Readers of these pages know of my keen interest—as an economist, as a historian, and as a Christian—in what Jesus and the New Testament have to say about things like helping the poor. My essay, “Was Jesus a Socialist?” partially dealt with this issue, as did my more recent Prager University video (see below) of the same title.
Here I would like to explore the matter a little further and share with readers my favorite relevant New Testament passages. [Note to my non-Christian friends: No need to blow a gasket here. I’m not preaching, pontificating, or proselytizing— merely presenting facts as I see them.]
Robin Hood and Forced Redistribution
Imagine a person who, acting entirely on his own initiative and exclusively from a desire to help the needy, decides to take from the rich and give every penny to the poor. Would that find approval from Jesus, his apostles, or anyone of authority in the early Church? If you’ve read the New Testament with even the least depth and discernment, you know the answer can’t possibly be yes.
Well, may I ask, why not? Keep in mind that this imagined Robin Hood is redistributing without a middleman—no bureaucracy, no paperwork, no vote-buying, no deficits or debt, no cynical demagoguery. Would Jesus, his apostles, or anyone of authority in the early Church approve of our Robin Hood? I say an emphatic NO!He is likely giving the money to the poor who are close at hand, so he probably has a better sense of their actual needs than do distant government agents. No funds are diverted for any other purpose but poverty relief. The poor get it all, which means they get more this way than if the original sum was filtered through the government.
Of “progressives,” in particular, I ask: If the rich or their riches are inherently bad and the poor are naturally entitled to some portion of their wealth, wouldn’t deputizing do-gooders to get the job done directly be the most just and efficient method? Is there some virtue in laundering money first through the IRS and other agencies?
So back to the main question. Would Jesus, his apostles, or anyone of authority in the early Church approve of our Robin Hood? I say an emphatic NO! Here’s why:
- His actions spring from theft, which is not blessed by either his intentions or the purposes to which he puts the loot. Theft is categorically and unconditionally condemned by the Eighth Commandment and never once endorsed, condoned, or excused by Jesus on any grounds.
- The poor are poor for many and varied reasons. Their destitution, whether short-term or long-lasting, may be due to accidental harm, natural calamity, personal handicap, bad life decisions, lousy character, or foolish policies of government. So giving money to the poor just because they’re poor, without regard to the source of their poverty, could in some cases be wasteful and counterproductive. It could even prolong the problem.
- There are far better ways to reduce poverty than plunder, legal or illegal. Free markets, private property, rule of law, entrepreneurship, wealth creation, personal responsibility, and voluntary charity come to mind—all of which are undermined or even crowded out when force enters the picture.
The New Testament includes dozens of references to helping the poor and those who suffer from misfortune, oppression, or sickness. Jesus himself more than recommends it; he declares that what one (especially a Christian) does to assist the deserving needy is an outward sign of the love for others that resides in one’s heart.
The misguided may cry, “Jesus was an altruist, and altruism is evil because it requires that one sacrifice his own values!” I don’t see Jesus as an altruist at all, and I think Christians who argue that you should “give because it hurts” have naively misinterpreted Scripture.
“The poor you will always have with you, and you can help them any time you want,” says Jesus in Matthew 26:11 and Mark 14:7. The key words there are “you can help” and “want” to help. He didn’t say, “We’re going to make you help whether you like it or not.”
Jesus clearly holds that compassion is a wholesome value to possess, but I know of no passage anywhere in the New Testament that suggests it’s a value he would impose at gunpoint. What the thief in our story does, or what a government may do to achieve the same end, are not remotely associated with the compassion Jesus sought to encourage. As I wrote in a 1997 essay:
True compassion is a bulwark of strong families and communities, of liberty and self-reliance, while false compassion [that employs compulsion] is fraught with great danger and dubious results. True compassion is people helping people out of a genuine sense of caring and brotherhood. It is not asking your legislator or congressman to do it for you. True compassion comes from your heart, not from the state or federal treasury. True compassion is a deeply personal thing, not a check from a distant bureaucracy.
Don’t take my word for it. Consider what the apostle Paul says in II Corinthians 9:7.
Each of you should give what you have decided in your heart to give, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver.
Throughout his extensive journeys, Paul was more than a preacher. He was a doer. He was a fundraiser. He practiced what he preached, pitching in to assist the deserving needy. He never endorsed compulsory redistribution as a legitimate means to that end. He drew a contrast between those who personally help and those who give charity false lip service or try to impose it. His words in II Corinthians 8:8 are plain and simple.
I am not commanding you, but I want to test the sincerity of your love by comparing it with the earnestness of others.
Later, in II Corinthians 8:24, Paul implores his audience to give freely because that’s the way others will know that you really mean it—that it comes from the heart.
Show these men the proof of your love and the reason for our pride in you, so that the churches can see it.
Cato Institute Senior Fellow Doug Bandow, author of the 1988 book Beyond Good Intentions: A Biblical View of Politics, commented on the significance of Paul’s words with this question:
If Paul was not willing to command believers in a church that he had founded to help their less fortunate Christian brethren, would he have advocated that the civil authorities tax unbelievers for the same purpose?
Of course, nothing anywhere in the New Testament suggests that Paul either called for or would support compulsory welfare state measures. This is the same Paul, by the way, who said the needy who are able-bodied owe something to their charitable brothers. In II Thessalonians 3, he writes:
We were not idle when we were with you, nor did we eat anyone’s food without paying for it. On the contrary, we worked night and day, laboring and toiling so that we would not be a burden to any of you…We gave you this rule: “The one who is unwilling to work shall not eat.”
Individual Character Matters Most
As I see it, what Jesus, Paul, and other early Christian leaders were calling for was an inner renaissance of character, one individual at a time, from the heart and not by force. Good character embodies many traits and virtues, one of them being empathy for the less fortunate, a desire to see them flourish.
The great majority of people who favor the welfare state are, without a doubt, well-intentioned. They really do want to help the needy, and many of them mistakenly believe the welfare state comports with Christian principles. They likely would oppose the freelance poverty-fighter of my hypothetical story on the grounds that government doing the job makes it more “orderly” and “democratic.” It also seems “final” in that it offers assurance that the job will be done, whereas leaving the issue to “market forces” or “private charity” or “individual responsibility” seems so risky and uncertain.
Historically, it would appear that few things are riskier than a welfare state. But no nation ever died because of an overabundance of character.
But if we’ve learned anything about the welfare state, it surely is that it doesn’t resolve the problem of poverty even as it creates new ones of its own. The poor are still with us. Meanwhile, the welfare state empowers greedy, myopic politicians. It breeds corruption. It fosters dependency. It breaks families apart. It undermines the work ethic. It crowds out more effective private initiatives. It mortgages the future, economically and spiritually.
Historically, it would appear that few things are riskier than a welfare state. It’s put more than a few countries out of business or off the map. But no nation ever died because of an overabundance of character.
Almost everybody wants to help those who truly and deservedly need help. How we do it is replete with massive implications. At the very least in this ongoing debate, let’s not make the mistake of arguing that to use force, plunder, and dependency is somehow “the Christian thing to do.”