- The soteriological status of the rich: “So also let not the man that has been invested with worldly wealth proclaim himself excluded at the outset from the Saviour’s lists, provided he is a believer and one who contemplates the greatness of God’s philanthropy; nor let him, on the other hand, expect to grasp the crowns of immortality without struggle and effort, continuing untrained, and without contest” (III).
- The absence of the necessities of life drive people to consider only material needs: “For although such is the case, one, after ridding himself of the burden of wealth, may none the less have still the lust and desire for money innate and living; and may have abandoned the use of it, but being at once destitute of and desiring what he spent, may doubly grieve both on account of the absence of attendance, and the presence of regret. For it is impossible and inconceivable that those in want of the necessaries of life should not be harassed in mind, and hindered from better things in the endeavour to provide them somehow, and from some source” (XII).
- Wealth is a precondition for charitable giving: “And how much more beneficial the opposite case, for a man, through possessing a competency, both not himself to be in straits about money, and also to give assistance to those to whom it is requisite so to do! For if no one had anything, what room would be left among men for giving?” (XIII)
- The good of affluence: “Riches, then, which benefit also our neighbours, are not to be thrown away. For they are possessions, inasmuch as they are possessed, and goods, inasmuch as they are useful and provided by God for the use of men; and they lie to our hand, and are put under our power, as material and instruments which are for good use to those who know the instrument” (XIV).
- The internal condition is of primary concern: “So also a poor and destitute man may be found intoxicated with lusts; and a man rich in worldly goods temperate, poor in indulgences, trustworthy, intelligent, pure, chastened” (XVIII).
- Lofty claims about the results of giving: “One purchases immortality for money; and, by giving the perishing things of the world, receives in exchange for these an eternal mansion in the heavens!” (XXXII) Could such language be construed in a negative way? In what way is it right to say that one “purchases” eternal life? In what way is it not right?
- Promiscuous giving: “How then does man give these things? For I will give not only to friends, but to the friends of friends. And who is it that is the friend of God? Do not you judge who is worthy or who is unworthy. For it is possible you may be mistaken in your opinion. As in the uncertainty of ignorance it is better to do good to the undeserving for the sake of the deserving, than by guarding against those that are less good to fail to meet in with the good. For though sparing, and aiming at testing, who will receive meritoriously or not, it is possible for you to neglect some that are loved by God; the penalty for which is the punishment of eternal fire” (XXXIII).
- How does charity relate to baptism? “Forgiveness of past sins, then, God gives; but of future, each one gives to himself. And this is to repent, to condemn the past deeds, and beg oblivion of them from the Father, who only of all is able to undo what is done, by mercy proceeding from Him, and to blot out former sins by the dew of the Spirit” (XL). Recall Cyprian of Carthage.
“You are obliged to love your neighbor as yourself, and loving him, you ought to help him spiritually, with prayer, counseling him with words, and assisting him both spiritually and temporally, according to the need in which he may be, at least with your goodwill if you have nothing else.”
—Catharine of Siena (1347–1380), from The Dialogue
Why do we work? When labor and toil is so often unfulfilling and troublesome, why keep on?
For pagans, no doubt the answer is given in the book of Matthew: “Do not worry, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ For the pagans run after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them.” A non-Christian view of work is one oriented toward survival. And that’s why a non-Christian view of retirement so often involves leaving the field of work and service, concentrating instead on fulfilling the adage: “Eat, drink, and be merry.”
While we can appreciate how the order of material blessing provided through the pagan view of work is a form of grace, we must also wonder how the Christian view differs. The purpose, or end, of work for the Christian is not aimed at mere survival or material enjoyment, but rather toward charity. Paul writes in Ephesians, “He who has been stealing must steal no longer, but must work, doing something useful with his own hands, that he may have something to share with those in need.”
Picking up this theme, the Westminster Confession of Faith provides a powerful witness to the responsibility for Christians to be generous with each other. As part of the recognition of the communion of saints, Christians are bound to relieve “each other in outward things, according to their several abilities and necessities. Which communion, as God offereth opportunity, is to be extended unto all those who, in every place, call upon the name of the Lord Jesus” (WCF 26.2).
But this outward relief is only possible within the context of productive work.
Charitable giving in America has risen for the third consecutive year. The picture behind this recent report is rather interesting. Due to the absence of natural disasters, both nationally and internationally, large giving to major relief projects declined. Giving to human services also fell. The giving of corporate America rose only 1.5%. But in a shift from previous years giving to the arts and to cultural and humanities organizations grew rather significantly. The lion’s share of giving is still done by individuals, not by foundations, bequests and corporations. In fact, individual giving was about four times the amount given by all of these other sources combined, demonstrating once again that when individuals have the freedom to gain wealth they are enabled to share. But, as always, the largest percentage of giving was not among the rich. (This comment is not one meant to oppose affluence since there are several reasons why this remains true, and not all of these reasons suggest that the rich are universally uncharitable in the least. There is not a simple pattern here to explain this fact.)
