Thursday, September 19, 2013

Social Justice Versus Charity

This is actually just a chapter from my book, but I decided to post it because I like this one a lot and it makes a very important point not just about the topic itself, but about how Christians too often replace a Biblical worldview with a different one and never realize what they have done. I did not actually believe the Biblical case against social justice was very strong when I began to write this, and so I had been planning on a much softer tone. But as I collected the Scriptures and started putting my thoughts together, I realized that not only is social justice not a great interpretation of the Biblical teachings on poverty, giving and love, but in many ways it is directly opposed to the Bible. What many social gospel people use are the Biblical passages about love and how we ought to treat our neighbors. What they do not often do is study what the Bible says directly about poverty and giving to those in need. That is what I did, and I have come to a very different conclusion than the so-called "social gospel". This is one of my favorite chapters in the book because it's the one most steeped in Scripture, and it, meaning a study of Scripture, moved me away from the position that I held about social justice. I used to think it was a slightly idealistic and wrong-headed but generally sincere attempt to help poor people. Maybe it is, but it is also a moral system directly opposed to Christianity and the teaching of Scripture. Our idea of what is "good" needs to undergo some revision if we are to return to a Biblical definition of morality. I will let the essay say the rest. I have removed the footnotes and added links to the Scripture references, but otherwise it is the same as the one in the book.

Social Justice Versus Charity

"When a religious scheme is shattered (as Christianity was shattered at the Reformation), it is not merely the vices that are let loose. The vices are, indeed, let loose, and they wander and do damage. But the virtues are let loose also; and the virtues wander more wildly, and the virtues do more terrible damage. The modern world is full of the old Christian virtues gone mad. The virtues have gone mad because they have been isolated from each other and are wandering alone. Thus some scientists care for truth; and their truth is pitiless. Thus some humanitarians only care for pity; and their pity (I am sorry to say) is often untruthful."
~ G.K. Chesterton

A church I had been a part of for awhile had a party that I went to. The conversation turned briefly to politics as it sometimes does, and I remember a guy my age making a point about charitable giving in this country. Because charitable giving is usually tax deductible, often times the motivation is not altruism. A rich man might give lots of money because he knows he will save a lot of money in taxes, so his motivation is not pure generosity. This is sort of analogous to the parable of the widow’s mite. The rich men were giving lots of money to the offering and expecting social benefits. They hoped they would be admired for giving large sums of money. So too the ones who pray loudly in the public square are only in it for the social recognition. In those terms, their gifts and prayers were nothing more than business transactions. But Jesus said we should pray quietly to ourselves in order that we might not receive recognition, and that the widow gave more than the rich man because she gave all she had.

It was the level of sacrifice that Jesus recognized, not the dollar amount. Jesus always focused on what was happening in the individual heart. The idea here is that the rich men’s gifts were not truly admirable because there was something else influencing them. In other words, they only did it for the social position or for the tax breaks, and this took away the gift’s moral value in the eyes of God. But what if the money was given to the poor after taking it forcibly from the rich man through taxation? Does that make it somehow more moral? No, in fact it is less moral. Then the rich man has absolutely no choice in the matter whatsoever, and therefore from the point of view of morality taxing the rich and giving to the poor is actually worse than the rich giving to the poor of their own accord, even if there’s a conflict of interest. It sacrifices morality for the application of force. Social justice is in direct opposition to traditional morality, the morality taught by Jesus Christ, because it removes from the individual entirely the ability to make a moral choice. It is not, precisely speaking, immoral; it is amoral. Social justice attempts to turn human society into something it is not and can never be: a machine.

If there is one good thing about leftists it’s their insistence on moral argumentation. Most of them truly believe that morality should eclipse all other concerns. What they say tempts me greatly, because I share their sentiments. However it would be easier to take them seriously if their morality was not so lopsided. They believe in grace but not punishment, mercy but not justice. For a leftist, Justice does not balance two scales but only one. This sentiment derives from materialism, and materialism itself cannot support for long any system of right and wrong. This fundamental contradiction makes leftists the most deeply ironic characters in all of fiction. Yes, fiction, because they will never get what they want. It is a complete fantasy.

Much has been made of recent years of the idea of social justice, and most people simply assume it is equivalent with a desire to help the poor. That description is accurate so far as it goes. There is, however, a fundamental difference between the idea of social justice and the Biblical idea of Charity. Social justice is concerned with the outcome of the act of giving. Who is helped by your gift, be it money, work or something else? How much are they helped? How much help is needed until “justice” for the economically disadvantaged is gained? Why aren’t you helping more when the need is so great and social justice has not yet been achieved? Is the money you gave being used responsibly?

The Biblical idea of Charity is concerned with the act of giving by itself, not the outcome of it. Why did you give? Out of what motivations? Were they selfish motivations or pure motivations? Did you give out of plenty or out of want? Did you give with a cheerful heart or grudgingly? What will the giver gain from giving? It is more blessed to give than to receive. Thus the Bible has a completely different focus on the act of giving than the modern idea of social justice. The Biblical view of Charity is worth examining further.

