PM Lee Hsien Loong's remark about how the poor in Singapore is still better off than the poor in the USA sparked an outcry of indignation by netizens. A picture, posted by The Online Citizen, of an elderly Singapore woman digging through a rubbish dump made its round provoked further debate.
Two lines of argument emerge from the comments. The first can be roughly summarised as a flat rejection of the existence of the hardcore poor in Singapore as being an acceptable state of affairs. Propoents of this view believes there are more than sufficient resources to help these people and there is no excuse why we don't impose welfare on them so that no one is hard up.
Another line of argument is that we must not become a welfare state. Many of these people do not want, consciously or unconsciously, to be helped. They are entrenched in their ways and any effort to try and lift them out of their poverty cycle is futile. Instead they should be respected and left alone. Some would even view them as deserving of the fate that they have brought upon themselves. One commentator suggested asking the woman in the picture how she feels. Another suggested that she is merely doing an honest day's work scavenging through rubbish dumps to find recyclable items that can be sold for money.
I myself have often is it right that I am enjoying a standard of living that is fairly comfortable when there are others who do not even have a quarter of what I earn? Often when I walk past the elderly at MRT stations I ask myself why doesn't someone help them out. Instead of standing at the underpass trying to sell tissue paper, why doesn't 7-Eleven or Cheers, hire them to help sell their wares and pay them a commission, or something? Why aren't they roped in by some companies to man a stall and so that they can make a legitimate living.
My wife suggested that some times, these people are unwilling to be helped. She offered her own experience in giving chances to those who are not so successful to do better by giving them business. However, time and again, these people do not seem to cherish the opportunities handed to them and, through their dysfunctional habits, sabotage themselves by not stepping up to the plate, delivering what they promised, and so on. What is one to do in such a case?
There is a saying that if someone takes advantage of you the first time, it is THEIR fault. However, if they manage to take advantage of you the second time, it is YOUR fault for being stupid enough to let them.
What is the Biblical approach to this conundrum? I believe it has much to do with your relationship to the person you are trying to help. The Bible distinguishes between the shepherd (or the owner) and the hired hand. If it is someone you are tasked to help, say an subordinate, or a customer, or a student, and that person refuses your help, it is perfectly reasonable to give that person the "three strikes and you are out" treatment.
However, we would approach someone we love or care about very much quite differently. We would not give the same ultimatum to, let's say, our parents, our siblings, or spouse. (At least we should not, although some do.) The reason is simply because we do not treat someone we care about like a case at work. Instead it is a totally different relationship where this verse applies: "Love is patient, love is kind...it does not seek its own, is not provoked, does not take into account a wrong suffered...[but] bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never fails" (1 Corinthians 13:4-7,13). In short, we do not give up on someone we love.
When we come across a delinquent student, a recalcitrant employee, a stubborn member of your constituency, or a difficult church member, what is your mandate from above towards that person? Is he or she merely one of the many sheep you are tasked to manage (John 10:13)? Or are you a shepherd with the love and ownership so that you are even willing to leave the 99 to search for the single lost one (Matthew 18:12)?
A hired hand's priority is to keep the system working, keeping in mind what is best for the majority, to keep the bottom line steady. That is a manager's mentality. For a manager, the "three strikes and you are out" is a perfectly acceptable mode of operation.
However, if one sees oneself as called to "feed my sheep" (John 21:17) one will see beyond the unwillingness of the person you are trying to help, and stand by that person all the way despite his or her resistance, much like the father of the prodigal who never gave up hope and faith.
Does that person deserve it? Of course not. Did the prodigal son deserve his father's welcome? Do we as Christians deserve God's forgiveness? Is that not the whole point of a gospel of grace. You receive even when you do not deserve. And you likewise give even when the other party does not deserve it.
If we help only those who help themselves, then we are operating on the basis of works, not grace. Giving up on people who are not willing to try betrays a hired hand mentality on our part.
So what do we do?
It was Steven Covey, in his book the "The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People", who shared the story of how a manager and the leader differs. At a lumber site, the if you need a sharper saw, you ask the manager. If you are hungry, thirsty, or in need of whatever supplies, you ask the manager. Is this leadership? The answer is obvious no. This is mere maintenance of status quo, or management.
So where is the leader? He is up the tallest tree, scouting where to harvest more trees, giving directions where to go next.
If our job is merely to maintain status quo, we are mere managers. A true leader will inspire, will exhort, will provide direction, will lead. How do you know if you are a leader? The easiest answer is to look back. If no one is following you, you are not a leader.
Coming back to the poor and needy in our society. Many, if not all of them are in their poor state because of one set of disadvantageous circumstance or another. Many are born into poor socio-economic families with lousy habits and attitude. Some are offered a ticket out via things like educational and employment opportunities. But the fact remains that many are stuck in their self-destructive ways and need help in breaking the cycle. This is where shepherds are needed, not managers, which are aplenty, be it in the church, the educational system, the work place or in our social network.
Who will leave the 99 sheep (which pretty much messes up our KPI) in order to pursue the single lost sheep? What is to be our attitude towards the stubborn woman who continues to dig through rubbish dumps or the tissue paper seller at the underpass? Do we say they had their chance, let them reap what they sow, or do we go all out to win them over like the shepherd going all out of his way to recover that single troublesome sheep?
These people do not need more handouts, more rules and discipline, more advice and rebuke. They need encouragement and inspiration to come out of their destructive lifestyle. In short, they need a hefty dose of agape love.
5 years ago