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July 30, 2019

The Kindness of Strangers: What It Can and Can’t Do – the Rev. Karl Runser

A school district in Pennsylvania recently made the news for sending a letter to around twenty families who owed money for their kids’ lunches. The letter threatened to take the children away and place them in foster care if the bills were not paid.

(By the way, this was an empty threat. Economic struggle does not constitute a legal reason to remove a child from her home.)

When it made the news, several individuals offered to pay the outstanding bills, which total around $18,000. The school board refused the offers at first, but after a day of negative social media attention, they changed course and accepted at least one person’s offer.

In the end, it was a clumsy and cruel attempt to frighten poor families. The school board should never have allowed it. Accepting the offer was, under the circumstances, the better (or perhaps the least disgraceful) choice. But there’s another unhealthy feature of this story that we should consider.

More and more, Americans are substituting the kindness of strangers for just and equitable policy. We see this trend in the story of the Pennsylvania school. We see this in the many crowdsourcing efforts to pay medical bills. We see it in headlines like “Heartwarming!! This Girl’s Family Couldn’t Afford A Wheelchair, So Her Nurses Pooled Their Money And Got Her One!” We’re meant to celebrate the generosity of the nurses, or the billionaire who paid for a college class’s debt, or the CEO who paid for the school lunches.

Those are fine gestures, but charity is no replacement for just policies, and the random kindness of strangers cannot make up for the absence of political will that allows this kind of desperation to become as common as it has. It’s not much different from playing the lottery: just as haphazard, as dependent on being in the right place at the right time, as illusory a fix for insecurity.

Neither can religious organizations bridge the gap. It isn’t their vocation to bridge the gap. That task is given to all of us — to all of society, in order to (in the US Constitution’s words) “promote the general Welfare.”

The Rev.  Karl W. Runser serves as the pastor of the Southern Clinton County Lutheran Parish and as a LAMPa Policy Council member representing the Upper Susquehanna Synod.

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