John H. Armstrong is founder and director of ACT 3, a ministry aimed at "encouraging the church, through its leadership, to pursue doctrinal and ethical reformation and to foster spiritual awakening."
This morning Karen Weber and I had the pleasure of speaking to a group of pastors and church leaders organized by a local ministry, Project Hope Annetta Jansen Ministries, based in Dorr, Michigan. We were hosted in the group’s new building, which opened late last month.
I outlined and summarized some of the basic theological insights and implications for effective compassion, focusing especially on the relationship between and the relative priority of the spiritual over the material. Karen Weber, who is Acton’s Samaritan Award Coordinator, talked about the Samaritan Award program and the Samaritan Guide, and how Acton recognizes programs that implement the principles of effective compassion.
The talks seemed well received and we got some engaging feedback and questions. It was good to see a commitment among the people who attended to the concrete demands of the Gospel. Thanks to Teresa M. Janzen, Project Hope’s executive director, for the invitation and the hospitality.
Be sure to pass along the word about the Samaritan Award to your favorite non-profit. Applications are open through the end of May.
There is clearly a "Christian Left" growing among evangelicals in America. We have heard a great deal about the "Christian Right" for more than two decades. I frequently critique this movement unfavorably. But what is the Christian Left?
The Christian Left is almost as hard to define, in one certain sense, as the Christian Right. And it is equally hard to tell, at least at this point, how many people actually fit this new designation and just how many potential voters this movement really represents. Is there real political power in this movement? Time will tell. It seems to be a small right group now but the movement is clearly gaining in terms of public notice. It is especially appealing to some evangelical Christians who draw a lot of attention to a select set of issues that they have linked to the Bible in a certain way.
There can be no doubt that since the 2004 presidential campaign this movement has grown in popularity. It is becoming increasingly outspoken in how it frames the political issues of the day in terms of Christianity. The father of this movement is Jim Wallis, editor of Sojourners, a magazine read by several thousand. Wallis is also the author of one of the most misnamed books I know: God’s Politics (Harper, 2006). If someone my age and background wrote a book with this title I think I would be maligned for my sheer audacity and incredulity. But Wallis is a kind of hero among many young zealous Christians thus his title seems quite acceptable to them. His book is a manual of solutions and social views that represent an activist role for government in solving the issues of poverty, education, and international peace. In fact, if one issue represents the core of Wallis’ interpretation of Scripture it is the issue of ending, or at least of drastically reducing, poverty. (more…)
Words of prudential wisdom from Richard Baxter:
‘In doing good prefer the souls of men before the body, ‘cæteris paribus.’ To convert a sinner from the error of his way is to save a soul from death, and to cover a multitude of sins [James v. 20],’ —And this is greater than to give a man an alms. As cruelty to souls is the most heinous cruelty, (as persecutors and soul-betraying pastors will one day know to their remediless woe,) so mercy to souls is the greatest mercy. Yet sometimes mercy to the body is in that season to be preferred (for every thing is excellent in its season). As if a man be drowning or famishing, you must not delay relief of his body, while you are preaching to him for his conversion; but first relieve him, and then you may in season afterwards instruct him. The greatest duty is not always to go first in time; sometimes some lesser work is a necessary preparatory to a greater; and sometimes a corporeal benefit may tend more to the good of souls than some spiritual work may. Therefore I say still, that prudence an an honest heart are instead of many directions: they will not only look at the immediate benefit of a work, but to its utmost tendency and remote effects.
–The Christian Directory, Part I, Christian Ethics, Chapter III, Grand Direction X, Direction X, p. 328.
Kristof writes in “You, Too, Can Be a Banker to the Poor” (TimesSelect) that “Small loans to entrepreneurs are now widely recognized as an important tool against poverty.”
He also rightly observes that “Web sites like Kiva are useful partly because they connect the donor directly to the beneficiary, without going through a bureaucratic and expensive layer of aid groups in between.” This is an aspect of globalization and the connectedness of the Internet that we rarely hear about.
To read the Kristof column, you’ll need a subscription to TimesSelect. The good news is that if you have a valid .edu email address, the Times is offering you a complimentary subscription.
Anthony Esolen, from the March issue of Touchstone:
The most bountiful alms that the rich can give the poor, apart from the personal donation of their time and means, are lives of virtue to emulate. It is their duty. But when they use their means to buy off the effects of vice, or, worse, to celebrate it, that is an offense against those whom Jesus called ‘little ones,’ and no amount of almsgiving can lighten the millstone.
