Should Christians care for the poor?

jeremy-corbyn_3341664bWith Jeremy Corbyn likely to be elected as the next Labour leader, there is a good chance that we will all be faced with a much clearer choice at the next election. For Christians, this will raise more acutely the question of how important care for the poor is in their voting decisions. (Whatever else you do, please don’t try and quote the parable of the sheep and goats; that has nothing to do with care for the poor.)

One of the strange ironies of modern Western life is the way—by accident rather than by design—aspects of our life appear to be moving closer to the ancient world than previously. With the collapse of the dominance of Christendom morality, attitudes to sex and sexuality appear to be converging (or reverting?) to ancient views, and the same is true in aspect of economics. The distribution of wealth in developed countries now almost exactly matches that of the Roman Empire, with a small socio-economic elite controlling an enormous share of the wealth and power. And as in ancient Rome, access to that wealth and power depends on being a member of an elite clan—being born into wealth, attending the best places of education, and developing networks of relationships which give further access to wealth and power. Amongst the range of developed economies, free market economies generally have the lowest levels of social mobility compared with social democratic economies..

It is therefore highly instructive to understand a little more about the ancient world, and how it was that the early Christian movement was transformed—during its period of fastest growth and development in any period of history, in any culture—from being a small and marginal movement to becoming a major social force in the Empire.

Last year, Andrew Wallace-Hadrill presented a short series of programmes on ‘The Other Pompeii: Life and Death in Herculaneum’ based on findings from recent excavations there. He painted a picture of a very sophisticated lifestyle, in which the inhabitants had just about every amenity that we might imagine. Food was plentiful; the city had a plumbing and drainage system that would have put parts of Victorian England to shame; there was time for leisure activities. At a material level, people appeared to have just about whatever they wanted. So what was the appeal of this nascent Christian movement in such a context?

Part of the answer comes from another classical study. Larry Hurtado, best known for his work on the early veneration of Jesus, recently posted about some older research on poverty and charity.

Speaking for myself, I’m often finding valuable scholarly work on various matters pertaining to the world in which early Christianity emerged, such as this book:  A. R. Hands, Charities and Social Aid in Greece and Rome (London:  Thames & Hudson, 1968).  It’s a well-researched and balanced discussion of ancient attitudes and practices toward the “less fortunate” in society, which provides a valuable context in which to view attitudes and practices reflected in the early Christian texts.

Here are some representative observations by Hands:

  • “In the vast majority of texts and documents relating to gifts in the classical world, it is quite clear that the giver’s action is self-regarding, in the sense that he anticipates from the recipient of his gift some sort of return.” (26)
  • In records of the time, “. . . the motive which is constantly ascribed to the donor by the recipient–and, indeed, asserted by the donor himself–is philotimia or philodoxia (love of honour or glory). . .” (43).
  • “. . . the classical preoccupation with philotimia left little room for any mention of pity–or of ‘the poor’ as peculiarly deserving of such pity.” (61)
  • Although there are commendable expressions of the notion that the wealthy should give more generally (and examples of this humanitas), “It is . . . among a comparatively few rare spirits, even within the cultured Latin-speaking class of the Empire, that this distinctive humanity is, if anywhere, to be sought.” (88)
  • The more common pattern of public provision by the wealthy was to direct the gifts to town councillors and others of standing in the town, or to give larger shares/portions to such people:  “. . . discrimination by factors of three or five is quite normal.” (91)
  • Hands also touches on child-exposure, noting that the practice seems to have been particularly focused on disposing of unwanted female children.  Families were often limited to one child, or perhaps two sons, but “more than one daughter was very rare.” (69-70).  Hands notes, however, that Jewish families (and then Christians as well) were known as not practicing child-exposure, at least as a group.  (Note, e.g., the reference in Acts 21:9 to Philip who is ascribed there four daughters.)
  • In light of the current financial crisis over Greece, one other statement caught my eye, which I hope it is not too mischievous to repeat here:  “The Greeks, in particular, were notorious, not least in the eyes of fellow Greeks, for their unreliability in handling money.” (19)

41hKWXC6bxL._It is worth reading this alongside studies such as Bruce Longenecker’s Remember the Poor. The book as a whole is the fruit of many years’ study of this subject by Longenecker, a New Testament specialist, and some of the chapters are adapted from articles that have been previously published. But the book as a whole puts together a compelling argument that Paul has a clear commitment to the care of the poor as an integral part of his teaching, and that this was a hallmark of the Jesus-groups which he founded, taught, led and wrote to.

