Rev. Robert A. Sirico was recently a guest on The Matt Friedeman Show where he discussed the difference between charity and socialism. He talks about not only how we should give, but also how we can best help the poor. Socialism, according to Rev. Sirico, is the forced sharing of wealth and drains morality out of good actions. A discussion of the Acts of the Apostles also takes place in the following YouTube clip that contains a segment from the show.
A dispute has arisen in Illinois between Catholic Charities and the state government. As the National Catholic Register explains it, “Catholic Charities branches of three Illinois dioceses have filed a lawsuit against the state of Illinois in order to continue operating according to Catholic principles — by providing foster care and adoption services only to married couples or non-cohabitating singles.” In an interview, with the newspaper, Rev. Robert A. Sirico defends Catholic Charities in light of the principle of subsidiarity while arguing for the right of the Catholic Charities to exist and conduct its own business without the influence of the state:
“What is it about foster care that necessitates a state-run system? Why can’t it be done on local levels?” he said. “Why can’t a city, municipality or affiliation of organizations do it and merely abide by standards set by the state? But when you have it monopolized, in effect, by the state [which uses organizations such as Catholic Charities as contractors to provide services], then you have the political-interest groups in control.”
Rev. Sirico also offers a solution for guaranteeing the independence of Catholic Charities:
“I think we need to separate the giving from the mechanism of the state,” Father Sirico continued. “I think there are ways to incentivize people to give that aren’t channeled through political and bureaucratic agencies. For instance, what if we had a tax credit to corporations or individuals that allowed their money to be used in a way that isn’t run through the state, but for services that they’re already obligated to pay the state to perform? For example, you have a tax obligation; but let’s say you’re allowed to take the portion going to social services and designate it to a specific charity you wanted to support. You don’t pay the state. The state reduces its involvement in that sphere. What you do is present the state with a documented receipt that you paid money to that charity.”
Click here to read the full article
My commentary is about the recovery efforts in the aftermath of the tornadoes that struck the South in late April. The focus of this piece is primarily what is going on in Alabama, but it is true for the entire region that was affected. I’d like to thank Jeff Bell of Tuscaloosa for lending his time to talk with me about his experiences. There were so many inspirational anecdotes and stories he offered. I only wish there was room to include them all. I will follow up with more of his story in a separate piece for Religion & Liberty. This is the link to the latest cover of Sports Illustrated. The commentary is printed below.
Out of the Whirlwind: God’s Love and Christian Charity
by Ray Nothstine
Traffic was “reminiscent of a fall football weekend,” declared an AP report last week from Tuscaloosa, Ala. Volunteer armies, faith-based charities, and other service organizations descended upon affected areas in the wake of tornadoes that killed 238 people in Alabama alone. Now, following the whirlwind, we are seeing the compassion and strength of a faith-filled region.
As federal groups like the Federal Emergency Management Agency work to repair their reputation following intense criticism after Hurricane Katrina, the experienced workers from faith-based charities are leading on several fronts. Many church groups now have state of the art kitchen trailers that can easily feed 25,000 a day. University of Alabama professor David T. Beito called the relief efforts “extremely decentralized” and added, “I don’t know if a more secular city would fare nearly as well.”
One grassroots organization is proving to be effective at meeting immediate needs through social networking. Toomer’s for Tuscaloosa, which has partnered with the Christian Service Mission, is a group of Auburn University sports fans who have united on Facebook to reach out to their rivals. Fans post a need and somebody responds nearly instantaneously to address the situation or share updates. Toomer’s Facebook network has exploded and they are now assisting flood victims and the tornado-ravaged community of Smithville, Miss. In a letter thanking the governor of Alabama for his leadership during the crisis, Toomer’s declared:
In one way or another, none of this would have been possible had you not minimized the red tape for this faith-based volunteer support initiative, our ability to get to affected areas was largely due to a lack of resistance from a governor who truly believes in the citizens of his state.
In an interview, Tuscaloosa resident Jeff Bell described the tornado as “destruction like I have never seen in my life.” Bell, who took shelter during the storm in the basement of a Baptist church, said he prayed what he thought was his final prayer. Bell said of the recovery, “What I am seeing is spiritually amazing. Black and white churches are forming a bond as well as all different denominations.”
