Thursday, January 2, 2014

The Ivory Cubicle | The Problem of Coerced Charity

In the opening of Les Miserables, Jean Valjean, having just been released from prison, finds himself seeking refuge for the night at the house of a bishop. The bishop, having compassion on him, invites him in, but the conflicted Valjean repays him by stealing his silverware. The police seize Valjean the following day and drag him before the bishop, where a moving exchange occurs.

"Ah! here you are!" the bishop addresses Valjean. "I am glad to see you. Well, but how is this? I gave you the candlesticks too, which are of silver like the rest, and for which you can certainly get two hundred francs. Why did you not carry them away with your forks and spoons?"

Valjean stares in astonishment. The police release him, the bishop hands over his candlesticks, and leaves the convict with a final word.

“Jean Valjean, my brother, you no longer belong to evil, but to good. It is your soul that I buy from you; I withdraw it from black thoughts and the spirit of perdition, and I give it to God.”

Getting our Hands Dirty

Many of us are familiar with the story, and know that the event is a turning point in Valjean's life. He repents of his ways, becomes a wealthy factory owner and mayor, and the plot progresses from there. We applaud the virtue of the bishop, and appreciate the power of the act of charity, which changed Valjean's life.

But that gift was only rendered so powerful because of the hands that gave it. The transformation of Valjean did not come about because he received materials of sufficient worth to strike out on his own. No, the power was in the mercy and compassion shown to him by a bishop who ransomed his life for God.

In the debate of government welfare vs. private charity, the emphasis is often on effects that are easily measured – the amount of food provided, dollars of aid given, or number of people served. Rarely does the debate turn towards the hands that give. But, though the results may not be as drastic as Valjean's, there is a very real difference between charity given at the hands of a private individual and welfare administered by a government bureaucrat. The receipt of private charity tends towards a response of gratitude on the part of the recipient, which reflects the gratitude with which we ought to respond to the charity of God in Christ. The recipient realizes that the giver was under no obligation to give. Welfare, on the other hand, once established by law as a permanent social fixture, tends to be viewed like any other permanent social institution or convention – as the lawful right and inheritance of citizens. Being coerced and guaranteed by a government entity, the end result is a spirit of entitlement.

The transfer of charity from private to public also damages the giver. A quick and dirty poll of your average Starbucks-swilling 20-something should prove that. When walking down the street, and eyeing the homeless on a park bench or the side of the road, the spirit of the age tells him “not my problem” because “there's probably a government program for that,” and he then returns home happily content that his tax dollars are being put to hard work providing for the common welfare. Today, we default to “that's the government's job,” being unwilling to take responsibility or get our own hands dirty.

But, as Russell Kirk once pointed out, “if our money is taken from us in taxes, that is no credit to our hearts.” Charity through proxy is not true charity, for charity is intrinsically connected to love, and love must be voluntary.

The bishop's gift was powerful because it was given freely and voluntarily, by hands long practiced at sacrifice. The Christian is not called to keep the poor at bay through the proxy of government welfare. The Christian is called to roll up his sleeves, dig into his pockets, and give from a generous spirit.

Posted by Nick Barden
Image: Belisarius Begging for Alms by Jacques-Louis David (1781)

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