All this won’t on its own determine how we vote—but it must surely be a significant factor. I suspect most Christians will object to a culture of benefits dependency, if only on the basis of Paul’s terse injunction ‘Ya don’t work—ya don’t eat!’ (2 Thess 3.10, more or less). We might recognise that some people’s misfortune is the result of their own fecklessness. But we might have strong objections to a system that is so unforgiving for those at the ‘bottom’, and much less so for those at the top. And we might even take a stand against a system which curbs government spending by cutting income primarily for the least well off, accelerating an already rapidly growing divide between rich and poor.

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25 thoughts on “Should Christians care for the poor?”

  1. “reverting to ancient views”. I have more than once suggested that now (as opposed to in previous centuries, and even decades), the Church is in approximately the same place as it was in in about 200 AD.

  2. Fascinating idea about us returning to pagan norms.

    Although attractive at first sight, there’s key differences between then and now: gender equality was alien to those patriarchal societies, and our current focus on consent, mutuality, and support in our sexual relationships would’ve been likewise alien to societies that used marriage to secure property, produce heirs, and ally families. And, of course, slavery is showing no sign of making a comeback.

    Christianity also wasn’t a neat breaking point. Gender inequality and slavery persisted for over a thousand years of Christendom, as did economic inequality and limited social mobility, first in feudalism, then in ruthless robber-barron capitalism; speaking of which, social mobility might be limited in dog-ear-dog capitalism, but there’s many kinds, and it’s surely highest in mixed economies, which embrace markets, but are also alive to their flaws.

    As for Christian attitudes to welfare, it surely depends why a person’s on it. If a person’s unable to work, or unable to find a paying job, there’s no justification for applying the harsh sentiment found in Thessalonians.

    For me, the fork in the road came not with Christianity, but with the Enlightenment, which challenged old certainties with new evidence, and ushered in a people-centered worldview.

    • ‘there’s key differences between then and now: gender equality was alien to those patriarchal societies, and our current focus on consent, mutuality, and support in our sexual relationships would’ve been likewise alien to societies that used marriage to secure property, produce heirs, and ally families.’

      If there has been a fork in the road, it has been modernist trend of reductionism whereby foedus (covenant: which has relational permanence, based on customary understanding of the rights, responsibilities and privileges of an enduring state of life, such as citizenship and kinship by marriage and descent) has been reduced to mere pactum (contract: which is transactional, whereby parties can privately establish the duration and terms under which it is considered legally valid).

      It was the widespread understanding of marriage to extend family kinship rights permanently that led ancient nobility to use it as an efficient means of securing property, producing heirs and allying families.

      The word, consortium, amply describes how marriage joins man and wife sharing the fortunes of life, including shared kin and posterity. Neither the focus of wealthier classes on marriage as a means of perpetuating their power, nor the history of gender inequality regarding marital responsibilities should undermine the fact that the institution of marriage per se has always contained provision for consent, mutuality, and support.

    • James, just a couple of thoughts to add to David’s.

      First, as I understand it, Roman marriage law was much more leaning towards egalitarianism than Greek. Second, whatever the formal rules, it was clear that women could and did exercise significant influence in culture and business in the Roman world. The main difference was in military power, which was an exclusively male preserve.

      On the other hand, you only have to look at business and culture in Western economies to see how this continues to be dominated by men. We appear to think that all it takes for equality to happen is to pass a few laws; there are some deep-seated aspects to our culture (not least the visual nature of the internet, and the highly competitive ‘Darwinian’ nature of the business world) which will make us male-dominated for some time to come.

      And you think slavery is showing no signs of comeback in our age? Astonishing! Do look at the work of Gary Haugen which I mentioned in the post on New Wine. There are countless millions in slavery in our world, much of which is driven by global capital.

      • Slavery as a socially accepted legal institution isn’t close to returning: people are coerced and falsely imprisoned, but that isn’t the same thing at all.

        As for gender equality in ancient Rome, when your point of comparison is a Greek culture that imprisoned women in their homes, most anything will look good by contrast! While some Roman women may have wielded influence, and been relatively well off by the standards of the time, by any objective measure, they remained grossly unequal, excluded from public life, and frequently dependent on their husbands to survive.

        Women are increasingly prominent in business and the professions. No, passing laws doesn’t fix everything, but it’s part of a greater social change that makes our society utterly alien from the classical world.

  3. “Free market economies generally have the lowest levels of social mobility.” I’d like to see a post demonstrating this. [Perhaps another one on whether “social mobility” is in itself a moral good.]

