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Christian Charity and the Welfare State

One of the great privileges and duties of practicing Christians is to do charitable deeds. Virtually all Christians agree on this point. There is, however, a great divide in Christendom between those who believe that charitable giving should be a voluntary, private-sector ministry and those who believe that a government welfare state should oversee a mandatory redistribution of wealth. 

It has become fashionable in recent years to ask, “What would Jesus do?” Christ delineated two separate spheres of activity, the sacred and the secular. He told his followers, “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s” (Mark 12:17). Jesus clearly believed in the separation of church and state. He never enlisted the help of the state in carrying out his mission. According to the gospel record, Jesus’ only contacts with government were when government sought to deprive him of each individual’s God-given rights — his life (the crucifixion), his liberty (his arrest), or his property (taxes). Given these facts, it seems unlikely that he would pick government as an ally or the instrument with which to perform Christian works. 

A Bible passage often cited by those who claim biblical support for the redistribution of wealth is Jesus’ encounter with a rich man in Mark 10. The rich man asked how he could attain eternal life. Jesus told him, “go thy way, sell whatever thou hast, and give to the poor, and thou shalt have treasure in heaven: and come, take up the cross, and follow me” (v. 21). 

The relationship between Jesus and the rich man was entirely consensual and free. Christ offered the man a voluntary contract, a quid pro quo: you give away your earthly all, and I’ll give you everlasting life. The rich man was completely free to accept or reject the deal and its terms. When he elected to decline the offer, Jesus let him depart in peace. If he had said to his disciples, “Let’s go to the governor and petition him to redistribute the young man’s wealth to the poor,” then the Christian redistributionists could cite this incident to substantiate their position. That is not, however, what the Scriptures record. 

In Luke 12, a man asked Jesus to command his brother to share his inheritance with him. The Lord emphatically declined, pointedly asking, “Man, who made me a judge or a divider over you?” (v. 14). If he whom Christians accept as the only begotten Son of God and the Savior of mankind did not feel qualified or justified to command the redistribution of one person’s property to another, then how can those who profess to be his followers believe that they have the right, the wisdom, or the moral authority to endorse government’s massive, complex, forced redistribution of trillions of dollars among millions of people? 

Many Christians claim that socialism is compatible with Christianity on the basis of Acts 4:32-37, 5:1-10. This is the account of the Apostle Peter’s Christian community sharing a common purse. First, it should be noted that membership in this church was voluntary, whereas all citizens are compulsorily drafted into the welfare state. Second, it is a mistake to construe this story as a repudiation of property rights. 

As you may recall, a married couple, Ananias and Sapphira, were struck dead after it was discovered that they had withheld the proceeds from the sale of their real estate from the common purse. Far from denying the right of private property, Peter explicitly reaffirmed it, stating, “Whiles it [your land] remained, was it not thine own? And after it was sold, was it not in thine own power?” (Acts 5:4). The couple would have been entitled to keep their property if they had not voluntarily contracted to exchange it for full membership in the society of believers. By conniving to receive the benefits of membership without honestly paying for them, they had attempted to defraud the community. Ananias and Sapphira were punished because they were dishonest cheats.

Nothing written herein should be interpreted as minimizing the obligation of Christians to perform charitable deeds. In his parable of the Good Samaritan, Jesus clearly shows the two proper ways for Christians to practice charity. The first option is to minister directly and personally to those who need help, as the Samaritan did when he tended to the wounded traveler. The second option is to make a donation (a voluntary contribution, not a tax) to help others care for those in need (Luke 10:33-35) as the Samaritan did when he had to leave to attend to his pre-existing responsibilities. Try to picture the Good Samaritan spotting the wounded man and then demanding money from other passersby on the road to give him money to pay for the wounded man’s care. It isn’t a very inspiring picture, is it? Yet the process of compelling others to support various welfare agendas is the fundamental essence of the welfare state—give or else. 

The correct answer for a Christian to give when asked, “Who bears the responsibility for doing charitable deeds?” is “I do.” Answers such as “the rich” or “society” are evasions of individual responsibility. It is not a Christian duty or prerogative to force others to join us in charitable endeavors. It is erroneous for us to suppose that we are doing God’s will by compelling or trying to compel others to do good deeds. We are accountable to God and we receive our heavenly reward for what we do, not for what we make others do. Paul teaches each of us to “work out [our] own salvation” (Phil. 2:12).

