Charity & Ministry

There’s an interesting species of Christianesque argument against welfare that goes like this: “by replacing aid that could be given by community members who are Christian, welfare programs prevent us from evangelizing to the poor. Thus they suffer spiritually even if they do not suffer physically.” Obviously this would be worse in the long-run for poor people, as we all eventually die and those of us who die in spiritual ruins may suffer some consequence; this argument therefore attempts to claim that being against welfare but for charity is the only sensible Christian option.

It’s a curious argument because it’s the dirty inverse of a medieval conception of charity that went something like this: “we must care for the poor so that they will use their superior standing with God to pray for us who have an inferior standing with God.” (cf. John Bossy, Christianity in the West 1400-1700.) In that formulation, care for the poor was an exchange that helped to ensure the spiritual destinies of the rich. That the formula has been reversed in modern times tells us, among other things, that we are now distrustful of Christ’s repeated statements that He is with the poor; rather we presume them to be in immediate need of evangelizing by the well-off. It further demonstrates that there is no sense of exchange left to charity; at this point, it’s treated like a curative measure, physician to patient.

This new reading of charity is thoroughly modern. Don’t be taken in by the claims that it’s associated with community or locality; it may theorize itself in that way, but it’s not a ‘traditional’ approach to charity by any means. It rather borrows from your standard 19th – 20th century imagination of poverty, wherein the poor are poor by nature of their lack of virtue and must be addressed as a kind of social contaminant.

With all that said, there is another very crucial problem with this approach: it presumes the poverty we encounter to be a pre-existing condition that we get to contend with, and then assumes a set of tools for doing that, with welfare as one and Christian charity as another. This is wrong. Poverty is a condition that comes about through institutional decisions. It is, in other words, a condition we create. As Matt Bruenig writes,

“The word “redistribution” implies that there is a distribution that is default, and that we redistribute when we modify the distribution away from it. This, of course, is wrong. There is no default distribution. All distributions are the consequence of any number of institutional design choices, none of which are commanded by the fabric of the universe. In the United States, we have constructed and enforce institutions of private property ownership and contract enforcement. Those institutions generate very different end distributions than we would see if they did not exist. But they do not have to exist by logical necessity, nor do they constitute the default form of economic institutions.”

Poverty is not like a tornado, it is not like an earthquake. It will always be with us for a number of different reasons, but it can be produced at different levels and rates — that is, we can move the needle on poverty itself, and raise the floor of poverty quite a bit. This means that when we say we should do nothing in terms of moving resources around (through welfare, for example) all we’re really saying is “I like the current arbitrary distribution because it produces poor people whose poverty I can then use to minister to them.” This is no different than saying, “I like constant war, because it gives me wounded soldiers to minister to in hospitals.” In both cases, the argument turns out to be less about what tools we should use and more about what conditions we should create in order to make optimal captive audiences for the Gospel. I can’t really imagine a world in which this form of evangelizing makes much sense, or a parameter that would logically bracket it against, say, intentionally spreading disease in order to minister to the sick. Strange way to love thy neighbor.

A better approach, in my thinking, is to choose to create less poverty via just distributions (as Pope Francis has indicated) and to minister through conventional means. Don’t worry about the poor: Christ is already with them, and poor people don’t actually appear to have much of a problem with their religiosity. There is no reason, then, to hack off parts of the state that assist poor people: working for justice through the state is just another avenue for grace, and it does not obviate one’s obligation to work for justice in other institutions and aspects of life.