Clarity in Charity: One Christian Perspective
Issue   |   Wed, 04/04/2012 - 01:18

Loud Christians make the most entertaining TV hosts, and of course, they have the funding and backing to get on TV in the first place. The majority of Christians around the world are poor, but they are not the ones who can afford to give their interpretation of the Gospel on late-night programs all the while asking viewers to continue padding their overflowing coffers. Rich televangelists and politicians, most of whom espouse fiscal conservatism because of their own socioeconomic status, are the ones most able to disseminate their beliefs, but this is only one interpretation of the Bible on money matters. I find more biblical evidence for its opposite.

I believe that Christians need to use government institutions to dispense charity in addition to the works of individuals because we operate according to different morals. So many individuals work with a haughty “I’m going to get what I deserve” mindset. This is not only antithetical to a Christian perspective, which states that we deserve nothing, and that all good comes only from God; it is also an unproductive, dangerous basis to any community.

With the root of desert, individuals start to assign personal value, making matters like vengeance, self-importance and judgment easy conclusions. This leads to a meritocracy that assumes that poverty is a personal defect, or worse, a sin in the Christian canon, and then concludes that dependency upon charity or welfare is a blemish on one’s character without taking into account the causes of such a state.

“Government-assisted charity” has to exist only because of the things that provoke it into existence: unfair tax systems, pre-existing systems of prejudice, dissolution of close relationships and communities and human greed. A tax system that favors the rich over the poor, judicial systems that condemn us based on race, healthcare systems that abandon us based on wealth and employment compensation that values us based on our reproductive organs, are only a few longstanding setbacks that make “equal opportunity” impossible. Moreover, failure on the part of individuals to perform “human” duties such as community building and caring for one’s neighbor further necessitates institutional measures. Who will care for our most beloved if even we cannot? While one facet of charity involves uplifting those not yet empowered, another facet must include the active undoing of these man-made imperfections. Because we as individuals normally lack the drive and resolve to fight injustices on our own, government safety nets provide a passive way for normal citizens to contribute, even if trivially, to the undoing of such societal injustices.

Governments are inefficient, of course, and fiscal conservatives often use this as a reason to leave matters like public welfare solely to the charitable acts of individuals. However, individuals — Christians and non-Christians alike — are just as imperfect, and they are the ones who comprise governments. Individuals are mostly unwilling to sacrifice on behalf of others without an expectation of return. Jesus asks us, according to the Gospel of Luke, to lend to those we believe cannot repay us — quite oppositional to our cultural norms of high interest rates and preying upon the most vulnerable. As someone whose family was once considered hardworking albeit “dependent,” I can testify that such government programs are of incredible worth to many. Had they not existed, I don’t know what we would have done in a new country with no extended family and very few friends.
Fiscal conservatives often cite the “laziness” of welfare recipients as a reason to cancel welfare programs. However, laziness is not endemic to the poor; the rich are often stereotyped as fat-cat heirs to old money, enjoying the fruits of another’s labor. If this seems like an unfair assessment, then consider the equal silliness in assuming that poverty indicates a lack of work ethic. The argument that the poor are lazy is often made by those who have never been poor or those for whom work was enough to allay poverty. Much of the time, this is not the case, for complicated, enmeshed reasons of history, privilege, communal ties, cultural differences etc.

In addition, I challenge the commonly heard “Christian” notion that “God helps those who help themselves,” which is found nowhere in the Bible (It originated in Greek tragedy). On the contrary, the Bible calls believers to give lavishly. The Gospel of Luke details John the Baptist as saying, “Anyone who has two shirts should share with the one who has none, and anyone who has food should do the same.” The same book later lists Jesus as having gone a step further: “If someone takes your coat, do not withhold your shirt from him. Give to everyone who asks you, and if anyone takes what belongs to you, do not demand it back.” There are no caveats. One does not only give to the well-groomed, the educated, the fellow Christian, the fellow citizen or the family member. One gives to “everyone who asks.” This includes our financial resources. Individuals can rarely uphold such a call, and the well-being of others depends on the provision of God through our abidance upon such principals. Therefore, a society with our diversity of morals and beliefs must consider compulsory charity.

Unwillingness to be charitable translates into a desire to maintain strict control over one’s resources, all of which were given by God in the first place. One crux of Christianity is the belief that God will provide all of one’s needs — not just financial, but relational, spiritual, etc. While financial wellness is secondary to the others, money is intimately tied to spiritual health in that the “love of money is the root of all evil,” according to Paul in his first letter to Timothy. A Christian believes that God gives us things so that we can bless others with our things.

Christians live in such a paradigm not because we can solve all the problems ourselves, but because such beliefs and the actions sprouting from them glorify God, the only one capable of fully solving such problems.
The Bible explains that a day will come when God returns the world to what it was meant to be — without poverty, without inequality, without hunger. Until then, we work to create a vision, even if only a temporary, distorted mirage, of what that place and time will look like, so as to bring glory to the One who can make it happen.

