Acton Institute Powerblog

Health Care and the ‘Holy Art of Giving’

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In a column in this past Saturday’s religion section, Charles Honey reflects on the second great love commandment in the context of the national health care debate.

Honey’s piece starts out on a very strong note, detailing the perspective of Dr. John Vander Kolk, director of a local non-profit initiative focused on the uninsured:

“Where would we see Jesus in our culture?” asks the member of Ada Bible Church. “He would be down there with his sleeves rolled up, helping the people that don’t have any access (to health care). That’s what we’re being called to do.”

An editorial published this month by George Barna takes a similar point of departure.

In short, Jesus Christ showed us that anyone who follows Him is expected to address the most pressing needs of others. You can describe Jesus’ health care strategy in four words: whoever, whatever, whenever, wherever. Whoever needed to be healed received His healing touch. Whatever affliction they suffered from, He addressed it. Whenever the opportunity to heal arose, He seized it. Wherever they happened to be, He took care of it.

But it is after this shared perspective that the respective pieces on health care and the Christian faith part ways.

Honey’s piece continues to argue, in the vein of the Forty Days for Health Reform, that the gospel imperative is best met through government action. “For many, it’s about treating others as you would want to be treated — seeing to it that they get the decent medical care you and I would expect. It’s just not that complicated.”

Barna, however, ends on a note of personal challenge. He writes,

Government clearly has a role in people’s lives; the Bible supports its existence and circumscribed functions. It is unfortunate that when God’s people, collectively known as the Church, fail to exhibit the compassion and service that He has called us to provide, we are comfortable with the government acting as a national safety net. In a society that has become increasingly self-centered and self-indulgent, we simply expand our reliance upon the government to provide solutions and services that are the responsibility of Christ followers. Some Christians have heeded the call, as evidenced by the medical clinics, pregnancy centers and even hospitals across the nation that were initiated and funded by small numbers of dedicated believers who grasped this responsibility. Imagine what an impact the Church would have on society if it truly reflected the model Jesus gave us of how to care for one another!

This echoes the words of Abraham Kuyper, who in an address on the social question of poverty, wrote, “The holy art of ‘giving for Jesus’ sake’ ought to be much more strongly developed among us Christians. Never forget that all state relief for the poor is a blot on the honour of your Saviour.”

Jordan J. Ballor Jordan J. Ballor (Dr. theol., University of Zurich; Ph.D., Calvin Theological Seminary) is a senior research fellow and director of publishing at the Acton Institute for the Study of Religion & Liberty. He is also a postdoctoral researcher in theology and economics at the VU University Amsterdam as part of the "What Good Markets Are Good For" project. He is author of Get Your Hands Dirty: Essays on Christian Social Thought (and Action) (Wipf & Stock, 2013), Covenant, Causality, and Law: A Study in the Theology of Wolfgang Musculus (Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2012) and Ecumenical Babel: Confusing Economic Ideology and the Church's Social Witness (Christian's Library Press, 2010), as well as editor of numerous works, including Abraham Kuyper Collected Works in Public Theology. Jordan is also associate director of the Junius Institute for Digital Reformation Research at Calvin Theological Seminary.


  • Roger McKinney

    “Government clearly has a role in people’s lives; the Bible supports its existence and circumscribed functions.”

    Obviously! The debate is over what the guv’s “circumscribed functions” are. Did God intend charity to be a function of the state, or a voluntary act of his people? I say that he intended it to be a voluntary act because charity loses all virtue if it is forced. Morality requires freedom.

    “Whenever the opportunity to heal arose, He seized it. Wherever they happened to be, He took care of it.”

    That’s not true. Jesus healed a lot of people in Israel, but nowhere near the majority. In fact, he could do no healing at all in his home town, Nazareth.

    Kuyper: “The holy art of ‘giving for Jesus’ sake’ ought to be much more strongly developed among us Christians.”

    And it is. Surveys show that conservative Christians give 80% of all charity.

    Kuyper: “Never forget that all state relief for the poor is a blot on the honour of your Saviour.”

