The Sin of Entitlement

Early in my Christian life I was struck by a fascinating quote in C. S. Lewis’ Screwtape Letter #21.  On the sin of peevishness, he wrote,

Men are not angered by mere misfortune but by misfortune conceived as injury.  And the sense of injury depends on the feeling that a legitimate claim has been denied.  The more claims on life, therefore, that your patient can be induced to make, the more often he will feel injured and, as a result, ill-tempered.

I’ll confess that for some years I was a peevish person and didn’t really figure out how to deal with this pattern and break it until later in life.  But it occurs to me that this relates tothe often-discussed attitude of ‘entitlement’, and a sense of entitlement that triggers a multitude of sins.

Entitlement Triggers

First, it seems to me that all theft has to be triggered by an attitude of entitlement.  I can’t see how someone could steal what is not theirs without some sort of attitude of entitlement.

Second, I agree with Lewis that unrighteous anger is triggered by a sense of entitlement.  Otherwise we should just mourn our misfortune.  And yes, real men should cry [in the sense of mourning] rather than rage, and boys should be taught that.  That even applies to ‘righteous’ anger; because we are still sinners, we are not entitled to the New Jerusalem, where we will never be sinned against, in the here and now.

[If anger leads us to constructive action for justice or righteousness, instead of just raging, that is a different matter.  If the person who has wronged you is likely to wrong other people in the future, then taking action to stop him, or at least warning others about him, is not wrong.]

St. Paul and Entitlement

There are some things that we are, in an earthly sense, entitled to.  A couple of passages in Paul’s letter to the Romans point this out, highlighting the differences between wages – an entitlement – and the gift of God:

Romans 4:4-6: “Now to the one who works, his wages are not counted as a gift but as his due.  And to the one who does not work but believes in him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is counted as righteousness, just as David also speaks of the blessing of the one to whom God counts righteousness apart from works.”  The Old Testament is also clear that wages agreed to are a moral entitlement, though it says nothing about a ‘minimum wage’ as such.

And, then, of course, there’s Romans 6:23: “For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.”  Yes, eternal death is an entitlement!

Success and Entitlement

I would also note that, as I have written elsewhere,  the need for ‘achieved success’ or ‘earned success’ is a legitimate human need that the Gospel does not meet.

I am the employer of a family office.  As such, I am entitled to have materials representing me, and sent out in my name, be properly spelled and punctuated, and have good grammar.  I am not entitled to have this happen without my checking and enforcing it.

I am also entitled to set certain boundaries around myself so that I can do the things that God wants me to do and not all kinds of other things.  I am not entitled that people should see and respect those boundaries automatically, without my upholding them.

I am not entitled to demand that my office follows procedures that are humanly impossible.  There was a time when I expected my employees, and every receptionist I ever talked to, to be human voice mail machines, transcribing long and detailed messages.  I finally realized that that was beyond the human capacity of almost everyone.  Today, if I really want to talk to someone, I now request a conference call appointment at a certain time.  If not, I don’t talk to them.

If I feel entitled to have my policies and boundaries upheld by others without taking personal responsibility for them, I will ‘be mad’ every time I have to personally uphold my own rules.  And, as I’ve come to understand, people will then hear only my ‘mood’ and not the content of what I say.

I’ve been told that most people approach a speaker by, to use the analogy of watching a movie on an airplane, first watching with the sound off, to judge the actors’ visual mood, then switching on the sound in an unknown foreign tongue, to gauge the tone and mood of their voice; and only then switch to English and listen to the words.  Perhaps I do the same sometimes, and don’t admit it.

Screwtape again, this time Letter #3:

In civilized life domestic hatred usually expresses itself by saying things which would appear quite harmless on paper [the words are not offensive] but in such a voice, or at such a moment, that they are not far short of a blow in the face.  To keep this game up you and Glubose must see to it that each of these two fools has a sort of double standard.  Your patient must demand that all his own utterances are to be taken at their face value and judged simply on the actual words, while at the same time judging all his mother’s utterances with the fullest and most over-sensitive interpretation of the tone and the context and the suspected intention.  Hence from every quarrel they can both go away convinced, or very nearly convinced, that they are quite innocent.  You know the kind of thing: ‘I simply ask her what time dinner will be and she flies into a temper’.  Once this habit is well established, you have the delightful situation of a human saying things with the express purpose of offending and yet having a grievance when offence is taken.

I derive two lessons from this.  First, we are morally responsible for our tone and body language and all that, whether we are aware of it or not.  And many of us cannot simply will ourselves to use the right tone.  In the short run, we have to be aware of our anger, and choose between speaking in the wrong tone, or keeping silent, which is the lesser evil in the situation.

In the long run, I think, the only way this can be dealt with is by confronting our sense of entitlement and figuring out what our real issues are.  But on the other hand, if we can sometimes pretend that we did not hear the anger or the bad mood but only the words, we can keep the situation from escalating.  So both sides have a role to play here.

Trust Funders and Entitlement

Rich kids’ or ‘trust funders’ are frequently accused of being especially guilty of the vice of entitlement.  I am not convinced that we rich kids are necessarily more guilty of this vice than whole groups of other people.  I think that the entitlement and expectations of rich kids come primarily from naiveté about the real world, and about the real circumstances of people not in their situation.  This naiveté may indeed be morally culpable.  How it is to be healed, I don’t know.

