I have often thought back to a conversation I had many years ago with one of my students. She had come from a rural background with a strong, and in many ways admirable, streak of self-reliance. She was dumbfounded when I quoted the saying “There but for the grace of God go I,” often attributed to a sixteenth century evangelical preacher and martyr, John Bradford. How could I, her professor, imagine myself in the position of people who were down and out, people without jobs who needed help?
Some folk look at the mass of people romantically, as if they are all good people, all capable of making something of themselves and contributing to society if given a chance. Others look cynically, as if no one is worth anything until they measure up. Many think of people who are poor, or people have committed a crime, as throwaways, of no account and no concern.
I described the street children of Kampala recently. None of those children had a chance until someone from the successful world reached down and pulled them up. Ronnie Sseruyange (see-rue-yan-gay) was one of the lucky ones – if you can call him lucky – an orphan with a jaw crushed so badly that it is now hinged on only one side. Ronnie had the heart and the integrity to reach back down and pull up others after him, to use the connections he’d made to find a garage for the boys to sleep, and most of all to learn, to be educated.
A great deal depends on the deck we are thrown. Our success is not written in our genes. Success is always a combination of what our genes and our character produce, and what circumstances draw out of our nature – the ability to fight on tough streets, or the ability to work together in civilized environs. There is no single future for us. We are always partly what our circumstances encourage.
None of us gets where we are solely on our innate genetic talent. And some of us have the grace and the humility to understand that and to be willing to reach down and give those others a helping hand.
For some ideologues everyone should be free to say no, I will not help. But that creates a world in which many will be treated as throwaways. Individual and private efforts have never been enough to give everyone a chance. That’s why it is a collective responsibility, yes, a government responsibility. And that, thank heavens, is why we should thank our lucky stars that in America we have the wealth to be able to extend that collective hand, to give people a chance. And of course, when we do, we all reap the benefit of safe, vibrant, successful communities and a great country.
Steve Gottlieb is Jay and Ruth Caplan Distinguished Professor of Law at Albany Law School and author of Morality Imposed: The Rehnquist Court and Liberty in America. He has served on the Board of the New York Civil Liberties Union, and in the US Peace Corps in Iran.
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