A common characterization of the right wing by the left (one I think is inaccurate) is that conservatives don’t care about the poor. We certainly don’t make as much noise as liberal folks do. When it comes down to it, we tend to reject their methods but agree that the poor need help. In this post, I want to talk about a few related subjects: bad motives for charity, bad methods, and how to go about doing it right.
First off, let’s talk motives. There’s a song I used to listen to about the potential emptiness of a starlet’s life of glitz and glamour that used the phrase “designer’s crusade.” I like it. It makes a good point, that certain charitable causes are popular, and that people can tap into that popularity and that charitable image by getting behind that cause. We all want to be cool, so we all worry about AIDS and inner city kids. Why AIDS is more important to the celebrity crowd than abortion, I’ll leave up to you. Why inner city poverty is more important than rural poverty, well, there’s no good explanation for that.
At any rate, giving to the unfortunate, or being known to do so, is a major ego boost. It makes you popular for what we all could agree are the right reasons. Unfortunately, when popularity is the goal, it doesn’t mean much in the motive end of things.
There’s another way in which charity can be for a bad motive—when the point is to cure yourself of guilt. When people feel guilty, whether for their sins, the sins of their society, or for the simple fact that they have been blessed more than others, helping out the little guy can justify them. I live the godless lifestyle of a rock star? But look at all the orphans I saved with my money. Somebody in my country with my skin color used to own slaves? I’m sure if we work hard enough against human trafficking now, we can be forgiven.
It’s a works-righteousness mentality that has little to do with the Gospel. You can’t buy your way out of sin. There’s not enough cash in the world to justify your misdeeds. No matter how many orphans you save, it won’t change the fact that you live a lifestyle of ingratitude towards your own Father.
But let’s set motive aside. I think we all agree these causes in and of themselves are good, and it’s perfectly possible to want to help the widows and orphans simply because they are widows and orphans, and therefore ought to be helped. Let’s talk about methods.
I want to hit this on two levels. First off, there’s giving to charities in the private sector. All I have to say about that is that sometimes it’s really, really stupid. Those starving kids in Africa are in Africa. You have no idea what their situation is or how that money is going to help them, or what effect it will have. Two quick examples about how this can go wrong.
The powdered milk example. I believe it was Nestle or some other western company with milk-related things going on. At any rate, they sent a bunch of condensed milk to a north African country so that the mothers could feed their kids. Unfortunately, due to biology, once they used the condensed milk and stopped nursing, they were able to get pregnant again, thus sending up the number births and therefore mouths to feed. The well-intentioned charity actually made the problem worse. Don’t ask me for citations, because I’ll just plead Paul—somewhere it is written.
A similar anecdote I have heard more often is the mosquito net issue. Charities donate mosquito nets to the local government. In this case, corrupt warlords, who then withhold the mosquito nets in order to force the locals to do what they want. This, if I remember correctly, includes conscripting children into their army.
These examples are important not so much for their factual accuracy as individual cases as for the point they make. It is very easy for those good intentions to pave a better path to Hell. We need to be careful.
Then there’s the other issue of proper methods, the one that doesn’t have to do with private charities. I’m talking about the government, as folks in this season are wont to do. There is a form of charity that says if you have money, you don’t deserve it, and if you don’t have money, then you deserve it. And the government, of course, has the right to everyone’s money and, in its infinite wisdom, the ability to distribute it.
There is a problem here. The Bible says something about “Thou shalt not steal.” This assumes, first off, that individuals can actually own things, and outright says that we should not take said things from them. Private property is a Biblical concept. Whatever other issues come up, if our public policy assumes that there is no right to private property, that policy is wrong and unbiblical.
But, one of you will say to me, the government is the one taking the money, and via taxes. Taxes are not stealing, right? The Bible does allow for taxes. And, of course, you are right. The Bible does allow for taxes. To which my answer is in multiple parts, as always.
