Private Charity Isn’t Enough

Originally posted here.

“The idea that churches can tackle national poverty, take care of those who are ill, and rebuild communities after natural disasters requires a spoonful of bad moral theology and a cup of dishonesty.” – Robert Parham

In this blog post, EthicsDaily.com editor and Executive Director of Baptist Center for Ethics Robert Parham claimed that churches and charities could never do enough to alleviate poverty. I agree.

Poverty will never be “tackled” because it is a relative term; a moving target. If you could describe the plight of America’s poor today to a poor person in another country, or an American 100 years ago, they would conclude that poverty had been eliminated. The standard of living among the poorest Americans today is incredible by world and historical standards. Yet we still wage the war on poverty, even in America. This is not a bad thing – helping the down and out can be wonderful. But when we aim at targets like the “end” of poverty, there is no end to what we can justify in order to reach this impossible goal. “The poor will always be with you.” The question is how best to reach them, spiritually and materially.

The second reason I agree with Parham’s claim is that, to the extent that poverty can be reduced, private charity alone is simply too small to do it. The incredible gains in social and material welfare of the poor in America have not primarily resulted from charity, churches or governments. They have resulted from (mostly) free-market economies.

If we look at poverty in a vacuum as Parham does and ask how private charity compares to government efforts, we could conclude that private efforts are too small. But if we look at government and private efforts combined compared to the power of the market, they would be dwarfed so as to make them hardly important in the big scheme. Charity is a targeted and short-term salve for the wounded; its value is far more in its spiritual nourishment and encouragement than any material progress it brings. A vibrant free-market is the only institution powerful enough to bring about the kind of dramatic increases in standard of living that most of us wish to see.

Public Choice

Jumping from the premise that private charity is not enough to the conclusion that government must do something places a blind, sometimes idolatrous faith in government that counters logic and experience. The incentive structure in government departments is to perpetuate and grow regardless of their effectiveness or the need for their services. There is no check on whether or not they are effective. In fact, the less effective a bureau of poverty relief is, the more they are rewarded with bigger budgets. If poverty is on the rise, and they will always claim it is so as to increase their importance, the last thing to do is cut the department of poverty relief!

Government programs are also subject to “capture” by interest groups and politicians. Scratch the surface of any government program and you will find that it is not the “general welfare” being promoted, but the welfare of a very small and politically connected group at the expense of the general welfare.

To examine private efforts and claim they cannot tackle a problem is only half the analysis needed. We must also examine government efforts and ask if they can tackle the same problem before we charge them to do it. The field of Public Choice Economics does just this, and you would be hard-pressed to find a case where the market is not providing something and getting government involved makes it better. If Christians have a duty to help the poor, they also have a duty to use their brains to discover ways that actually work. Intentions and actions are not enough, we need to understand how to be effective. This requires some knowledge of economic and political systems.

Wrong about Rights

The most damning and least supported claim in Parham’s article was that it is wrong for a Christian to value other people’s property rights:

“[L]ibertarian morality values property rights over human rights. For a Christian, that’s bad moral theology.”

I beg to differ. What Parham leaves unexplained is how human rights are to exist absent property rights. Private property is not some sacred dogma for its own sake; it is important because there is no other method of peacefully settling competing demands for limited resources. Such resources include food, water, shelter and other necessities of life. Common definitions or human rights include the right to be free from hunger. How can you have this right if you have no right to the very food you need to survive?

If Parham means by human rights the right to food, shelter, health care and other positive rights, this poses an incurable conundrum. Positive rights are a logical and practical impossibility. They cannot coexist with negative rights, or even with other positive rights.

A positive right is a right to something. A negative right is a right from something. A positive right obligates another person to take action. A negative right prohibits another person from taking action. A right to life, liberty or property is a negative right. You are free to live and act and justly acquire property, and no one can prohibit that so long as you are not violating their rights. A right to health care is a positive right. If you have the right to receive health care, someone else has an obligation to give it to you. If I am a doctor and you say you need my services, I am obligated to assist you in a world of positive rights. But what if at the same time I am hungry and need to eat rather than assist you in order to maintain good health? Our positive rights to health care cannot both be fulfilled, and in order for one of us to fulfill them we’d have to violate the other’s negative right to liberty and property.

Indeed, it is not possible to have any moral theology whatsoever without an acceptance of private property. One cannot give generously what one does not own, and one cannot help another by stealing from him.

