Saturday, October 10, 2009

Private charity & social justice


“I recently read Friedmans ‘Capitalism&Freedom’ where he puts forward som good arguments for laissez-faire. He does however agree that alleviation of poverty should be state financed, due to the fact that everyone benefits from the fact that poverty is alleviated. I was wondering if you agree that the state should have some responsibility in these matters? How much in that case and how is it justified, on capitalistic grounds?”

That’s a very broad question, so it’s not simple to answer.

The poor may be poor for a variety of reasons.

1.They may be poor due to institutional poverty. You might have a Marxist regime with economic policies which impoverish the populace.

In a sense, the state could alleviate that problem by changing its policies. But the state is the source of the problem, so short of armed insurrection, we can’t look to the state to solve the problem when the state created the problem.

Likewise, you might have a banana republic in which drug lords confiscate most of the wealth, and bribe or extort gov’t officials to insure their monopoly.

Since, in that situation, the state is on the take, we can’t look to the state to clean up the mess. It’s like asking a junkie to police the pharmacy.

You can also have well-intentioned social programs that foster a culture of dependency, delinquency, and poverty.

2.Or people may be poor because the area in which they live is too inhospitable to support that population density. Not much the state can do about that.

3.Or people may be poor due to their lifestyle choices. Once again, there’s not much the state can do about that.

4.Apropos (1)-(3), people can be poor through no fault of their own, or bring it on themselves. Take people with preexisting medical conditions.

i) I saw a story about a woman whose mother, grandmother, and three brothers all died from diabetes. She herself has diabetes because she’s morbidly obese.

In that case, she knowingly and willfully engages in self-destructive behavior. I have no obligation to foot the bill for her healthcare. Same thing with chain-smokers who contract lung-cancer.

ii) Then you have coal miners who come down with black lung disease. That’s an occupational hazard, but that was contracted from an honorable effort to provide themselves and their kin. A very different situation than (i). They were trying to do the responsible thing, given their limited opportunities.

At the very least, the company should be required by law to provide worker’s comp.

iii) Then you have people who indulge in high-risk behavior when they are young and foolish, but have tried to kick the habit. They realize that their past “indiscretions” were imprudent and destructive. They’d like to turn their life around. Yet they may have ruined their health in the process. So they can’t completely turn back the clock.

Recovering alcoholics and drug-attics are paradigm-cases. They’re entitled to more compassion that someone who’s impenitent. Someone who continues to pursue his self-destructive behavior.

iv) Then you have people who are disabled or incapacitated by an accident or illness through no fault of their own. They, too, are entitled to more compassion than someone who is willfully reckless.

v) Social responsibilities also vary according to our relationship to the individual.

If a junkie is a perfect stranger, then I don’t have the same obligations to him that I have in case the junkie is my kid brother or childhood friend.

In the case of a sibling or best friend, I have an obligation to do whatever I can–within reason. I don’t have the same degree of obligation in the case of a perfect stranger.

vi) A supportive family should be our first resort. Private charity should be our second resort. Public assistance should be our last resort.

5.Let’s also keep in mind that many social ills are due to sin. Evangelism and discipleship can lessen many social ills.

6.Finally, Greg Bahnsen summarizes some Biblical principles of charity and social justice:

How, then, would God's word direct us to show concern for the poor and needy?[3]

First, by not hiding from their needs -- isolating ourselves so that we need not encounter the cries of the poor. The Bible condemns "stopping the ears" and "hiding the eyes" (Proverbs 21:13; 28:27), not so subtle ways of remaining insensitive to the plight of the less fortunate around us. "The righteous takes knowledge of the cause of the poor" (Proverbs 29:7). Indeed, when he gives a dinner, he is acquainted with and able to invite the poor who cannot recompense him (Luke 14:12-14).

Second, and most obviously, we are urged to show neighborly pity to the poor (cf. Proverbs 14:21) by giving generously to relieve their specific needs -- making direct gifts to buy groceries or clothes, pay utility bills, underwrite medical treatment, etc. (Matthew 25:35-39; Luke 14:12-14). "The righteous gives and withholds not" (Proverbs 21:26; cf. 22:9).

Third, God's law protects and provides favorable social arrangements for the poor and needy, such as the prohibitions on taking the necessities of life as collateral (Exodus 22:26-27; Deuteronomy 24:22-13) or charging interest on loans made to them (Exodus 22:25; Leviticus 25:35-37; Deuteronomy 15:7-11; 23:19-20). It sometimes happens that a person cannot afford a donation to a brother in need, but can loan him some money for a time. It is a Christian virtue not to turn away those who would borrow from us (Matthew 5:42), expecting nothing in return (Luke 6:35). In such a case, it would be immoral to profit from your brother's distress: the loan may not carry interest charges. God Himself will pay back such a good deed (Proverbs 19:17), whereas the violation of this command from God will lead you to lose your financial gain to someone else more gracious (Proverbs 28:8).

