Are We Entitled to Our Entitlement Programs?
Continuing the discussion on the current debt crisis from his post earlier this week, Citizenship Confusion: Budget Cuts and Our Calling, Alan raises the question of what it means to be “entitled.”
In recent months, as politicians have begun to wrestle with our nation’s serious budget crisis, it has become clear to people on both sides of the political spectrum that at least some cuts are going to have to be made on so-called “Entitlement Programs.” The most significant of these programs are Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security.
What has struck me about this discussion is how this phrase “Entitlement Programs” is used both by those on the right and the left to support an unbiblical view of what we are entitled to. Those on the Left tend to believe that those in need are truly “entitled” to the programs that the government offers them. Those on the Right tend to use this phrase ironically to call into question the idea that those who have not actually earned their own health care and retirement benefits are actually entitled to them.
The problem with the way both sides conceive of “entitlements” is that they do not recognize where all good gifts come from. In a very real sense, the money I receive as payment for work is a blessing from God, an act of grace. I am not entitled to my job or the pay I receive, just as I’m not entitled to be healthy or blessed with a beautiful wife or a graduate education. In other words, language of entitlement only makes sense if we believe that we can truly and autonomously create our own destiny, accomplish our own goals, attain our own American Dream. But if we live in a world that is created and held together by a sovereign God who provides rain for the righteous and the wicked, then we can never take exclusive credit for our status in the world. In a very real sense, we are not entitled to the things we own. We can see this idea at work in Ecclesiastes:
I perceived that there is nothing better for them than to be joyful and to do good as long as they live; also that everyone should eat and drink and take pleasure in all his toil–this is God’s gift to man. Ecc 3:12-13 (also see Ecc 5:19 and 1 Tim 6:17)
The first part of verse 13 fits nicely with our culture’s secular, capitalist view of entitlement: we are entitled to enjoy and take pleasure in the fruits of our labor because we earned those fruits. But the end of this verse is jarring, or, at least it should be if we are paying attention. Instead of saying that our motive for taking pleasure in the fruits of our labor comes from our entitlement, we are told to enjoy these fruits because they are a gift from God!
Now, this does not mean that Christians should reject the concept of private property or that it is unimportant to work hard or any such nonsense, but it does mean that as Christians we should never come to believe that we have a right to the things God has blessed us with simply because our government gives us that right. As American citizens and consumers we are often reminded that we deserve or have the right to certain comforts or pleasures or products, but we must always remember that whatever God blesses us with is an act of Grace.
One potential implication for understanding an economy through the lens of God’s grace is that we can no longer look down on those who take advantage of government assistance from so-called “Entitlement Programs.” We have no right to consider ourselves better than them because we have “earned” our wealth or status. We’re all recipients of God’s grace. That is not to say that we cannot or should not promote a culture of hard work and responsibility; it does mean that we must do so fully aware that this hard work and responsibility does not make us or anyone entitled to God’s blessing’s, even material blessings.
Another implication of understanding our status and wealth as gifts from God is that we should be humbly drawn to give to those in need. Just as God is gracious to us, we must be gracious to those in need around us. In this way, it is much easier to understand how Christians in the early church shared their goods, since they would not have accepted the view that their labor entitled them to hoard their possessions.
A common accusation from the Right is that these programs instill in people a belief that they are entitled to things simply because they are in America, an ideology which the Right views as unjust and dangerous. But don’t we fall into the same prideful and arrogant trap when we, like Nebuchadnezzar, look out over what God has blessed us with and say, “Is not this great [fill in your possessions/wealth/status], which I have built by my mighty power as a [symbol of my achievement of the American Dream] and for the glory of my majesty?” (Dan 4:30).
Our heavenly citizenship challenges the views of entitlement presented both by the Left and the Right and instead calls us to always give thanks to the One who blesses us.
John Chrysostom: “Should we look to kings and princes to put right the inequalities between rich and poor? Should we require soldiers to come and seize the rich person’s gold and distribute it among his destitute neighbors? Should we beg the emperor to impose a tax on the rich so great that it reduces them to the level of the poor and then to share the proceeds of that tax among everyone? Equality imposed by force would achieve nothing, and do much harm. Those who combined both cruel hearts and sharp minds would soon find ways of making themselves rich again. Worse still, the rich whose gold was taken away would feel bitter and resentful; while the poor who received the gold from the hands of soldiers would feel no gratitude, because no generosity would have prompted the gift. Far from bringing moral benefit to society, it would actually do moral harm. Material justice cannot be accomplished by compulsion, a change of heart will not follow. The only way to achieve true justice is to change people’s hearts first—and then they will joyfully share their wealth.
