I’ve almost finished reading Atlas Shrugged. Let me tell you, the weight Atlas carried pales in comparison to the weight of dragging that giant, preachy tome around with me all summer. But I can’t deny the impact it, travel, and world events lately have had on me over the past few months.
For the uninitiated, Atlas Shrugged reads like a Republican Bible — probably a more appropriate one than the actual religious book most of them claim. But stripped of the preaching, and the often intolerant-seeming approach to government (or lack thereof) there’s a core point that they’re trying to make, that when you take away the theater, posturing and the other (more ridiculous) mountains Republican’s are willing to die on lately, it’s a very lucid one: every individual should have the right and responsibility to build their own future and consume what they produce.
There’s a caveat here that Rand’s philosophy fails to recognize (or would prefer to exclude from the debate entirely) which is that not everyone is born with equal opportunity. It’s a flawed to assume that if everyone put in the same volume of effort, every person born would be able to arrive at a state of self-sufficiency and happiness. The reality is that an ambitious child born in Africa that works harder than a less ambitious child born in Canada is not likely to end up with the same level of wealth, happiness and fulfillment, producer though he may be. You needn’t even go as far as Africa to understand that principle – between school districts in the U.S. you can find gaps in opportunity that are just as large. And of course there are those stuck with disabilities or challenges that can’t be overcome. These are not exceptions to the rule, these are the norm. Rich, healthy white folk living in a plush land of opportunity are the exception.
But none of that takes away from the notion of personal responsibility. Systems created to remove personal responsibility are corrosive to a society. This is not debatable. When its better to evade taxes by staying on welfare while getting paid for work under the table, then the system is broken… And perhaps it shouldn’t have existed (at least in that definition) to begin with.1
Tina Fey says gradually becoming a Republican is a side-effect of getting older. Perhaps the longer you’ve had to work to achieve what you have, the more you value seeing that same responsibility in others. I recognize that I am made uncomfortable by people who’s success (or apparent success) was not achieved through hard work of their own. I bracket in “apparent success” because this corrosion of personal responsibility applies to debt – in epidemic proportions! What you own/drive/live-in is an outward indicator of success, so people leverage themselves to the hilt to appear successful – hoping never to have to take responsibility for those appearances.
I can’t argue these sentiments. The Bible says those who do not work should not eat. With a few exceptions (mental or physical capacity), I’m in total agreement. But the natural (human) extension of this is something I can’t reconcile. That happiness is the result of what you’ve earned, and pride in it is justified and even righteous, flies in the face of what I believe about our place in the universe. Some would call that Liberal guilt…
Conservative Christian friends, help me:
How can I say I’m proud of being a skillful worker and producer, while being humble before my God (and in testimony)? How can I acknowledge that despite my hard work, without Him I would be nothing, while claiming that those who have nothing must deserve it because they’re obviously not working hard enough? Is it righteous to be prideful of my achievements when the Bible tells me that pride goeth before a fall?
How can I show grace to those in need, how can I feed the hungry and clothe the naked in obedience to Christ’s direction, without feeding into a system that is corrosive, or supporting an individual’s destructive mindset of entitlement?2 How can a group of believers who should wish that none be lost, be opposed to a government program that endeavours to provide opportunities for the broken to recover? How can I acknowledge that without God constantly giving me second chances, I would be doomed to hell, while criticizing a political viewpoint that works to give second chances?
And I guess if I could answer myself, I would contend that it’s not the government’s job to provide programs and opportunities – each of us who has learned the value of personal responsibility has the opportunity (and as Christian, the duty) to show humility by extending grace and second chances within a relationship with those we know who could use some help picking themselves up and trying again. And if every Republican who shouted down entitlement program spending, were also such a person of grace and humility, then maybe I could get on board with them…
I have a good job that I enjoy working hard at, and I do relish success. Nicole and I discipline ourselves to live within our means, and consume at the level that we produce. We don’t feel guilty that we have a cute little house, or a couple decent vehicles, or the opportunity to find the best possible education for our kids. But I don’t think its right to claim pride in any of those things either – they are gifts from God that our imperfect human efforts do not make us deserving of. And if anything, the grace extended to me in that provision should teach me to continuously extend that grace to others – even those who don’t appear to deserve it. Even sacrificially.
I know so many people with good jobs, who produce admirably for themselves and society, and who are apparently enjoying the benefits of their hard work, but who ache with emptiness and dissatisfaction, a loneliness in their success that no promotion or possession will ever fill. They have exercised the right and taken the responsibility for their future, but their American Dream is a listless nightmare, because they live only for themselves, and fulfillment of their happiness.
I’m not sure how to be a Conservative and approach the lost with humility and grace. I’m not sure how to be a Liberal but still hold Truth as absolute. And as I watch the coverage of the upcoming election, I despair that its neither extreme that will tear our society apart, but the growing polarity between them that will render us ineffectual and immobile.
Atlas is not a man, more righteous than others because of his mind or his output. Atlas is the Holy God of creation. And he doesn’t carry the weight of the world on his shoulders, He holds all the universe in the palm of His hand. He waits not in anticipation of our collapse, but in His desire that each of his children, individually special in His eyes, finds their way home. And no matter how many times each of us has failed to live up to what He intended life and work and happiness to look like, He has never shrugged us off… That I am redeemed by Him should be my only source of pride.
1) This is not specualation, this is based on a real story of a person I know who spent years on welfare, but for the past 4 has worked hard at a regular full-time job to get out of that hole. Unfortunately, having started later in life, he cannot manage to cross the threshold where his income allows him to support his family and pay taxes. He has to keep his pay under the table and continue to claim unemployment. In other words, he has to take money from the government to avoid paying them money. WTF?!
2) Case study number two: I volunteered at a United Way homeless shelter for over a year, serving in the kitchen. Never have I been treated so badly as by the homeless folks who felt they were owed a meal. Granted there were some who were grateful, having come in from day-labor, tired but gracious, who took what was offered with a smile and sometimes a hint of embarrassment, cleaning up after themselves as they left. But most of the clientele were rude, sometimes hostile, demanding personalization of their meal as if they had paid to dine at a fancy restaurant, leaving their half-eaten food on the table as they stomped out for a smoke or to sneak a drink, or demanding seconds while others still waited to be fed, sometimes yelling and threatening violence if they didn’t get their way.