What is our responsibility toward the less fortunate in society? It is our duty, as individuals and nations, to help the poor achieve social dignity and economic self-sufficiency?
These questions have political and economic overtones -- but also ethical and reeligious ones. And they relate to justice, or at least a kind of justice. Not courtroom justice, where right and wrong are determined according to civil or criminal canons, but justice that grows out of a sense of fairness, human decency, and a caring for the well-being of others. Many would call it social justice.
Robert Zwier, professor of political science at Northwestern College in Iowa, has developed a provocative, if not disconcerting, thesis around these questions. He says decisions about who is to receive United States foreign aid in recent decades have been based largely on the fluctuating interpretations of justice by the particular administration in power.
Looking at bilateral aid and food assistance programs (not military aid), Zwier's study confirms that conservatives have concerned themselves primarily with stimulating economic growth and helping the underprivileged to help themselves. Liberals, on the other hand, have advocated massive government support for the hungry, the homeless, the sick, and the uneducated.
Zwier says all this stems from the conservative concept of justice -- that government should play the role of an umpire, intervening in the affairs of other nations mainly to avert disaster. Conversely, the liberal idea of justice calls for active public participation to correct social abuses and inequities and to promote individual prosperity.
There's nothing wrong with such political differences, but there is something wrong with focusing on them exclusively and letting them impede action that should be based on the purely humanitarian ideal of helping one's brother man.
We must dispose of the political stereotypes. It isn't just liberals who are concerned about feeding the hungry and ministering to the poor.And it's not only conservatives who care about economic stability and free enterprise. Both basically want to uplift society by eliminating hunger, poverty, ignorance, and inequality.
We also need to stop arguing over whether the opportunity to see at first hand the poverty in Central America or conditions in US black ghettos or in Mexican-American barrios is what is needed to turn apathetic people into advocates for social reform. Some studies, including one conducted by a Georgia-based food-for-the-hungry group, show that limited exposure to these conditions may even reinforce the positions of those who oppose change.
What we really need is an approach based not on politics but on a conviction -- religious, moral, or otherwise -- that people and nations must treat one another with respect and concern for mutual well-being.
Liberals, particularly social activitis, need to stop wasting their time accusing conservatives of lacking compassion for the less fortunate in society. And conservatives, in turn, must stop automatically disparaging the motives of liberals. Both need to pocket their partisan views and work side by sidde to help those who are not in a position to help themselves. Some will see this as a morral responsibility. Others will see it more as a matter of human decency. Each can hold on to his or her political views -- liberal or conservative -- and still work in concert to stamp out this kind of injustice.
Which brings us to a case in point: I recently met Robert, a man in his 30s, who, while studying for the ministry, became concerned about the world's hungry people. He now works full time for a church-related antihunger program. Robert's political views, liberal since college, have become radicalized. Now he firmly believes that only a sweeping change in the US economic system, including redistribution of wealth, will provide the means to supply enough food for the millions around the globe who go to bed hungry.
Robert's family is politically conservative. His father is a Texas businessman. He believes that people should basically help themselves. But his religion has taught him to care about the poor and unfortunate.
Robert recently persuaded his father to volunteer at a church-run soup kitchen, here inner-city down-and-outs are offered food and shelter. At first, the businessman was overwhelmed by the plight of those who came to the kitchen. He couldn't eat or sleep for several days, his son said.
Robert's father continues to volunteer. He's sympathetic to the needs of those seeking help. But he is still politically conservative. He still believes in the free-enterprise system. And he says people still need to be shown how to help themselves rather than have it done for them.
The example of Robert and his father proves that one need not abandon his political philosophy to be committed to raising living standards for the poor and oppressed. One just needs to be a compassionate human being.
Justice is blind -- to partisan politics as well as race, religion, and sex. It's the responsibility of us all -- liberal or conservative -- to pursue justice for others as well as ourselves.