This morning my neighbors at work decided to talk about where you could use EBT benefits. I should note at the outset that as a small child, during part of the time between the separation and divorce of my parents, my family received Aid for Families With Dependent Children on behalf of my younger brother and I. When my parents finally did divorce after being separated more than five years, the blow to my father’s standard of living that was required to repay the government for this aid was a source of contention between my estranged parents. Most of my neighbors at work are either on EBT themselves or know others who are. They are, by and large, not well off. They work 40 hours a week but still do not make enough money for rent, food, or transportation expenses to be comfortable, especially given that many of them spend a great deal of their limited money on cigarettes and coffee. Additionally, many of them have family members to support, and that is not an easy task to accomplish.
It was truly fascinating to dig a bit into the rules involving where EBT (that is, Electronic Bank Transfer, a fancy name for the debit card that food stamps come on). For example, one can go to a Starbuck’s store in a grocery store and use EBT so long as one buys a chilled coffee product. Additionally, one can often go to a Subway in a Wal-Mart and buy a cold sub, but not a toasted one. Additionally, one can go to a Papa Murphy’s or a Little Caesar for a take and bake pizza, but not one that is baked by the pizzeria itself. These are somewhat baffling rules, as if the mere temperature that food is served makes any difference in whether one is buying according to the spirit of EBT or not. Anecdotally, many of my coworkers discussed their own family members they had witnessed using EBT in unconventional ways, or their own experiences. Drawing the line can be a bit of a challenge—do we consider someone who buys coffee with their EBT to be a caffeine addict in the grips of their addiction, despite wasting limited resources on it, or to be someone wasting taxpayer money? Or a little bit of both, perhaps? Likewise, as odd as it may seem to allow a take and bake pizza to be purchased, it is a lower cost product than a cooked pizza and it can last for several meals, making it a reasonable expenditure that can provide at least some balance in diet, if one gets the right toppings. It requires a great deal of nuance to not only develop just rules, but also to determine the extent to which people are living wisely and making wise decisions within the constraints available to them.
Recently I have been trying to get news about the rioting in Baltimore. Given that an alarming number of my friends and acquaintances are left-wing, and another large number of them are right-wing in their political outlook, it is fascinating to see how the same news story can be interpreted by different people and groups. One group has emphasized the peaceful and nonviolent nature of the conflicts, an interpretation that fails to account for the fact that at least fifteen police officers have been injured by the riots, which have caused the postponement of sports games, neither of which can be said to be nonviolent in nature. Likewise, the fact that rioting is itself morally reprehensible does not mean that there are not some just complaints at the basis of the unrighteous and anarchical behavior of the rioters in Baltimore. Again, as is often the case, people may rise in what they view as righteous anger, when it is nothing of the kind, but still be motivated against something that is itself genuinely wrong, even if they are also in the wrong. We must not justify either the wrong of the apparent brutality of the police or the wrong of civil unrest and social violence. We can and should hate evil no matter whether it comes from the state or comes from would-be social revolutionaries, and justify neither side in such a dispute.
I don’t know when or how the rioting in Baltimore will resolve itself, like the rioting that periodically goes around in a similar subculture for similar excuses. I do know that I do not want a single penny to go for rewarding rioters for their behavior. Quite frankly, if you and your neighbors are inclined to destroy private property and fail to respect the life and property of others, you do not deserve to have other people pay to rebuilt your communities. You destroyed it; you rebuild it yourself. I feel the same way, it should be noted, about those who deliberately live in high-risk coastal property in Gulf states. The fact that you want waterfront property does not mean you have a right to make a claim on common resources because a predictable disaster, namely a hurricane, comes. You put yourself in harm’s way; you deal with the repercussions. My compassion extends far enough that any law-abiding citizen merely in the wrong place at the wrong time should be able to seek new and better neighbors, so that they are free from being victim to the violence caused by agitators and miscreants. Nevertheless, those who cause problems for themselves and their neighbors ought not to be rewarded for their violence. Rather, they ought to feel the weight of their own misdeeds, and amend their conduct through more productive means towards more beneficial ends.
Yet at the same time I have no common feeling with those who abuse their power as agents of the state to act with force towards others. Indeed, a great deal of my life has been spent dealing with the repercussions of abuse, and it is a horrible experience I would not wish on my worst enemies, nor will I stand with any unrepentant abusers and seek to defend their abuses. What we see here is a familiar refrain, one that even for all of its familiarity does not cease to disturb us. It is a strategy that comes straight out of Satan’s playbook in the false dilemma. Corrupt from the right, rebel from the left. Over and over again we see a familiar satanic dialectic between corrupt and abusive authorities and anarchic rebels who fail to respect the lives and property and dignity of others. There is a better way, a way of principled law and order that serves the best interests of all as the sons and daughters of the Most High God, worthy of dignity and opportunity, possessing freedom and responsibility, the equal of every other child of God, but with an unequal distribution of talents and abilities and backgrounds, both of which are to be respected and honored. Yet it takes a great deal of courage to deny the legitimacy of those who use injustice as a pretext for their own immoral and ungodly conduct, and those who use the possession of legitimate titles and offices as a pretext to behave in a corrupt and ungodly and abusive manner towards others. We need not employ one form of ungodliness against another. We can, if we choose, not to be ungodly at all, or to sanction any ungodliness, on any side, no matter who commits it. Yet who is this brave in our present evil world?