Means and Ends

To sum up the argument, the author couldn’t imagine church and charity doing a task to his satisfaction, so his response was to ask men with guns to take money from people who presumably wouldn’t part with it voluntarily, and give it to causes he valued. Everything government does is backed by threat of force. Indeed, that is the only thing that distinguishes government from all other institutions. Let’s remove the intermediary agents (IRS, law enforcement) and revisit the argument with the author as the principal actor:

Churches and charities can’t or won’t do as much to help the poor as Parham wants, so he threatens, “donate or else.”

That’s clearly a barbaric and inhumane way to a more civilized and humane world. Yet voting for people, who will appoint people, who will hire people, who will send threatening to extort money to give to some bureaucrats to spend on social causes is no different in moral terms.

Appealing to Christian ethics is an odd tactic to justify a redistributive state.  Jesus made it pretty clear that the methods of the kingdom of God are service, sacrifice, grace and love. The means of all earthy kingdoms are brute force and the threat of it.

When the rich man refused to sell all his possessions and give the proceeds to the poor, Jesus did not send the disciples after him to extract a percentage on threat of imprisonment. He let him walk away. Christians are supposed to do the same.

The Art of Science

A fascinating article in the Wall Street Journal this week claimed that great scientists needn’t be good at math.  E.O. Wilson argued that big ideas, not number crunching, are the source of major breakthroughs.  In other words, it’s the art of science, not the science, that inspires the game-changers.

I think there’s something here that applies beyond the physical sciences.  The social sciences, in particular economics, have been in a race of sorts to see who could mathematize fastest.  While complex modelling and statistical analysis can illuminate, they cannot generate.  Data is meaningless without a theoretical lens through which to interpret it.  Path-breaking work comes not from those with the best “hard” skills, but from those with the best paradigmatic innovations.  The best work seems to come from seeing the world differently, constructing theories from the new lens, then running some numbers to see how they look from the new vantage point.

This bit about seeing the world anew has never been more profoundly communicated to me than in a book by the novelist Arthur Koestler, The Act of Creation.  Koestler sets out to reveal general rules of creation that apply across media – from the creation of a joke, to a work of art, to a technological invention.  It is a stunningly informative and ponderous work.

Koestler describes worldviews as matrices of thought; well-worn knowledge and assumptions that we carry along with us and use as shortcuts for understanding our world.  The eureka moment – the burst of laughter in a joke, the flow in the making of a sculpture, the sudden insight that unlocks the innovation – comes when two separate matrices intersect.  Koestler calls this intersection “bisociation”, and sees it as a kind of relieving of tension as two paradigms moving in what appears to be unrelated directions suddenly converge.

A poignant example in the book is Archimedes’ discovery of how to measure the purity of gold in a crown.  Archimedes knew the weight per volume of gold vs. other metals, but he could not melt the crown down to figure out its volume.  The thought matrix relating to weights, volumes and metals was completely unrelated to Archimedes afternoon bathing.  Yet as he slipped into the tub and noticed the water level rise, matrices collided and the bath solved the measurement problem of the crown.  It was not new, fancy calculations that resulted in this breakthrough on determining purity in oddly shaped gold items.  Instead, it was a bisociation of existing knowledge on water displacement with that on metallic weight.

Not only is creation about seeing familiar facts in new ways, it’s about allowing oneself the time and mental play to do so.  Some of the greatest eureka moments have come upon waking from a dream, going on a long walk while the mind wanders, or taking an explicit break from the problem at hand.  It is true, the great innovators have been versed in the science of their craft.  But what separates creators from specialists is not better technical expertise, but new eyes that generate new ideas.

Think big.  Explore.  Don’t let a lack of mastery keep you from probing the mysteries that fascinate you.

Happy Easter

Whether or not you follow any of the various religions that celebrate Easter, or other celebrations of rebirth and new life this time of year, there is beauty and power in the symbols that accompany the season.  The emergence from winter’s death and dormancy; the wild, erratic, uneven surge of growth; the sights and sounds and smells are impossible to ignore.  Breath in the Spring air, let it fill your lungs, and contemplate the power of life, creativity and change over death, repression and stasis.

If you are so inclined, enjoy this post about the Christian tradition around this holiday, and what it has to remind about the life-giving power of freedom vs. the violence of political power.

The Things That Make for Peace

(Originally posted here.)

“I am a man of peace; but when I speak, they are for war.” – Psalm 120:7

“As he approached Jerusalem and saw the city, he wept over it and said, “If you, even you, had only known on this day what would bring you peace–but now it is hidden from your eyes.” – Luke 19:41-42

“All men desire peace, but very few desire those things that make for peace.” – Thomas a Kempis

I recently heard praise among churchgoers for the movie, “Act of Valor”, a movie about Navy SEAL’s funded in large part by the Navy itself. (And, judging by the previews, essentially a military recruitment film.)  There is even a Bible study that coincides with the movie and is based on the SEAL code of honor.  I was unexpectedly overcome with grief when it was excitedly mentioned during a church service I attended.