Fourth, the law of God also provides for the poor through the favorable social arrangement of requiring us to allow gleaning (Leviticus 19:9-10; 23:22; Deuteronomy 24:19-20). The leftovers in our fields, the pickings which fall to the ground, and the unreaped corners of the fields are to be made available to those who are in need. The poor may hereby work to support themselves and may meet their families' needs with whatever they are able to carry away (thus placing natural requirements and restraints upon the scope of this provision). The application of this divine requirement outside of agricultural settings is not inconceivable (e.g., donation of our still-useable clothes, furniture, appliances, cash change from the market or restaurant, etc.).

Fifth, the word of God offers us wisdom to see that it is inappropriate and worthy of disapprobation for someone to use his advantage in the free market to drive up prices on items which are basic necessities of life. "He who withholds grain, the people shall curse him; but blessing shall be upon the head of him who sells it" (Proverbs 11:26). The greed which would corner the market on some commodity which is a staple of life, calculating to withhold it from sale in order to make people desperate and increase the profit on its sale later, will be cursed.

Sixth, the scriptures require us to protect the property rights of those in society who virtually have no voice, who are easiest to exploit, and who have the least political clout -- people like the orphans and widows (Deuteronomy 10:18; Psalm 68:5; Proverbs 15:25; 22:28; 23:10-11). Tampering with their boundaries or in other ways diminishing the use and value of their property and belongings -- whether through legislation or deceptive contracts or manipulative lawsuits -- provokes the vengeance of their Redeemer according to the Bible, and we should intercede to take their side as well. This is especially needful in a culture where it has become so costly (and tricky) in civil court to resolve disputes and guard one's rights.

Seventh, Christians who plead for the rights of the needy in lawsuits as well as those who are entrusted with judicial authority, such as judges in our courts, are especially commanded by God to relieve the easy social oppression of the needy and to guard against judicial prejudice toward them. God expects kings to "deliver the poor and needy" (Ps. 72:2-4, 12-14) -- which means, according to the Biblical text itself, that they are to "break their oppressors" by securing fairness in the courts and protecting them from "bribes," "fraud and violence" (Leviticus 19:15; Ex. 23:3, 6; Ps. 82:1-4; Amos 5:11-12; cf. Proverbs 22:22-23; 29:14).

Eighth, another way in which those in need are defrauded is when wealthy employers take advantage of them by delaying or holding back the wages of their workers (Leviticus 19:13; James 5:1-6). In such cases the Christian must come to the worker's defense and seek the fulfillment of obligations made to him, lest his economic condition be further worsened. Likewise, Christians ought to take a stand for protecting the freedom of the poor in the marketplace so that they are guaranteed an opportunity to compete for jobs (e.g., over against closed union shops, etc.; cf. Matthew 20:1-16) and to compete at a price that renders them more likely to be hired (e.g., over against wage requirements set by the state, etc.; cf. Revelation 13:17). To deny people the freedom to compete in the marketplace and thereby enjoy upward economic mobility violates the love we are to have for our neighbors and transgresses the golden rule.

Ninth, Christian families must make it a point to make provision for meeting the economic needs of their family members (1 Timothy 5:8), in particular those who fall upon hard times. This will call not only for industry and avoidance of sloth to take care of ordinary living expenses (e.g., Proverbs 6:6-11; 10:4; 19:15; 20:4; 23:21; 24:30-34), but also foresight and frugality to meet emergency needs which could not be predicted (cf. e.g., Leviticus 25:25, 49). Likewise, as an extension of such loving provision, families may show benevolence to fellow-believers who have become insolvent debtors by allowing the poor brother voluntarily to sell himself (actually, his labor) into their servitude, thereby coming to be treated and cared for as part of the household. His debts would be paid (Leviticus 25:39), he would learn responsible labor and financial saving (perhaps enough to buy his own release: Leviticus 25:49), and in time he would be given liberal provisions to start a new life (Deuteronomy 15:14).

