Monday, February 27, 2012

Government and the Poor 7

... continued from yesterday
... Christians can only justify capitalism if they think it is an economic system that can help the most people while not oppressing the rest.

Another question that is sometimes brought up today is whether it is the task of the church or the government to help those in need. Certainly it is our task.  That is to say, "to one who knows the right thing to do and does not do it, to him it is sin" (James 4:17). We have seen that the New Testament unanimously expects those who are able to help those who are in need.

Should the church help those in need?  It seems common sense.  If we can organize our individual efforts as believers to help others, why wouldn't we?  Certainly the churches of the New Testament did.  Acts 6 tells of an incident when a certain segment of the church was being neglected in the daily distribution of food.  These were widows within the Greek-speaking Jewish immigrant community in Jerusalem. The incident tells us that there was a daily distribution, and that it was a Christian value to reach everyone in need within the community.

When Paul met with James and Peter for their first real sit down, their main request of Paul was that he remember the poor (Gal. 2:10). Accordingly, Paul expended great efforts some years later collecting an offering from the churches he founded to take back to Jerusalem (2 Cor. 8-9).  Paul himself primarily worked so that he would not get entangled with the strings of patronage--taking the support of a church like Corinth would have indebted himself to them in his mind. The giving of the Philippian church was more about them doing what they should do rather than about his need (Phil. 4:17).

1 Timothy 5 would later speak of a well developed system of taking care of widows within the churches of Ephesus. It was thus a Christian value of the early church to take care not only of those within each Christian community but within other Christian communities as well.  Acts 2 pictures an early church that even sold its excess property to give to those who had need (Acts 2:45). While most of this good was done within Christian communities, Paul says, "as we have opportunity, let us do good to all people, especially to those who belong to the family of believers" (Gal. 6:10). Doing good is not limited to the church.

But what of governments?  Is it the business of government to help the poor? Here again we get into arguments about economics and political theory, with some arguing that government involvement is counterproductive. Some would argue that governments do not help others well but instead make matters worse. Many of these arguments involve expertise in areas beyond the scope of this book.

What we can do in this book is describe the overall Christian values. The first is that there is nothing in Scripture that opposes human authorities helping those in need. Indeed, the Old Testament considers it to be a virtue of the king to take care of the poor.  Psalm 72 implores the king to "take pity on the weak and needy and save the needy from death" (72:13). Romans 13 describes the Roman state as a potential agent for the good of the citizens of Rome (13:4) and does not set limits on what good the state might do.

The question is thus one of whether in fact a particular system of doing good for those in need truly helps them in the long run or not.  Christians will no doubt disagree on how effective governments are at such things.  But if a government could effectively help those in need without bringing other harm in the process, Christian values would say that it was a good thing. And certainly no individual or church is normally in a position to help as many people as a well organized government. [1] The Bible indicates it is a Christian value to try to help. If the powers that be could help as well, nothing in Scripture prohibits it in theory.

[1] If we take the 2004 tsunami in the Indian Ocean or the 2010 earthquake in Haiti, no individual or church was equipped to bring help to the area with the speed or effectiveness that the United States government did.  In fact, most help organizations in the United States would have difficulty surviving without financial assistance from the government.


John C. Gardner said...

Is there a danger that government will take over too many charitable areas that churches used to perform?
Alternatively, it seems like conservatives believe that churches can handle all social needs.
Both seem wrong but we as Wesleyans do need to encourage others(as well as participate ourselves) in aiding the poor and those in need.

FrGregACCA said...

I would be the last person to suggest that government has no role in providing social services, but what is so often neglected, especially here in the United States, is the role of the government in leveling the economic playing field such that the need for social services, especially in terms of routine transfer payments downward, is minimized.

Again, Germany must provide the model for going forward.