Category Archives: Poverty
Christians have sometimes claimed that the eighth commandment, “You shall not steal,” forbids government from ever mandating the redistribution of wealth for the sake of the poor. According to this interpretation, the status quo is the result of God’s providence and must be respected. It is up to individuals, not society collectively, to assist the poor through charity.
Does the Heidelberg Catechism’s exposition of the eighth commandment in Lord’s Day 42 support this interpretation?
The catechism describes three levels of theft that are forbidden by God. First are “outright theft and robbery, punishable by law.” Second are “all scheming and swindling in order to get our neighbor’s goods for ourselves, whether by force or means that appear legitimate, such as inaccurate measurements of weight, size, or volume; fraudulent merchandising; counterfeit money; excessive interest; or any other means forbidden by God.” This category includes actions that are illegal, but it also includes practices that may be legal.
Third is “greed” and the “pointless squandering of [God’s] gifts,” as well as the failure to do “whatever I can for my neighbor’s good” and to “work faithfully so that I may share with those in need.”
Taken seriously, as Abraham Kuyper points out in his commentary on Lord’s Day 42, this thorough description of the various forms of theft is anything but a sanction of the distribution of wealth according to the status quo. On the contrary, it speaks sharply to the human conscience, convicting human beings of the myriad of ways in which we steal from our fellow image-bearers.
If property owners “try to deduce from the eighth commandment that all they have is their lawful property and that God has given them the freedom to do with it as they please,” Kuyper writes, “Christian ethics has the duty and call to break down all such false notions.” Indeed, when our responsibility to the poor is taken seriously, “it is immediately clear that the eighth commandment’s transgressors are largely found precisely among the owners, and that their number is greater outside of the prison walls than inside of them.”
The socialist Pierre-Joseph Proudhon’s famous claim that all property is theft was an exaggeration, Kuyper admits, but its basic insight was anticipated in this sixteenth century Reformed catechism. “On closer examination … it is true that a very large part of the belongings in this world are stolen property – yet it was not Proudhon who discovered this, for as early as 1563 this awareness could already be found in the catechism.”
In fact, the Christian conviction that excess wealth belongs to the poor far predates the Heidelberg Catechism. Most theologians from the early church to the Reformation maintained that God has given the earth to human beings in common and that property ownership is but a secondary right, one qualified by the obligations of stewardship and justice and subject to the regulation of government. It is inherently unjust when the poor do not have what they need.
Thus the church father Ambrose famously insisted that the wealth of the church belongs to the poor. Thomas Aquinas maintained that for a person in dire need to take what he or she needs from a person who has excess is not theft at all. John Calvin insisted that those who can share with the poor must share with the poor, not as a matter of charity but as a matter of justice and right. He argued that it is the spiritual responsibility of the church to care for the poor through the diaconate and the political responsibility of the community to care for the poor through civil government. In Geneva the diaconate worked closely with the city government to provide sustenance, health care, education, and even job training for the poor.
The catechism clearly supports this classic Christian perspective. Theft consists not merely in outright theft or even in cheating or swindling; it includes “all greed and pointless squandering of his gifts.” It requires the constant and continual redistribution of wealth.
Does the catechism tell us that government has a role in enforcing this requirement of justice? Given the consistent practice of Christian societies through the centuries (including the sixteenth century), it would have been shocking if the authors of the Heidelberg Catechism assumed anything else. The insistence of some Christians that government has no business caring for the poor is a modern phenomenon, alien to the Christian tradition.
Our confessions wisely leave the practical questions of political economy to the collective wisdom of human beings in their various times and places. But they should not leave us in doubt as to the basic principle: It is a responsibility of all people, Christians and non-Christians, as individuals and collectively, in the church and through the state, to secure economic justice for the poor.
This article was originally posted at Do Justice, the blog of the Christian Reformed Centre for Public Dialogue and the Office of Social Justice.
It just so happens that as Congress considers dismantling Medicaid as we know it – as well as an end to the law that requires health insurers to cover people with pre-existing conditions – I am preparing to explore the theme of “Good News for the Poor” with my seminary ethics class. One of the things I do with my students is to walk through the New Testament to show them just how continuously and emphatically Christ and the apostles call Christians to take responsibility for the poor. Care for the poor is so central to the kingdom and its justice that it became the basis for an entire office of the church: the diaconate.