  4. Ian I agree with you but I’d add that it begins with Jesus rather than Paul. The Jesus Seminar folk have put together findings from various sources pointing to extreme poverty & starvation in 1st century Galilee. So the Eucharist seems to have begun as a kind of food insurance policy, based on the principle that the destitute band together and if one of them gets a paid job, they all eat. If Jesus organised this in the name of the Kingdom of God (the laws in the Pentateuch) this will explain why the Eucharist was so central to the early Church. It will also explain why the Church kept growing, mainly among people who didn’t leave us any texts to explain why. Even at the end of the Middle Ages the Catholic Church was still trying to establish principles of just prices, just wages, etc.

    I’d add that those quotes about the patronising upper classes giving to the poor for the sake of their own reputations illustrate exactly how the upper classes used to think in the Roman empire, and this is one of the ways modern neo-liberalism is moving back to it. People like Hayek and Nozick have offered theoretical justifications for the rich not to feel any obligation to give to the poor. So our letter boxes get stuffed with letters from charities, appealing to our heartstrings but never suggesting there is anything morally wrong with the inequalities.
    I would have paid my £3 to vote for Corbyn, but I’m a member of the Green Party.

    • Jonathan, that’s really interesting, thanks. It is striking that Hands book is hardly new!

      I would agree with the social findings of the Jesus Seminar folk, but I don’t think I would agree with their explanation. I think the social dimension flows from the spiritual, rather than being the ‘real’ reason for the practice.

      • Ian, I think I’m on your side there, to the extent that some of the Jesus Seminar folk seem to give the impression they don’t believe in God. As it happens I have been spending quite some time in correspondence with people who value the egalitarian bits of the Bible but don’t believe in God. It seems a popular view, but it strikes me as being quite unlike any biblical view, or indeed ancient society in general.
        One qualification though. If I was a starving ex-farmer dependent on begging to stay alive, brought up on the Torah and governed by the Romans, I don’t think I’d ask myself whether the spiritual or the social comes first. I’d see the social egalitarianism as justified by the Jewish tradition about God.

  5. Thanks Ian, that was helpful to an extent, but you didn’t seem to me to establish any correlation between free market economics and lack of social mobility. Nor did you address my second issue. I accept that the Uk has some very strange cultural and social phenomena, but I might think that a proper meritocracy, based in the principles of the open market, might be part of the solution not the cause of the problem.

    • But the free market is never a meritocracy—that’s the problem. An unregulated free market hands more power to have some power in the first place. It is never a level playing field, since those with some money can always take more risks and therefore make more gains. So wealth accumulates in certain pockets.

  6. I tried to register to vote for the leader of the Labour Party but I had to agree with the vision and aims of the Labour Party, and I couldn’t find out what they were.

  7. Hi there, a quick thought:

    The underlying assumption here (especially in your first paragraph) seems to be that if I believe that caring for the poor is a Christian responsibility (which I think is fairly obvious, btw) then I also must believe that caring for the poor should be the responsibility of government (and not of individuals, the Church, and/or the Third Sector). Which therefore means that if I don’t vote for politicians who prioritise that form of government spending then I am, by default, sinning.

    I just don’t think that’s a very helpful assumption.

    Good thoughts on ‘reverting to pagan roots’ though!

    • I agree entirely. It appears to me that this post is less about whether Christians should care for the poor and more that Christians should support those parties who think that the government/state should take a greater role in caring for the poor and reducing income inequality. As I remember, this was very much the argument recently made by Ian Parkinson in the God and Mammon talk at New Wine (see earlier post).

      Whilst I don’t necessarily disagree with this position, it appears to me that we’re rapidly moving away from theology into the realms of political philosophy. I don’t think that a statist approach is incompatible with Biblical teaching, only that it is not the necessary consequence of what Jesus had to say about the poor (as implied by the original post). I’m willing to be persuaded that the Christians should support those parties proposing re-distribution and a major role for the state in social provision but I’m yet to see it argued clearly. As it stands, I’m somewhat uncomfortable with the idea that Christians who diverge from these political assumptions are somehow ignoring Jesus’ injunction to care for the poor and therefore sinning by omission.

      There’s no doubt that the statist argument has its attractions from the Christian perspective. It arguably offers the most direct way to redistribute income through taxation and to improve the material state of those in poverty. But it certainly has its problems – not least the compulsory nature of the transfer of wealth from the rich to the poor. Jesus is very clear that the poor are blessed and that the rich are blessed by choosing to give sacrificially. Jesus makes clear how difficult this is to do (harder to get through the eye of a needle) and how seductive money can be (the rich fool). The tragedy of the rich young ruler is about his inability to give rather than the loss of the assets to the poor. If money is taken by the state and redistributed, then the whilst the poor benefit materially, those contributing aren’t blessed as they have no choice in their giving. From a secular perspective, the latter is irrelevant but God loves us and wants to spend eternity with us regardless of our bank balance. Tim Kellor makes clear in his superb book on Christian responses to poverty, Generous Justice, that Jesus makes gives no indication of whether or not welfare is the preserve of the state, other than that we’re told to “render unto Caesar…” (if you haven’t read this, you should).

