A Tale of Two Rescues

COMMENTARY Political Process

A Tale of Two Rescues

Dec 1, 2010 8 min read

Ryan Messmore studies and writes about how religious commitment improves public discourse...
As the world seems to get smaller through faster and better information flows, our knowledge of poverty, abuse, and damaged lives seems to grow. We long for justice—for communities in which people treat each other well and take care of one another. How do we encourage these kinds of communities?

Public conversations often seem to imply that the state bears primary, if not full, responsibility for social justice. It is as though we have become programmed to think of the government whenever we face serious social challenges. Without large-scale solutions, millions of dollars, and the force of the law to call upon, we feel helpless to fix big problems.

State power though, is not ultimately what's best for people who are hurting. Sometimes asking the giant, well-funded machines of government to care for people is like asking huge rugby forwards to do a pirouette. It's not what they're best at. If social justice is to become more than just a trendy ideal, then each different part of society needs to play its role and do what it does best.

The government is well equipped and responsible to help the needy in certain situations. Yet in other situations, government involvement can actually make matters worse for the poor and vulnerable. What's the difference between the two—which situations warrant government involvement and which do not? When it comes to caring for the hurting, when should the government act and when should we call upon other social institutions to take the lead?

Two rescues
The stories of two women in California—Shyima and Star—illustrate this point. Both women were rescued from seemingly hopeless circumstances, but the ways they were rescued varied, because of their different circumstances.

When Shyima was nine years old, she was sold by her parents and trafficked from Egypt into Orange County, California, where she worked essentially as a slave in an upscale suburban home. Despite the size and opulence of the home, Shyima was made to sleep in a garage that had mice and spiders, but no windows and she was given only a bucket to use as both a makeshift toilet and wash bin. Every day, while other children went to school, she not only did the cooking, cleaning, and ironing for the household, but also served as the personal maid for two young boys. Whatever they wanted her to do, she was at their beck and call.

One day, after receiving a tip from a curious neighbour, a police officer and an investigator visited the house. When the owner gave evasive, contradictory answers and refused to let them speak with Shyima, the investigator sought a search warrant, removed Shyima from the premises and drove her to safety—namely, a local emergency shelter for abused or neglected children. Within the safe confines of the shelter, she was finally able to attend an affiliated school, learn English, and receive counselling and legal representation. Shyima remembers fondly the help that the workers at the shelter gave her. "They really took care of me, they were always there for me. Even if they didn't understand [my Arabic], they were there for me." Eventually, the couple that had kept her as a slave for three years went to prison.

Today Shyima attends community college, volunteers with a local law enforcement education organisation, and lives with her adopted family, who are building her a room of her own ... with windows.

About 20 years before Shyima was brought to southern California, it was home to a troubled young drug addict named Star. As an African-American, Star grew up feeling enslaved by racial prejudice. She recounts how she "bought into the lie that there was nothing in America for me except institutional racism and glass ceilings that would keep me from getting promoted. So I became very rebellious." Her anger and rebellion led to reckless and dangerous behaviour. At one point Star was arrested for helping to rob a liquor store, and over the span of just a few years, she had four government-funded abortions.

Eventually, Star tried to settle her life down. She gave birth to a daughter and started working at a newspaper, but that didn't last too long. She quit because she knew she could get more on welfare than she could at her full-time job. As the welfare cheques came in, she would drop her daughter off at a government-funded daycare, sell her free medical-care stickers to purchase illegal drugs, and hang out and get high at the beach all afternoon.

It was only when she met several role models and began worshipping with a local church that things really began to change. She recalls her pastor one day preaching a message about responsibility and godly living. She began to ask herself, "What are you doing living on welfare?" At about the same time she was also introduced to a young black couple that lived in a nice home and spent quality time with their three children. The couple talked to Star about setting goals, and encouraged her to begin taking classes at a local university. Star was captivated and finally convinced that a better life was really possible for her.

Shortly thereafter, she wrote to the government welfare office and told them to stop sending her welfare cheques. She soon landed a good job, earned her degree, and launched her own magazine. Today Star is married and is the founder of a social policy research centre, but she works from home so she can spend more time with her own children.

When government help becomes harmful
Social justice requires different social institutions assisting in different situations of need. Both Shyima and Star required help—indeed, rescue—but they required different kinds of help from different providers. One needed the threat of coercive force to help remove her from physical slavery. This is the kind of need that government is well equipped and responsible for meeting. It took the full force of the law, with the police and the courts playing their parts, for Shyima to be freed and her captives brought to justice. But Star needed moral guidance and modelling to show her a better path and to spur her to take responsibility for herself and her children. This is the kind of need that family, friends, neighbours, religious and community groups and mentors are better suited to meet. A just society is one in which each social institution freely does what it does best to meet people's needs and advance the common good.