I also point my students to the history of theological reflection on poverty in the Christian tradition. In particular, we discuss the general Christian consensus that God gave the earth and its resources to human beings in common and that property rights are always subject to the rights of all human beings to the basic resources necessary for life.
Thus the church father Ambrose argued that the possessions of the church belong to the poor. Thomas Aquinas argued that it is not theft when a starving person takes what she needs from a rich person because every person has a right to have her basic needs met. And John Calvin argued that those who do not share with the poor when they are in need are guilty of theft – and potentially of murder. Basic provisions are not owed to the poor as a matter of charity but as a matter of justice. Indeed, Calvin regularly stated that the poor have a “right” to such resources.
That’s why Calvin took the work of Geneva’s General Hospital so seriously. He believed it was the responsibility of government to provide funds for poor relief and medical care, and that it was the responsibility of the church to care for the poor through the diaconate.
I’ve written a fair bit on Calvin’s views of poor relief, here on my blog (including on Calvin’s view of the distinct responsibility of government with respect to the poor), for the Gospel Coalition, and for the Calvin Theological Journal.
I realize that Christians differ on just how it is that government should most effectively secure justice for the poor – whether with respect to poverty in general or health care in particular. Neither the church nor its clergy have any authority – let alone expertise – to dictate health care policy to the state. But where I think Christians ought not disagree is that we owe the poor their rights – to basic sustenance and to basic health care – as a matter of justice.
That’s why, for instance, the catechisms of the Reformation (Heidelberg, Westminster) declare that the commandments You shall not murder and You shall not steal require us to care for the needs of the poor. To put it in classic theological terms, it is a requirement of the moral law of God. It is part of the natural law written on our hearts as image-bearers. We are, scripture teaches us, our brothers’ keepers.
If we believe that failing to secure the poor their rights constitutes theft – or even murder – then it goes without saying that it is well within the responsibility of government to protect the poor from such injustice. Indeed, if government can be best evaluated based on how well it protects the poor from injustice – as Calvin thought – than how proposed health laws will affect the poor should be the primary concern of legislators and citizens alike.
Whatever conclusions we come to with respect to particular policy approaches (and we should be humble here), we should be agreed that health care for the poor is not merely a matter of charity. It is a matter of justice. Our representatives should know that this is where the Christian tradition stands.
At Economics for Everybody, R.C. Sproul Jr.’s website for “Applying Biblical Principles to Work, Wealth, and the World,” Timothy Terrell has written a three part response (here, here, and here to my discussion of the relation between property rights and the rights of the poor (here, here, and here). Terrell agrees with my criticism of the sort of libertarianism that views government taxation as theft, but he rejects my argument that the Christian political theological tradition recognizes that the poor have rights to basic necessities enforceable by civil government. He sums up my argument as follows:
[I]f the poor have not received sufficient charity from those who are able to give, the civil magistrate should (as a last resort, he grants) tax them and transfer the proceeds to the needy.
In fact, I believe the (deserving) poor have the right to sustenance as a matter of justice, not simply of charity. Further, I would view redistributive welfare policies as merely one possible means of the government’s enforcing this element of justice, and not by any stretch the best means. My argument (despite Terrell’s suggestion on this point) is not that government should usurp the role of civil society, but that it should ensure that at a most basic level, civil society is operating justly.
Terrell repeatedly declares that my arguments are those of the “political left” or “Christian left,” seemingly assuming that this will render my argument illegitimate for his typical readers. But his readiness to wave flags and call us to our partisan allegiances, in contrast to my attempt to think through the perspective of the pre-Enlightenment Christian tradition, leads him to ignore the actual substance of that argument.
For instance, Terrell rightly insists that simply because someone has a duty to do something does not mean that government has the authority to enforce that duty. This is a distinction I have made repeatedly on this blog. The difference between the moral law and the civil law is foundational to political liberty, religious liberty, and Christian liberty alike. Yet Terrell seems to assume that this distinction in and of itself proves that government has no obligation to protect the rights of the poor to have their basic necessities met. He writes,
If “justice” is about making sure that rights are protected, we should be careful in thinking about who has a right to what. Are all rights to be enforceable by the sword of the civil magistrate? …
Where do those responsibilities end? Does the civil magistrate have power to enforce (with the sword) every positive duty of families and churches?