Eventually, we (meaning all Americans, not just Christians) need to dismantle the welfare state that is bankrupting our country. We should not, however, begin to balance the budget on the backs of the poor. Let us first eliminate the myriad federal programs that redistribute money to the rich and powerful. Using government force to redistribute wealth is never justifiable on biblical grounds, but the greater moral outrage is the obscene practice of what we economists call “rent-seeking,” whereby well-connected and well-funded special interests use the power of government to divert money into their own pockets. 

We should cut off the flow of money from the federal treasury to the prosperous — bailouts and handouts to corporations, subsidies to wealthy agribusinesses, grants to politically connected universities, etc. Afterward, can figure out how to phase out government welfare programs and devolve care for the poor to the private sector, especially the churches, where — at least, from a Christian’s perspective — it rightly belongs.

Editor’s Note: A longer version of this essay was first published by The Center for Vision & Values at Grove City College.


Dr. Mark W. Hendrickson is a faculty member, economist, and contributing scholar with the Center for Vision & Values at Grove City College.
  • jflare29

    Two items concern me with this article:
    1. “Separation of Church and State” these days all too often means, “Let’s not allow anyone to express an ideal based on religious beliefs in public, nor allow those kinds of moral values to be encoded into public law.” I believe Christ made quite clear that we ought go out into the world, making disciples of ALL men, not only those who agree with us. In this sense then, I do not believe in Church/State separation. I rather vigorously oppose it.

    2. I think this article accuses targets budget negotiations related to the poor vs the rich only at VERY grave peril. People do not seem to understand a basic fact: The poor have the greatest need for aid from someone, yet those same poor will almost certainly suffer the most if the State attempts to acquire more revenue by changing the tax code to detract from the wealthy.
    Moral or not, many wealthy people and corporations will take their money elsewhere if government attempts to impose its will.
    As well, the programs most definitely aimed at aiding the poor may well fail regardless of what the budget officially says. Those programs depend on tax revenues or debt to provide funding. We can’t raise tax revenues very easily via the wealthy for reasons already given; when tax revenues run out, the only option is debt. BUT..we’re already in debt in a dangerous fashion. There HAVE been rumblings already that various interests will not longer willingly buy our debt. If those interests refuse, budget allocation or no, the poor won’t get assistance, because funds won’t be there.

  • nickkname

    “If he whom Christians accept as the only begotten Son of God and the Savior of mankind did not feel qualified or justified to command the redistribution of one person’s property to another, then how can those who profess to be his followers believe that they have the right, the wisdom, or the moral authority to endorse government’s massive, complex, forced redistribution of trillions of dollars among millions of people?”

    Either you don’t know Jesus or you don’t Scriptures, but either way, here’s what Jesus meant: He, as God, is warning against greed, that sin which would like to use Christ to its own monetary gain.

    “The couple would have been entitled to keep their property if they had not voluntarily contracted to exchange it for full membership in the society of believers.”

    Nope. The Church teaches that private property is a natural right that is compatible to (i.e., does not surpass) the universal destination of property.

    “Ananias and Sapphira were punished because they were dishonest cheats.”

    Nope. The couple died because they tried to deceive God, they lied to He Whom the Apostles represent as Bishops of the early Church. In other words, they blasphemized against the Holy Spirit.

    “Eventually, we (meaning all Americans, not just Christians) need to dismantle the welfare state that is bankrupting our country.”

    Nope again. You’re using the Scriptures as a political book rather than as a spiritual book. That’s a fallacious enough premise to make your argument against the welfare state invalid.

  • Mary Kochan

    I agree nickname; that “did not feel qualified” was not the best choice of words in this context. I thought of that when I posted the article. However, I do think this author (though not writing from a Catholic perspective) is attempting to move forward an important conversation that all Americans must have: What follows the welfare state?

    Because whether we “dismantle” it (the preferable option) or whether it fails (the unthinkably horrible option), the modern welfare state is demonstrably unsustainable.

