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What Would Jesus Cut?

That is the question asked by the left-leaning Christian organization, Sojourners, in its campaign of the same name. It is a most appropriate question given the battle over the budget and given this time of year, not long after the most holy holiday of the year for Christians.

Sojourners claims that, despite record budget deficits and national debt, reducing subsidies for things like vaccines and bed nets in Africa, school lunch programs, early childhood education, and income maintenance in the United States is immoral. Indeed, such subsidies, Sojourners says, “are dollars we can’t afford to not invest.”

What are we to make of these claims? Certainly we are called to love our neighbor as ourselves and this love, when directed toward the poor and needy, must manifest itself by providing real material help to those who truly need it. It is not enough merely to wish a suffering soul to be warm and well fed. We must be willing to put our money where our mouth is. 

It is a mistake, however, to treat as materially poor those who merely have lower incomes than others. For example, the average officially “poor” American has more living space than the average person living in Paris or London. Sixty-two percent of officially poor American homes have satellite or cable television and nearly 75 percent own an automobile. In the United States, what passes for poor certainly does not imply destitution.

Most important, we need to remember that the ends never justify the means, especially for the Christian. Good intentions are never enough to establish an action’s ethical validity. Scripture not only ordains ends we are called to pursue; it also guides us regarding the means that are acceptable to use in achieving those ends.

We should keep these principles in mind when considering Sojourners’ campaign. The campaign correctly notes that societal righteousness is not measured by GDP or military spending; also one of the good works demonstrated by righteous people is charity to the poor. This is all true.

Yet, a fundamental problem with Sojourners’ program is the assumption that what “we” do must be done by the state. It is a large and not logically necessary leap from “We are called to be charitable to the poor,” to “A righteous society will have an extensive welfare state.” Consider:

In the first place, it is not clear at all that the programs mentioned above have been proven effective. There is much literature documenting the ineffectiveness of foreign aid in producing sustainable development, which is the best way to reduce poverty in less developed nations.

Domestically, the link between welfare programs and personal development is so tenuous that even Bill Clinton thought that welfare reform was wise. Like it or not, institutional entitlement payments to the poor encourages idleness, one of the primary reasons that many households earn low incomes. Along with an absent father, one of the main reasons for impoverished children in this country is parents who do not work much. Subsidizing idleness through the federal budget is not going to solve this problem.

The message from Sojourners also errs by assuming that money spent on these projects is investment. In fact, the money spent resembles government consumption. Investment is the voluntary directing of saved income toward capital accumulation and the employment of that capital in its most productive use. Calling government spending “investment,” when that spending is funded by coercive taxation or monetary inflation, is doing violence to language.

For that matter, forcing taxpayers to pay for such programs, even if worthwhile, likewise does violence to the citizenry. It is a violation of the Christian ethic of property and, hence, cannot be accepted as a truly Christian approach to ministering to the poor. If Christ wishes us to adhere to the ethics He has revealed to us in Scripture, perhaps Jesus would want us to cut a lot more government spending than Sojourners assumes.

A better solution would be for the church to be the church. Local congregations should fully fund their diaconate and charge them with earnestly ministering to the needs of the poor as they become aware. The diaconate should be pro-active and eager to minister. However, they should be wise in their ministration, so as not to promote the very problems they seek to alleviate. More importantly, the church should preach the Gospel to everyone, making disciples of all people.

This two-pronged approach will minister to both the material poverty of the poor, and, more importantly, the spiritual poverty of those who do not know Him.

[CL Editor’s note: Dr. Shawn Ritenour is a member of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church and his use of “church” within this piece differs somewhat from the Catholic understanding.]


Dr. Shawn Ritenour is a professor of economics at Grove City College, contributor to The Center for Vision & Values, and author of "Foundations of Economics: A Christian View.".
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  • nickkname

    “For that matter, forcing taxpayers to pay for such programs, even if worthwhile, likewise does violence to the citizenry. It is a violation of the Christian ethic of property and, hence, cannot be accepted as a truly Christian approach to ministering to the poor. If Christ wishes us to adhere to the ethics He has revealed to us in Scripture, perhaps Jesus would want us to cut a lot more government spending than Sojourners assumes.”

    Is the government Christian?
    No.

    Is paying taxes just?
    Yes.

    Can Americans vote on what their tax dollars go to?
    Yes.

    Is it a sin to pay taxes when taxes pay for evil?
    No.

    What did Jesus say about paying taxes?
    Render to Caeser what is Caeser’s and to God and what is God’s.

    “A better solution would be for the church to be the church. Local congregations should fully fund their diaconate and charge them with earnestly ministering to the needs of the poor as they become aware. The diaconate should be pro-active and eager to minister. However, they should be wise in their ministration, so as not to promote the very problems they seek to alleviate. More importantly, the church should preach the Gospel to everyone, making disciples of all people.”

