Category: Bible and Theology

The Catholic Church has long been one of the most insistent voices concerning the obligation of wealthy nations to assist less developed nations. Philip Booth, author of the new Acton monograph International Aid and Integral Human Development, looks at this tradition and finds that the Church’s endorsement of aid is highly qualified — a positive sign of increasing awareness that old methods of development assistance may not be as helpful as previously thought. Indeed, there is good evidence to believe that aid might even harm the citizens of the countries that receive it. Get Acton News & Commentary in your email inbox every Wednesday. Sign up here.

Solidarity, Charity and Government Aid

By Philip Booth

Of all Christ’s teachings as reflected in the gospel accounts, there is none as consistent as his defense of the poor and downtrodden. This teaching applies also to international relations and individual and societal responsibilities toward the poor and marginalized beyond one’s own borders. The Christian desire to assist the economic development of poorer peoples is founded on the principle at the heart of the Christian life: love. To be concerned about and act in favor of the poor around the world is to practice the virtue of charity.

However, in this context, it is a mistake to equate charity with government aid. When the Church talks about solidarity and the preferential option for the poor, it usually refers to these concepts in the context of charity: the service of love in providing for one’s neighbor without expecting anything in return. In his 2009 World Peace Day message, for example, Pope Benedict XVI said: “[I]t is timely to recall in particular the ‘preferential love for the poor’ in the light of the primacy of charity, which is attested throughout the Christian tradition, beginning with that of the early Church.”

Booth

This is not to say that there is no role for governments in providing aid for poor nations. However, such aid does not fulfill our duty of solidarity, and it is for individual Christians to make prudential judgments as to whether government aid is effective in aiding the poor. That government provision of any good, service, or assistance does not discharge our duties and cannot bring the world to perfection was made clear by Pope Benedict XVI in Caritas in Veritate: “Solidarity is first and foremost a sense of responsibility on the part of everyone with regard to everyone, and it cannot therefore be merely delegated to the State” (no. 38).

Political authorities play their part in bringing about the common good. To do this, they set the framework of laws within which individuals, families, and communities operate. The state may also enact laws where sins of omission are of sufficient seriousness to prevent people from participating in the common good. Thus if charity is not sufficiently generous to allow people to have the basics of life (such as food, clean water, and healthcare) the state may step in. It may do this on an international basis if the capacity of individual national states is insufficient. The state may also provide certain infrastructure that is necessary to promote the common good.

These guidelines leave a wide area for judgment in four respects. First, if government aid actually does more harm than good, it would be imprudent to use aid to try to promote the common good. Second, we may wish to use government policy to encourage more voluntary support. Third, there is the question of how much aid should be provided and how it should be delivered. Finally, especially if it is shown that aid does not raise the living standards of a recipient country, we may wish to pursue other policies to try to bring about long-term and fruitful change in the political and economic character of a country.

In Caritas, aid is mentioned 19 times and development over 250 times. That Pope Benedict has not abandoned papal exhortations to governments to provide aid is clear. He states: “Economically developed nations should do all they can to allocate larger portions of their gross domestic product to development aid” (no. 60). This passage must be read in context, however. It is the only point in the encyclical where more aid of this type is explicitly recommended. On 15 of the 19 occasions on which the word aid is used, the Holy Father is critical of aid agencies, the way in which Western governments provide aid, or of the way in which recipient governments use aid.

Benedict writes: “International aid has often been diverted from its proper ends, through irresponsible actions” (no. 22). He reminds us of the “grave irresponsibility of the governments of former colonies.” Those responsible have a duty—a very serious duty given the historical record—to ensure that aid is provided in a bottom-up way that genuinely leads to development for the poor.

The pope also stresses the importance of “institution building” for development (e.g., no. 41). Caritas suggests that a main focus of development aid should be to ensure that institutions exist so that the rule of law, protection of property rights, and a properly functioning democracy thrive. “The focus of international aid, within a solidarity-based plan to resolve today’s economic problems,” Benedict writes, “should rather be on consolidating constitutional, juridical and administrative systems in countries that do not yet fully enjoy these goods” (no. 41).