    That’s pure nonsense! No matter how much we give to the poor, there will always be poor people. Jesus recognized that. If the state decides to help some of the remaining poor, that means nothing but that people have become more socialist. Jesus never called Christians to eliminate poverty or illness because only he can do that. We can’t even make a very big dent in either. He called us to be faithful in giving to them, not be responsible for eliminating them.

  • Roger McKinney

    PS, economics and history, especially recent Chinese history, have proven that the best way to help the poor is to provide free markets, which create jobs, not charity. If Jesus were alive today, he would advocate capitalism as the best means to help the poor and sick. Obviously, he couldn’t advocate it in his day because it wouldn’t have made sense to anyone. Anyway, Jesus wasn’t a fore-runner of modern social activists. However, he did advocate something akin to capitalism in the way he structured the only government he ever created–Israel under the judges. Why doesn’t anyone take that model as their guide to structuring modern governments?

  • “Whenever the opportunity to heal arose, He seized it. Wherever they happened to be, He took care of it.”

    That’s not true. Jesus healed a lot of people in Israel, but nowhere near the majority. In fact, he could do no healing at all in his home town, Nazareth.

    Agreed. Barna moves a bit too quickly to his conclusion here.

    But the basic point is that even if you accept that the gospel imperative involves material assistance, the logic need not lead so clearly to government assistance as primary. It is a bit more “complicated” than that.

    Re: Kuyper’s second comment, I think it reflects the position that state welfare is a secular artifact that does what it can to reflect the kind of solidarity that ought to be shown in the church.

  • Karen

    I applaud Dr. VanderKolk’s efforts and the many people who have done likewise in our country. The uninsured do not go without care thanks to these good people. This actually proves that we do not need a government mandate to care for the poor; we need more people, more individuals, doing the work of Christ. I am disturbed by Mr. Honey’s assumption that having poor who need our help means we need more government to take care of us. I do not understand how so many in the social justice crowd are happy to let an impersonal entity take care of them when what we clearly need is better relationships with our fellow man.

  • Kathryn Lopez indirectly speaks to the issue in the opening paragraph of her piece at National Review Online

    “… the problems of ACORN represent a broader and even more scandalous idea: the conventional acceptance of the Left’s self-righteous claim to have a monopoly on all politics, policy, and lifestyles that are good.”

    This mindset has infected “the religious left” even to the extent of their accepting “faith based initiatives” as long as they get to spend taxpayer money with their allies and friends. Friends like ACORN.

  • What about the cure of a man possessed by demons, which were sent into a herd of swine? The swine committed suicide and created a severe financial loss on the community. The Locals asked Jesus to take his healing elsewhere. (The story is an interesting meditation on the Divinity and Humanity of Jesus, the nature and purpose of good works, and the consumption of community resources in the healing process, esp., if they are Samaritan).

    Do we have millions unemployed, financial markets in disarray, housing markets in collapse because of the Do-Gooders that thought everyone had a right to affordable housing?

    I enjoy the observation of an Augustinian instructor in moral philosophy: “A Do-Gooder is a person who takes a step out of the abyss of ignorance to strike a blow against reason.” Government charity is blind. Government merely funds, without knowing whether it helps, hurts or enables its recipients.

    Governments need to be careful where they aim their charity, they might hit somebody.

  • Roger McKinney

    Hayek distinguished between the economics of families/tribes and that of markets. The first is personal, the second impersonal. They operate according to different principles and to apply one to the other results in destroying the other. Charity is the economics of the family/tribe. State charity wants to apply the economics of family/tribe to markets, which results in socialism. Many libertarian economists want to apply the economics of the market to the family/tribe/church, but as Hayek wrote, that would crush the family/tribe/church. Charity is a virtue for individuals who freely do it; it’s disastrous for a state.

  • Dave K

    Honey is right – it is about treating others as you would want to be treated. What he overlooks is that the others include not only the person lacking access to health care, but all those we would trespass against by forcing them to support our preferred solutions, applied in our preferred manner. The Golden Rule must be applied to all.

  • Roger McKinney

    Dave: “The Golden Rule must be applied to all.”

    Yes, by individuals, but not by the state. The state’s sole purpose is to provide justice. If it tries to do anything else, it will cause injustice to prevail. The family, Church and state all have different roles and should stick to them.

