On November 4th, when the curtains are pulled aside, I will have friends who enter the voting booth: some will defiantly push the button for Obama, others will fiercely register their vote for McCain. I have friends on both sides of the aisle - good people who disagree about politics. And I think that's good: two of our nation's founders, John Adams and Thomas Jefferson, had bitter disagreements about how best to govern the people of the United States of America. Both men died on the same day, as dear, tender friends.
A lot of you may have heard this past week about Joe the Plumber. Maybe you've seen him on the news, or heard casual references to him in the last Presidential debate. Joe Wurzelbacher is a plumber in Ohio; recently, on one of Barack Obama's campaign stops, Joe confronted him about what Obama's tax plan is going to do his hopes for a small business. Not starstruck at all, Joe stood there, practically mano a mano, as if he was speaking to a town councilman on Main Street. Obama's now infamous response was that he isn't trying to punish Joe's success; he just thinks it's good to spread wealth around.
But when John McCain brought up Joe the Plumber in the final Presidential debate, Barack Obama's response was different; now, he shrugged Joe off: "I think he's been watching too many McCain ads," he said, before continuing to explain what he's "really" going to do.
Joe the Plumber has now been making the interview circuit on national television, expressing the fact that not only did the Obama response not satisfy him, it left him more worried, because it was, in fact, socialist. Yard signs and bumper stickers are being produced: "I Am Joe the Plumber!"
Here's the wall I keep hitting in dialogues and discussions: are Communist or socialist values counter to American values? And, for my community of believers, are Communist or socialist values, in fact, Christian?
This is what I mean: link any major political candidate to terrorist sympathies, and his or her campaign is - or should be - over. But in today's global climate, Communism isn't taken seriously anymore as a system of thought directly counter to democratic values. There was a brief moment of worry when Russia aggressively punished Georgia; when human rights were put in the spotlight at the Beijing Olympics; but that was all. It's been years since major Communist systems were a direct threat against the safety of the U.S., with the exception of cultish North Korea.
And except, perhaps, in certain African nations, like Kenya. Barack Obama flew - on taxpayer money - to Kenya to campaign for a man who was trained in Eastern Germany - a man who incited his followers to machete-wielding violence when he lost the election for president in Kenya.
But enough about that. Certain pockets of the modern day Christian community see little difference between the Acts 2 community, in which believers shared everything they had, and the socialist value of the redistribution of wealth.
Here's the problem with that: Communism is inherently linked with atheism. The values of Communism are anti-religion, not friendly towards communities of faith.
There's another, much more pressing difference, though. Because one could argue that socialist values need not be atheistic in nature. All right, then. But are you saying that the best way to care for the poor is to force the populace to donate a significant portion of their income (in taxes) so that the government can determine how best to distribute it?
Even ads on television requesting donations for starving children in Africa assure viewers that a large percentage of every dollar will actually go to the hungry mouth of a child. Is it reasonable, however, to expect a bureaucracy to be as careful with your pennies? How much, I wonder, of every dollar would actually end up in the hands of the poor? Granted, this is simply a pragmatic argument.
I want to ramp it up a bit more.
Who should have the choice of how to help the poor? The citizens of a country, or the institution of a country? Should you be able to choose how to better our country - give to God's Pantry food banks, or Moveable Feast, the Red Cross, or a battered women's shelter? Or should the bureaucratic machinations of the government determine how best to distribute your wealth - and determine, actually, who needs it most?
This is important: not only is choice important - that you choose how to help others, the best way to discern that locally and nationally, globally, and so on - not only do you know the particular needs of your own community, names and faces, not just social security numbers and dates of birth - but it is the making of the choice that counts.
Why? Because free choice is, in and of itself, a valuable good? Well, most Americans would say yes, free choice is valuable - the choice, in fact, of whether even to give to the poor, or not. (Isn't socialism simply legislating morality at this point? People are free to be greedy: just to their own detriment.)
But I argue that it is the making of the choice that counts, because choosing to give forms your very character in a way that someone else forcing you to give does not. Take this example: in the last couple of years, I heard arguments within the church about automatic withdrawals of tithes and offerings made available to church members. The problem, many countered, is that the actual act of writing a check, opening a wallet, and tangibly giving, is in itself an act of worship - one that is neutered of significance if your tithe automatically disappears between "Wal-Mart" and "gas bill" on your online bank account.
Does giving to the poor reflect our character - as a nation - or does it build our character? Both. But providing for others in our society through taxes enforced by a bureaucracy doesn't make us better people. It leaves us the same.
Giving to people in our local communities, to organizations for which we are impassioned - that is what stretches and molds our character, teaching us to care for others as we, ourselves, would wish to be cared for. You, and only you, can navigate the waters of deciding how much to sacrifice from your monthly income. And you should do the hard work of examining how much of your money, and time, is spent on yourself, and how much of your money, and time, is spent on others. Giving teaches us. It teaches us about what is really necessary; about how others feel when we give; about how we feel when we have to receive. Giving teaches us we are not islands; that our community matters - town, faith tradition, world. It models a sense of humility and gratitude.
In 2008, we still have the poor with us. Some of us count ourselves among that number. We still need to challenge ourselves to extend hospitality more, to think of ourselves, less.
Joe the Plumber is still out sharing his story. I hope he's able to take his business as far as he wants to. Joe Six-Pack has come alive. He wants to provide a good life for his son. None of us wants to see a neighbor's dreams depressed into a dingy reality. We still want to hope for ours.
"Say it ain't so, Joe."