Anchor
Comments
Anonymous (not verified) says:
Wed, 04/04/2012 - 14:54

You premise your entire argument on Christain principles regarding individual free will in relatable charitable giving. God is focused on the heart of the individual and in that way he holds account with each of them. Government forced charity, which is in essence what all welfare policies are including the "progressive" tax income. It disincentivizes work, removes ones effort from one's reward(provided by God), and established a forced charity. This removes all benefit to charity. Supporting welfare policies is not one of christian tenets; because it involves you forcing other individuals to be charitable. Charity is a personal, individual act, your attempt to make it not contradicts the whole nature of charity. While you may support the liberal, government sanctioned welfare policies, don't misrepresent christian tenets to do so. Please pray before you write another one of your articles, instead of using the bible as a source to push your own agenda.

Ophelia (not verified) says:
Thu, 04/05/2012 - 09:56

Anonymous, thanks for your comment. I completely agree with you in that God is focused on the heart of the individual. Because you and I now stand in a position of privilege, we identify most commonly with "givers." (No value judgments on givers/recipients; just noting the roles.) From the perspective of "recipients," however, the God of the Christian faith also cares about mercy, justice, and the uplifting of the poor. I can see why you and others would believe that welfare policies have the potential to disincentivize work, and it's a very valid opinion. However, having frequently seen first-hand the power of welfare policies to better enable hard-working individuals, including my family and myself, I find that to be a blanket statement. Also, whether or not it disincentivizes work is not the crux of my argument, which is based on biblical evidence, not outside sources.

I encourage you also to look up Ruth 2:2-23, Leviticus 19:9, and Deuteronomy 24:19-21. The Hebrew law forbade field owners from retrieving dropped or overlooked crops, as well as crops on the periphery of their fields, in order to provide for the "foreigner, the fatherless, and the widow." This was not a suggestion; it was a law, and to disobey it was a punishable offense. Of course, today's tax laws and financial institutions are not the same as Hebrew law. But Scripture has repeatedly pointed to the necessity for mandated works, not because they benefit the giver necessarily, but because they are necessary as a part of caring for the "foreigner, the fatherless, and the widow," etc.

Before last year, I used to agree with you in that God only surveyed the heart of the giver. I thought that anything we did out of an impure heart was bound to be no good. But my mind was changed because a friend, a prominent Christian student from Amherst who graduated last year and had been involved in countless charitable endeavors in and around AC, told me that my former view was limited, insulting to givers, and inefficient to recipients. She said that we can never have a completely pure heart when approaching service and charity, and that from the view of the recipient, God still uses imperfect things for good. I had forgotten what it meant to be a recipient and saw myself only as a giver. That's just not the case; you and I are both in both small and big matters: the grace and forgiveness of God are examples of things we cannot work to earn; they are a free gift from God that disregards our lack of merit.

I am just as uncomfortable as you are with "forced" charity from the perspective of the giver, but from the perspective of a recipient, such measures are necessary if we care to ensure the well-being of others because humans do not have the instinct to be charitable. And God honors the needs of the recipients just as much as the intentions of the givers.

Also, I don't think that I make any attempts to "push" my agenda. This just happens to be in the format of a column. I aim to use the Bible to inform my views, and because they have, I'd like the chance to say it out loud. I use the Bible to inform many other things, and all adherents to the Bible do the same. I do not mean to misrepresent Christian "tenets" to do anything. I merely posed one interpretation of Scripture, and while I tried to make it very clear in my column, I'm sorry if it didn't come across well. If you interpret Scripture differently, I encourage you to talk with me if it's a personal discussion (my email address is ohu12@amherst.edu) or to publish an article in the Student.

Lastly, thank you for the reminder: one can certainly never pray enough before writing a column, or doing anything! If you would like to help me and pray with me for my column and my own clarity before I write my next one, please reach out to me, because I would love that.

Anonymous (not verified) says:
Fri, 04/06/2012 - 18:09

While I'll admit your biblical passages do mandate a form of generosity, it is nothing close to the welfare polices of the United States. Boaz and other owners of farmlands may not harvest their crops dry, but must leave some to the unfortunate(widows, sojourners, etc) to gather. The key difference is that the aforementioned policies require that Ruth and the sojourners harvest for themselves these leftovers. They are out in the field toiling for their own keep. So while it represents a form of generosity on the part of Boaz, the reward isn't completely unearned. Welfare policy in the US requires naught from the recipients. So your comparison fails to accomplish your goal. The biblical passage serves much more as a criticism of greed. One must demonstrate restraint in his accumulation of goods, but the restraint is not posited by law. It is left to personal decision. You should not take all of that you can but leave some for the less fortunate.
Likewise as mandated giving, is not truly giving, then biblical passages regarding charity do not justify welfare policies.
Now, your argument transitions to focus on the recipient. Your justification of welfare is not as a form of charity but rather as a means employed by God to help the needy. God is the provider. He provides by using things that we may not completely understand. Perhaps, he is using nationalized welfare--but i doubt it. For national welfare policies have proven to be incredibly inefficient. I suspect localized churches would be more aligned to what God intended.