Capital Commentary is the weekly current-affairs publication of CPJ, written to encourage the pursuit of public justice.
James W. Skillen
A version of this article originally appeared on December 19, 2008.
To what are you entitled? In our American context, we speak of “entitlements” such as Social Security and Medicare. We also take for granted that children are entitled to a free elementary and secondary education. An entitlement is something promised ahead of time; it comes with the territory.
More secure than those legislated programs are constitutional promises. You are entitled to free speech, religious freedom, and a fair trial. There are also less secure entitlements such as a certain interest rate on your savings account, until, that is, conditions push it down. You are entitled to the retirement benefits promised by your company, until the company goes bankrupt.
Yet even the more secure entitlements like Social Security depend on the fiscal soundness of the government and the value of the dollar. Now you see it and now you don’t. I think I can count on Social Security income when I become eligible, but what about my children?
And what about the promise of a free education for youngsters? It may be free, but the education some children receive is of high quality while that which others receive is, in some cases, almost worthless. What does an entitlement mean in that case?
In almost all of the system failures we have experienced, [we] increasingly hear cries of injustice. Why do the banks get bailed out but not my mortgage? Why must the poor suffer so much from the faults of Wall Street gamblers? And why should poorer families who cannot move into a good school district receive “free” schooling of such low quality? Where is the justice in that?
In times of crisis, entitlements are cheapened. Institutions behind the promises—whether government, the bank, or your employer—may come to be despised. On one level this is only about money (you win some, you lose some), but at a deeper level it amounts to the degradation of trust, the undermining of human dignity, and the violation of social bonds. I become angry that I’ve lost what I thought was mine. I hold in contempt those who “stole” it from me.
In this Christmas season, we may find ourselves thinking twice about whether we can be joyful about giving to others when we are in a position of weakness or financial insecurity ourselves. Isn’t now the time to hold on to what I have? How can I part with even a little of what’s left when surely I am entitled to more than I now have?
This is precisely the time to listen carefully to the unusual story about entitlement that lies at the heart of the Christian gospel. Jesus, the incarnate Son of God, was entitled to everything, including the service and adoration of every human being. Yet he discounted his claim to everything, disenfranchised himself of every divine privilege, and became one of us—a servant who owes everything and can claim nothing.
In this fashion, Jesus came not only to give us God’s love but also to show us what it means to live well as human beings. We have been created to give ourselves up in the service of God and one another. The mystery of life is that while we are entitled to permanent security in God’s love, that love can be experienced only by giving ourselves unselfishly to others, as if we are entitled to nothing. The more we try to hold onto ourselves and our possessions, the more we lose. The more we give ourselves to loving and doing justice to those who are also entitled to the love of God, the more we gain.
There is grave injustice in the breaking of human promises and in the failure to provide to others what we owe them. We should repent of and fight those injustices because they defy God’s love and our very reason for being. Yet only the entitlements that come from following the way of Jesus will endure forever. Only the promises of God will never be broken.
-- James W. Skillen is the founder and former president of the Center for Public Justice.
Questions for Reflection:
- What are some areas where you feel a strong sense of entitlement? How does that sense of entitlement compromise your ability to love and do justice to your friends and neighbors?
- How would you like the model of the incarnation of Christ to transform a specific area of entitlement in your life? What are some concrete steps you can take to make this happen?
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Capital Commentary is a weekly current-affairs publication of the Center for Public Justice. Published since 1996, it is written to encourage the pursuit of justice. Commentaries do not necessarily represent an official position of the Center for Public Justice but are intended to help advance discussion. Articles, with attribution, may be republished according to our publishing guidelines.”