Bell, who lost his job because of the tornado, praised the business community. “Small business owners who have lost everything are finding ways to help their employees,” he said. Big business has contributed, too. Hyundai Motor Company alone pledged $1.5 million for recovery efforts.
One of the strengths of faith-based charities is they do not have to make income tests before they help people in need. Unfortunately, sometimes when FEMA does help an individual its bureaucratic tentacles can cause more harm than good. This was the case in Iowa after flooding in 2008, where individuals and families applied for money after their homes were destroyed. After months and months of waiting, they finally received funds. But this year 179 recipients were later told they were never eligible and had to pay it back in 30 days. Some had to return as much as $30,000. A recent report said that a “low number” of Alabama residents had applied for federal assistance for various reasons including being “leery of government help.”
For many in the South, church life is the center of community. Members do not just spend Sunday in the pews but attend myriad weekly activities at their centers of worship. To say the church is the pulse of a community is no exaggeration.
Christianity proclaims a future regeneration of a disordered world. The Church is that earthly reminder and Sunday worship is a powerful symbol of a gathering of the redeemed for the day of restoration. It remains a comforting place for questions of “Why?” during disasters and trial. Alabama is second to only Mississippi as the most religious state, according to the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life.
The gospel, as embodied by Christ, is the story of giving and sacrificing for those we do not know. It is little wonder that government assistance efforts are playing catch-up across the South. “Southerners have long tended to be conservative on issues of government, stressing provision from family and churches rather than government intervention in times of crisis,” says Charles Wilson Reagan professor of Southern Studies at the University of Mississippi.
Alabama, affectionately nicknamed “The Heart of Dixie,” is no longer just a powerful symbol for the region or the Old South. It has become a universal symbol for what a faith-filled community can do when its people are unleashed as a force for good.
Toomer’s for Tuscaloosa has been leading from the front during the tornadoes that decimated parts of Alabama. Their Facebook page is a command center for leading and directing volunteers to areas of greatest need. ESPN highlighted some of the work of Toomer’s on their network.
In a letter to Alabama Governor Robert Bentley, Toomer’s for Tuscaloosa wrote:
In one way or another none of this would have been possible had you not minimized the red tape for this faith based volunteer support initiative, our ability to get to affected areas was largely due to a lack of resistance from a governor who truly believes in the citizens of his state.
Here is the dramatic front page of The Birmingham News this morning with the headline “Day of Devastation.” It is imperative to highlight just some of the Christian responses to the tornadoes USA Today is reporting has now killed over 240 people. Just one example of the amazing response in Alabama: A facebook page titled “Toomer’s for Tuscaloosa” already has over 36,000 followers. The page is a network of Auburn fans who have put their sports civil war on hold to respond to the hardest hit Southern city, Tuscaloosa. The University of Alabama is in Tuscaloosa. The page already has a photo posted of Auburn students raising money and collecting donations for the community of their arch-nemesis.
Christian ministries are instrumental for disaster relief because they are first on the scene and when they respond from outside the community they remain committed. Social networking sites are proving to be invaluable. Last night, I saw a friend from seminary in Tupelo, Mississippi organizing an impromptu effort to bring drinks to people in overcrowded emergency rooms caused by the storm.
Stories of groups like The Salvation Army, Southern Baptist Disaster Relief, and the United Methodist Committee on Relief (UMCOR) literally cutting through massive amounts of debris so they could set up hot food tents the day after Katrina was common in Mississippi. See my post titled “Faith-Based Charities Understand Long Term Need” concerning the Katrina disaster. My own church here in Grand Rapids, just got back from a mission trip from my hometown of Gulfport, Mississippi. Christian churches from all over the country are still heavily involved in contributing to Katrina recovery efforts. This will be the case with the response to the tornadoes as well.
Here is just a small sampling of some of the Christian ministries already committed to responding to the devastation caused by the tornadoes:
- Volunteer at noon at St. Mathias
- Storms Leave a Trail of Death and Damages
- Cornerstone Christian School starts tornado relief campaign
- Tornado Response: What We’re Doing and How You Can Help
- Frazer will train relief volunteers to help tornado victims
- Community’s tornado response 2nd to none (This is a story that highlights the phenomenal church response to the April 15 tornado in Clinton, Mississippi)
In this week’s Acton Commentary, “Local Churches Hard Hit as Recession Spreads,” I examine some of the lingering and widening effects of the Great Recession. I focus particularly on an upward trend in foreclosures of church properties across the country. As the WSJ reports, “Just as homeowners borrowed too much or built too big during boom times, many churches did the same and now are struggling as their congregations shrink and collections fall owing to rising unemployment and a weak economy.”