  • nickkname

    “What follows the welfare state? Because whether we “dismantle” it (the preferable option) or whether it fails (the unthinkably horrible option), the modern welfare state is demonstrably unsustainable.”

    But what about if God sustains the state in His Mercy?

    Still, even in anarchism, we have hope in God’s Mercy.

    Though I do worry about souls who are too greedy to accept His Mercy. I don’t want them to go to Hell.

    Hopefully God will send me there instead of them. I at least deserve it more than them.

  • Mary Kochan

    What if God in his mercy allowed us to see the examples of other states failing so we could have the chance to correct course?

    If this was a family spending and giving beyond its means and borrowing money it could not pay back, would you advise them to trust in God’s mercy that they would not end up bankrupt and homeless or would you advise that they change their actions and make more realistic financial decisions?

  • nickkname

    Prayer and works are one. That’s Catholicism 101.

  • noelfitz

    “Fools rush in, where angels fear to thread”. Is this a family quarrel or can anyone join in? I am not an American Catholic, but I think this article and the discussion is at a very high level, and is thoughtful and provocative.

    Even in the Bible there are different views. Paul was pro-Empire, while Revelation/Apocalypse is anti-Empire. Jesus advocated loyalty to the Empire, yet one of his Apostles was Simon the Zealot, who presumably was not a supporter of Roman rule.

    Key quotes may be:
    He said to them, “Then give to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s” (Lk 20:25, NRSV).

    For the same reason you also pay taxes, for the authorities are God’s servants, busy with this very thing. Pay to all what is due them—taxes to whom taxes are due, revenue to whom revenue is due, respect to whom respect is due, honor to whom honor (Ro 13:6,7, NRSV).

    I hope the author of this article is not advocating non-payment of tax.

    However I do hope discussions continue here, where Catholics can express strong views cogently, enthusiastically and within Church teaching.

  • Mary Kochan

    Noel, your thoughts are always welcome here. We American Catholics can’t begin to figure this out apart from the wisdom of our Church through the ages and around the world.

  • jflare29

    “But what about if God sustains the state in His Mercy?
    Still, even in anarchism, we have hope in God’s Mercy.
    Though I do worry about souls who are too greedy to accept His Mercy. I don’t want them to go to Hell.”

    In other words, you believe the welfare state to be a moral mandate? I have never come across any actual teaching of the Church to support this claim. If anything, Bible and Church both make plain that people need to treat each other with charity. No person can genuinely practice charity if they have the government threat of physical force to compel them.
    When the government becomes involved, it’s much closer to theft.

    BTW, seems to me you’re pretty presumptuous to assume that anarchy will reign unless the State leans over each person to make sure they’re all “equal”. Tough to believe that this nation survived well over a century without Big Brother, yet somehow we need Big Brother to wipe our nose these days….

  • HomeschoolNfpDad

    In other words, you believe the welfare state to be a moral mandate?

    Actually, I conclude that he means that anarchy inevitably follows the collapse of the welfare state, unless the people act to dismantle it before it collapses. Perhaps?

  • There is a moral mandate to be charitable. In the Law of Moses there were legal provisions to allow the poor and destitute a way out: gleaning or selling one self into slavery (until the next jubilee) were two of the options. Slavery under the mosaic law was the legal attachment of an individual to a family. It was a dignified way to solve the problem of abject poverty. But I digress… I will run the risk of providing a simple answer to a complex problem but be assured that the simplification is needed to gain some insight into the problem of the welfare state.

    Imagine that the whole world is just 100 people that live in small island. Of those 100 persons there are going to be perhaps 5 (arbitrary small number) who are a-moral. We have been living with that since Adam’s times due to original sin. There is always a Cain or two.

    The rest of the population are functional citizens but they struggle with varying degrees of practicing morality. Let us understand for this case only that morality is defined as the best behavior for the good of the whole 100 persons.

    So right from the start you have to assign somebody to keep an eye on the five Cains. The state is born out of that necessity. But to name the policeman you have to have someone who wields authority. In the US we have three powers that do that: the Executive, Congress, and the Judiciary. For the purposes of defense our tribe of 100 needs to have some full-time warriors too. Lets us assign an arbitrary number of 15 to the group elected to be the state. That leaves 80 people to be productive. They need to produce enough to sustain those elected to keep order in the island and defend it against invasion.