    So let’s pray for filial obedience to the Church.

    And we still have the vote, so let’s vote wisely.

    If programs are cut, such is God’s Will.

  • For that matter, forcing taxpayers to pay for such programs, even if worthwhile, likewise does violence to the citizenry. It is a violation of the Christian ethic of property and, hence, cannot be accepted as a truly Christian approach to ministering to the poor. If Christ wishes us to adhere to the ethics He has revealed to us in Scripture, perhaps Jesus would want us to cut a lot more government spending than Sojourners assumes.

    This is not quite true, at least in Catholic Social Teaching. Here are a few examples:

    Christian tradition has never recognized the right to private property as absolute and untouchable: “On the contrary, it has always understood this right within the broader context of the right common to all to use the goods of the whole of creation: the right to private property is subordinated to the right to common use, to the fact that goods are meant for everyone”. Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church, 177

    and

    Political authority has the right and duty to regualte the legitimate exercise of the right to ownership for the sake of the common good.CCC, 2406.

    and

    The contention, then, that the civil government should at its option intrude into and exercise intimate control over the family and the household is a great and pernicious error. True, if a family finds itself in exceeding distress, utterly deprived of the counsel of friends, and without any prospect of extricating itself, it is right that extreme necessity be met by public aid, since each family is a part of the commonwealth. Rerum Novarum, 14 [my emphasis]

    I’m not arguing that Sojourner’s don’t err – only that the author, for reasons explained by the CL Editor’s note, does not seem to be articulating a Catholic point in the quoted paragraph. He also doesn’t seem to use the phrase “does violence to,” which has actual meaning beyond the current cultural concept of “violence” as injury. Aristotelian and Thomistic thought understand “violence” not as (necessarily) injury, but as moving something against its nature or thwarting its movement to an end. When the Church says that homosexual couples adopting a child “does violence” to the child, the Church speaks to the child’s need for opposite sex parents, for example, not that the child may receive some physical injury due to the disordered arrangement.

    However, the author makes some fine points in the article with which I think Catholics can agree.

    In Christ,

    Michael

  • HomeschoolNfpDad

    One of the points the author makes is supported by statistical evidence, at least as a possibility. Statistical evidence demonstrates that residents of U.S. states with lower tax rates give a higher percentage of income to charitable endeavors than do residents of states with higher tax rates. Some have tried to suggest that this indicates that conservatives give more than liberals, but I think this particular argument is bunk. People — especially when they are the generous people who tend to populate the modern U.S. — tend to give more when they have more money in their pockets to give.

    Cutting government, therefore, ties directly to the possibility of increased charitable giving if government cuts are tied to tax cuts. And since private charitable organizations tend to a much better job of spending their money in service to the poor than government does, it follows that cutting government is the best way to serve the poor.

  • If you want to know what Jesus would do/cut/drive/say, why don’t you ask Him?

    There is presumption at the heart of the question; the implication is always, Jesus would agree with me. The person asking is claiming Divine authority to advance his own agenda.

    First “cast the beam out of your own eye.” A good way to start is with sincere and fervent prayer, and with studying the teachings of the Catholic Church.

  • andrewmason

    The argument that poor people in the US are better off than foreigners is based on the flawed logic that needs and realities are equal throughout the world. In fact, what is essential in America varies greatly throughout the world. Perhaps the poor here have more living space because other countries have large scale housing projects that provide housing while most poor people here have to rent what they can find. For many rural poor in this country, satelite is the only access they have to weather warnings and other services that would not otherwise reach them. Likewise, poor people outside of major cities often require cars to get to work because public transit is nonexistent or not close enough to be useful. It may be true that 75% of American poor people have cars, but I’d be curious about how many of them also live in those cars.

  • HomeschoolNfpDad

    The converse question is also a presumption: what would Jesus fund?

  • HomeschoolNfpDad

    It’s not that government funding is right or wrong intrinsically, and beams have nothing to do with it. These are prudential questions. The right way to ask is what should my family and I do/fund/cut/say in light of our own needs and those of others. We should have courage to apply the Church’s teaching without implying that people doing exactly this — and drawing different conclusions — need some beam examinations.

    The trade-off, however, is real: the more the government funds and taxes, the less the diaconate (to use the author’s word) will be able to do.

  • goral

    Recently one of our reps. used Jesus’ words of – “to whom much was given….” and equated them with the famous Utopian quote of – from each according to ability and to each according to need.
    In other words, Jesus = Marx and both of them represent the State.

    When I hear someone with the “D” following their name invoke the name of Jesus I automatically think of the second Commandment.