Benedict criticizes tied aid (assistance that must be spent in the nation providing it) and warns about aid dependency; he also demands a removal of developed-country trade barriers, which stop underdeveloped countries from selling their goods and produce. Indeed, he links the two points and suggests, in keeping with the tradition of Catholic social teaching, that aid should be temporary and that trade is the “principal form of assistance” to be provided to underdeveloped countries. In other words, countries should not be dependent on aid but move away from aid toward self-supporting economies.

Caritas also has advice for those involved in distributing aid, including agencies and charities. As the pope says: “International organizations might question the actual effectiveness of their bureaucratic and administrative machinery, which is often excessively costly” (no. 47). He calls for complete financial transparency for all aid organizations. He blames both providers of aid and recipients for diverting money from the purposes for which it was intended. He expresses concern that aid can lead to dependence and also, if badly administered, can give rise to exploitation and oppression. This can happen where aid budgets are large in relation to developing countries’ domestic budgets and the money gets into the hands of the rich and powerful rather than the poor and needy.

This analysis leaves open, however, the issue of how we should respond if the political, legal, and economic environment is not only hostile to economic development but also such that aid will be wasted and may be used to centralize power within corrupt political systems. Aid, in the wrong political environment, might do significant harm. Indeed, there is no substantial economic evidence that aid does significant good and a lot of evidence to suggest that it might harm the citizens of the countries that receive it.

Philip Booth is editorial and program director at the Institute of Economic Affairs in London. This article was excerpted from Booth’s new Acton monograph International Aid and Integral Human Development.

During my seminary days at Asbury Theological Seminary, Tony Campolo spoke at a chapel service and offered a litany of denunciations of greed and corporate America. However, one thing he said especially caught the attention of a professor of mine. During his talk, Campolo equated material poverty with spiritual righteousness. Later in the day during class, while the rest of the campus was still gushing over Campolo’s visit, the professor rebuked Campolo rather harshly. He said he stood with him until he started declaring the poor were righteous because of their poverty. We were of course reminded eloquently and emotionally that our righteousness was in Christ (1 Corinthians 1:30).

In Campolo’s zeal for building a new kingdom for the poor on earth, perhaps he did not mean to imply that righteousness is found apart from Christ, but he gave a window for a wise professor to impart correction.

Having graduated from a Wesleyan seminary, I was fortunate to hear many stories about the holistic care for the poor that is at the heart of Methodism. Nevertheless, John Wesley always understood first that the spiritual condition must be changed if the social condition was to be improved. Even when Christ heals somebody physically, there is a deep spiritual symbolism with somebody like a paralytic. Paralysis in the gospel represents the crippling power of sin and the inability for man to change not just his physical condition, but his spiritual condition as well. Blindness, leprosy, death, the woman with the issue of blood, deformities, deafness, sickness, and Jesus’ healing of those maladies all carry deep spiritual symbolism about mankind.

Just as I talked about the problem of reducing Christ to political activist in “Jesus as Budget Director?,” there is also a danger in reducing “poverty” to just the material and stripping it of its spiritual components. This is especially true with a glib and partisan quote like “What Would Jesus Cut?”, in a budget-cutting context.

Many Great Society programs point to the unintended consequences of ignoring the spiritual components of poverty for the material. One such example being the crumbling of two parent homes, especially modeled by what has occurred in American inner cities over the past forty plus years. It is always essential to think holistically and spiritually about poverty. The state is unable to do so, and is ultimately not able to address any deeper needs. At the Acton Institute, we understand the main way that poverty is alleviated is through enterprise and access to markets. We also understand that there are important moral foundations for a society and that it is essential that one is a moral agent within the market.

During our discussions last week in the office around some of the issues of “What Would Jesus Cut,?” I also posed the question “What Would Judas Cut?” It was in part for humor, but there is an important lesson there too. It was a question I formulated with the help of my pastor when we were discussing the “What Would Jesus Cut?” campaign. If we strip the Gospel of its spiritual source in addressing these issues and hardly discern the holistic need of the poor, we are making demands for the poor with the wrong intention (John 12:4-8).

