29 August 2006

No, a Christian doesn't have a duty to the poor

Well, not if that duty means what the left say it means.

In concluding this “mini-series” on the minimum wage (here, here, here, and here) I have, I believe, an obligation to explain myself as a Christian, given the concern for the poor that a Christian ought to have.  I have to explain how it is that I, a Christian, find myself coming out against minimum wage legislation despite claims that it will help the poor

Concern for the poor is to be found in both the Law and the Prophets.  The Law contains much instruction for Israelites about how to treat the poor.  (And no welfare system on earth comes close to the standard imposed by that Law.)  I don’t want to quote entire passages here so have a look, if you wish, at Deut. 15.7, 8; and Isaiah 3.14ff for examples of relevant texts.

But the question isn’t merely whether we have a duty to the poor, as if knowing only that would serve as an answer to the question of whether we should support minimum wage legislation.

The question is: Given a responsibility to care for the poor, who precisely has this obligation?  The Israelites, to whom this Law was given and to whom the Prophets spoke, had no central government such as we have.  And such government as existed was not a charitable institution, a means of achieving ‘social justice’.  Each individual Israelite had this duty.  And this duty could not have been fulfilled merely by paying his taxes.

That last point is important because there are those who would say that very few individuals possess the means for caring for the poor; no one person possesses that much wealth.  From this, they believe, it follows that resources must be pooled together and then distribution made.  And to that extent I agree.  But paying taxes in order to have those taxes (really, only a small part of them) distributed to the poor is not the same thing as pooling resources.

I find fault with (Christian) welfare statists because they actually support something that effectively circumvents the Law, rather than being justified by it.  The Law does not require that something be taken; it requires that something be given.  As Christians well know, the Law addresses itself to the human heart, not outward appearances and pragmatic results.  The Law requires generosity in the heart on the part of the ‘haves’ towards the ‘have-nots.’  The welfare state is not a state in which something is given; it is a state in which something is taken.  There is no generosity in the welfare state.  There are no ‘cheerful givers’ (2Cor. 9.7).  And there aren’t any cheerful receivers either.  (We really shouldn’t be surprised.  After all,  one need not be grateful for what one’s government tells him is his legal right.  That, no doubt, is why we rarely see a grateful welfare recipient.)  There are only net tax payers, and net tax receivers.

Clearly, I acknowledge a duty to the poor.  The question is whether this duty to the poor is properly administered by the State via the power to tax.  There are at least two reasons why a Christian should think not.  First, it does not accord with a Biblical view of the relation of the State to other elements if society.  Second, as I’ve already argued, when it comes to minimum wage, it just doesn’t work.

In the Scriptures, when the nation of Israel was founded by God in the desert, a separation of powers was also instituted.  Each tribe of the nation had its own leaders, the elders of the tribes, who also doubled as judges in questions of law.  The elders of one tribe did not interfere in the internal affairs of another tribe.  If there were legal matters too difficult for the ‘lower courts’ those elders submitted the cases to the priests.  And only the priests, specifically the descendants of Aaron, could perform sacerdotal rites in the Temple.  Twice in Israel’s history, a King thought he had the authority to do so; and twice a King found out just how wrong he was.  Priests, and only priests, perform sacerdotal offices; kings, and only kings, do the works of justice and national defense.

The mere fact that some duty exists within a society does not mean that any person or group of persons in that society can perform that duty.  It would be a pragmatic argument to say that God really doesn’t care who does ‘it’ as long as ‘it’ gets done.  But one could then say that God doesn’t care who offers a sacrifice as long as a sacrifice gets offered.  But Saul and Hezekiah found out differently.  Because you see God really does care: when He tells someone they have a duty, they, and no one else, are responsible to Him to perform that duty.  I don’t get out of my duty because you have taken it upon yourself to do it for me; and you’re in trouble for doing my job for me.  Any one who thinks God is a pragmatist isn’t paying attention to Scripture.  Pragmatism is a uniquely American philosophy; it is not Christian ethics.  The State can no more fulfill a man’s obligation to love his neighbor than it can fulfill his obligation to love his wife.  In fact, it’s even worse than that.  I don’t even have to love my neighbor.  All I have to do to fulfill my obligation, according to Christian statists, is pay my taxes and pay my employees a certain wage as specified by my government.

So there is no logical difficulty in my being a Christian and at the same time opposing, among other things, minimum wage legislation.  And I would maintain this even if minimum wage legislation worked.

Too many Christians, it seems to me, find it easier to engage in Christian emoting than in Christian thinking.  They seem to think that any course of action, no matter how silly, will just work because, I suppose, God will make it work.  Or, even if it doesn’t work, their silliness will be credited as a work of righteousness.

Christians have a duty to be not just innocent as doves, but also wise as serpents.  Saying, “But it’s to help the poor”  doesn’t say enough.  To say, “But it’s to help the poor” isn’t the same as saying that it accords with Christian principles of ethics.  Things don’t just work because we are doing them to help the poor.  Actions are not morally correct just because we take them to help the poor.  If not, we could just go round mugging rich people with impunity, since it’s ‘for the poor.’  What we do for the poor has to accord with the entirety of Christian ethics.  What we do for the poor also has to work.  When it is clear that it doesn’t work, or that it doesn’t accord with Christian ethics, we don’t have a license to continue.

Minimum wage legislation just doesn’t work.  For some reason, certain Christians either just don’t believe this or they want to believe that if it isn’t working then someone somewhere (probably some rich Republican cabal) is making it not work.  Too many Christians seem to believe that minimum wage legislation will work, or ought to work, merely because of the good intentions involved.  God will bless our stealing from the rich and giving the money to the poor because He wants us to care for the poor.

Once upon a time, an Isralite King name Saul thought that the mere fact that a sacrifice needed to offered justified his performing the service himself.  He was wrong.


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James Frank Solís
Former soldier (USA). Graduate-level educated. Married 26 years. Texas ex-patriate. Ruling elder in the Presbyterian Church in America.
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