Thursday, December 12, 2013

The Ivory Cubicle | The Problem of Christian Charity

“At this festive season of the year, Mr. Scrooge,” says a most charitable gentleman in Dickens’ classic work A Christmas Carol, “it is more than usually desirable that we should make some slight provision for the poor and destitute, who suffer greatly at the present time. Many thousands are in want of common necessaries; hundreds of thousands are in want of common comforts sir.”

“Are there no prisons?” asked Scrooge.

“Plenty of prisons,” said the gentleman, laying down the pen again.

“And the Union workhouses?” demanded Scrooge. “Are they still in operation?”

“They are. Still,” returned the gentleman, “I wish I could say they were not.”

“The Treadmill and the Poor Law are in full vigour, then?” said Scrooge.

“Both very busy, sir.”

“Oh! I was afraid, from what you said at first, that something had occurred to stop them in their useful course,” said Scrooge. “I’m very glad to hear it.”

The Problem of Christian Charity

It’s Christmas time, and with it comes a spirit of giving (not the least because of the impending year-end deadline for tax write-offs). “The poor you will always have with you,” Christ tells us, and the Apostle James adds that “religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world.”

For some reason, we American Christians have had a difficult time trying to figure out what these and other verses exactly mean. Everyone supports voluntary charity, yet we realize that there are those who go hungry, both at home and abroad, and it’s difficult to sit back in opulence while others starve.

Proposed solutions to the problem abound. During the 19th and 20th centuries, left-leaning Social Gospel advocates sought to use government to ensure that the needy were fed. Lyndon Johnson’s administration waged a widespread “war on poverty.” Slick and edgy Christian comedian John Fugelsang proclaimed “if you don’t want your tax dollars to help the poor, to help the sick, to avoid violence, to take better care of those in prison, to help the needy, fine. Don’t vote that way. But don’t ever say you want a government based on Christian values, because you don’t” (the quote was later compacted into a viral meme). 

On the flip side, the curmudgeonly Catholic Russell Kirk proclaimed that “if our money is taken from us in taxes, that is no credit to our hearts.” Communist-turned-conservative Marvin Olasky wrote The Tragedy of American Compassion, detailing the unintended results of well-intentioned American liberalism. Everyone’s favorite libertarian grandpa, Ron Paul, declared that “one of the great fallacies of our time is that if government doesn’t do something, no one will.”

There’s no disagreement as to whether or not Scripture demands charitable giving. The answer there is clear. There’s also not much disagreement that Christ has commanded his Church to participate in that giving. But Christians often fail to step up. Folks fall through the cracks, especially in this day and age. We are, as one liberal Christian author, Ron Sider, put, rich Christians in an age of hunger.

What, then, is the appropriate Christian response to the needy? Is it time for government to rip the reigns of charity away from a failing church, saying “well, boys, you’ve had a nice run, keep up the nice, small-scale charity work, but leave the big stuff to us”? Or do we still maintain hope that this institution, the Church, with her broken and battered believers, can still fulfill her calling? Perhaps we can come to some meeting in the middle, by fostering an environment of robust private charity with government picking up the slack?

Well, over the next few weeks, I’m hoping to flesh out a number of the issues surrounding the discussion on government and Christian charity. So consider this an introduction to another series. In the interim, I’m interested in hearing what you think. Leave a comment.

Posted by Nick Barden


  1. Nice article! I guess it depends on our definition of the Church. If we mean denominations themselves, Christians are terrible at charity. Many nonprofits, however, are run by Christians, so in that sense the Church is involved in charity. Of course, like you hinted at in your post, it seems that Christians would rather support a nonprofit's charity rather than offer their own bed to someone.

  2. Nick,
    Money is one side f the issue, But the other side is the unwillingness to dirty our hands. To stop, pick up that bloody man on the side of the road as the Good Samaritan did and care for him. To show him Christ's love, tangibly and personally. We would rather donate to a charity that does that. In other words pay some one else to do it, salving our consciences with the thought that we have shown the love of Christ, when all we've done metaphorically and actually is pass the buck to some one professionally trained to show the love of Christ. Don't get me wrong, there are situations that need that and there are organizations worthy of our support. But our financial support is not a substitute for the Christian's call to be His Body. To be His hands , His arms and His feet, to fallow His example and go to the tax gatherers and sinners, the destitute and needy. To eat and drink with them, engaging in authentic personal relationship with them.
    That is what Christ did. "For God so loved the world that He gave His only son". God didn't say "ya'll come to church on Sunday and we'll get you squared away". No, but rather He came personally.
    He came into our houses and dwelt with us, ate with us, lived with us, laughed with us, cried with us, and finally, died with us. Now that is love. That is dirty, it's not safe, and it's uncomfortable. But it's authentic and it's real. "For God so loved" and then called us, to show that same love to every one we interact with.