    The state employees have to eat, so a tax of 15 or 20% is created to take care of that. That is about the amount of taxation the ancient Israelites had to pay to the temple, for example.

    Now we have the problem that taxation destroys some wealth but we in the island pay happily because we like ORDER and we dislike the DISORDER that the five Cains or the enemies beyond the border would bring about if left unchecked.

    Now let us suppose that there is an increase in DISORDER in our island. A new party is promoting the idea that those who work should pay more than their 15 or 20%. Let us also suppose that the new party does not believe that ORDER is a desirable thing and they recruit the help of the Cainites and some others to achieve the goal of increasing disorderly behavior.

    In the beginning the population increases the number of policemen and warriors but as disorder increases so does the need for more taxation until a number about 50% taxation is reached. At this point half the islanders are carrying the other half either because they are under-productive (Cainites) or because they are part of the necessary evil: the State.

    With this very imperfect example I tried to explain the origin and necessity of taxation. Healthy taxation is the price we pay for order and societal peace. But in this example I also tried to explain what happens when the load of taxation approaches a certain level. If our islanders have to hire more state workers to take care of those genuinely sick and impoverished their tax load is also increased. When that tax load passes a certain threshold then it starts to be a negative incentive to work. The problem is that the increase in disorder demoralizes the productive islander who sees a good portion of his wealth disappear. By demoralizing I mean: the islander has an incentive to listen to the basest instincts within him: he either falls sick or feigns to be sick because the island has reached such level of taxation that makes no difference if one is productive (increasing order) or not (increasing disorder.) Our islanders fall one by one to the temptation of being fed by the productive members of society: either he is robbed of his dignity by taxation or by becoming a free-loader. In time the social order collapses and everyone suffers. That is what happened to the USSR, for example.

    The welfare system of Israel was perhaps more effective because it provided a way of dealing with the poor that did not deprive them of their dignity (slavery or gleaning did not exempt anyone from working hard.) Those who were truly disadvantaged were not left to fend for themselves but had to the family and tribal structure to fall back on. God took good care of teaching the Israelites mercy and tied it directly to individual salvation.

    The welfare state fails because it does not recognize the reality of human sinfulness. Jesus said “you shall always have the poor” and so Christian law continues to address the problem with mercy.

    In my humble opinion the State is a poor substitute for the Church in the exercise of acts of mercy, in taking care of the poor, etc. There is also the principle of subsidiarity: where the parish pastor suffices the Pope has no business. Where the local church, the town or county can do, the state and federal agents should not be involved simply because that creates expensive structures that burn extra resources without adding significant value (and sometimes detracting from available resources) to solve the problem.

    As a matter of mercy pardon the extension of this reflection.

    🙂

  • goral

    The government derives it’s power from the confusion of the governed.

    “One of the great privileges and duties of practicing Christians is to do charitable deeds.”

    One of the many injustices that the state inflicts on it’s citizens is the confounding of the rights and privileges of the state and the rights and privileges of the individual and the governed.

    When those who tax us have us arguing about if and how the gov’t can help the poor then the end of the American experiment is at the door.

    We will soon be as de-Christianized as Europe, as corrupt as So. America and as poor as Africa.

    Our God given privilege has been taken away, our duties have been usurped and our self-worth and dignity stripped in exchange for gov’t largess, faceless and heartless benevolence and hopeless dependency.

    We have Catholics/Christians who have sold us out. These same are our enemies, they are the weak in thought and spirit who are feigning to be the “good”.
    Immigrant families have been destroyed because of their expeditions to acquire welfare. Domestic families have been decimated as the gov’t took on the role of husband and father.
    Churches have been left impotent as the gov’t illegally took charge over their functions and purpose.
    All of this happened with the consent of the confused.

    We had better put an end to this welfare state now before we go bankrupt. The gov’t will then nationalize everything just to keep order and maintain a semblance of legitimacy.

    Stop the confusion. It was always a personal and communal responsibility to help those in need.
    The role of the gov’t is to put a cop on the street, to maintain the street and illuminate it so that those delivering the aid can do so safely, anything else is a perversion.