I identify one particular threat in the current situation and a basic remedy. As to threats, local governments that are facing their own budgetary pressures are tempted to use the financial woes facing churches to force them to close in favor of tax-yielding properties. As to solutions, I write, “…this economic downturn and its cascading effects throughout society remind us of the solidarity of our social life. We are all dependent upon others, to a greater or lesser extent, and this is a reality that points our way forward through the various threats and dangers we negotiate today.”
A report was released this week that examines charitable giving patterns, especially among those who give to local houses of worship. On first glance the analysis offered by those who conducted the survey might seem to go against the situation as I’ve depicted it. As Ron Sellars, whose firm conducted the survey, says, “Americans who give to their church or place of worship are more likely to give, period — including to charitable organizations.” He concludes, “Rather than be in competition for the donor dollar, it seems that giving fosters giving.”
What the survey basically finds is that those who give at various levels to local congregations are far more likely to give to other charitable causes, and to do so in a substantial way: “For example, donors who gave less than $100 to a house of worship also donated an average of $208 to other charities. Those who gave between $100 and $499 to a congregation gave an average of $376 to others. Donors of between $500 and $999 to places of worship gave an average of $916 to others.”
But if we place these findings within the broader context of giving trends over time, and the conclusion that the share of charitable dollars going to local congregations is diminishing, the picture is rather different. This broader trend points to the possibility “that fewer people are seeing churches as the primary conduit for meeting the larger (charitable and evangelistic) need.”
Part of this has to do with the mission of the local church as opposed to other parachurch or ministry organizations. They do, in fact, have different purposes. But one place where the mission of the local church and social service ministries meet is in the office of the deacon, and that’s a place where I look for significant renewal and serious thinking to take place in the near future.
Shawn Ritenour, an economist who blogs at Foundations of Economics (titled for his book of the same name, which is reviewed in the most recent issue of the Journal of Markets & Morality), concludes on point:
Churches should fully fund their diaconate and charge them with earnestly ministering to the needs of the poor as they become aware. The diaconte should be pro-active and eager to minister. However, they should be wise in their ministration, so as not to promote the very problems they seek to alleviate. More importantly, the church should preach the Gospel to all, making disciples of all people. This two-pronged approach will minister to both the material poverty of the poor, and, more importantly, the spiritual poverty of those who do not know Him.
Deacons are, as Lester DeKoster and Gerard Berghoef put it in their Deacons Handbook, “seeing eyes, hearing ears, and serving hands of the congregation.”
These material and spiritual aspects of our lives, and consequently of the church’s and Christian’s concern, has sometimes been called the “double vocation.” What we need to recover is this sense of double vocation, the responsibility of stewardship in its fullest sense, and the proper relationship between the material and the spiritual, the penultimate and the ultimate.
As churches face the kinds of budgetary pressures I’ve outlined, I can think of no better solution than to re-examine these fundamental questions, particularly in their implications for the execution of ecclesial duties.
The Acton Commentary this week from my friend John Teevan compares church budgets to government budgets, and what “government thinking” might look like if it were reflected in charitable and ecclesiastical budgeting. He writes, “If we think the government is the best source of compassion for the needy and the engine of economic growth, then it makes sense to set taxes at high rates so the government can do all good things for the people.”
On that point, over at Evangelical Perspective Collin Brendemuehl asks some salient questions in comparing government welfare to private charity.
Is the government 50% efficient? 75% efficient? I can’t venture a guess. But apparently neither can the bureaucrats. But even so, is it a stretch to say that the government is more than likely much less efficient than these charities? Not a tough one, really. Though government has the advantage of being in tough with society on a broader scale, it is also much less capable at targeting specific needs in a short amount of time. Anyone remember how fast Feed the Children and others got into New Orleans ahead of government? They were there faster, with just as much material, and actually met needs. (They did not randomly hand out $2,000 debit cards without accounting.)
Now that’s not to say that efficiency is the only valid factor to consider when evaluating charities or government programs. But it is an important factor and has to do with meeting one’s obligations as a steward of other people’s money or property. It’s in this sense that, as Collin writes, “Government is a servant. At least it ought to be.”
