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Justice for the Poor in the Heidelberg Catechism: The Eighth Commandment

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.

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Does the Christian tradition agree that property rights trump the rights of the poor?

In political debates I occasionally hear Christians who are influenced by libertarian political philosophy make an argument that runs something like this:

My money is my own property that I earned. The government did not give it to me. Therefore, the government has no right to confiscate my property in order to give it to someone else, except for purposes of protection, national defense, or associated government functions. For the government to confiscate my property for purposes of poor relief is not legitimate taxation. It is theft.

To be sure, I have never heard a political theologian or theological ethicist make this argument. But I have witnessed thoughtful and well-read Christians give expression to it, and I have even heard it propounded from various pulpits. And amid the recent rise of the Tea Party, the growing influence of libertarianism within the Republican Party, and the debates over Obamacare and the federal debt, it appears as if this general sort of argument is gaining currency.

The point I want to make here is that this argument is profoundly out of step with the Christian political theological tradition, running from Ambrose and Augustine through the medieval canon lawyers and Thomas Aquinas and all the way to the great reformer John Calvin.

What is wrong with it is not that it supports capitalism and the free market, or that it suggests that the American government provides too much support for the poor. There are good reasons why Christians can oppose socialism and the welfare state while remaining solidly in step with the Christian political theological tradition. I am not defending Obamacare, Medicare, Social Security, or any other particular political policy.

But I do take issue with arguments that suggest people have absolute property rights that the government cannot infringe upon, not even for the sake of justice for the poor.

The problem with these arguments is that they presuppose a notion of property that makes it absolute, without qualification by the needs of others or of civil law. It assumes the argument of John Locke that human beings possess property before they enter into any significant social or legal connections, and that therefore no social or legal body has the right to take that property from them. It assumes that even if a person fails to use his or her property in service to the needy, no one, not even the government, has the right to force that person to use his or her property justly.

In contrast, the early church fathers Ambrose and Augustine believed that property was the result of the fall and would not have existed in a perfect world. They argued that human law created the institution of property in order to maintain peace between sinful and competing human beings.

Later in feudal society holdings of land were considered to be inextricably connected with social relationships and with the obligations and responsibilities associated with those relationships. Neither lord nor serf enjoyed the absolute right to do whatever he wanted with his possessions; rather, those possessions were to be used in fulfillment of concrete social obligations.

As feudalism evolved and the roots of a market economy began to develop, canon lawyers struggled to reconcile the arguments of the church fathers with developing understandings of property. Janet Coleman writes in the Cambridge History of Medieval Political Thought concerning the greatest of these jurists, Gratian:

Gratian notes that the human race is ruled by two norms, natural law and custom. The first is that which is contained in the Old Testament and the Gospels … This natural law is common go all nations, held everywhere instinctually rather than by positive legal enactment, and it sanctions the coming together of men and women, procreation, the common possession of all things, the liberty of all, the acquisition of whatever may be taken by air, land or sea, the restitution of goods or money loaned, the use of force to repel force. It is by natural law that all things are common to all men. But the laws of custom and legal enactment enable men to say ‘this is mine’. [Gratian cited] Augustine, who argued that private property was a creation of imperial law and was not a characteristic of natural man before the Fall. (617)

However, Gratian left the tension between natural law and human law unresolved, and many other canon lawyers and theologians were forced to work it out. Two decretists, Huguccio and Johannes Teutonicus, provided perhaps the most influential solution:

Natural law, equated with rational judgment, tells us that all things are common, to be shared in times of necessity with those in need. Natural reason teaches us that we should retain for ourselves only necessities and therefore distribute what is left to neighbors in need…. Johannes Teutonicus avoided the implication that communal ownership was a norm, and explained Ambrose’s text by saying that private property is not denied; rather what is denied is the right of anyone to appropriate to himself more than suffices for his own needs. Thus, in times of necessity any surplus wealth is to be regarded as common property to be shared by all those in need. (618-619)

To be sure, the canonists “never developed arguments concerning private property with egalitarian implications. And they took into account that superfluity of wealth was to be measured according to what was considered decent and fitting to one’s status in society” (619). Nevertheless, they were clear that the rights of the poor trumped the rights of possession.

The greatest medieval debates over property, of course, pertained to the church’s vast material wealth. Many canonists agreed that the church merely holds stewardship over its wealth and that that wealth ultimately belongs to God, or even to the poor.

The poor and needy were to be supported from the goods of the Church for they had a right to this support from the common property of the Church. On this view the use of church property on behalf of the poor was not charity but an established legal use of public property whose purpose was the maintenance of the common welfare and especially the sustenance of the needy poor. (620)

Of course, the reason why the canonists viewed the church this way was because they believed that as an institution it was to express God’s purposes for human beings according to natural law. The standards for the church, in essence, were the standards to which all human beings were to seek to attain.

Tomorrow I’ll take a look at Thomas Aquinas’s account of property and I’ll also make some comments on John Calvin’s view, both of which are in direct continuity with the views described above. But it should already be evident even from this brief post that Christian political theology has always denied the existence of absolute property rights, and indeed, has questioned whether property rights are grounded in natural law at all. The tradition is marked by a virtually unanimous consensus that individuals and social organizations are to use their excess possessions subject to the primary claim of the needy as a matter of justice.

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