  • Francsico

    “Government clearly has a role in people’s lives; the Bible supports its existence and circumscribed functions.”

    In Samuel 8 God agree to name a king because our nature as siners but that is not what he wanted in fact he warn us about kings excesses and oppression.

    If every one of us where able to obey Him, government won’t be needed. So government saize is proportionaly to our sins.

    Charity has to come form a free choice (other wise is not charity), higher taxes will leave less money for helping others.

  • Roger McKinney

    “So government size is proportional to our sins.”
    Excellent point, Francisco!

    I believe that socialism is God’s wrath on a rebellious people. Democracy is God’s most brilliant tool for punishing the rebellious. He doesn’t have to do anything at all. When we rebel against Him, we set up an idol in the state and worship it instead of Him. That causes people to vote more power to the state, expand socialism, and punish themselves as the kings of Israel oppressed their people. God doesn’t have to do a thing.

  • Dave K

    Roger: “Yes, by individuals, but not by the state.”

    Precisely my point. The Golden Rule cannot be applied by the state, as it must oppress one in order to assist another. This is what Honey has overlooked. He desires to apply the Golden Rule to those lacking health care, but forgets those he would injure in the process.

  • Roger McKinney

    Dave, Good point!

  • MaryAnn

    Jesus was not a politician demanding action from people, nor did he call for extorting money from people to pay for his reform. Jesus spoke to individual people about their duty to God and their neighbor. When individual people refused to listen, he allowed them to walk away; in fact, he told his followers to shake the dust off their feet when they met people who refused to listen. I believe that’s called free will. The country and the world will become a more just place only when individuals turn toward God for their justice. In the meantime, the government has no legal or moral right to force on people, by threat and extortion, it’s own brand of social justice.

  • mr teachersir

    I would not venture to say that socialism is God’s punishment for our sins…but is our rejection of God’s plan. Socialism tells us that we can get equality on our own without divine help. God says otherwise.

    I think it is clear to all that consumerism and materialism lead us to think that we can provide for our own needs. We then reject God’s grace and embrace a materialist philosophy of socialism or extreme capitalism.

  • Roger McKinney

    Mr. teachersir, I’m not sure what you mean by “extreme capitalism”. I guess that depends on what you mean by capitalism. Capitalism originated as the response of godly men in the Dutch Republic to the abuses by the nobility against the property of commoners. They decided to implement a system of government that truely protected property. That required implementing the rule of law, honest police and courts, etc., and creating a free market. That would be extreme capitalism. Another example of extreme capitalism is the early form of US government, minus the slavery. I don’t see why anyone would complain about those examples of extreme capitalism.

    Socialists have often portrayed capitalism as a form of anarchy without laws and with nothing but the rule of the most powerful. But I can confidently say that no capitalist has ever used that definition or has ever advocated such a system. That system exists only in the fevered imagination of socialists.

  • Roger McKinney

    PS, It’s also popular among socialists to portray the modern US system as capitalist. It’s not. Some refer to it as state capitalism. It has nothing to do with capitalism. The modern US is mostly socialist with small pockets of capitalism remaining. Big corporations bribe politicians to create special favors for them in order to enhance their profits. But corporations would have no incentive to bribe politicians if the politicians didn’t already have considerable control over the economy. In other words, the system is already socialist, which gives big corps a reason to bribe politicians. Under capitalism, big corps would find no benefit in bribing politicians because politicians would have no power over the economy that would benefit big corps.

  • Neal Lang

    “Under capitalism, big corps would find no benefit in bribing politicians because politicians would have no power over the economy that would benefit big corps.”

    A good example of how this works is the Interstate Commerce Commission Act, which was enacted in the mid-19th Century in order to protect the consumer by regulating and licensing the railroads. The railroads were granted licenses that allowed them to operated pretty much “government protected” in their own little fiefdoms. This lead to “predatory pricing schemes” such as the “long haul, short haul clause,” which in turned required more government regulations, with special governmental approved exceptions” to remedy. And the beat goes on.

  • Roger McKinney

    Neal, good example! If people want more examples, “How Capitalism Saved America” is chock full of them