In his evangelistic fervor across 18th century England, John Wesley brought the Gospel to the poor and marginalized. The man who encouraged him to take his ministry outside of church walls was the fellow Methodist evangelist George Whitefield. There is a story about Whitefield that is one of my favorites. Whitefield first took the gospel message to the poor working class coal miners of Kingswood, England. They were disliked for their rowdy unclean ways and disdained by society. After preaching from Matthew 5: “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven,” Whitefield recorded the scene in his journal: “Miners, just up from the mines, listened and the tears flowed making white gutters down their coal-black faces.” One miner declared, “I never knew anybody loves us.”

Jesus is the “Bread of Life” and a social gospel without him or one that dilutes his saving power ultimately leads back to the same spiritual maladies symbolized so well in the scripture.

Below is the full-length version of “The Rich Young Man: The Law Versus Privilege,” an essay published in the winter 2011 Religion & Liberty. John Kelly’s essay was shortened because of space limitations for the print issue. He was passionate about sharing the full version, which he edited himself for readers of the PowerBlog. Mr. Kelly, a financial advisor, also authored a piece in 2004 for Religion & Liberty titled “The Tithe: Land Rent to God.”

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THE RICH YOUNG MAN: THE LAW VERSUS PRIVILEGE

by John Kelly

As Jesus conducted his public ministry, he drew considerable crowds. Within the throngs were, of course, the peasants of the neighborhood, along with longer-term disciples. There were many who wished to see miracles, many who wished to hear his sayings of peace, love, hope and promise. There were those who wanted reinforcement of the Law and those who wished to see some of the Law abandoned. And within all these groups were many who were troubled by personal doubt.

Jesus spoke with these people, engaging them, answering their questions, asking them questions, all the while proclaiming the authority and the efficacy of the Law. He said, “Do not imagine that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets. I have come not to abolish – but to complete them.” He then goes on – he’s trying to make sure his listeners understand: “In truth I tell you, till heaven and earth disappear, not one dot, not one little stroke, is to disappear from the Law until all its purpose is achieved.” (Matthew 5:17-18 – NJB)

Some of Jesus’ most engaging images come from these conversations. Rich and poor, titled and powerless, legalists and apostates, disciples and strangers all had encounters with Jesus that fleshed out for them his view of the Law. However, our lack of knowledge regarding the economic, political and cultural environment in which Jesus lived and preached sometimes hampers our understanding of his message.

One of the more famous of these encounters was with the rich young man. This story is found, in almost identical versions, at Matthew 19:16-22, Mark 10:17-22 and Luke 18:18-23. He approached Jesus and asked what was necessary to be saved. “Good Master, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” Jesus replied that the young man should keep the commandments. “I have kept all these,” stated the rich young man, “What more do I need to do?” Jesus said to him, “If you wish to be perfect, go and sell your possessions and give the money to the poor … then come, follow me.” This was too much for the young man. Scripture says that he “went away sad, for he was a man of great wealth.”

This story seems too hard for most of us. What is fundamentally wrong with being rich? Preachers try to make sense of this passage by assuming that the rich young man was too materialistic, and that the story is a warning to us about that failing. That much may be true, however, that interpretation is about the young man’s reaction, not about Jesus’ words. Jesus instructed him to sell everything he had and give it to the poor. Why? (more…)

Religion & Liberty’s winter issue featuring an interview with patristics scholar Thomas C. Oden is now available online. Oden, who is a Methodist, recalls for us the great quote by Methodist founder John Wesley on the Church Fathers: “The Fathers are the most authentic commentators on Scripture, for they were nearest the fountain and were eminently endued with that Spirit by whom all Scripture was given.”

Oden reminds us of the relevancy of patristics today, he says “You can hardly find any contemporary political issue that has not been dealt with, in some form, in a previous cultural and linguistics situation by the early Christian writers.” We hope you will enjoy the interview and the portion of this interview that was previewed on the PowerBlog in January.