While a person with the ability to give has a moral obligation to do so, this is different from a poor person having a legal right to the assets of a rich person.
Of course, I agree. But this is not an argument, it is simply a statement of principles. Terrell goes on,
So, even if those with means to give charitably do not do so, this is a long way from showing that the civil magistrate has a right to extract wealth from them by force and transfer it to the poor. As R.C. Sproul, Jr. has pointed out in another post, true compassion is done voluntarily, with one’s own resources, not resources forcibly extracted from others. Unfortunately, the twisting of the terms “justice” and “protection” clouds this truth, as wealth transfers become (in the Left’s view) just another part of the civil magistrate’s legitimate pursuit of “justice” or “protection” for the poor.
Here Terrell is stating his position but he is not really making an argument. He is refusing to admit that the poor have rights to basic sustenance or that the obligation of others to assist the poor is a matter of justice, insisting on describing it as charity. His basis for this refusal seems to be Sproul’s point that true compassion is voluntary, not coerced. But of course we are not talking about true compassion, but about public justice. A comment on the nature of true compassion tells us nothing more about the form that the civil law should take than does the teaching of Jesus that truly refraining from murder requires loving our neighbor from the heart. Morality and civil law, as Terrell has pointed out, are not the same thing. Pointing to what Scripture says about poor relief and compassion in the church and in the sanctified lives of believers is insufficient when we are discussing the obligations of the state.
Terrell falls into the same confusion when he discusses Calvin’s position. Appealing to Calvin’s commentary on the Law he writes, “Calvin indicates that giving to the poor is to remain a voluntary act, not coerced by anyone.” Terrell rightly comments that Calvin rejected the position he associated with the Anabaptists, which called for the abolition of property, because Calvin believed Christians are to hold all things in common as a matter of voluntary fellowship, not as a matter of civil law. Yet he oddly assumes that this means Calvin thought the government had no obligation to use public property to assist the poor. Here he quotes François Dermange, who argues that Calvin
explicitly distinguishes this religious interpretation of justice from legal and political justice. God summons consciences to appear before his judgment seat, not before an earthly judge, and hence one must say that this law is ‘spiritual.’
So now Terrell does appeal to the distinction between true justice and political justice in order to say that the government should not ensure that the needs of the poor are met. Care for the poor is a matter of conscience, not of public order. Yet here he misses Calvin’s distinction between the virtue of Christian poor relief and the outward political order of poor relief. This despite his own admission that in Calvin’s Geneva the civil government funded and regulated not only the work of the church, but the tasks of education and poor relief as well. Calvin clearly supported Geneva’s policy: In his commentary on Isaiah 49:23 and in a sermon on Deuteronomy 15:11-15 he explicitly called government to use public funds to establish poor-houses, hospitals, and schools.
The relevant distinction is not between charity (love) and justice, which in ordinary Scriptural usage have the same basic content (to love someone is to treat them justly; to treat someone justly is to treat them in accord with love; the justice/righteousness of the law is summarized in the command to love one’s neighbor). The relevant distinction is between the true or inward justice that arises from the heart and the minimal or outward public order of justice that the state is obligated to uphold. The right of the poor to have their minimal outward necessities met clearly falls under the latter. It is a distortion of Calvin’s (two kingdoms) distinction between spiritual and political righteousness to insist that it falls exclusively under the former.
The real question is on what basis Terrell and others claim that the government must force citizens to honor contracts and abstain from murdering one another, while insisting that it may not force those with surplus resources to meet the most basic needs of the poor. I understand how this argument arises from certain classical liberal (or libertarian) premises about the state. I do not believe it is consistent with Christian political theology.
But what of the slippery slope argument? If government has the obligation of making sure the most basic needs of the (deserving) poor are met, will this not lead to intrusive regulation of every part of our lives? One may as well push the slippery slope argument further. If government has the responsibility to enforce justice at all, how do we stop it from seeking to enforce all justice?
The solution, however, is not government abandoning its most basic responsibilities, out of fear that it will abuse its legitimate power. The solution is in the never-ending work of getting government power right, finding the appropriate balance between liberty and justice, the individual and the society, rights and responsibilities. We don’t have to go from one extreme to the other.