are rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic. At least we are doing it with great sound and fury.
In the end, it will be decided by a squad of old rich people on the court, and there won't be a thing anyone can do about it; but we can continue to yell past each other based on whether we are Rawlsians or Nozickians. Christians will get in on the same act, based on the same incommensurable premises. Christian conservatives will continue to seek political power to enforce the mythic patriarchal sexual standards of 1950s white heterosex America; and Christian liberals will continue to seek political power to conduct limited redistribution of wealth in the form of services, without ever critiquing the impersonality of institutionalized charity.
I sometimes wonder if churches might pull back within their own city or county limits, and concentrate their charitable efforts on their own communities, where they at least speak the same language most of the time; and whether that charity might be de-institutionalized, unmanaged, and conducted in conjunction with actually befriending people. Instead of contending for power in the current fixed game aboard the Titanic, we might think of constructing lifeboats right at home.
Though I am not a devotee of Voltaire, I am going now to follow the advice given at the end of Candide.
Il faut cultiver notre jardin.
Excerpt from Rivers North of the Future:
Contrition is a sweet glorification of the new relationship for which the Samaritan stands, a relationship which is free, and therefore vulnerable and fragile, but always capable of healing, just as nature was then conceived as always in the process of healing.
But this new relationship . . . was also subject to institutionalization, and that was what began to happen after the church achieved official status within the Roman Empire. In the early years of Christianity, it was customary in a Christian household to have an extra mattress, a bit of candle, and some dry bread in case the Lord Jesus should knock at the door in the form of a stranger without a roof - a form of behaviour that was utterly foreign to any of the cultures of the Roman Empire. You took in your own but not someone lost on the street. Then the Emperor Constantine recognized the churc, and Christian bishops acquired the same position in the imperial administration as magistrates . . . They also gained the power to establish social corporations. And the first corporations they started were Samaritan corporations which designated certain categories of people as preferred neighbours. For example, the bishops created special houses, financed by the community, that were charged with taking care of people without a home. Such care was no longer the free choice of the householder; it was the task of an institution. It was against this idea that the great Church Father John Chrysostam railed . . . he warned against creating these xenodocheia, literally "houses for foreigners." By assigning the duty to behave in this way to an institution, he said, Christians would lose the habit of reserving a bed and having a piece of bread ready in every home, and their households would cease to become Christian homes . . .
. . . It is the glorious Christian and Western idea that there should be institutions, preferably not just hotels but special flophouses, available for people who need a place to sleep. In this way ther attempt to be open to all who are in need results in a degradation of hospitality and its replacement by institutions.
A gratuitous and truly free choice [like that of the Samaritan who extended friendship across a social boundary] had become an ideology and an idealism, and this institutionalization of neighbourliness had an increasingly important place in the late Roman Empire. Jumping ahead another 150 years from Augustine's time, we come to a period when decaying Rome, and other imperial centers, were attracting massive immigration from rural and foreign areas, which made city life more dangerous. The Emperors, especially in Byzantium, made decrees expelling those who couldn't prove they had a home. They gave legitimacy to these decrees by financing institutions which would provide shelter for the homeless. And . . . by taking on the task of creating welfare institutions for the state, the church was able to establish a legal and moral claim on public funds, and a practically unlimited claim since the task was unlimited.
But as soon as hospitality is transformed into a service, two things have happened at once. First, a completely new way of conceiving the I-Thou relationship has appeared. Nowhere in antique Greece or Rome is there any evidence of anything like the flophouses for foreigners, or shelters for widows and orphans. Christian Europe is unimaginable without its deep concern about building institutions that take care of different types of people in need. So there is no question that modern service society is an attempt to establish and extend Christian hospitality. On the other hand, we have immediately perverted it. The personal freedom to choose who will be my other has been transformed into the use of power and money to produce a service. This not only deprives the idea of the neighbour of the quality of freedom implied in the story of the Samaritan. It creates an impersonal view of how a good society ought to work. It creates needs, so-called, for service commodities, needs which can never be satisfied - is there enough health yet, enough education? - and therefore a type of suffering completely unknown outside of Western culture with its roots in Christianity.
A modern person finds nothing more irksome, more disgusting than having to leave this pining woman or that suffering man unattended. So, as homo technologicus, we create agencies for that purpose. This is what I call the perversio optimi quae est pessima [the perversion of the best is the worst]. I may even be a good Christian and attend to the one who asks, but still I need charitable institutions for those whom I leave unattended. I know that there will never be enough true friends with time on their hands, so let this be done. Create services, and let ethicists discuss how to distribute their limited productivity.
Now when I speak about this, people tell me, Yes, we see that there's a kind of suffering in modern life that results from unsatisfied needs for service, but why do you say it's a suffering of a new kind, and evil of a new kind? Why do you call it a horror? Because I consider this evil to be the result of an attempt to use power, organization, management, manipulation, and the law to ensure the presence of something which, by its very nature, cannot be anything else but the free choice of individuals who have accepted the invitation to see in everybody whom they choose the face of Christ. (pp. 54-6)