Thanks for commenting. I think you will find that this comment, which I posted on Facebook (with some changes for audience), clarifies my position a bit:
In my blog post, I suppose I was primarily addressing those who oppose entitlement programs because they reject the idea that the poor are entitled to government handouts. My point was that none of us are entitled to what we have, if we take God’s sovereignty and grace seriously. However, there are some Christians who are opposed to government entitlement programs because they are simply not the most effective way to care for those in need. And I believe that there is some merit to that argument.
When we rely on the government to care for the poor and needy around us we become alienated from the poor and the poor from us. It allows us to avoid the dirty business of actually interacting with people who are poor, sick, diseased, handicapped, or simply different. All we have to do is give the government money, and it will take care of the rest.
Similarly, there is dehumanizing alienation on the side of the needy. Instead of a neighbor coming alongside them and helping them through a difficult time, they rely on an abstract, faceless, government.
Entitlement programs in general have a faulty view of the human person; they assume that if you provide food, shelter, healthcare, and some education than everyone should be all right. But people are a lot more complicated than that. People need community, love, encouragement, concern, wisdom, etc.
Which leads me to think that the ultimate goal should be that churches take care of the poor and needy and depressed. This would allow communities to address the particular needs of those around them in unique ways, and to deal with those in need as specific individuals rather than generic “poor citizens.”
However, until churches are willing to sacrifice their wealth to care for those in need, then it can be a good and proper thing to support these entitlement programs. Although, even then I think it is good for us to criticize them so that we can encourage them to be more effective and efficient.
Let me stress that my ideas in this comment represent me “thinking out loud.” I’m not sure of the best way to deal with poverty and oppression. However, I stand by the claim of the article I wrote, which is that none of us are “entitled” to the blessings that God gives us, and so we should not be opposed to entitlement programs on the basis that the people who receive benefits are actually not “entitled” to those benefits. I still think there are valid reasons to critique these programs, I just don’t think that the “entitlement” argument is very helpful.
I think it’s valid to criticize the faulty notion of entitlement in the language of “Entitlement Programs,” as it was precisely to reify such ideology these programs were designed. See the rhetoric of, e.g., the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights for some of the rather expansive “entitlements” which have been annexed to the natural-law conception of “human rights” by a fairly hubristic liberalizing (and here I am referring to the excess of what has been an mixed good in Western civilization for centuries) tendency in favor of positively conferred “civil liberties” being defined as “human rights.” A good conservative critic should say that “no one is entitled to health care,” not that “those people aren’t.” Finding the lines where one rhetoric is covering for another reality, and making that clear in a way that will persuade the honest conservative, is the job of the cultural critic.
Similarly, the work of cultural criticism should include probing examination of the rhetoric by which state’s deference to God-conferred capacities and necessities of each person and institution in its purview has been transvalued into an ideology of state-conferred “rights” to whatever the state determines is possible and necessary for that person.
An interesting connection from the Westminster Larger Catechism’s statement on the Lord’s Prayer:
Q. 194. What do we pray for in the fifth petition?
A. In the fifth petition, (which is, Forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors,) acknowledging, that we and all others are guilty both of original and actual sin, and thereby become debtors to the justice of God; and that neither we, nor any other creature, can make the least satisfaction for that debt: we pray for ourselves and others, that God of his free grace would, through the obedience and satisfaction of Christ, apprehended and applied by faith, acquit us both from the guilt and punishment of sin, accept us in his Beloved; continue his favour and grace to us, pardon our daily failings, and fill us with peace and joy, in giving us daily more and more assurance of forgiveness; which we are the rather emboldened to ask, and encouraged to expect, when we have this testimony in ourselves, that we from the heart forgive others their offenses.
Great and timely challenge.
Paul said, “I have become all things to all men, that I might by all means save some.”
Some will not change, but we should never stop giving. That’s His model.
It’s the church’s job to meet charitable needs. The government is horrible at it because it’s not their God-given responsibility. The church, which is every person believing on the name of Jesus Christ, has largely failed at it because we seem to believe the lie, “oh, someone will take care of that.” And Dr. Phil resounds, “How’s that workin’ for ya?”
Alan wisely mentions the ‘dehumanizing alienation’ of the needy and the difference between your or my individual help, as opposed to some “faceless” government. If we merely took time to reach one or two people, the impact would resound in this land. Every need would be met by God, through our very hands.
Now wouldn’t that be a John 17 moment that would change our lives, others’ lives and eternity? Whether ‘every’ believer does it or not, ‘each’ of us can choose to reach somebody. That reward will dwarf any mansion or island we could own or any trophy man could create.
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