In the old days, it was much more common for upper middle-class kids to take dirty jobs during the summer months.  This is less common today because of two factors: the need of these kids to do things during the summer that would polish their resume karma [and, if they are in college or after, to get jobs that would help pay down their student loans faster than dirty jobs would allow], and the presence of large numbers of desperate immigrants who can work all year and who have, supposedly, a better attitude than snotty upper middle class adolescents.  I would argue that a few dirty jobs might help, but you’ll never be able to walk a mile in every possible pair of proletarian moccasins.  And in the Chronicles of Narnia, Aslan, the Lion who is the form that Jesus takes in Narnia, informs the children at one point that “I tell no one any story but his own.”  I have taken hope from that saying.

I do think rich kids share a couple of vices.  One is the assumption that their riches are an unscalable wall.  As Proverbs 18:11 puts it, “The rich man’s wealth is his strong city, and as a high wall in his own conceit.”  This they may share with other people of wealth.

Another vice is acedia or spiritual sloth, which may be the one sin that is unique to trust-fund kids apart from others of wealth.  As one said in an old book called Robin Hood Was Right, “It seems like everything I’ve ever done in my whole life is really a hobby.” Frankly, I’ve accepted this as true of myself and resolved not to feel guilty about it as such.

Politics and Entitlement

Then there is the political issue of entitlement.  When many groups feel ‘entitled’ to resources from the state, all kinds of problems result:  deficits, crony capitalism, inflation of the currency.  I would advise young people who complain about the current state of things to study the Great Inflation of the 1970s, because that was one of the major events that triggered the current ‘neoliberal’ regime.  And I have argued that inflation has continued apace since that time in the three areas of housing, tuition, and health care.

More recently, some have taken to using the word ‘entitlements’ ironically, to describe government outlays that they do not approve of.  In fact, nowhere in the Scriptures are we told that anyone is entitled to resources from the state, with the exception of those who have loaned it money or purchased government bonds or T bills.  Even in the Torah, when it almost implies that the poor are morally entitled to no-interest loans from the rich, this arrangement does not go through the state.  Nor is there one word in the ‘red letters’ [the words spoken by Jesus himself] to imply that anyone has entitlements to the state’s resources.

I came of political age in the days of Barry Goldwater, who, during his campaign in 1964, suggested making Social Security voluntary, to the great distress of the elderly of his time.  Naïve me!  I didn’t realize till I was much older that in America there are two kinds of welfare, only one of which is usually referred to as ‘welfare’ in American English.  The kind that Americans call ‘welfare’ are means-tested programs, given only to the relatively poor.  Admittedly, the way that AFDC was run caused problems of dependency.  And its insistence on the singleness of the parents who received it discouraged sound families in the poorer parts of society.  [Some people who received it were indeed blacker than the nation as a whole, but recipients were still majority white.]

But there is another kind of welfare that is not called ‘welfare’ in American English.  And it is much larger and potentially more unsustainable than the means-tested programs.  I speak, of course, of Social Security and Medicare.  [Medicaid, also, is the largest means-tested program, much larger than anything else we call ‘welfare’.]

Social Security and Medicare are social insurance programs that are not means-tested, and they are far, far larger than the ‘welfare’ programs for the poor.  So when some acquaintances of mine allowed themselves to get arrested over some cuts to programs for the poor, I decided I had some sympathy for them.  It’s not that I believe that they had any juridical or moral right to these programs being continued forever and ever at their same level – I don’t think that – but because when politicians try to make cuts they go after these programs for the poor rather than middle-class entitlements or crony-capitalist entitlements, both of which are not easily reduced.

Then I realized that there is also an attitude in our society that those who make less money are less ‘worthy’ or ‘deserving’ than those who make more money.  Recipients of means-tested programs for the poor are perceived as less ‘deserving’ than recipients of social insurance.  Those who make less money than we do are seen as undesirable people and undesirable neighbors and should be excluded by land use policy at the local level.  In this mentality, the high cost of housing in many parts of the country is not deemed to be a problem, because the cost of housing excludes those ‘undeserving’ and ‘unworthy’ of our communities.

Envy and Entitlement

I’m not sure that envy is quite the same thing as entitlement.  Actually, it’s an odd form of entitlement; instead of us being entitled to things, we are entitled to other people not having things.  As I’ve said elsewhere, this envy comes in two forms.  The populist left form goes after the rich as such, especially when they are the more ‘successful’ [as the vast majority of rich, not being rich kids, are] or anyone with more talent than us, or anyone displaying any kind of superiority to us; what the Australians call ‘tall poppies’.  I refer you again to C. S. Lewis and to Screwtape, to the essay “Screwtape Proposes a Toast.”

But there is another kind of envy, associated more with the populist Right.  This says that we do not want people to have what we have, or even less than we have [like a small condo in a community where we have a house] if they have not ‘paid their dues’or ‘earned it’ or the like.

This kind of envy lies behind all hazing in fraternities or in the work place.  It also lies behind the belief in most cultures that womanhood is natural, whereas manhood is ‘earned’ or ‘achieved’.  There may be rational reasons for this; in most cultures men have been asked to disregard their own survival instinct to put themselves in danger to protect more vulnerable women and children, and only those men who have learned to overcome their personal instinct for survival and comfort can be truly ‘men’.  I don’t know what Scripture says about this either way.  Maybe someone can do a study of it.

Jealousy is slightly different from envy.  It says, “You took from me something I should have.”  This is not always a sin, especially as it applies to people taking our wives and husbands.  And God has spoken of Himself as ‘jealous’ as it applies to people worshiping other gods or having life priorities higher than Himself.  Nevertheless, jealousy can often be a sin, when it is not warranted.

So as we have seen, while we are indeed ‘entitled’ to certain things like wages, the attitude of ‘entitlement’ lies behind many sins: robbery, anger and often even murder, covetousness, and arrogant attitudes toward those who have more or who have not ‘paid their dues’.  An attitude of entitlement is a serious ethical issue that we need to take into account.

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