Working, Eating

Pastor John Hagee has some intense thoughts about people who use public assistance:

“To those of you who are sick, to those of you who are elderly, to those of you who are disabled, we gladly support you,” he said as his voice began to rise. “To the healthy who can work but won’t work, get your nasty self off the couch and go get a job!” Hagee went on to say that “America has rewarded laziness and we’ve called it welfare,” before adding “The Bible says ‘The man who does not work, should not eat.’ I know the liberals hate that verse, but read it and weep! It’s God’s position.”

Fascinating. And then there’s Pope Francis, in Evangelii Gaudium:

“In all places and circumstances, Christians, with the help of their pastors, are called to hear the cry of the poor. This has been eloquently stated by the bishops of Brazil: “We wish to take up daily the joys and hopes, the difficulties and sorrows of the Brazilian people, especially of those living in the barrios and the countryside – landless, homeless, lacking food and health care – to the detriment of their rights. Seeing their poverty, hearing their cries and knowing their sufferings, we are scandalized because we know that there is enough food for everyone and that hunger is the result of a poor distribution of goods and income. The problem is made worse by the generalized practice of wastefulness”.

Yet we desire even more than this; our dream soars higher. We are not simply talking about ensuring nourishment or a “dignified sustenance” for all people, but also their “general temporal welfare and prosperity”. This means education, access to health care, and above all employment, for it is through free, creative, participatory and mutually supportive labour that human beings express and enhance the dignity of their lives. A just wage enables them to have adequate access to all the other goods which are destined for our common use.”

Hagee’s is the same reactionary nonsense we hear about people who use welfare all the time. Still, if I had to choose between Hagee’s vision of work and Pope Francis’, I would choose Francis’. This is not only because Francis actually seems to hold creative and socially valuable labor in high esteembut also because he displays a reasonable ordering of priorities: to engage in good, consistent work that results in flourishing, political circumstances must not only make work available, but also supportive. Most importantly, if people are to engage in good, consistent work, they must already be eating. It is not possible to expend energies both physical and cognitive on labor when a person is bereft of the most basic necessities of life; this is why in saner rightwing discourse welfare is at least identified as necessary to helping a person back onto their feet.

But the vision Pope Francis points toward surpasses even that, because it imagines a just distribution of goods and income to be a total social project rather than a stop-gap against temporary crises. This means that families will have just wages, that they will be able to bring their children up securely, that education and healthcare will be available to those children as they transition to adulthood, and that they therefore will never encounter a situation in which they are too deprived of some form of security to engage work as a creative, dignified activity. At the end of the day, Francis’ option for the poor seems to maintain a much more positive, robust view of both working and eating than Hagee’s.

Still, 2 Thessalonians 3:11 will undoubtedly continue to comprise the entire canon of the counterfactual Gospel of the Anti-Poor Jesus, a cynically political phenomenon as divorced from Scripture as it is from reality. Fortunately for us there appears to be an ascendant suspicion that these ethics, such as they are, neither reflect Christian tradition nor come close to illuminating the potential of a Christian politics.