On the question of giving to charities and churches, D. G. Hart has raised this question of extra-ecclesiastical giving in a couple of posts over at Old Life. My final commentary of 2010 made the point that “Christian Giving Begins with the Local Church.” But as I said in a follow-up post over at Mere Comments, I don’t think Christian giving ends there. I wonder why Hart has focused so much on The Gospel Coalition, Desiring God, and Redeemer City to City in particular. It seems his critique would apply equally as well to other organizations like the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals and Ligonier Ministries.
Merry Christmas. And God bless us, everyone. Here’s hoping that all readers have enough to keep them warm and safe this holiday season and throughout the coming year. By all means, if you have more than enough, it might warm your soul to share with those less fortunate. My new Acton commentary:
Scrooge and the Ghosts of Charity
By Bruce Edward Walker
“Man,” said the Ghost, “if man you be in heart, not adamant, forbear that wicked cant until you have discovered what the surplus is, and where it is. Will you decide what men shall live, what men shall die? It may be that in the sight of heaven you are more worthless and less fit to live than millions like this poor man’s child. O God! To hear the insect on the leaf pronouncing on the too much life among his hungry brothers in the dust!”
Thus spoke the Ghost of Christmas Present in Charles Dickens’ holiday classic, A Christmas Carol, coincidentally the genesis of the greeting: “Merry Christmas.”
The novella has been in print since its publication nearly 170 years ago, and has inspired countless stage, television and cinematic adaptations. Its cultural significance often is cast reductively as “those who have should share with those who don’t.” While nearly all holiday broadcasts seem to support this assessment, a closer reading of Dickens’ actual text reveals something a bit more complex, including the negative impact government-allocated charity has on personal giving.
That Ebenezer Scrooge was a successful businessman in the story is indisputable. He and his partner, Jacob Marley, filled the respective voids in their lives with the pursuit of profits. The reader can’t be certain as to the reasons why Marley myopically dedicated his life to earning money, but we know he died a wealthy man who may or may not have been forced to pay for his skin-flinted, uncharitable ways by wandering the Earth after death bound in chains festooned with account books and money boxes. (Scrooge has a head cold and, perhaps, indigestion, and may or may not be dreaming/hallucinating the apparitions of Marley and the three subsequent phantoms.)
What the reader is told, however, are details of Scrooge’s – in modern parlance – dysfunctional past, and how it formed him into a lonely, cantankerous near-recluse who employs his wealth as a shield against the human interaction which has injured him in the past. For it isn’t the possession of money that makes Scrooge a miserable man, it is his lack of human connection. His disconnection from his family leads to his single-minded pursuit of income, which, in turn, leads to the breakup with his fiancée, further perpetuating his loneliness.
But money isn’t the means to the happiness that Scrooge witnesses fleetingly in his own past or in the present circumstances of his nephew, Fred, and his employee, Bob Cratchit. As Scrooge and the Ghost of Christmas Past survey events at Fezziwig’s Christmas party, the phantom observes that Fezziwig “has spent but a few pounds of your mortal money: three or four perhaps. Is that so much that he deserves this praise?” Scrooge responds that it wasn’t the spending of money that made his employer’s party so successful but that “his power lies in words and looks.”
And, from his fiancée: “You fear the world too much…. All your other hopes have merged into the hope of being beyond the chance of its sordid reproach. I have seen your nobler aspirations fall off one by one, until the master passion, gain, engrosses you. Have I not?”
When Scrooge visits the present, he observes the cruel circumstances of an indifferent Earth, but also the power of humankind to transform it with optimism: “There was nothing very cheerful in the climate or town, and yet there was an air of cheerfulness abroad that the clearest summer air and brightest summer sun might have endeavored to diffuse in vain.”
And Scrooge witnesses Fred defend his uncle from the uncharitable assessments of his wife and guests:
I am sorry for him: I couldn’t be angry with him if I tried. Who suffers by his ill whims? Himself always. Here he takes it into his head to dislike us, and he won’t come and dine with us. What’s the consequence? He doesn’t lose much of a dinner…. [T]he consequence of his taking a dislike to us and making merry with us, is, as I think, that he loses some pleasant moments, which could do no harm. I am sure he loses pleasanter companions than he can find in his own thoughts, either in his moldy old office or his dusty chambers.