I couldn’t stop thinking about the terrible contrast I had just experienced.  The sermon was on this verse from the Beatitudes in the book of Matthew:

Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called sons of God.”

Blessed are the peacemakers.  And yet here Christians had high praise for a code of conduct espoused by an outfit whose entire purpose is to kill ruthlessly and efficiently.  And not merely to kill, but specifically to kill whoever they are commanded to kill by the political powers in the United States without question.  The very first tenet in the SEAL code of conduct is “Loyalty to Country” which means, in practical terms, obeying the orders of your superiors who are supposed to represent “the country”, however ill-defined the term.

Not only does obedience to the first tenet render obedience to any of the rest impossible, it is unfathomable to me how a Christian could find this a suitable basis for a Bible study intended to make men into better Christians.  The first tenet of this code means, quite plainly, to forsake your own conscience, do not question the morality of your orders, do not seek to understand why you are supposed to be at war with whomever you are told to be at war with, do not investigate whether or not your targets are a genuine threat or deserving of death, but simply pull the trigger.

The Evangelical Church in America today looks very little like a body of Christ followers and more like a body of state and military followers.  American flags grace many a pulpit.  Veterans Day celebrations are common.  Prayers for the success of military ventures are not unheard of.  Calls by politicians and pundits for the use of violence in almost any country for almost any reason will almost always gain the unwavering support of the entire Evangelical community.  Anything – including torture, assassinations, and “collateral damage” – can be excused and even praised if it is done “for the country” and under the stars and stripes.

How did this happen?  Can you imagine Jesus, or Peter or John with Kevlar vests and M-16’s kicking in doors, screaming , and “double-tapping” people in the head before yelling, “All clear!”’ and high-fiving each other?  Can you imagine them dropping an atomic bomb on Hiroshima or Nagasaki?  Can you imagine Jesus instructing his followers to study a code of conduct that begins first and foremost with, “Be loyal to the Roman government”?

Not only did Christ and the giants of the Christian faith refuse to aggress against others, no matter how sinful or evil, they even refused to use violence in self-defense and instead chose martyrdom.  When Peter tried to defend Jesus with the sword by cutting off the ear of a soldier, Jesus rebuked him and healed the man’s ear.

Jesus did not instruct the disciples to go to the wilderness and train for a few months so they could plan a stealth nighttime assassination of the guards who crucified Him or any who opposed the Way.  He told them to forgive.  To Baptize.  To turn the other cheek.  To submit even to death for the sake of the gospel, rather than resort to violence.  That is a radical message and they lived it.

And yet the Church finds herself cheering for the military and honoring them without questioning what they are doing, who they are killing, why they are doing it, or if it’s right.  Worship of America and the myth of its righteousness have taken the place of any sense of individual moral responsibility on the part of soldiers or those who support them.

I left the church that morning with an immense weight on my soul.  I wept.  I wept because I knew exactly the sentiment expressed by most of the churchgoers that morning.  I used to share it.  I wept as I remembered my bloodlust after 9/11.  I wanted the United States military to kill people.  I wanted bombs to drop and guns to fire.  I wanted somebody to get it, good and hard.  I wanted death.  I wanted war.  I did not want peace.  I felt no love, only hate.

This impulse is perhaps the most human of all impulses.  It is also the very impulse Christ taught us to overcome and demonstrated how to do so by His own example.  Even when others hate, love.

I wept as I saw in my mind’s eye the blood on the hands of nearly every Christian in this country.  How many self-proclaimed followers of Christ have cheered on “the boys in uniform” during every conflict we’ve ever had, including wars of aggression, just because they’re “our countrymen” fighting for “our side”?

What are “the things that make for peace”?  The belief that right and wrong trump nationality and patriotism.  The belief that killing is only ever permissible as a last resort and in self-defense.  An understanding that Congressional or Presidential approval of an action does not make it moral.  That obeying orders is not a virtue unless the orders are virtuous, in which case they should be obeyed because they are right, not because they are orders.  That voluntarily agreeing to kill whomever you are told to kill is not honorable.  That love is better than vengeance.

Before you support any military action, conduct a brief mental experiment: imagine not the US Military, but you as an individual embarking on the mission in question.  In the end it is only individuals who can act and bear moral responsibility for their actions.  Imagine standing before God and saying, “I was only following orders”.

