The Big Picture on Genuinely Helping the Poor
- 2010 22 Jan
"There will always be poor people in the land. Therefore I command you to be openhanded toward your brothers and toward the poor and needy in your land." Deuteronomy 15:11(NIV)
Who cares about the poor? God, for one. And he's pretty serious about it.
The passage from Deuteronomy is just one of many bold declarations of God's concern for the poor found throughout both the Old and New Testaments. John Stapleford, in his book Bulls, Bear and Golden Calves (2009, Intervarsity Press), goes so far as to say, "Other than warnings about idolatry, no other theme receives as much clear attention in Scripture as the obligation of believers to address issues of poverty."
And when God is that serious about something, then those of us who claim to follow him need to take it pretty seriously too. So, for Christians, helping the poor isn't optional, it's who we are.
"If anyone has material possessions and sees his brother in need but has no pity on him, how can the love of God be in him?" 1 John 3:17(NIV)
But it turns out wanting to help the poor is the easy part. The bigger challenge is actually helping the poor. Helping.
Helping isn't the same thing as doing "compassionate" stuff that feels good to us. Helping isn't putting in phony fixes that trap people in hopeless situations. And helping certainly isn't hurting the very people we're trying to serve.
So how do we make sure the "help" we give doesn't end up amounting to nothing more than an empty gesture?
History is full of horrific examples of help for the poor gone bad. Chairman Mao's "Great Leap Forward" was supposed to help the Chinese poor attain prosperity, but instead triggered the starvation and deaths of tens of millions. President Johnson's "Great Society" was supposed to help the American poor attain the American Dream, but instead condemned them to generational dependency and despondency. Decades of generous international aid was supposed to help the global poor attain decent living conditions, but instead left many of them helpless and vulnerable, like the people of Haiti and so many Third World neighbors.
When it comes to helping the poor, good intentions are not enough. The poor have paid a hideous price for the misguided efforts of the wealthy and powerful to help them. Too many plans to help the poor have proven to be no better than snake-oil remedies or straight-up poison. It's time for Christians to step back from shallow feel-good responses and ask the honest question about helping the poor, "What works and what doesn't?"
Let's look at three key ways Christians can genuinely live out God's command to help the poor:
Sometimes the only way to help the poor is to give them something. A starving child needs food, now. Without it she will die. All around the world, Christians are confronted with people in absolute poverty, helpless people on the edge of life and death. And charity is the obvious response, the proper response. To withhold charity from a person in desperate need is a sin.
But charity has its limits. When charity continues after the crisis has passed, it makes the recipient helpless. Getting too much charity for too long robs a person of motivation and the will to provide for herself and others. An excess of charity rapidly becomes a curse.
So charity, to be truly helpful to the poor, should be temporary. Whether given individually or collectively through ministries and organizations, there should be a clearly defined exit strategy, a sense of urgency to end the charity at the earliest possible opportunity, for the good of the recipient. It might feel nice to keep giving, but that's not the right test. The noblest goal of charity isn't to give, but to restore the dependent person to independence.
I'm not talking about discipline as in punish, but as in disciple. Empowering people to become disciples of economic independence through education and training in essential matters of health, agriculture, business, and faith. If we don't teach the poor how to care for themselves, make their own resources productive, plan for their own future needs and opportunities, and embrace in their own hearts ethical Christian principles of diligence, thrift, and stewardship, then we've given them nothing of lasting value.
The oldest cliché in the book is "give a man a fish and he has food for a day, teach a man to fish and he has food for a lifetime," but though we often say it, we usually act like we don't believe it. How much easier, cleaner, and more emotionally thrilling is it for us to hand a meal to a hungry person than to invest weeks, months, or years helping them to create their own meals?
While some of us are, rightfully and faithfully, called to provide charity and emergency assistance to the poor, we need to balance that temporary help with a strong emphasis on imparting the disciplines of a positive productive life into the hearts of those we're helping. Once raised up, disciples of economic independence become capable of helping not only themselves, but of spreading their success to others as well.
The term "justice" has been hijacked by the Religious Left as a euphemism for various utopian schemes of mandatory wealth redistribution, but taking from one to give to another isn't justice, it's theft. Nowhere in the Bible is forced equalization of material resources endorsed as a goal. Relative poverty, where some have less than others, can be frustrating (and is the reason God gave us the commandment against coveting), but the pressing injustice in this fallen world is absolute poverty, where some don't even have enough to meet their own basic needs. And while properly deployed charity and discipline can help Christians fight the injustice of absolute poverty, there is a more powerful tool we can use.
Milton Friedman, the most widely respected economic thinker of the twentieth Century, explained it this way, "In the only cases in which the masses have escaped from . . . grinding poverty . . . the only cases in recorded history are where they have had capitalism and largely free trade. If you want to know where the masses are worst off, it's exactly in the kinds of societies that depart from that."
To truly help the poor then, along with generous charity and faithful discipline, Christians need to work for the kind of justice that defeats poverty at the roots: Strong and vibrant free market economic systems. We need to serve God (and the poor he loves) by promoting responsible governance, fairly administered laws, carefully safeguarded property rights, and economic incentives that unleash the creativity and blessings of the free market.
Not every Christian will be called to serve in all three of these ways. The gifts of the charitable giver, the discipler, and the champion of justice are all treasured by God. And when we emphasize all three, working in mutual respect and reverence, then our help for the poor really will help.
January 22, 2010
Stephen L. Bloom, J.D., teaches economics and personal finance at Messiah College. He is a consultant at the United Methodist Stewardship Foundation of Central Pennsylvania and an estate planning and transactional attorney at the Pennsylvania law firm of Irwin & McKnight, P.C. A frequent media guest and speaker, he is author of The Believer's Guide to Legal Issues (2008, Living Ink Books).