As the Spirit of Christmas Present prepares to leave, the ghost introduces Scrooge to the two waifs, Ignorance and Want, hiding in his coats. “Have they no refuge or resource?” asks Scrooge, to which the Spirit echoes Scrooge’s earlier interrogative to the men seeking a charitable donation from the businessman: “Are there no prisons? … Are there no workhouses?”
Readers for decades have interpreted this line as another indication of Scrooge’s selfishness and miserly ways. This interpretation isn’t helped by the numerous visual adaptations of Scrooge as willingly hoarding his money out of spite for the poor, disadvantaged and under-industrious. But what if Scrooge actually has a point – if one relies on government programs to help the poor, how can one be blamed for asserting “I gave at the office” rather than ponying up at the Salvation Army drum or the church collection basket, or buying a Christmas goose for the laid-off father of the family at the end of the block?
It’s easy to turn one’s attention from a community’s immediate needs if there is an assumption that one’s taxes are doing the job that might better be done through charitable contributions. Dickens acknowledges during Marley’s visitation:
“The air was filled with phantoms, wandering hither and thither in restless haste, and moaning as they went. Every one of them wore chains like Marley’s Ghost; some few (they might be guilty governments) were linked together; none were free. Many had been personally known to Scrooge in their lives. He had been quite familiar with one old ghost, in a white waistcoat, with a monstrous iron safe attached to his ankle, who cried piteously at being unable to assist a wretched woman with an infant, whom he saw below, upon a doorstep. The misery with them all was, clearly, that they sought to interfere, for good, in human matters, and had lost the power forever.”
Eventually Ebenezer Scrooge awakens and reenters the world of humankind, a kinder, gentler individual who willingly gives of himself – and portions of his earnings – to benefit the families of his nephew and employee, and further donates to the charity whose solicitors he had chased from his office the day before.
Scrooge’s transformation is a personal epiphany—perhaps brought about by the supernatural, but personal nonetheless. His observations of the deprivation of his fellow man lead him to realize government’s limitations as a protector of the poor and needy. Government doesn’t lead Scrooge to adopt Christian principles of charitable giving, but it is government that absolves him of guilt for not initially meeting the responsibility of caring for his fellow man.
Bruce Edward Walker, a Michigan-based writer, writes frequently on the arts and other topics for the Acton Institute.
In a follow up to Jordan Ballor’s commentary last week, “Christian Giving Begins with the Local Church,” here is a related excerpt from Darren Dochuk’s From Bible Belt to Sunbelt: Plain-Folk Religion, Grassroots Politics, and the rise of Evangelical Conservatism. I will review the new book published by Norton in the next issue of Religion & Liberty and for the PowerBlog. The excerpt from Dochuk’s book is an excellent reflection of not just how the local church can fulfill their Gospel mandate to help the poor, but also empower and build the community:
The sense of community the Allens found in this congregation was deeper than anything found in Dodson. Theirs was not an uncommon experience. During the last stages of the Depression, southern evangelicals relied heavily on their churches for support of all kind. After moving from Oklahoma to Compton in the 1930s, Melvin Shahan, for instance, saw his parents falling into debt, even with his own weekly ten-dollar paycheck from Goodyear helping out. In response, the Shahans’ church organized a “pounding,” a ritual that saw congregants stock the pantry of a needy and unsuspecting friend with canned goods, preserves, and smoked meat. Melvin would later recall that such acts of kindness were facilitated in part because his neighbors lived so nearby, something he did not experience in Oklahama:
‘So many people there are at Guymon [Oklahoma] came from neighboring farmhouses out around town. When they came into town for the services, it was farther for them to drive than it was here [Compton] where people lived right in the immediate area of their church.’
For the Shahan family, the intimacy of the country church often idealized by those from the South was a reality not enjoyed until after arriving in Southern California. The same applied for the Allens. When wartime conditions sent fathers to the front and mothers to work, the congregants of Southern Missionary leaned especially hard on each other. Since women constituted a majority of church membership during these years, the onus for community fell on them. Churchwomen not only organized drives to increase Sunday attendance but also made sure that neighborhood families were provide with child care, transportation, and, when needed, financial support. For Marie Allen, whose family livelihood depended on her full-time work at a local defense plant, such neighborly assistance proved financially critical. More importantly, it strengthened the bonds of Christian sisterhood and her ties to the church family. (p.21)
It’s vitally important, I think, to distinguish between the church as institution and the church as organism.