In fact, demanding that certain institutions take responsibility for tasks they are not equipped to fulfil can actually hurt the intended recipients. In Star's case, the government sought to assist poor citizens by providing them welfare—including food stamps and monetary cheques. The actual result in Star's life was crippling dependency, continued pathology, and counterproductive behaviour. This behaviour damaged not only her daughter's wellbeing but her own as well. "I'd become so dependent on the government that I'd lost a sense of who I was," Star recalls.

One reason Star followed this dehumanising and despairing path has to do with the incentives welfare sometimes provides. By making benefits conditional on staying below a certain income threshold, welfare can discourage recipients from either getting a job or marrying an employed spouse. Star understood this perfectly: "The rules of welfare when I was on welfare were—don't work, don't save, don't get married." Benefits also influence people's outlooks and expectations, moulding the way they think about where to look for assistance and what they deserve by right. As Star recounts, "Although I'd worked in the past, I believed I was entitled to that money."

Government has the ability not only to punish crimes, collect taxes, and redistribute money, but also to shape people's actions and attitudes. Sometimes this more subtle power can make seemingly compassionate policies counterproductive if not downright dangerous. For example, by fostering an entitlement mentality, state-sponsored welfare can actually weaken the concept of justice. And by creating incentives against things like work and marriage, government programmes can block essential escape routes out of poverty.

In short, government can pull the strings of not only the public purse, but also the public imagination—the state has the ability to shape citizens' heads, hearts and habits. When a government's welfare policies stunt economic opportunity and incentivise adverse behaviour, it works against the genuine goals of social justice.

Government's proper responsibility
What, then, is government's proper responsibility for social justice?

Government does have an important role to play. It has the responsibility to articulate, uphold and enforce public law. It is well suited to meet needs that require the exercise of coercive power, such as enforcing contracts, punishing fraud, and liberating victims of human trafficking. It is the only institution in society authorised to use the threat of violent force to meet these needs. By doing so, government fulfils its proper role in protecting freedom, property, physical safety and the common good, among other things. In short, government is responsible to use authorised force to safeguard the conditions of a just society.

Even when the threat of violence is called for, however, it is often not enough by itself to achieve the goals of social justice. People have a variety of needs—physical as well as emotional, interpersonal, etc. Applying coercive force or monetary handouts cannot adequately meet them all, and even while the government plays its part, others will be needed to offer broader support and human care.

An Orange County police lieutenant notes the particular kind of skills and training that enable him and his colleagues to help victims like Shyima: "As a police officer, I've been trained to do investigations, to do surveillances, to identify people of interest, to follow up on those investigations, to serve search warrants and things like that. That is what I bring to the table." He is quick to point out, though, that police lack the ability to provide other things that victims need to flourish. "When it comes to helping a victim come to terms with their environment, their victimisation and how they need to deal with it," notes the lieutenant. The strong arm of the law must rely on compassionate care-givers, loving friends, patient teachers, charitable ministries, and other non-government organisations.

Sean Litton from International Justice Mission sums up this point: "The government can take care of the law and order part of the equation, but other people have to step in and help that person heal."

People have different kinds of needs, and effective forms of help tend to be comprehensive and multi-dimensional. Shyima's abuse and Star's poverty were not simply physical or material in nature, because neither Shyima nor Star are simply clumps of matter. They are human beings, with dignity, worth, and contributions to make to society. True social justice concerns the full scope of human flourishing. As Litton suggests, "Justice is more than just the law. It's more than the enforcement of the law [or] finding people guilty of crimes. Justice infers right relationships between human beings. There has to be mercy; there has to be love; there has to be caring for one another."

Government is equipped to ensure the rule of law—to provide conditions of order, freedom and peace in which just relationships can grow and thrive. Government is not able, though, to provide the personal relationships that make for justice. Families, churches, non-profit organisations, businesses and other civil society institutions are often better equipped to pursue a more robust sense of justice—to provide the mercy, love and care, as well as the accountability, encouragement, training, personal knowledge and positive role-modelling, that people need to thrive.

All social institutions have a role to play in seeking social justice. Each is responsible to help according to its own strengths and abilities. What is needed is the discernment to call upon the appropriate institution to play the appropriate role in the appropriate situation.

Those who share Shyima's plight need government to do what only government is authorised to do. But those like Star need government to allow other institutions to do what they do better. In a just and flourishing society, government protects what civil society produces.

First appeared in Maxim