I have already mentioned the parable of the widow’s mite, which shows that Jesus is not concerned with the amount of giving but with the amount of sacrifice and the motivations of the heart (Mark 12:41–44; Luke 21:1–4). There are also multiple references to building up “treasure in heaven” (Matt 6:19–20, 19:21; Mark 10:21; Luke 12:33, 18:22). In these teachings Jesus says that we should sell our possessions and give to the poor, but the reason has nothing to do with making the poor not poor anymore. The reason given is to build up treasure in heaven “where no thief comes near and no moth destroys.” The idea is to do good things with our money on earth and those actions will stay with us when we die. Our money won’t. Not a single mention is made of ending poverty or any such nonsense. In fact, Jesus appears to reference the Old Testament view in three out of the four gospels, saying the “poor will always be with you” (Deut 15:11; Matt 26:11; Mark 14:7; John 12:8). Jesus teaches the motivation for giving is entirely selfish and entirely eternal, not material. Giving in public so that everybody knows is not rewarded; giving in private is (Matt 6:1–4). It is more blessed to give than to receive (Acts 20:35). In the middle of Luke’s version of the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus even says we should lend money to our enemies without expecting to get anything back (Luke 6:35). Again the motivation is not to help them, but to receive a heavenly reward.

The most important New Testament teaching on giving in regards to social justice is found in 2 Corinthians 8–9. I’d encourage you to read these two chapters, but Paul is basically reminding the Corinthians that they promised to give a gift to the church in Jerusalem (1 Cor 16). Paul is here writing to remind the Corinthian church of their promise, and that he is sending Titus to collect the gift. But in these two chapters the fullness of the Bible’s teachings on giving becomes clear. The idea of giving to meet a need is established (also in Acts 6). In fact Paul even says the “goal is equality” to emphasize that he doesn’t expect the Corinthians to give when they are “hard pressed,” but only when others are in need. This is often the stated goal of social justice, however Paul makes it abundantly clear that giving is to be voluntary and cheerful, and not done out of a grudging heart (Deut 15:10). Even in the Old Testament, where a tithe is specified as ten percent of all yearly income, and one tithe in every three is to be given to the poor in addition to other gifts to the poor (Deut 14:22–29), there is no legal or civic structure in place to enforce the command. It is simply commanded by God, and each one should give generously and not be forced to do so. Paul says that each person should decide in his own heart how much to give. We are accountable to God not to men or the laws of men.

Another important Biblical aspect of helping the poor is allowing them to work for a living. We should never try to cheat the poor by not paying them the wages they were promised (Deut 24:14–15). We should also not hoard all the work. When we can give jobs to poor so they can work for a living, we should do so (Deut 24:19–22). The New Testament churches were so generous they probably had a problem with people who were perfectly capable of working and supporting themselves but did not. The Thessalonians apparently had that problem, so Paul gives them a rule that if someone does not work, they do not eat (2 Thes 3:6–15). In fact Paul even says the believers should not “associate” with other believers in the habit of eating at the table but not working. “Such people we command and urge in the Lord Jesus Christ to settle down and earn the food they eat.” The point of charity should always be to get someone who is capable of working a job. I have personally seen programs like this work very well. What doesn’t work very well is handing out money and other resources without encouraging those people or helping them to get a job. Once again, we would do well to follow the Biblical guidelines.

Having examined positive Biblical examples of giving, let’s look at some negative examples. The three synoptic gospels tell a story about a rich young man who came to Jesus and asked him, “What must I do to be saved?” (Matt 19:16–22; Luke 18:18–23; Mark 10:17–22). Jesus replies that he should keep the commandments. The young man says he has kept them since he was a boy. Jesus then replies that the man should give his possessions to the poor and follow Him. The young man walks away sadly, because he had great wealth. Once again, Jesus’ emphasis is not that the poor should be provided for, but that man can only serve one master, and it cannot be money. If money is in the place of God, it must be removed. One man who responded to Jesus’ call to do this was Zacchaeus (Luke 19:1–10). The tax collector decided to give half his possessions to the poor and pay back four times the amount he cheated out of anyone. Jesus proclaims that salvation had come to his house. But was it because Zacchaeus gave his money to the poor or because of the change in his heart?

One couple who gave money was still condemned by God, yet again showing that God is concerned with the heart and not the action of giving itself. I can only think of two examples in the entire New Testament of God directly killing someone. One is King Herod, whom God struck down for committing the sin of Moses by publicly taking the place of God (Acts 12:21–23). The other example is a couple named Ananias and Sapphira (Acts 5:1–11). Ananias and Sapphira sold their possessions and brought some of the money to give to charity, just like Zacchaeus, but the result was very different: God struck both of them dead. Why? Peter accuses them of lying to God. The lie was that they claimed to have given everything they had, but kept back part of it instead. What the passage doesn’t say is why they lied, but we can make an intelligent guess. Most likely they lied in order to pretend that they had sacrificed more than they did. Many people were doing what Ananias and Sapphira had claimed to do—that is, giving everything they had. Perhaps Ananias and Sapphira were embarrassed that they didn’t want to give everything and wanted to save face. Perhaps they wanted to be praised by men for being so selfless without actually being so selfless. Whatever the reason, this episode serves as a harsh warning to anyone thinking of giving money away for the wrong reasons. Of all the sins committed by the members of the early church, only this one brought the penalty of instant death.

