Thursday, November 15, 2012

The Immorality of Mass Charity

Friends have helped me before, sometimes in big ways. I am not against charity. I'm in the early stages of recovering from three years of personal "charitable" endeavors, and even now looking to the next thing I can give my life to. I am not against charity.

Feelings and intent aren't enough. For all our faults, and they are many, America is a charitable society. In addition to everything else we've picked up, as a people, we learned how to give. My favorite piece of Ronald Reagan mythology is the story of an older black lady who came to the Oval Office and petitioned Reagan to give more money to welfare programs. As part of her petition she shared her story and how she had a hard time buying food for her family. Reagan told her he wasn't going to build up the Federal welfare system any more, he then wrote her a personal check to help her feed her family. A short time later he balanced his checkbook and saw the check hadn't been cashed. Concerned, he contacted the lady and asked why she hadn't used the check. She told him it was framed on her wall. Reagan put a second check in the mail and told her to feed her family. Love or hate Reagan, you have to love this moment and the character it reveals. Ideologically he was unwilling to throw more money into a system he thought broken, regardless the intent of that system, but he loved his neighbor and acted to help her even when it cost him personally, both in time and money.

There are large charities that do good work and times of tragedy and disaster when throwing gobs of money at a problem may be the right stopgap. There is the rest of the time as well. This is not a petition to end Federal entitlements or chastise national leaders. We have the system and the leaders we deserve; we are the ones who chose them... good and bad. This has to do with the intent of Christian charity and loving our neighbors wherever we find them.

Regardless the action of government, our neighbors are our charge. The government will never be able to fulfill the great commission or reach the standard of love set by Jesus and the early church. Government isn't human and is incapable of relationship. Regardless political interpretations of the gospel and justifications for our vote, the gospel only exists in community and is therefore beyond legislative intent. We are called to love our neighbors with our own actions, money, and, most importantly, time. We are never given permission to surrender this right and responsibility to some soulless blob of good intent. The poverty, socioeconomic division between the races, and depressingly high rate of abortion our community faces is not the responsibility of our government. It is the responsibility of we the people. Government will do what it thinks best and we will say yea and nay with our votes, as we should. If we stop there we fail as people of compassion. If we think our votes and checks free us from acts of compassion and real relationship with our neighbors we fall short.

How we relate to God is revealed in how we relate to those around us. The Good Samaritan didn't walk by the bruised and battered man expecting government services to get involved in his care and he didn't walk by blaming government for the social ills that led to his abuse and its failure to help him. He got involved in the man's life and helped him. The early church didn't criticize Roman rule for endemic infanticide and a social system that abandoned widows to the choice of starvation or prostitution, they went to the trash heaps to save babies and spent their resources to protect and care for widows. The community who loved Jesus didn't demand others live in community and share resources, they chose to live that way themselves.

For all the bravado and self-righteousness of grand social programs and mass charity, the reality is love only exists when expressed in community. Positive transformation doesn't come through lump sum impersonal donations, but through personal interaction and targeted support made effective when built on relationship and an understanding of specific situations and communities. We, as the church, are uniquely capable and commissioned to do what the government is fundamentally unable to.

We have the same opportunity we have always had. Will we love God and our neighbors, thereby making government irrelevant, or will we find peace in statements of "should" and the justification of intent? Will we be known by the way we love, or by our ideology? Neither is wrong, but one is useless without the other. Questioning the impact of government programs on the family down the street who uses food stamps, the drunk homeless man on your way to work, or the single mother on welfare in that other part of town is fine, but it doesn't free us from acts of love. When we see them and concern ourselves with government failure, rather than loving Jesus in relationship with them, we turn our backs on Jesus and place ourselves in the condemnation of Matthew 7:23 "I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!"

Most of the problems and negative social consequences often associated with international and domestic charitable action can be fixed through community. The problem with community is it's painful, difficult, and comes at a high personal cost. The fire and forget it of writing a check or voting for new government programs may make us feel better, but there is a moral cost to ignoring the real consequences. The economy is never strengthened through taxation and welfare only makes poverty more comfortable, yet there is some twinge of self-righteousness when we support these things. Some form of taxation is necessary and welfare may sometimes be useful, but they are never the answer. God is the answer and we are his action, how then will we live?

I understand the frustration or hope we instinctively feel about the direction our nation is taking, but as Christians, this emotion is wasted. We have something greater to hope in and have something greater to do.


  1. I agree with this whole-heartedly. I would add that many of the proponents of the welfare state believe that it is our moral obligation as a nation to care for the poor. They believe the best way to do this is through government. What they fail to recognize is that this creates a state religion. The state requires us to give a certain percentage of our income to them, so that they can "fulfill" our moral obligations. How is this not a state run religion - complete with mandated tithing?! (Would that it were only 10%!)

    We DO have a moral obligation to care for the poor. But even God himself allows us to choose whether or not to fulfill this obligation. The state does not give us the choice. And, as you so aptly pointed out, it does not actually fulfill our obligation either.

  2. Why can't it be both? Why can't the Government be a resource AND provide choice? I think the Reagan example is a good example of this. I don't think he thought it was a broken system as you say. I think he felt it was enough. I think the check he wrote is the (both) I mean.

  3. Outstanding. I really like your voice on this.

  4. Thanks, the new and improved version now has fewer typos.

  5. Bear, right or wrong, Reagan really didn't like the welfare system in America. He thought it was immoral, corrupt, and oppressed the poor. He did what he could to reform and restrict most of it. Yet he still acted as if the poor and oppressed were his personal responsibility, he actually cared about them, and gave his personal resources to help individuals in need. (Sorry, I forgot how to link things on this page so you will have to copy/paste)

    I think there are things government can do, should do, and in some cases actually does, that are moral and help the poor. Like I said, this post wasn't to bash the government, but to remind us to not put our hope or our blame in government, but to do what we have been called to do, and only we as individuals in community can do.

  6. Good thoughts, and very much in line with something else I read the other day on renewing this deep and powerful idea of seeking the common good: