Posts tagged with: readings in social ethics

Readings in Social Ethics: Martin Bucer, De Regno Christi (selections), in Melanchthon and Bucer, Book II, Chapter XIV, “The Sixth Law: Poor Relief,” pp. 306-15. References below are to page number.

  • Giving aid to the needy in the church is a manifestation of an attribute of the church, for “without it there can be no true communion of saints” (307).

  • What the church and its representatives are and are not responsible for: “First, they [deacons] should investigate how many really indigent persons live in each church and for whom it is equitable for the church to provide the necessities of life. For the churches of Christ must exclude from their communion those who, when they can sustain themselves by their own powers, neglect this and live inordinately, accepting borrowed food (II Thess. 3:6); it is certainly not the duty of the church to foster such people in their godless idleness” (307).
  • The responsibility of subsidiarity: “Thus if any needy persons belong to anyone’s circle, either by blood or marriage or by any other special relationship or particular custom, it is certainly their duty, if they have the means of the Lord, to provide for their own the necessities of life and spare the churches in order that they may have more to nourish and assist those who have no home or family who would want to or could help them” (307).
  • The wealthy nobility has a responsibility to the society. Citing past examples of such praiseworthy behavior: “Pious princes and men of wealth established homes and hospitals, some to nourish and care for the needy who were in good health, some for infants, others for orphans, still others for the aged infirm, others for those laboring under various forms of sickness, and some for pilgrims and displaced persons” (310).
  • The drive to bypass the church and provide alms personally and individually is a result of sin: “Finally, since from our nature, depraved and always rebellious against God, we continually compromise the instructions and precepts of God, and according to our desires and misdirected judgments, are always eager to follow paths and ways other than what God has prescribed, however holy the care of the poor is, there will be some who will refuse to put their alms for the poor into a common fund, and say that they prefer to provide for the poor by their personal generosity if it seems good to them to do so. Their arrogance will have to be countered both by Your Majesty’s law and through the discipline of the Church; by a law which imposes a double offering to the Lord’s fund, if anyone is caught giving anything privately to the needy; by the discipline of the Church, so / that if anyone puts nothing into the Lord’s fund, he should be admonished of his duty from the Word of God by the ministers of the churches, and if he should resolutely despise this admonition, he should be held a heathen and a publican” (311-12).
  • By this Bucer means that the Church must be the primary instrument of charity and must be the recipient of all due offerings. But this does not mean that charity cannot be done individually above and beyond the giving to the Church. It simply means that offerings to the Church may not be neglected in favor of individual giving: “No man’s hand is closed by this law, to interfere with his opening it to whatever poor persons he can and will provide for” (312).
  • The mere necessities of life are not enough. The Church must give so that those in poverty can be educated, married, and flourish as productive and respected contributors to society: “Nor is it sufficient for the kindness of Christians to give food, shelter, and clothing to those in extreme need…. For it hardly suffices for the churches of Christ that their people should merely be alive but it must also be provided for them that they live to the Lord for a certain and mutual usefulness among each other and within the State and Church” (315).

Next week: Richard Baxter, How to Do Good to Many (London, 1682; repr. 1830).

Readings in Social Ethics: Martin Bucer, De Regno Christi (selections), in Melanchthon and Bucer, Book I, Chapter XIV, “Care for the Needy,” pp. 256-59. References below are to page number.

  • Bucer praises the deacon as an office of the institutional church and an artifact of the early church, commending it to reestablishment in the evangelical churches: “it was their principal duty to keep a list of all of Christ’s needy in the churches, to be acquainted with the life and character of each, and to give to individuals from the common offerings of the faithful whatever would suffice for them to live properly and devoutly. For those who, when they are able to do so, refuse to seek the necessities of life by their own industry and labors should be excluded from the churches” (256-57).

  • Since deacons are to be the primary means by which the church cares for the poor, individual almsgiving is discouraged. Bucer provides a fourfold justification for this judgment: “For when each person wishes to distribute his own alms for himself, there is violated, first of all, the institution of the Holy Spirit and the legitimate communion of the saints. Secondly, alms due to the least of Christ’s brethren, and therefore to Christ himself, are more often given to the unworthy than to the worthy. Nor can every single individual know and investigate each of the poor who happen to encounter him; for those who are least worthy are much better instructed at begging, indeed, extorting, the alms which should be dispensed to the poor alone. Furthermore, when everyone gives alms by his own hand, it is with great difficulty that he will exclude from his heart a desire for the appreciation and praise of men; and when he receives this empty reward from men, a real and sure one is not to be expected from God. Finally, since it is obvious that those who voluntarily give themselves over to beggary are men prone to every crime, what else do those people who foster them do but sustain and support very harmful pests of society” (257-58). There is a sense of the need for specialization and professionalization of the work of charity here. Precisely because individuals could not do all the work needed to make charitable giving effective and appropriate, deacons are appointed to take up the task, as representatives of the institutional church.
  • The church needs to be an example to the world and should not be put to shame by greater love and charity being shown outside of rather than inside the church: “And indeed we must be ashamed and grieve when the right care of the poor has already been restored in very may regions which still serve Antichrist, whereas the very ones who glory in the reception of the gospel and the Kingdom of Christ, although they are not unaware how necessary this practice is, and how much it is a part of the salutary religion of Christ, still fail to reestablish it” (258).

Readings in Social Ethics: Bonaventure, A Defence of the Mendicants (selections), in From Irenaeus to Grotius: A Sourcebook in Christian Political Thought 100-1625, ed. Oliver O’Donovan and Joan Lockwood O’Donovan, pp. 312-19. The references below are to section number.

  • Bonaventure cites a number of authorities in his exposition, including Augustine, Jerome, Bede, Rabanus Maurus, Gregory the Great, and Bernard of Clairvaux.

  • The apostolic way of life is described as consisting in “models of perfection,” and therefore imposing “no obligation on those who have not freely professed this pattern of life and taken vows.” [7]
  • There are four kinds of “community of goods,” corresponding to four different sources of right [10].
    1. The right of natural necessity: “anything capable of sustaining natural existence, though it be somebody’s private property, may belong to someone who is in the most urgent need of it. This kind of community of goods cannot be renounced. It derives from the right that naturally belongs to man as God’s image and noblest creature, on whose behalf all other things on earth were made.” This right functions at the personal level, and is the basis for the moral judgment that in certain extreme circumstances, what would otherwise be theft of necessary life-sustaining goods may be morally justified.

    2. The right of brotherly love: “everything belongs to the righteous, and the private property of individuals is common to all by virtue of sharing which is natural to love…. This kind of community of goods absolutely may not be renounced. It derives from a right poured into us by God, the right by which ‘the dove’ (i.e., the universal church) is assured its unity, a unity of sharing, from which no one can depart without defiance of the law of God which enfolds all things in love.” This right functions at the level of social responsibility to care for those who belong to the universal church. See Paul’s command to do good to everyone, “especially to those who are of the household of faith.”
    3. The right of worldly civil society: “there is a common political identity within a single empire, kingdom, or city-state; there is a common profit and loss within a single association, e.g., of merchants or wrestlers; there is a common inheritance within a single family that has not split up. This kind of community of goods must be renounced to attain evangelical perfection, because this kind of community implies individual property. It is derived from a humanly instituted right which contains provisions that may incidentally prove an obstacle to good or an encouragement to evil, and is therefore incompatible with evangelical perfection.” This right functions on the level of political society. The right to private property may be given up voluntarily in pursuit of the model of apostolic perfection. The emphasis here is on the temptation to covetousness that private property occasions.
    4. The right of ecclesiastical endowment: “All goods bestowed upon the churches are dedicated to the Lord to provide for the ministry and for the poor. This kind of community of goods, which is found in all collegial churches with possessions, need not be renounced to attain perfection since it can be maintained without prejudice to perfection, as is clear in the case of bishops and religious who are holy and perfect…. Yet this kind of community may be renounced without prejudice to perfection – in pursuit of it, rather – since it springs not only from divine right but human, it is not only spiritual but temporal, too; and since, though it excludes individual property, collegial property is allowed, and the share of every member of the college must be understood not merely as use but as ownership.” This right functions at the bridge between the second and third types of right. The administration and use of goods falls to those who are in places of responsibility in the church. Insofar as these goods are defined as “ecclesiastical” and not of more common worldly ownership, there is a distinction at the level of “worldly civil society.” The individual Christian may pursue the model of apostolic perfection in renouncing this sort of collegial ownership, but since the apostles themselves administered the property of the church, this responsibility need not be renounced to be perfect.
  • “There are four possible relations to temporal goods: property, possession, usufruct, and simple use. The life of mortals may be sustained without the first three, but the last is a necessity. There can, then, be no profession of renunciation of temporal things which extends to their use.” [11]

Next week: Martin Bucer, De Regno Christi (selections), in Melanchthon and Bucer, Book I, Chapter XIV, “Care for the Needy,” pp. 256-59; Book II, Chapter XIV, “The Sixth Law: Poor Relief,” pp. 306-15.

Readings in Social Ethics: John Chrysostom, On Wealth and Poverty, part 3 of 3. There are six sermons in this text, based on the parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus. This post deals with the third and final pair. The first four sermons dealt directly with Chrysostom’s exegesis of the parable of Lazarus and the rich man. These latter two sermons were given on different occasions. References are to page numbers.

Sermon 6:

  • The sermon comes after an earthquake has hit the community: “Have you seen the mortality of the human race? When the earthquake came, I reflected with myself and said, where is theft? Where is greed? Where is tyranny? Where is arrogance? Where is domination? Where is oppression? Where is the plundering of the poor? Where is the arrogance of the rich? Where is the domination of the powerful? Where is intimidation? Where is fear?” (97)

  • Chrysostom searches out the source and cause of the disaster: “So I was not afraid because of the earthquake, but because of the cause of the earthquake; for the cause of the earthquake was the anger of God, and the cause of His anger was our sins. Never fear punishment, but fear sin, the mother of punishment” (101).
  • Chrysostom reiterates a theme from the previous sermons. We are not to judge someone as fortunate based only on their external condition: “In the same way, imagine two sinners, one being punished, the other not being punished. Do no say, this one is lucky because he is rich, he strips orphans of their property, and he oppresses widows. Apparently he is not ill, he has a good reputation in spite of his thefts, he enjoys honor and authority, he does not endure any of the troubles which afflict mankind—no fever, no paralysis, nor any other disease—a chorus of children surrounds him, his old age is comfortable; but you should grieve most for him, because he is indeed ill and receives no treatment” (102).
  • The varieties of sinners characterized as beasts rather than men: “You see, you should not examine his nature but his character, not his appearance but his disposition; and not his disposition only, but investigate his whole way of life. If he loves the poor, he is a human being; but if he is wholly involved in commerce, he is an oak tree. If he has a savage temper, he is a lion; if he is rapacious, he is a wolf; if he is deceitful, he is a cobra. You should say, ‘I am looking for a human being; why have you shown me a beast instead of a man?’ Learn what really is the virtue of a human being, and do not be confused” (107-8).
  • Chrysostom concludes by examining Abraham’s words that Lazarus received the evil that he was due in this life, and the rich man received the rewards he was due. Chrysostom understands this to mean that the evil man has done at least some good, and therefore is rewarded in this life, while the good man has done at least some evil, and therefore is punished in this life.

Sermon 7:

  • A condemnation of worldliness: “For those who are eager to go to the races and the other satanic spectacles, who have no care for self-control and give no thought for virtue, who wish to behave recklessly, who yield themselves to luxury and gluttony, who spend themselves every day in madness and frenzy for money, who strain after the things of the present life—these people walk by the wide gate and the easy road. But when they go farther along, and gather a great burden of sins for themselves, when they are all spent and come to the end of the road, they are no longer able to go any farther, because they are pressed tightly by the narrowness of the road and burdened by the weight of their sins so that they cannot go through” (129).

  • Riches are a blessing and a temptation: “Do not call these things good without qualification, O man, bearing in mind that they are given by the Master in order that by enjoying them in due proportion we may have sustenance for our life and may overcome the weakness of our bodies; but the truly good things are something else. None of these things is good, not luxury, not wealth, not expensive clothing; they have only the name of goodness. Why do I say that they have only the name? They often indeed cause our destruction, when we use them improperly. Wealth will be good for its possessor if he does not spend it only on luxury, or on strong drink and harmful pleasures; if he enjoys luxury in moderation and distributes the rest to the stomachs of the poor, then wealth is a good thing. But if he is going to give himself up to luxury and other profligacy, not only does it not help him at all, but it even leads him down to the deep pit” (136-37).

Next week: Bonaventure, A Defence of the Mendicants (selections), in From Irenaeus to Grotius: A Sourcebook in Christian Political Thought 100-1625, ed. Oliver O’Donovan and Joan Lockwood O’Donovan, pp. 312-19.

Readings in Social Ethics: John Chrysostom, On Wealth and Poverty, part 2 of 3. There are six sermons in this text, based on the parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus. This post deals with the second pair. References are to page numbers.

Sermon 3:

  • A summary and introduction to the series of sermons: “The parable of Lazarus was of extraordinary benefit to us, both rich and poor, teaching the latter to bear their poverty with equanimity, and not allowing the former to be proud of their wealth. It taught us by example that the most pitiable person of all is the one who lives in luxury and shares his goods with nobody” (57).

  • Those who are involved in worldly affairs are not exempt from studying the Scriptures: “What are you saying, man? That attending to the Scriptures is not for you, since you are surrounded by a multitude of cares? Rather it is for you more than for them [monks]. They do not need the help of the divine Scriptures as much as those who are involved in many occupations” (58).
  • The redemptiveness of punishment: “For punishment is not evil, but sin is evil. The latter separates us from God, but the former leads us towards God, and dissolves his anger” (65).
  • Suffering in one form or another is unavoidable in this life: “So if human beings do not persecute us, yet the devil makes war on us. We need great wisdom and perseverance, to keep sober and watchful in prayer, not to desire others’ property, but to distribute our goods to the needy, to reject and repudiate all luxury, whether of clothing or table, to avoid avarice, drunkenness, and slander, to control our tongue and keep from disorderly clamor…to abstain from shameful or witty talk” (68).
  • The question of the theodicy of suffering is raised: “‘But why,’ someone asks, ‘are some punished here, but others only hereafter and not at all here?’ Why? Because if all were punished here, we would all have perished, for we are all subject to penalties. On the other hand, if no one were punished here, most people would become too careless, and many would say there is no providence” (71).
  • The right view of suffering: “In summary, every punishment if it happens to sinners, reduces the burden of sin, but if it happens to the righteous, makes their souls more splendid. A great benefit comes to each of them from tribulation, provided that they bear it with thanksgiving; for this is what is required” (73).

Sermon 4:

  • Why the theodicy of suffering is important: “Nothing tends so much to disturb and scandalize the majority of people as the fact that rich people living in wickedness enjoy good fortune while righteous people living with virtue are driven to extreme poverty and endure a multitude of other troubles even worse than poverty. But this parable is sufficient to provide the remedies, self-control for the rich and consolation for the poor” (82).

  • On corruption and the conscience: “But the court of conscience cannot yield to any of these influences. Whether you give bribes, or flatter, or threaten, or do anything else, this court will bring forth a just judgment against your sinful intentions. He who commits sin himself condemns himself even if no one else accuses him” (88).

Readings in Social Ethics: John Chrysostom, On Wealth and Poverty, part 1 of 3. There are six sermons in this text, based on the parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus. This post deals with the first pair. References are to page numbers.

Sermon 1:

  • There is danger in luxury: “In this way luxury often leads to forgetfulness. As for you, my beloved, if you sit at table, remember that from the table you must go to prayer. Fill your belly so moderately that you may not become too heavy to bend your knees and call upon your God (27).”

  • Our use of earthly and natural goods must be oriented toward higher and spiritual goods. Another way of saying this is that our desires and consumption must be rightly ordered: “…let us accustom ourselves to eat only enough to live, not enough to be distracted and weighed down. For we were not born, we do not live, in order to eat and drink; but we eat in order to leave. At the beginning life was not made for eating, but eating for life. But we, as if we had come into the world for this purpose, spend everything for eating” (27-28).
  • It is a natural and perhaps unavoidable feature of human nature to compare our situation with others: “the sight of another person in good fortune laid on him [Lazarus] an extra burden of anguish, not because he was envious or wicked, but because we all naturally perceive our own misfortunes more acutely by comparison with others’ prosperity” (30).
  • “You should think the same way about those who are rich and greedy. They are a kind of robbers lying in wait on the roads, stealing from passers-by, and burying others’ goods in their own houses as if caves and holes. Let us not therefore call them fortunate because of what they have, but miserable because of what will come, because of that dreadful courtroom, because of the inexorable judgment, because of the outer darkness which awaits them” (36-37).

Sermon 2:

  • A non-material definition of wealth and poverty: “We ought to consider this definition of poverty and wealth. So if you see someone greedy for many things, you should consider him the poorest of all, even if he has acquired everyone’s money. If, on the other hand, you see someone with few needs, you should count him the richest of all, even if he has acquired nothing. For we are accustomed to judge poverty and affluence by the disposition of the mind, not by the measure of one’s substance” (40).

  • Using one of his favorite metaphors, Chrysostom compares life to the drama acted on the stage. Wealth, luxury, and the trappings of affluence are temporary and transient: “…when death arrives and the theater is dissolved, everyone puts off the masks of wealth or poverty and departs to the other world. When all are judged by their deeds alone, some are revealed truly wealthy, others poor, some of high class, others of no account” (47).
  • There are sins of omission and sins of commission. We have negative duties as well as positive duties. We can act justly in one sense while acting unlovingly, and therefore sinning, in another sense: “Indeed Lazarus suffered no injustice from the rich man; for the rich man did not take Lazarus’ money, but failed to share his own. If he is accused by the man he failed to pity because he did not share his wealth, what pardon will the man receive who has stolen others’ goods, when he is surrounded by those he has wronged?” (49) This latter point is an argument from the lesser to the greater, showing that in some sense sins of commission are judged to be more weighty than those of omission.
  • Whence comes the responsibility to share our wealth? From a sense of stewardship and the absolute sovereignty of God: “By this we are taught that when we do not show mercy, we will be punished just like those who steal. For our money is the Lord’s, however we may have gathered it” (49).
  • How do we manifest responsible stewardship? “Therefore, let us use our goods sparingly, as belonging to others, so that they may become our own. How shall we use them sparingly, as belonging to others? When we do not spend them beyond our needs, and do not spend for our needs only, but give equal shares into the hands of the poor. If you are affluent, but spend less than what you need, you will give an account of the funds which were entrusted to you” (50).
  • What duties are incumbent upon us in our giving? Should we be liberal and promiscuous in our charity? Chrysostom argues the affirmative: “For if you wish to show kindness, you must not require an accounting of a person’s life, but merely correct his poverty and fill his need” (52).
  • But don’t we have a responsibility to give only to those who deserve it? On the one hand, no, for gracious giving is by its very nature unmerited: “Charity is so called because we give it even to the unworthy” (52).
  • But if we must talk of desert, Chrysostom urges us to see that “need alone is the poor man’s worthiness; if anyone at all ever comes to us with this recommendation, let us not meddle any further” (53). In this we image the grace of God, to give liberally as his gifts have been given to us, who do not deserve them.
  • Don’t the needs of the poor, even as construed by Chrysostom, go beyond the realm of the material?

Readings in Social Ethics: Gregory of Nyssa, Love of the Poor. The source is the translation of selections from the piece in an out-of-print anthology: Social Thought, ed. Peter C. Phan, Message of the Fathers of the Church, vol. 20 (Wilmington, DE: Michael Glazier). The parenthetical references below are to page numbers.

  • The poor have a responsibility to give as they are able. Working together to assist the poor is advisable: “Nevertheless, give what you can; God asks for nothing above your powers. You can give a loaf yourself, another will give a cup of wine, another clothing; thus one man’s hardship will be relieved by your combined aid” (131).

  • But even one family can make a huge difference: “The flow from one river-source brings richness to many a spreading plain; so the wealth of one household is enough to preserve multitudes of the poor, if only a grudging uncharitable heart does not fall like a stone to block the passage and thwart the stream” (132).
  • An argument for equal shares: “All things belong to God, the Father of us and them. We are all of the same stock, all brothers. And when men are brothers, the best and most equitable thing is that they should inherit equal portions. The second best is that even if one or two take the greater part, the others should have at least their own share” (133).

Next week: John Chrysostom, On Wealth and Poverty.