I’ve been thinking and praying about Haiti a lot since the earthquake about a month ago. I was recently alerted to this article explaining the present housing situation for those who lost their homes. Click through to see full details, but I’ll summarize: The international aid community had originally been planning to give tents to tide these families over until more permanent shelters could be erected. That plan, however, has been deemed too expensive, so in lieu of tents, the Haitian homeless will receive… tarps. As in, the plastic blanket kind of tarps. As in the, “Here’s a plastic blanket; have fun through hurricane season” kind of tarps.
Basically all because it’s too expensive.
Now, I’d believe it if I was told that there are other reasons that shaped the decision to scrap the tent plans. The optimist in me really hopes that it didn’t simply boil down to the bottom dollar. Of course it is crucial to get something to as many people as possible, as quickly as possible. But I cannot fathom why it seems okay, at any level, to stick people outside with nothing but a tarp and feel like we did them much of a favor. Sure, a tarp is better than no tarp, but a tarp is just barely a step up from nothing at all.
I then thought about how victims of hurricane Katrina were relocated into not just tents, but trailer homes. I wondered what the news reaction would have been if FEMA had tried to make our U.S. citizens tough things out in un-air-conditioned, electricity-less tents — much more so if they would have handed them a sheet of plastic with a shrug and advice to get creative with how to stay dry under it.
I’m pretty sure the media would have had a heyday with that one.
So what’s the difference? Why is the idea of a U.S. citizen stuck in a government-issued tent shocking and enraging, but the idea of lots of Haitians huddled under a plastic blanket just a fact of life (even if it’s a sad one)?
I’m sure there are lots of reasons, which sheer scope prevents me from exploring. Some are legitimate, and lots are not. But the one that is convicting me most right now is the sense of entitlement that most of us grow up indoctrinated into.
Here in the States, the idea of “rights” is pretty ingrained in our culture. Realistically, personal rights are at the core of our founding documents. I don’t believe that all of these ideas are off-base, and I will be the first to admit how grateful I am for how much freedom our culture affords me. But living in a rights-centric society flings open the door for a spirit of entitlement to grab hold of our hearts.
Having adequate food and shelter is no longer just a necessity; I deserve it. Freedom of speech is not just right in the general sense; it is my right as a U.S. citizen, and I can shoot off my mouth whenever I well please and say whatever I happen to be thinking. Having a fulfilling job with a liveable wage and sufficient rest is not just a blessing; it is my right, and I can sue the pants off of any employer that tries to rob me of it. According to how this nation is run, there is a pretty big list of things to which I am entitled. I somehow deserve it, by virtue of being born in the right country at the right time to the right parents.
Again, having those things is not bad. I think it is great that our government cares about its citizens having things that are necessary and good. I think it is fine for Christians living in the U.S. to benefit from these blessings. But it’s that sense of entitlement — the, “I deserve it” mentality (reflected so profoundly in our advertising) — that really kills any attempt we could hope to make at justice.
Entitlement has a list of things we deserve. Different ones of us have different lists of the things we deserve. Some of them seem pretty legitimate. But whatever our list looks like, it means there is a wall in our hearts regarding how much we are able to care about another human being. I can only care about another person insofar as it doesn’t affect the nice things I deserve.
Whether I draw the line at deserving a vacation, a second car, a big screen, eating out as much as I want, eating out only sometimes, buying food from the nice grocery store, buying a pair of jeans, or keeping the lights on at my house…
Whether I draw the line at deserving the respect of strangers, the attention of my coworkers, the goodwill of my friends, or the support of my family…
…the point is, I’m still drawing a line. In my heart, I’m still telling the other person, “This is how much you deserve my concern / help / time / space / resources, and that’s all, because I deserve all the rest.”
Justice requires humility. It requires starting from the perspective that, really, the only thing I have ever unconditionally deserved is to burn forever in hell. God, in His unfathomable mercy, has given me escape from that future. So anything beyond that — a comfortable living, friendships, freedom, and even my next heartbeat — is a sheer, unmitigated blessing from Him. I cannot congratulate myself for having it or harbor offense if I lose it, because nothing in me merits what I have received. I can’t declare it off-limits to the Lord when He tells me to love and serve those around me.
Now, I’m all for having boundaries and using wisdom, but that’s way different from entitlement. The first is seeking wise stewardship of my resources according to the responsibilities God has given me, and the second is attempting to self-determine exactly how much of my life I am obligated to lay down for the Gospel. Under that sense of entitlement, any good intentions I have will be forever be locked in the stranglehold of my self-centeredness. If the things I have are the things I deserve, I can’t dream of sacrificing them — perhaps not even temporarily, but certainly not long-term — to see justice done on behalf of someone who isn’t me.
To say it another way, a grateful heart is a prerequisite to really embracing acts of justice. Gratitude paves the way for compassion. Thankfulness frees our hearts to really partner with the Lord in making wrong things right in this earth. It requires a humbling of ourselves and a lot of help from the Holy Spirit, but if we want to see justice go forth in our day, we need to be reaching for that heart that is grateful for everything and entitled to nothing.