First, look at what kind of taxes the Bible allows for. Look in detail. There are actually very few. Property tax is not one. Not income tax either. Or inheritance tax. And there are sound worldview reasons why. But tax policy is not the point of this post, so I won’t go into detail. If you want more info, ask me and I’ll see if I can get you some slides from a good talk one of our church elders gave on the subject.
But, even in a world of limited kinds of taxes, the amount of taxes is limited. No government, for instance, should ever claim a higher tax than God—ten percent. But harkening back to the issue of private property, even setting that aside, we do have to agree that there is a line, that somehow taxation must be consistent with a right to private property, and not by infringing on the truth of either idea. I would tend to say that’s in the department of the functions of government. Government exists primarily to execute vengeance on the wicked with the power of the sword, and possibly to reward the righteous with praise. Check out Romans 13. Somewhere it is also written that the magistrates are to keep up the just weights and measures. But, while there is certainly an element of protecting the weak from the strong, nowhere in the Bible is authority given to take money from the rich for the express purpose of giving to the poor.
Now, I would push these limits to a pretty restrictive place, and you, dear reader, may disagree with that, and more power to you. But you do have to maintain some line, some limit on the authority of government, the purpose of government, its ability to tax, and still maintain the right to private property. However that looks, it will not end up looking like a state that takes gobs of money from the rich in general and gives it to the poor in general, simply for being in their respective financial situations.
So where does this leave us? If conservatives maintain such a restrictive place for helping the poor in public policy, can we still want to help them at all? I would say yes.
Here’s the thing: conservatives aren’t trying to place restrictions on being nice. Stopping abortion is not about being mean to women, it’s about saving the lives of children. Opposing gay marriage is not about opposing love, it’s about upholding the sanctity of a God-ordained institution that is pretty darn beautiful. In the same way, opposing charity by force of government is not an opposition to charity itself, but to the theft being used to get it done.
The Bible commands us to look out for the fatherless and widow, but we can’t do that by teaching them that the world revolves around them, that they have a right to money even when it belongs to someone else. When we tell them coveting is justified and stealing is okay, we are lying to them about God and the world he created. We are causing them to stumble, and woe to us. This is especially true when we don’t ask that they work if they are able, when we feed the lazy. In doing so we contradict the Scriptures, telling them that regardless of whether they work, they shall eat. Free lunches, folks, something for nothing, reaping without sowing. But they are no more entitled to that money by virtue of birth than any other man. Indeed, as a fallen human being, a sinner, they are entitled to nothing but Hell.
And here’s an important point: the Bible tells us not to show partiality to the rich—or to the poor. We are not to be respecters of persons, even respecters of the little guy. A man is not evil simply because he is rich, or good simply because he is poor. The reverse is true as well, but these days that’s a point that hardly needs to be made.
If we really care about the poor, here is what we can do:
• We can preach the Gospel to them, because their soul is more important than their situation.
• We can live out the Gospel for them, sacrificing our own time and money—not the stolen time or money of others—for their benefit.
• We can do so in a way that is genuinely helpful, not in a poorly thought-out plan that leaves them worse off than before.
• In doing so, we can refuse to lie to them about God and his law, refusing to defraud others on their behalf.
And, for a moment, let me tout my own pet peeve when it comes to giving. It is all well and good to take care of the widows and the fatherless halfway around the world. They need to be taken care of, and someone, especially Americans who are in such a good position to do so, should see to it that they are. But when the Bible says to love our neighbor, we tend to ignore the very literal meaning of that word.
There are people right beside us that need help. Abused women, single mothers, children in need, the homeless, and the mentally or physically handicapped. Why is it that we want to donate to faraway causes whose administrators we can’t keep accountable while watching those around us continue to suffer? What is it about helping those in need whom we cannot see, but whose causes are supported by the rock stars, that makes us ignore the needs that we can see simply by walking down the street or across town? Is there a deeper issue here? Think about it.