Underlying any culture lies a series of fundamental values. While sustaining individuals and groups, they work much like water to fish, forming a total environment that goes unnoticed until threatened. So it is with the concept of Tsedek in the Bible, a combination of justice, help and redemption. Relationships are guided and motivated by transcendent, spiritual concepts that tie lives not only to one another, forming a society, but to a commanding and just God as well.
People in the Bible don't realize their motives. They just live them. We envision our lives measured against such concepts. They subtly contribute to and form the answers to the personal question "What should I do now?" or "What should I do about this?" "Should I help this poor man by the side of the road," asked the priest, the levite and the good Samaritan in Christian scriptures. "Shall I reconcile with my brothers?" internally asked Joseph. Hidden but very real values help to guide our lives.
So I ask myself, what is going on with American culture? It appears to me that we are in a culture war. Radical individualism in American life has culminated in a self-absorption and the resultant greed so pervasive that we ignore it as though it's a necessity to life itself. "Why should I be certain my neighbor has access to health care? Did he earn it? Does he deserve it? Why is that my problem?"
We ignore the famous biblical question, "Am I my brother's keeper," because in the current American culture what was once a given fact is now only an assertion, a cultural discussion, and often a PC ideal that we ignore only to state it when needed for our own conscience or personal survival.
Paul Ryan recently said that the problem with insurance is that well people pay for sick people. People laughed at him because "that's the definition of insurance." But he betrayed not so much an ignorance as a new cultural norm. "Why would healthy people pay for sick people?" It's not only the way insurance works, it's the glue that holds a society together. Why would young soldiers give their lives for unrelated old folks? Why would volunteer firemen risk their lives for others' homes? Why did a white man in Olathe in the Austin Bar risk his life for near strangers of a different ethnicity? Because that ideal enables us to not only rely on others but give unselfishly and create webs of meaning. Without relationship we die.
We are not only fighting for democracy in American life. We must embody the relationships that separate us from pure materialism and make possible the spirituality that sustains human life. The next time someone asks you why the poor deserve your caring, look them in the eye and say, "Because I'm a human being."