Cleaver’s Bad Theology
Tibor R. Machan
Representative Emanuel Cleaver of Missouri produced a sound bite following the recent passage in Congress of the compromise bill on the dept ceiling and spending cuts. Even as this bill didn’t by any means manage to demonstrate Congress’s serious understanding of economic reality, Cleaver said that the bill amounts to a devil’s sandwich, by which he meant that it amounts to the defiance of centuries of teachings of the world’s greatest religions about how one must look out for the poor and needy as one lives one’s life.
The remark needed to be put in the sound bite form because any detailed investigation of those teachings would reveal something very different from what Cleaver had in mind. Let us grant that most religions do implore us to lend those in need a hand, to help the poor and indigent. Indeed, there is no ethical system that doesn’t make some room for this idea. Even the ethics of Aristotle implore us to be generous, even as we strive to achieve our happiness in life. Indeed, generosity or liberality is a virtue people ought to practice, or so Aristotle teaches. And comparable teachings can indeed be found in most of the world’s religions.
Yet the use to which Rep. Cleaver wants to put this idea is quite perverse. He doesn’t urge us to be generous, kind, compassionate, charitable and such. No he urges us to engage in robbery and to use the loot we obtain by this means to provide help to those the robbers believe should get some of it. Generosity and the like are supposed to be virtues that people ought to practice in their own lives. It’s individuals who ought to help out the needy. It is they who must choose to be generous, charitable and such. Nothing less will serve as virtuous, ethical or moral conduct then good deeds that are chosen by the agent.
Stealing from someone else and handing some of the loot to a needy individual will not do. It simply isn’t virtuous to do that since it is tainted by a serious immorality. Generosity or charity with other people’s labor or resources is impossible. Both Representative Cleaver and President Obama have shown their utter misconception of the nature of generosity or charity, claiming, falsely, that it involves robbing Peter so as to benefit Paul. This is very similar to the widespread misunderstanding of the legend of Robin Hood who didn’t rob the rich to help the poor but recovered the loot taken by the tax man and returned it to those who had been deprived of it by taxation.
And even the simplest common sense morality rejects that one can do good deeds on the backs of others. A good deed must come from oneself. It is into one’s very own picket that a generous person must dig in order to earn moral credit for giving away his or her own labor or resources. And that is certainly not what Rep. Cleaver had in mind. He was making devious and corrupt use of the idea that is taught by most of the world’s religions and morality, namely, that one ought to help those in dire straits. That is cynicism, not bona fide ethics or morality. Putting a gun to other people’s heads and thus enabling oneself to “help” others is morally wrong, plain and simple. It is a sign of how morally ignorant many in Congress and other centers of political power across the globe tend to be to hold otherwise.
As the old saying has it, charity must start at home--and it must end there, as well.