ON SECOND THOUGHT, the reality of the situation is probably a bit more complex than the editorial above indicates. That is, there is a cyclical and reciprocal dynamic in the popularization of any trend, as it moves from sub-culture to the mainstream. Very often the rich are dependent on the poor for determining what is “cool”. The rich and famous are typically derivative and dependent in this sense. Just as often the newest trend is wearing a trucker hat or grunge as it is Dolce & Gabbana.
Take the case of rap music. An underground, urban, and grassroots phenomenon has become mainstream. And in any such transition, there are disputes as to who is loyal to the movement itself and who has simply latched on to cash in on the mainstream popularity. Thus, for instance, the dispute between Eazy-E and Dr. Dre in the mid-90’s about who is a real “G.”
This dynamic does underscore the truth of Esolen’s observation about the “disconcerting sameness” between rich and poor. Wealth and power certainly do not by themselves confer any special moral standing or integrity, and as our namesake quote from Lord Acton indicates, they can often be the occasion for greater and more comprehensive corruption.
Having a small child in the home gives the opportunity for exposure to things you might otherwise never have reason to see. Such is the case with the VeggieTales in my house. We have “King George and the Ducky” on VHS, which gets occasional play on the set. The story itself adapts the tale of David and Bathsheba, but before the story gets underway, there’s a brief prelude.
Larry the Cucumber and Bob the Tomato are the stars of the VeggieTales, but two of their friends who don’t usually take center stage give telling a story about selfishness a try. What they come up with doesn’t meet the VeggieTales standards, but it does help tell us something about the way the market works in the real world. Jimmy and Jerry Gourd tell the tales of “The Englishman who went up a hill (and came down with all the bananas),” and “The Swede who went up a hill (and came down with all the strawberries).”
The Englishman has taken all the bananas, “leaving of course the inhabitants of the hill with no bananas and therefore bestowing the term ‘selfish’ upon myself” (QuickTime video here).
When asked if he’s going to eat any of the bananas, the Englishman responds that of course he can’t eat any, because you can’t have bananas without strawberries. “You’re soooo selfish,” cries a voice from off-camera.
The Swede who went up a hill does the same thing as the Englishman, but with strawberries instead of bananas. And the Swede will not eat any strawberries, because you can’t enjoy strawberries without bananas.
When the Englishman and the Swede see that the other one has what he needs to enjoy his own fruit, they ask in turn, “Might you spare a banana/strawberry?” But each character is so selfish that he is unwilling to part with any of his own fruit, and so both the Swede and the Englishman are left unable to enjoy their fruit but unwilling to simply give away his own fruit to make the other better off.
This brief story ends with Jimmy and Jerry Gourd moralizing, “Don’t be selfish.”
Needless to say, Larry and Bob are not satisfied with this tale, and go on to tell the story of King George and the Ducky. Part of the reason Jimmy and Jerry’s tale doesn’t work is that it is too simplistic and unrealistic.
That is, it doesn’t take into account the way in which market mechanisms can redirect selfish behavior into something that does benefit both parties in an exchange. The situation Jimmy and Jerry sets up simply has each possessor of the fruit ask for the corresponding fruit, implying a reliance upon the charity of the other party.
But what is much more likely to happen in a situation like this is that the Swede and the Englishman would engage in a trade, so that each would give their own fruit to get the other fruit, and in the end both would be able to enjoy strawberries and bananas. There’s no need to depend on or appeal to the charity of the other party in this situation. And an unwillingness to trade would make the lot of both the Swede and the Englishman worse off, as they would each be left with unusable and rotten fruit.
The incentive for their own material benefit would be to trade. In this way the market mechanism can function to take selfish action and make it serve a mutually beneficial purpose. In doing so there is an element of public, civic, or social good that is performed, irrespective of the selfish motivations of the parties involved.
None of these observations do anything to mitigate concerns about the ways in which the Swede and the Englishman went about obtaining their monopoly on the respective fruits. Nor does the material benefit created in the exchange obviate the need for charity and love in human social relations. And furthermore we certainly can’t say that because selfish behavior resulted in some material good that somehow selfishness is to be understood as a virtue in the truest sense. At best brazen selfishness can manifest itself as external righteousness, civic virtue, or a public good and is to be distinguished from true righteousness, virtue, and good. Selfishness is still sin.
But what such an exchange does show is that even in a world marked by sin and depravity, some good can come out of evil. As the Puritan theologian Richard Baxter has written,
If nature be not supported, men are not capable of other good. We pray for our daily bread before pardon and spiritual blessings; not as if it were better, but that nature is supposed before grace, and we cannot be Christians if we be not men.
In this sense, the market mechanism functions as a sort of preserving grace by which material wealth is created and enjoyed, allowing human beings to continue to live and even flourish. But rather than being the end of human activity, such material prosperity is a foundational reality necessary for the actualization of greater goods, a necessary but not sufficient condition for human happiness.