Acton Institute Powerblog

Is Augustine Obnoxious, Too?

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Helping Hands sculpture, Mandela Gardens, Leeds - DSC07707Earlier this week, Elise noted an essay by Rev. Schall, which asked, “Do Christians Love Poverty?”

Michael Sean Winters at the National Catholic Reporter also responded to the piece, with the comment, “Almost everything about this essay is obnoxious.”

But I think Winters really misses the central insight of Schall’s piece, which really is an Augustinian point:

A person who sorrows for someone who is miserable earns approval for the charity he shows, but if he is genuinely merciful he would far rather there were nothing to sorrow about. If such a thing as spiteful benevolence existed (which is impossible, of course, but supposing it did), a genuinely and sincerely merciful person would wish others to be miserable so that he could show them mercy!

Thus Augustine explores the implications of such “spiteful benevolence,” which I understand to be the basic point of Schall’s piece. Schall therefore wonders, “Do Christians love poverty as such, as a positive good? Do they want people to be poor so that they can be loveable?”

The spiritual danger of a love for others turning into a lust for dominating power is a real one, even if Winters doesn’t acknowledge it. What Augustine and Schall are really looking for is an attitude toward help that humanizes, one that doesn’t foster dependency in order to keep people in a state of misery, intentionally or not, directly or indirectly. This reality is the kind of loving help that the doctrine of subsidiarity is supposed to engender.

One of the implications of this insight that there is spiritual danger in doing good is that we should always be asking whether our helping is actually hurting.

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, where he also serves as executive editor the Journal of Markets & Morality. 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. He has authored articles in academic publications such as The Journal of Religion, Scottish Journal of Theology, Reformation & Renaissance Review, and Journal of Scholarly Publishing, and has written popular pieces for newspapers including the Detroit News, Orange County Register, and The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. In 2006, Jordan was profiled in the book, The Relevant Nation: 50 Activists, Artists And Innovators Who Are Changing The World Through Faith. Jordan's scholarly interests include Reformation studies, church-state relations, theological anthropology, social ethics, theology and economics, and research methodology. Jordan is a member of the Christian Reformed Church in North America (CRCNA), and he resides in Jenison, Michigan with his wife and three children.

Comments

  • Spot on. This is why I am more ambivalent about Mother Teresa, as time goes on. Pallets and aspirins for her impoverished charges, but first class Swiss hospitals for her? That’s wrong.