Thomas C. Oden in Mozambique

2011 Novak Award Winner Hunter Baker has written “Social Leveling: Socialism and Secularism” for the winter issue. Baker says:

The logic of social leveling applies to more than property. Indeed, socialism and secularism are closely related to one another. While socialism seeks to erase the economic distinctions between human beings by taking individual choices about property out of people’s hands, secularism seeks to erase the religious differences between people by making religion irrelevant to the life of the community.

Rev. Johannes Jacobse has contributed a review of of Defending Constantine by Peter J. Leithart. An extended review of the book has already been posted on the PowerBlog.

John Kelly, a financial advisor, has written an essay called “The Rich Young Man: The Law Versus Privilege.”

Whittaker Chambers is the “In The Liberal Tradition” figure for this issue. For further Chambers reference, I reviewed Whittaker Chambers: The Spirit of a Counterrevolutionary by Richard M. Reinsch II last issue. Chambers words and witness have been an inspiration to me.

There is more in the issue so please check out the entire publication online and feel free to offer us feedback and ideas for future content in Religion & Liberty. The spring issue will feature an interview with theologian and author Wayne Grudem.

Here’s today’s offering from Jim Wallis’ Rediscovering Values for Lent on the Sojourners website:

Today, instead of statues, we have hedge funds, mortgage-backed securities, 401(k)s, and mutual funds. We place blind faith in the hope that the stock indexes will just keep rising and real estate prices keep climbing. Market mechanisms were supposed to distribute risk so well that those who were reckless would never see the consequences of their actions. Trust, security, and hope in the future were all as close to us as the nearest financial planner’s office. Life and the world around us could all be explained with just the right market lens. These idols were supposed to make us happy and secure and provide for all our needs. Those who manage them became the leaders to whom we looked, not just for financial leadership, but direction for our entire lives. That is idolatry. (page 29).

Last month, Fidelity Investments reported that the average 401(k) balance reached a 10-year high at the end of 2010 — two years after the financial crisis and recession. It also pointed out that “the majority (53%) of participants in 401(k) plans … earning between $20,000 and $40,000 do participate, and 71 percent of participants earning $40,000 and $60,000 participate.” That’s a lot of lower-income idolatry.

This is not a picture of the stock market

According to a report (issued in 2008) by the Investment Company Institute and the Securities Industry and Financial Markets Association, “ownership rates for equities and bonds across U.S. households grew dramatically between 1989 and 2001, but have since tapered off. In the first quarter of 2008, 47 percent of U.S. households (54.5 million) owned equities and/or bonds. The overall ownership rate in 2008 is still much higher than it was in 1989.” The report noted that “ownership of these investment assets has declined since 2001, as increasing market volatility has reduced Americans’ tolerance for risk.” But, most likely, those investment funds will be saved somewhere or moved into lower risk vehicles.

Of course, if you are afraid that investing in the stock market, a mutual fund, a money market account, etc., makes you an idol worshipper, the cure would be to stuff your cash into the mattress or bury it in a coffee can. But would that be good stewardship?

Blog author: jcouretas
Tuesday, March 8, 2011
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We’ll have the Winter 2011 issue of Religion & Liberty online later this week and you won’t want to miss it. Subscribe here. We’re previewing the issue on the PowerBlog with a book review that, because of space limitations, had to be shortened. This post publishes it in full.

Constantine and the Great Transformation

Defending Constantine by Peter J. Leithart (IVP Academic, 2010)

Reviewed by Johannes L. Jacobse

The argument that the lifting of the persecutions of early Christians and the subsequent expansion of the Christian faith led to a “fall” of the Christian Church is more widespread than we may believe. Academics have defended it for years. Popular Christianity, especially conservative Protestantism, takes it as a truth second only to the Gospel.

Towering over this argument is Constantine the Great. When Constantine faced the final battle that would determine if he became Rome’s new emperor, he saw a cross shining in the sky above the sun and heard the words, “By this sign conquer.” He took it to mean that divine providence chose him to be the emperor of a new and undivided Rome. His soldiers went to battle with a cross painted on their shields and won. The persecutions stopped. Christianity was the new religion of the empire.

