Christmas Carol (Part II): Improve the Union Work Houses!

What to avoid feeling like Scrooge?

Recall all the tax money you paying to help the poor and you will feel generous, but be Scrooge.


When confronted with the demand for charity, Ebenezer Scrooge points out that his tax money goes to maintain government programs for the poor.

Dickens was so successful in showing the horrors of these workhouses and “poor laws” that we sometimes forget the good motives behind them. Good people wanted to help the poor, to encourage work over vagrancy, and so they passed laws and set up government charities.

The problem with a government charity is that it is hard for it to remain charitable. Since it is public money, there will be many rules attached to giving the money away, but rules get in the way of love. Often the poor man needs money now, not when the forms have been filled out and the paperwork processed. I can reach into my wallet for cash now, but a government agency must, by nature, be slow or fall prey to swindlers.

Charity is also personal. Many government social workers, in Dickens’ time and our own, have the highest motives. Evangelical Christians have always been drawn to such jobs and I know many good people in them. They serve the poor as they would serve Christ. Sadly, however, a government program soon ignores spiritual needs and focusses on material ones. It also tends to measure success in “large numbers” so merely feeding a woman, not getting to know her, becomes the measure of success.

And the more a man is paid to do the job of charity, the greater number of uncharitable scrooges will go to work for the government to make their fortune. This happens in churches, private schools, and charities too, but in most of those places the principles of religion stand in the way of open “job seeking.” No mainstream church or private charity gets a union, because nobody there is there for the mere job.

This is not to say that government charities have not place. When a man is hungry, he does not care about the motives of the person feeding him. Christian nations always have some level of social safety net and are always working to improve it. Government does “big” better than private charity and poverty, always relative to the wealth of a culture and so never subject to final defeat, is always a big problem.

Scrooges’ error when confronted with the demands of the benevolent gentlemen is that he begrudges the tax money and refuses to do more.

But no matter how much he is taxed and however well run the “workhouse” might be, government charity will never be enough for a Christian man.


It can provide basics, though it did not do even that in Dickens’ day, but it can never provide what Dickens calls  “common comforts” or “Christian cheer of mind and body.” They cannot because they are institutional and not personal. I do not begrudge families a welfare check, the elderly their Social Security, or the poor government subsidized medicine, but there is not Christian cheer in a check.

When I give gifts to my children, I do not just buy them gift cards, though I sometimes do, because there is nothing personal in it. A Christmas gift is not given to supply wants or needs, but to establish a relationship. One year my Dad gave me my grandfather’s tie rack for Christmas. This is an adult gift, a precious gift, and every day when I use it, that old piece of furniture provides me Christian cheer of mind and body.

Government should not give a man a bowl of flaming punch, but a Church can.

Unless I have nothing, private charity is necessary, because it is good for me. It is personal and it can be personalized to the recipient. I am glad I live in a culture when centuries of Christian teaching has constructed better laws, better union work houses, and more charitable ways of dealing with debt and disaster. My personal belief is that the government is at present too large and too wasteful, but the help that is given, and millions are helped, rejoices my soul.

And yet even if all the government left me was a dime, then at least a penny of it should go to private charity, because the Christian cheer of mind and body that would be provided is necessary. Oddly, as the giver I would be blessed! Nothing cheers me more than giving a gift to a person who does not demand or expect it. Often family cannot receive gifts for that reason, but many neighbors can! If the government has provided the basic wants, then I can provide the cheer. If the government has failed (as it often does), then I can help provided both by joining with other benevolent gentlemen at this festive time of year and helping.

The benevolent men in Dickens were right to wish the government programs that had grown cruel should be improved or abolished. They were even better when they went beyond mere charity to providing jollification for the poor. Practical men think a party unnecessary, but God knows it is needed.

My local Salvation Army does both as it did in Victorian times. Maybe we should give some coin to those benevolent officers today.

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