The Pharisees also gave money for the wrong reasons. They knew the law required a ten percent tithe, and they gave it. But Jesus was not impressed. “Woe to you Pharisees,” he said. They gave their tithe but neglected “justice and the love of God.” They “should have practiced the latter without leaving the former undone” (Luke 11:42). It seems clear that giving is expected, but far more important is the motivation to do the right thing and to love God, not just follow the letter of the law.

The most disturbing negative example of giving is Judas Iscariot (John 12:1–8, 13:1–2; Mark 14:1–11; Matt 26:6–16). A woman came to Jesus with a jar of expensive perfume and anointed Jesus’ feet with it. In each of the three versions of the story, someone who was there objected that the perfume was too expensive to waste and should have been sold and the money given to the poor. Jesus rebukes them. The synoptic versions of the story do not say who specifically objected. But both say immediately afterwards that Judas Iscariot betrays Jesus to the Pharisees. John’s version of the story is far more specific. John says that Judas was the one who objected, and gives the reason why. “He did not say this because he cared about the poor but because he was a thief; as keeper of the money bag, he used to help himself to what was put into it” (John 12:6). John then relates several things that happen next, but when he gets to the Last Supper he mentions that Judas had already decided to betray Jesus before the Supper took place.

Many people advance the theory that Judas was a Zealot, a member of a movement that sought to overthrow the Roman occupation and restore Israel to its former glory as a sovereign nation. According to this theory, Judas betrayed Jesus to force Jesus to begin the revolution. He believed Jesus was the Messiah, but had grown impatient with Him because he believed the Messiah was intended to establish an earthly, Jewish kingdom. Judas reasoned that Jesus would be forced to begin the open revolt if he was about to be killed. This is all speculation, but what the Bible does say for certain is that Judas Iscariot pretended to care for the poor but really only wanted more money in the money bag, of which he was the keeper and used to stealing money out of it for himself.

A simpler possibility than the Zealot theory is that Judas was a social justice advocate. The Zealot theory has the appeal of calculation and conspiracy, but Judas may have made a more human mistake. He had seen what Jesus could do, such as healing the sick and feeding the five thousand, and was convinced those things were Jesus’ real ministry and purpose for being on earth. Jesus’ rebuke for caring, or pretending to care, about the poor was the last straw. Jesus had given so much to the poor, but as soon as Judas wanted to give a measly amount of money to the poor instead of literally pouring it down the drain (as he saw it), Jesus came down on him. Judas Iscariot believed in social justice, and when Jesus failed to live up to his standards and even rebuked Judas for his conflicted concern about the poor, Judas betrayed Him to get revenge and cover up his own sin. Again, this is speculation.

What is not speculation is this: Point by point social justice is a rejection of virtually every Biblical teaching on charitable giving. The Bible says we should make sure the poor can work for a living; social justice says we should make sure the poor aren’t poor without reference to work. The Bible says the poor will always be with us; social justice wages a war on poverty that supposedly can be won. The Bible says giving should be cheerful and not under compulsion; social justice teaches that we should rob the rich forcefully through taxation. The Bible teaches that the greatness of a gift is measured by the motivations of the heart; social justice teaches that the greatness of a gift is measured in dollars. The Bible teaches that we should give to gain treasure in heaven for ourselves; social justice teaches that we should give for someone else’s earthly gain. Charity is a gift to God; social justice is a gift to man. The Bible has an eternal, spiritual standard; social justice has a temporal, material standard. The Bible teaches it is more blessed to give than to receive; social justice teaches it is more blessed to receive than to give. Last but not least, the Bible teaches that Christ’s redemptive acts, both at the cross and the second-coming, are necessary and sufficient for the redemption of creation in heaven; social justice teaches that some future political construct may be necessary and sufficient for heaven to exist on earth. There are of course some who would disagree with that, but I believe social justice at the very least teaches we should place our hope for some earthly salvation from the Curse and evil inherent in a fallen world in a social and economic system. This is at best naïve and at worst blasphemous. Christ is our Savior and Him alone. There is nothing, least of all some political or social construct, which can save us from the consequences of living in a sinful and fallen world but Christ. Anyone who claims otherwise is a liar. Christ is Love, Christ is Justice and there can be no other. What we can do, though, is build a workable, stable system which accepts the consequences of living in a fallen world while encouraging each of us to make choices worthy of heaven. I suggest we follow the Bible’s model of Charity. I hesitate to say this, but if Satan himself devised a plan to undermine and destroy Biblical Charity, he couldn’t do much better than social justice. It is a wolf in sheep’s clothing; a devil disguised as an angel of light.