Tenth and very importantly, the Christian congregation should corporately minister to the needs of the poor. The office of deacon was specifically ordained as a ministry of mercy to the needy, for instance the daily assistance to widows (Acts 6:1-6). Tithes and offerings which God calls for are regularly to be used for the relief of the poor (Deuteronomy 14:28-29).[4] And special offerings are to be taken by the church to take care of Christians suffering from special hardships or emergencies (e.g., I Corinthians 16:1-2; Romans 15:25-27; 2 Corinthians 8). The charitable agency of the church is one of the most enduring, powerful and efficient means of distributing financial aid to people in need. Such distribution of charity is motivated by voluntary and divinely sanctioned sacrifices and offerings from God's people. Its resources ought to be a ten-percent baseline of the earnings, however great or small, of all of God's people -- then further fueled by the freewill offerings of grateful believers who have been blessed with enough to meet their own needs. The oversight and administration are local, accountable to the congregation, and far less vulnerable to freeloading, fraud, and the expenses of a top-heavy bureaucracy.


  1. Thanks for that, very interesting.

    I wonder still however if there is room for welfare measures in a Biblical capitalism. Should the government deal with alleviation of poverty at all?

    If we answer no, then there is always the question of how the poor will make it. I get this question all the time. Even though private charity is commanded in the Bible there is no guarantee that the people actually will live up to it. Moreover, I don't think the argument will be impressive for someone who believes in socialism. They will just dismiss it by saying that people won't open their wallets if they don't have to. Which seems plausible, doesn't it?

    If we answer yes to this question, ie. some welfare is desirable, then how do we stop it from escalating into the kind of income redistribution we see today for example in Europe?

    Is that the main reason for denying all forms of government welfare? It is a slippery slope that can lead to massive income redistribution?

  2. Although this is an interesting and informative post, it never quite answers the question of what governmental aid to poor citizens a Christian ought to support.

    Would you accept the claim that we should aim for a society in which those who can work but don't don't eat, but those who do work, or can't work, should?

    Do you think of it as a travesty that some people work full time and sleep in their cars?

    Since we can't investigate every case of poverty for its causes, should we err on the side of generosity, or not?

    Some governmental institutions designed to help people seem to have worked reasonably well. How do you account for that?

  3. Victor Reppert said:
    "Since we can't investigate every case of poverty for its causes, should we err on the side of generosity, or not?

    Some governmental institutions designed to help people seem to have worked reasonably well. How do you account for that?"

    You're overlooking the fact that in the overwhelming majority of cases, governmental assistance has made poverty worse.

    Not only does it not work, it aggravates the situation.

  4. I asked a woman the other day if there wasn't a better way for her to get money instead of standing at this intersection with a cardboard sign.

    She said, "No."

    I asked her, "So this is the absolutely best way for you to receive money, so that you can live?"

    She said, "Yes."

    She then told me she tried to receive support from the government, but there was no one who would help her.

    I asked her where she was staying, and other things about her life. She had a place to stay, and was actually trying to get money for gas for her car. I also sensed that she was very angry about things, and she wasn't the normal manipulator, which is the rule instead of the exception, which Obama and the government never ever address.
    It was very sad to see this woman begging.

    I simply told her that for me, I'd have to do something else to get money because I couldn't stand there like her and hold a sign asking for money.

    I did feel for her though. i didn't have any money to give, which I may have.
    I wonder what the Lord wants us to do?
    I support the poor for sure. Mostly those who are in the Church, but also others, who are not Christians.

    The Gospel is the true meat for those who are hungry. Sure, we need to buy them a sandwich as well, but we really need to simply be truthful and honest about how God saves sinners for His glory, and because He is longsuffering and full of mercy.

  5. Off Topic:
    Did you guys notice Dawkins' latest f*** up?


    “I wonder still however if there is room for welfare measures in a Biblical capitalism. Should the government deal with alleviation of poverty at all?”

    Once again, that’s a very broad question. Gov’t should avoid policies which contribute to poverty. And it should crack down on robber barons who cheat the innocent out of what is rightfully theirs.

    “If we answer no, then there is always the question of how the poor will make it.”

    There is no uniform answer to that question since the poor can be poor for either culpable or inculpable reasons. Moreover, we don’t have the same obligations to everyone.

    “Even though private charity is commanded in the Bible there is no guarantee that the people actually will live up to it. Moreover, I don't think the argument will be impressive for someone who believes in socialism. They will just dismiss it by saying that people won't open their wallets if they don't have to. Which seems plausible, doesn't it?”

    i) It may be plausible, but it begs the question of whether there’s a general obligation to that effect.

    ii) And if you’re dealing with a secular socialist, then there’s no reason to think (on secular grounds) that we have any social obligations to anyone at all.

    Your other questions touch on issues I’ve already dealt with in reply to Reppert.