How many churches cheered for war against Iraq?  Yet can you imagine a pastor standing before his church and saying, “For the next six months we are all going to train in explosives and guns, and we are taking a church trip to Iraq to kill bad people and make the world a safer place.”  Who would support it?  In moral terms, it is no different to support taking money from taxpayers to pay soldiers to do the same.  In fact, the latter is in some ways more nefarious and less honest.

Most would argue that there is a difference between unjust violence and just violence – indeed there is.  Some argue there is a difference between just war and unjust war – perhaps there is.  But never in my years of observing church support for state military action have I witnessed a single discussion of whether the action was just or right.  There have been a few discussions of whether it was “Constitutional”, but never whether it was moral.  The morality of war is assumed by the mere fact that the war is waged by the United States Government.

Until the Church in America stops blindly supporting violence done in the name of patriotism, our hands are bloody and our witness is tainted.  We say we are for peace, but we want war.  We say we pray to the Prince of Peace, but we ask him to bless the violence committed by soldiers.  We say “the law is written on our hearts” yet we ignore our hearts and only follow the laws of governments and call what they call right “good”, and what they call wrong “bad”.

In our ignorance, we support violence.  We can cry out, “Father forgive us, for we know not what we do.”  But after our eyes are opened and we begin to examine the morality of acts of violence, we will be held accountable for what we know.  I pray we will be willing to oppose violence, even when doing so makes us “unpatriotic” or “un-American”; even when doing so may lead to our own persecution.

“He who surrenders himself without reservation to the temporal claims of a nation, or a party, or a class is rendering to Caesar that which, of all things, most emphatically belongs to God himself” — C. S. Lewis.

Drugs and Church

A post I wrote about two years ago for the Western Standard:

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My wife and I were visiting a new place for Sunday morning service this week and I couldn’t help but be disturbed yet again at the tendency of Christians to mistake political for spiritual accomplishments.

The pastor told a story about a small church that is located in a “rough” neighborhood. Some parishioners were on the corner outside the church praying for the area when they ran into some drug dealers (I’m not sure how the churchgoers knew them to be drug dealers). The dealers told the prayers, “This is our corner” and the interceding churchmen replied, “No, this corner belongs to Jesus”. The pastor said one of the drug dealers was visibly moved and walked away saying, “this isn’t right what we’re doing. I’m going home”. The rest of the drug dealers stood their ground, so the church members retreated back into the church. So far, an interesting story.

Then, the pastor told us, the police showed up and arrested the remaining drug dealers on the street corner. Everyone listening to the story started clapping and shouting “amen”. The pastor used the story to illustrate the effectiveness of prayer, and the transforming power of the church located in the rough neighborhood.

This was all rather unsettling to me and my wife and as we discussed on our way home. Combined with the abysmal performance of the Detroit Lions, it put a bit of a damper on my day.

The part of the story where one drug dealer felt some kind of conviction and went home was interesting. The faith and words of the Christians on the corner apparently got him thinking deeply about his life. But what about those arrested by police? What victory is there for the church in that? There was no mention of any violent acts by these men. There wasn’t even mention of a violation of property rights (it was never clear if the corner was part of church property). There was only an assumption that these men were somehow “bad” and therefore their arrest was somehow “good” for the neighborhood, and ostensibly the Kingdom of God.

But how did this event advance the Kingdom of God? Is not the point of the Kingdom to transform lives? Is not the point to demonstrate the power of Christ to forgive and to move individuals to break free from the bondage of sin and embrace His forgiveness and live freely and righteously? What did this confrontation and arrest do for these men to help them see their need for freedom in Christ, if indeed they were in need?

Moreover, what grounds is there to cheer “amen” at the arrest of these men? It betrays a notion that runs deep in the church; that political action is analogous to spiritual action.

This same conflation was demonstrated some years ago when members of my church collected petition signatures sufficient to force a strip club to move from downtown to a location outside of town. This was touted as a victory. But in spiritual terms, who won? Did any of the petition signers go down and offer hope and freedom to the men in bondage to sexual addiction? Did they offer comfort and companionship to any of the strippers who were, purportedly, desperate for money and approval? Was a single soul set free? Did the patrons of the establishment have a new respect for Christians after seeing them forcibly remove the business from town? If anything, it set the stage for a more hostile relationship between strippers and patrons of the strip club and Christians. Banning sinful behavior by force of law is no signal to sinners that they can come to the church for freedom and aid.

