By Alan Bean
When I watch the government-shutdown-saga unfolding in slow-motion, I can’t get Father Gregory Boyle out of my mind.
Why are so many people so opposed to the Affordable Care Act that they are willing to resort to a weird kind of legislative terrorism? What is it about this unwieldy blend of free market capitalism and social democracy that is so offensive? Sure, Obamacare is a compromise stacked on a compromise; a sort of best-deal-we-could-get phenomenon that leaves no one elated. But that isn’t why the program has stirred so much primal emotion.
We are dealing with two fundamentally different ways of responding to poor people and their needs.
And that’s why Father Boyle is on my mind.
I hadn’t heard of Boyle until I heard him speak a couple of weeks ago in New Orleans. Now I find that his book, Tattoos on the Heart is the assigned reading for the JustFaith class I am teaching.
“In 1992 Homeboy Bakery is launched,” Boyle tells us, “but seven years later, in October of 1999, it burns to the ground.”
Homeboy Bakery was created with some white-guilt donation money, to create work for Latino gang-bangers in Los Angeles. When the building went up in flames, Boyle initially suspected arson.
“When I say this, people often presume I mean that gang members did it. I never thought that. Homeboy Bakery stood as a symbol of hope to every gang member in the county. That they would destroy this place of second chances didn’t make sense.”
It’s the next remark that comes to mind when I think of the train wreck in Washington:
We had a lot of enemies in those early days, folks who felt that assisting gang members somehow cosigned on their bad behavior. Hate mail, death threats, and bomb threats were common, especially after I wrote Op-Ed pieces in the Los Angeles Times (which I had done just prior to the fire).
We used to joke during the period of hostility that emanated from those who opposed the very idea of Homeboy that with so much vitriol leveled at us, we ought to change our voice mail message after hours: “Thank you for called Homeboy Industries. Your bomb threat is important to us.”
I haven’t finished Boyle’s book yet, but I gather the death threats fizzled out in time. I suspect the success of Home Boy Industries shifted popular opinion in Boyle’s direction. And that is precisely what Tea Party darlings like Ted Cruz are afraid will happen with Obamacare. In a speech delivered in Kingwood, Texas, Cruz put it like this:
His strategy is to get as many Americans as possible hooked on the subsidies, addicted to the sugar. If we get to Jan. 1, this thing is here forever.
In other words, Cruz is afraid the Affordable Care Act will fix so many problems for so many poor people that, like the Homeboy Bakery, it will become an accepted part of the landscape, a universally acclaimed good idea.
It could be argued, of course, that Obamacare and the Homeboy Bakery are apples and oranges: one a government give-away program and the other a faith-based ministry. But they are both expressions of the common good, attempts to address the causes and consequences of poverty.
If everybody was wealthy enough to pay between $6,000 and $20,000 in annual health insurance premiums, the government wouldn’t have to step in. But for those who can’t pay, it’s either government assistance or an early death.
Similarly, if everybody had a decent job that paid a living wage, we wouldn’t need to worry about youth gangs. But since too many neighborhoods have no work for young kids with no marketable skills (and, eventually, a felony rap), somebody has to create the jobs it seems the free market can’t produce on its own.
And it is this suggestion, that the free market can’t solve all our problems, that inspires death threats, whether the target is the Homeboy Bakery or the Affordable Care Act.
These compassionate innovations are particularly dangerous when they succeed. What if the bangers lay down their guns and start working next to their former enemies?
What if poor people sign up for the kind of health insurance they couldn’t afford on their own?
Doesn’t that suggest that free markets don’t work for everybody?
Perish the thought! Better that poor people should die young or be reduced to slinging drugs on the corner.
Free market fundamentalists see poverty as a symptom of laziness. If everybody would just get off their butts and work we wouldn’t have street gangs or folks too poor to buy health insurance. Some even attempt to bolster this callous moral vision–and the mean and miserly deity it conjures–with biblical citations.
But when you take your Bible straight you get an entirely different message.
Scripture teaches us to care for the poor because the natural order of things will never produce enough able bodies or good-wage jobs. Father Boyle sees beyond the dysfunction of the gang world to the beautiful people God created and gifted with possibility. His God is big, and bountiful, and beautiful:
How much greater is the God we have that the one we think we have. More than anything else, the truth of God seems to be about a joy that is a foreigner to disappointment and disapproval. This joy just doesn’t know what we’re talking about when we focus on the restriction of not measuring up. This joy, God’s joy, is like a bunch of women lined up in the parish hall on your birthday, wanting only to dance with you–cheek to cheek.
God, I hope he’s right.