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Poverty, Charity, and The State

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Joe Carter wrote a good piece on poverty and Christian charity over at the First Things site with some good quotes from Abraham Kuyper.

Carter writes:

The problem of poverty, at least in America, is not just that it makes it difficult for people to fulfill their material needs, but rather that it blinds us all to what we really need. After all, what the truly destitute—those without food and shelter—need most isn’t a handout or a redistribution of wealth. What they need is for Christians to heed Jesus’ command. As Kuyper points out,

For deeds of love are indispensable. Obviously, the poor man cannot wait until the restoration of our social structure has been completed. Almost certainly he will not live long enough to see that happy day. Nevertheless, he still has to live, he must feed his hungry mouth, and the mouths of his hungry family. Therefore, vigorous help is necessary. However highly I am inclined to praise your willingness to make sacrifices—and this is possible through God’s grace to many of you—nevertheless, 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 honor of your savior.

The fact that the government needs a safety net to catch those who would slip between the cracks of our economic system is evidence that I have failed to do God’s work. The government cannot take the place of Christian charity. A loving embrace isn’t given with food stamps. The care of a community isn’t provided with government housing. The face of our Creator can’t be seen on a welfare voucher. What the poor need is not another government program; what they need is for Christians like me to honor our savior.

We can see a similar reflection about the role of the state and love of neighbor in Pope Benedict XVI encyclical Deus Caritas Est where he writes in Paragraph 28

Love—caritas—will always prove necessary, even in the most just society. There is no ordering of the State so just that it can eliminate the need for a service of love. Whoever wants to eliminate love is preparing to eliminate man as such. There will always be suffering which cries out for consolation and help. There will always be loneliness. There will always be situations of material need where help in the form of concrete love of neighbour is indispensable.[20] The State which would provide everything, absorbing everything into itself, would ultimately become a mere bureaucracy incapable of guaranteeing the very thing which the suffering person—every person—needs: namely, loving personal concern. We do not need a State which regulates and controls everything, but a State which, in accordance with the principle of subsidiarity, generously acknowledges and supports initiatives arising from the different social forces and combines spontaneity with closeness to those in need. The Church is one of those living forces: she is alive with the love enkindled by the Spirit of Christ. This love does not simply offer people material help, but refreshment and care for their souls, something which often is even more necessary than material support. In the end, the claim that just social structures would make works of charity superfluous masks a materialist conception of man: the mistaken notion that man can live “by bread alone” (Mt 4:4; cf. Dt 8:3)—a conviction that demeans man and ultimately disregards all that is specifically human.

But this of course means that we need to do something and actually get involved in helping the poor–and that is easier said than done. As Carter writes:

Some day I will stand before my Creator and he’ll ask why I didn’t feed my brother when he was hungry or clothe my sister when she was cold. Shall I tell him, “I couldn’t give, Lord, I lived in poverty”?

Unlike the poor widow, I’m rich in possessions and could give out of my wealth. But she gave out of abundance—an obedient heart and love for her neighbor—of which I remain truly impoverished.

Michael Matheson Miller

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