But is the collective wisdom accurate? Is it true that the fourth century represents decline? No, argues Peter J. Leithart in his new book Defending Constantine.

Emperor Constantine (Byzantine mosaic ca. 1000 from the Hagia Sophia)

“Constantine has been a whipping boy for a very long time and still is today,” Leithart begins. The historical and theological consensus identifies Constantine with “tyranny, anti-Semitism, hypocrisy, apostasy, and heresy.” Constantine, the conventional wisdom goes, was a “power hardened politician … a hypocrite who harnessed the energy of the Church for his own ends … a murderer, usurper, and egoist.”

This opinion has its roots in the work of John Howard Yoder, a prominent pacifist and “probably the most influential Mennonite theologian who ever lived,” Leithart argues. His influence is far reaching and includes such prominent names as Stanley Hauerwas of Duke University among others. “In Yoder’s telling, the Church ‘fell’ in the fourth century (or thereabouts) and has not yet recovered from that fall. This misconstrues the theological significance of Constantine … ”

Challenging Yoder’s thesis is not the only reason Leithart wrote the book but it certainly is the most compelling. Leithart believes Yoder’s pacifist preconceptions distort the historical record to such a degree that they blind us to the inherent moral power of the Christian faith to transform and elevate human culture. The pacifism of Yoder and like-minded disciples, Leithart argues in so many words, is nothing less than a debilitating emasculation of the Christian faith. (more…)

In this week’s commentary, which will appear tomorrow, I summarize and explore a bit more fully some of the discussion surrounding evangelical and religious engagement of the budget battles in Washington. One of my core concerns is that the approaches seem to assume too much ongoing and primary responsibility on the part of the federal government for providing direct material assistance to the poor. As “A Call for Intergenerational Justice” puts it, “To reduce our federal debt at the expense of our poorest fellow citizens would be a violation of the biblical teaching that God has a special concern for the poor.”

In one real sense this perspective lets Christians, individually and corporately, off the hook too easily. I highlight the following quote from Abraham Kuyper: “Never forget that all state relief for the poor is a blot on the honor of your Savior.”

My basic contention is that we can only move to address the secondary role of governments of various levels (local first, federal last!) providing relief when we have thoroughly grappled with Kuyper’s basic insight here. Lester DeKoster and Gerard Berghoef explore this dynamic in a bit more detail in their Deacons Handbook, in a section on “The Church and the Welfare State.” They take as their starting point the position that “Government has undertaken to do what conscience, tutored out of the Scriptures, demands but fails, through the Church, entirely to achieve.”

In this way their emphasis is on revitalizing the diaconate first. They recognize that in many ways the government has filled in the gaps, but in so doing has often eroded the foundations and space for other organizations to step back in and fulfill their own mandates. DeKoster and Berghoef, writing in 1980, anticipate something like the faith-based initiative as part of the move back for the church to meet its social responsibility.

I’m less sanguine about that proposed solution, but I do think that the tax credits for charitable giving are something that ought to be protected, or perhaps even enhanced (President Obama’s latest proposal would limit exemptions for wealthy citizens.). In this context it is also worth noting the conclusions of a recent NBER paper, which shows that government subsidy tends to “crowd out” the initiative of private institutions from seeking their own sources of funding (imagine that!).

Kuyper’s quote comes from his opening address to the First Christian Social Congress in Amsterdam, November 9, 1891, and is published in translation as “The Problem of Poverty.”

Update: Over at the CRC Network, Karl Westerhoff, who guides the “Deacons” topic, asks some pertinent questions:

But how is this a diaconal matter? Well, I’m wondering…. Does this national conversation have echoes in our churches? In our families? Should it? Are there implications for how we make OUR budgets? And what about our families? Is there an opportunity here for some fresh conversation about family spending patterns? Can we talk about the choices we make with our money, and the expectations we have for the money we spend on charity? Where has the church spent benevolent money that really had the result we hoped for? What can we learn from that? How are we shaping our family lives and our congregational lives in ways that address need in truly Christ-like ways?

These are precisely the kinds of questions we need to be asking. I think what we’ll find is that government has a far larger and more expansive role in some of these answers than many often think.