The Government’s Role in Christian Charity

Political conservatives who are Christian often claim that caring for the poor does not mean supporting government programs that provide for the poor. (Political conservatives who are not Christian make the same claim, but this post doesn’t have anything to do with them.) That has always been tough for me to swallow. I agree that caring for the poor by way of voluntary charity would be better in the sense that both giver and receiver would benefit; but I also recognize that the government does it much more effectively, and in modern society is the only way to get the job done. Consider the following parable from church this Sunday:

“There was a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen and lived in luxury every day. At his gate was laid a beggar named Lazarus, covered with sores and longing to eat what fell from the rich man’s table. Even the dogs came and licked his sores.
“The time came when the beggar died and the angels carried him to Abraham’s side. The rich man also died and was buried. In hell, where he was in torment, he looked up and saw Abraham far away, with Lazarus by his side. So he called to him, ‘Father Abraham, have pity on me and send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue, because I am in agony in this fire.’

“But Abraham replied, ‘Son, remember that in your lifetime you received your good things, while Lazarus received bad things, but now he is comforted here and you are in agony. And besides all this, between us and you a great chasm has been fixed, so that those who want to go from here to you cannot, nor can anyone cross over from there to us.’

“He answered, ‘Then I beg you, father, send Lazarus to my father’s house, for I have five brothers. Let him warn them, so that they will not also come to this place of torment.’

“Abraham replied, ‘They have Moses and the Prophets; let them listen to them.’

” ‘No, father Abraham,’ he said, ‘but if someone from the dead goes to them, they will repent.’

“He said to him, ‘If they do not listen to Moses and the Prophets, they will not be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.’ “

Luke 16:19-31. First off, it is not exactly subtle is it? I mean, you don’t have to take many logical steps here to get what Jesus thought about people who don’t care for the poor.

But here’s the thing that relates to the earlier posts about polygamy, slavery, and homosexuality. Giving money to beggars is different now. If I see a guy lying in the street with a can in front him, should I put a dollar in the can, that is, help the poor man without the government? The answer is no, right? Because in our culture, there are government programs to help people. By giving money to a guy on the street, I could in fact be hurting him by giving him money to keep his addiction alive while allowing him to stay out of real treatment programs.

It is only because of the government programs that such behavior is in line with the mandates of Christ. I’m sorry, but opposing taxes going to the poor? I would need a lot of convincing to see how that is in practice a Christian position to hold.

3 replies on “The Government’s Role in Christian Charity”

This is so complicated.

The argument against taxes going to certain programs can be an argument about opportunity costs. If everyone of 50,000 people gives a dollar to an individual poor person, you keep 50,000 poor people from going hungry that day in, say, Chicago. If you pooled that 50,000 you could build a shelter and inspire volunteers to hand out meals twice a week and feed 1,000 poor people twice a week for a year. You’ve doubled the number of meals.

Again, it’s too complicated for my straw man to hold up to deep scrutiny, but the point should be clear — I think doing bad instead of good is wrong, of course. I also think doing good, when doing very good is possible is also a form of wrong.

This is the debate you and I have had about social security for years. Opportunity cost is very real.

I think we agree.

Taxes going to certain programs, sure. You can say I care for the poor, but I think we should put more funding in food stamps and less funding in low income housing projects. Or more money in education and less money in medical coverage. Whatever.

Your discussion of opportunity costs, is another reason why modern Americans really shouldn’t give money to guys in the street, but should donate to organzied charities.

My point is not that you can’t argue about how best to spend money to help the poor; my point is that the notion that we should stop helping the poor through the government is ridiculous. Assuming you want to help the poor.

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