      Again, the points about income inequality and social mobility again belong more to political philosophy than theology. Jesus’ teachings are rather counter-intuitive on the subject. He is pretty clear that “the poor will always be with you” and his redistribution of wealth in the parable of the talents certainly goes the other way from that expected. However, he is equally clear that “to whom much has been given, much will be expected”. Inequality in itself is not a sin. Undoubtedly some of the drivers for inequality are sinful such as the exploitation of others and the environment (and Christians need to be more active in resisting these). However, inequality can derive from the best/most loving of intentions: one of the greatest global drivers of inequality and social immobility for future generations is the increasing tendency of high achieving graduates to have and actively raise children with other high achieving graduates (this is already changing demography in the US and we are unlikely to be far behind).

      I have to admit to being uncomfortable that the 2nd lowest 10% of the population were most affected by the recent welfare budget cuts but I did cheer the increase to the minimum wage as a step in the right direction (I’m not quite sure we can yet cheer it as a “living wage”). I think the language used in the election around the poorest in society (let alone refugees/asylum seekers) was often un-Christian and the churches were right to challenge it. As I said, I’m willing for someone to persuade me that Christians should support those parties arguing for increased state welfare provision; I’m just yet to hear that argument made fully.

      • My main argument for state provision is that people get less and people get missed if it is left to charity alone. I would add that other people can get away without contributing their fair share and/or there becomes a culture of poor people having to demonstrate their worth. I think the best argument is to imagine through a series of unfortunate events you become homeless and penniless.

        It is also worth considering that the rich are only rich because of their poor workers.

        Jimmy Carter said this

        If you don’t want your tax dollars to help the poor, then stop saying you want a country based on Christian values, because you don’t.

    • Thanks ‘Mister David’. But I wonder if I can put it the other way around?

      If you think that caring for the poor is our responsibility, and you have a vote in elections, why wouldn’t you vote for a party that says it will enact that responsibility?

      Paul in Romans 13 thinks that the point of ‘the powers that be’ is that they should encourage/enact the good and punish what is evil. If caring for the poor is good, and hoarding money for a tiny minority is bad, why wouldn’t a government support the first and discourage the second?

      I am not suggesting that only government should be responsible for this. But I am arguing that government should not be exempt from it.

      • Thanks for the reply Ian. Here is a brief reply to your question: I think that voting for a government (or more specifically, a constituency candidate) who seeks to care for the poor is completely good and right, but since there isn’t a single government in any modern democracy that doesn’t care for the poor in some way (since even the most neo-liberal/libertarian nations have a welfare state), the question is rather a non-starter, since it immediately becomes a question of how much welfare state, and what kind of welfare state. It’s not a yes/no black and white thing.

        But I think your question misunderstands/fails to address my comment. My issue was primarily the leap in logic you made from ‘the Bible says THIS’ to ‘THIS is the role of government and if you don’t vote for this kind of government then you are failing to care for the poor and therefore morally compromised’. It’s a link the Bible never makes, as far as I know, yet your post presumes it to be so self-evidently true as to not require an argument. Making that argument may well be for another post, but nevertheless, if you want the general gist of what you are saying to hold water, its something you need to do.

  8. Ian I’m sorry but I completely disagree that we are anything like first century Rome. We have a completely different social structure. Attitudes to sexual morality varied greatly throughout the first century but women were not considered the Equals of men, rape went on and was on a lot of occasions considered acceptable. Sexual orientation was unknown so gay people were not allowed to marry.

    The only similarity I can think of is that the rich and powerful are rich and powerful and above the law.

    I think if we start claiming we live in a culture similar to that of Jesus and Paul we miss out the sheer brutality of that age: the asylum seekers of calais have not been crucified, Cameron did not come to power but murdering Gordon Brown.

    I think you have very different friends to me – from my perspective all my christian friends think the state should be helping the poor even if that means accidentally also helping some scroungers. I think most of us are at a loss at how to turn this governments actions around. I’ve spent my entire adult life amazed that some Christians vote conservative. From my perspective their policies have been anti christian for a long time

  9. The challenge of the “sheep and the goats”. Personally I think it has much to say on the subject of care for the poor and how we respond to the needy. As we read the passage Jesus highlights that there is surprise on all sides when the divisions are made. Those included are surprised to be welcomed, and those deemed goats are surprised to be excluded.