Christ did not behave this way. Even when given the chance to use the laws of the day to punish a prostitute, He instead offered her grace and left her to make the choice on her own. He did not petition to hide sinful behavior from His sight, but spent much of His time hanging out with the least reputable sinners of society. He offered them hope and escape from damaging behavior, not prison.

When Christians look to laws of man to accomplish goals of the Kingdom they distort and corrupt both. All earthly governments are based on force. The Kingdom of God is based on love, freely given and freely received or rejected. Even the despotic, egotistical, and violent Napoleon saw this clear distinction in his last days exiled on the Island of St. Helena:

“Alexander, Caesar, Charlemagne, and I myself have founded great empires; but upon what did these creations of our genius depend? Upon force. Jesus alone founded His empire upon love…”

Why does the church so often fail to see what Napoleon understood? His Kingdom is truly, “not of this world”, and we shouldn’t reduce it to the activities and tools of earthly kingdoms – force, fraud, pomp, and patriotism.

Palm Sunday and Politics

When He approached Jerusalem, He saw the city and wept over it, saying, “If you had known in this day, even you, the things which make for peace! But now they have been hidden from your eyes.” Luke 19:41–42

As Jesus entered Jerusalem on Palm Sunday to shouts of, “Hosanna” and cloaks and palm branches thrown on the road before him, it seems it must have been a joyful experience. But instead of taking joy in the cheers of the people, Jesus wept over the city.

I’m no Biblical scholar or Jewish historian, but what little I’ve studied of the Bible and the history of the time suggests that the kind of savior the people expected was not the kind Jesus came to be. And for their misplaced hopes, he felt pain.

When Jesus came into the city that day the people gathered to see him and many began to think he may be the Messiah that had been promised the Jews for hundreds of years. They were under the control of the Roman Empire and its various local puppet governments. Understandably, when the Jews learned the promises of a savior and King in the line of their great king David, they expected a Messiah who would free them from Roman rule.

When Jesus entered the city they waved Palm Branches and shouted, “Hosanna.” History suggests these were significant, even dangerous political gestures. Hosanna was a Hebrew word that meant, “Save, now!” and had a very physical connotation. It was not at that time a cry of spiritual or abstract salvation, but a very real shout for physical salvation, which had specific meaning to a people under Roman rule. The Palm branch was a nationalistic symbol for the Jews, a symbol that had appeared on the last coins made when Israel was free. That is perhaps why the Pharisees told Jesus to “rebuke” his disciples – because to openly praise one they thought came to defy their rulers was politically dangerous.

As the crowd of people saw Jesus entering the city, they saw a political savior; one who might at last rise up and free them from the Romans, and they cheered His arrival. But He wept. He wept because they did not know, “The things which make for peace.” He had not come to free them from physical bondage.

Jesus did not intend to be a political figure. He seemed to largely ignore the Romans, and even saved His criticisms and rebukes not for the political leaders, but for the leaders of His own people; their spiritual leaders. When He taught righteousness it was never backed by force. When He told the rich man to give all he had to the poor the man walked away; Jesus did not force him to obey, but instead let him go. He refused to use earthly law to punish a prostitute by stoning; instead he told her, “Go and sin no more,” and left her free to decide. He did not come to spread his Kingdom with the tools of earthly kingdoms – force and coercion. He did not come to offer political freedom. He came to offer freedom from something much deeper.

To conflate the work of Christ with the work of worldly politics is to miss the meaning of His life, death, and resurrection. To claim that a Christian must vote for a specific policy or politician, that Christians must use government to enforce our morals – to prohibit bad behavior or to force good behavior – is to reduce the work of Christ to the work of a politician. He is not too weak or insignificant for political battles; political battles are too weak and insignificant for Him. The kind of freedom and righteousness He offers is far too great, too personal, to be advanced by physical force (which all politics boils down to); politics is beneath the spiritual life, not above it.

Physical freedom is a worthy goal. Defending oneself from violence and oppression is not immoral. But as a Christian, to use government to enforce the morality you believe in through law, backed up by the agents of the state, is to contradict Christ Himself.

It is that desire to look to Christ as a way to accomplish political goals that made Him weep as He entered Jerusalem. They looked for peace through a political savior; He knew the peace He brought was much deeper and could be had regardless of the physical conditions around them. Politics is force. Jesus’ entrance into Jerusalem that day had been prophesied by Zechariah, who described Him as, “Gentle.”

Let us emulate Him when we attempt to alter the world around us. Let us never forget that the freedom He brings transcends this world, and His peace cannot be attained or spread by force.

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Read the follow-up to this post, Christianity and Freedom.