    This is the culmination of Jesus’ teaching in the gospel. In this section we first hear of a need to be ready (bridesmaids), we then are told to have used our wealth well (talents), and lest we think that means making a profit from investment, we are clearly instructed that judgement will be on the basis of how we have used our resources in meeting the needs of others. It is not that the sheep are Christians and the goats non-Christians, nor are the hearers non-believers who have an alternative judgement process. It is that people who thought they were “in” discover to their horror they are not, while others discover that their instinctive compassion for needy people has actually demonstrated a love for God. Shocking all round!

    Matthew begins his account of Jesus’ teaching – Sermon on the Mount – with Jesus declaring the poor, the oppressed, the landless, the hungry and thirsty are blessed – though we debate the more material or more spiritual reading of the Beatitudes, at least it is obvious the images are about material need. This teaching gospel then ends with a challenge to those who are not poor – how will you relate to them? If you give, then you share that place in the Kingdom with the poor, and if you don’t you don’t. We might also note that in the concluding verses of the “Sermon”, Jesus warns that not all who say “Lord, Lord” will enter the Kingdom “but only one who does the will of my Father in heaven” (Matt 7:21)

    Sherman Gray produced a remarkable survey of commentaries on this passage down the centuries (“The least of my brothers: Matthew 25: 31-46, A History of Interpretation” Atlanta Press: 1989) and notes how the context of the commentator seems to shape the way the passage is read. I think it remains a relevant book despite more recent scholarship.

    Given our increasing levels of inequality, and real poverty among far too many households in this country, let alone the unfolding humanitarian crisis in Europe of needy people fleeing chaos, I would suggest we should be concerned for the views of those who will potentially be our leaders and whether “humanity” or “security” is their primary concern. I suggest we also should read Matt 25 recognising Jesus is speaking to us, open to the potential surprise and crisis that we may find ourselves with the goats!

    • Thanks, Peter, particularly for information about the Gray volume. But the exegetical arguments are pretty persuasive that ‘the least of these brothers of mine’ are not just the poor in general, but poor disciples/followers of Jesus. See my latest blog post reviewing Rob Dalrymple’s book ‘These Brothers of Mine’.

      This teaching is not just the end of Jesus’ teaching in Matthew, but more particularly the climax to his eschatological fifth teaching block, and I think that is more significant.

  10. In the spirit that this is a place for us to discuss, learn and engage in honest debate, I guess I would want to say that there are exegetical arguments either way on this one, and one of the things that Gray points out in his summarising, is that we need to consider the ideological position of those putting the points of view.
    Without minimising the proper seeking after the truth / true meaning of texts, I suggest we also need to ask why we would either want to restrict who the “brothers” are, or why we would be eager to enlarge who they might include.
    One of the tensions for the gospels is the extension of the good news to those outside Israel, and Jesus’ self-understanding of this – Syro-Phoenician woman, parallel stories in Mark, both within the Jewish community and beyond, healings and feedings etc.

    There is a similar question about who are the poor in Galatians 2: 10, whether exclusively the poor Christians, primarily the poor Christians, or more deliberately expansive, the poor wherever they may be found. I am no expert, but I think the same debate happens with the interpretation of 1 John (eg 1 John 3:17). I struggle with a scriptural approach which appears to exclude the poor who are not of my faith.

    Because it is easier for us, who are “not poor” to read these texts more restrictively, I think we have to be alert to this danger. And of course it does impact on how we then view our politicians which was the focus of this stream. Is charity to the poor a good thing, or is it at the heart of our faith? The early church was noted, not just for how it cared for its own, but how it cared for others in need.

    We will read Matt 25 differently depending in part how we read the Beatitudes. How spiritual or material is the focus of this first teaching in Matthew? This in part is shaped by how we understand the “poor” in the OT, and which passages we prioritise in shaping that understanding. Theology, ideology (our own position) and exegesis are inextricably connected.

    I would agree this passage is also the climax to Matthew’s eschatological teaching section (though there is nothing in the earlier parables which suggests a restrictive reading let alone points to one). I suggest it highlights that how we have responded to the needs of the poor is going to be rather more important than what we espouse as a belief system (so Matt 7: 21ff as climax of Sermon on Mount and first teaching block). I would therefore question the “pretty persuasive” and “more significant”.

    Hopefully all in the spirit of helpful learning.


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