Preferential Option for the Poor

Russ Reno, in First Things:

That’s why the modern Catholic tradition of social ethics has consistently insisted that the needs of the poor must take priority. In Octogesima Adveniens (1971), an encyclical marking the eightieth anniversary of Leo XIII’s seminal treatment of modern social issues, Rerum Novarum, Paul VI evoked the fundamental importance of a transformative spirit of self-sacrificial love. “In teaching us charity,” he wrote, “the Gospel instructs us in the preferential respect due to the poor and the special situation they have in society: the most fortunate should renounce some of their rights so as to place their goods generously at the service of others.”

“Preferential respect” became the handier slogan “preferential option,” a formulation that first emerged from liberation theologies in South America but has percolated into a great deal of Catholic pronouncement on social ethics in recent decades. It captures a fundamental Christian imperative. When we think about politics and culture, our first question should be: “What are the needs of the poor?”…

Want to help the poor? By all means pay your taxes and give to agencies that provide social services. By all means volunteer in a soup kitchen or help build houses for those who can’t afford them. But you can do much more for the poor by getting married and remaining faithful to your spouse. Have the courage to use old-fashioned words such as chaste and honorable. Put on a tie. Turn off the trashy reality TV shows. Sit down to dinner every night with your family. Stop using expletives as exclamation marks. Go to church or synagogue.

In this and other ways, we can help restore the constraining forms of moral and social discipline that don’t bend to fit the desires of the powerful—forms that offer the poor the best, the most effective and most lasting, way out of poverty. That’s the truest preferential option—and truest form of respect—for the poor.

About Scot McKnight

Scot McKnight is a recognized authority on the New Testament, early Christianity, and the historical Jesus. McKnight, author of more than fifty books, is the Professor of New Testament at Northern Seminary in Lombard, IL.

  • Dan
  • Scott F

    A Tie? Really?! I don’t necessarily disagree with the rest of his list of normative social practices but suggesting that dressing like it is 1950 will help restore American culture and raise the poor will sure make me cast a more critical eye at Reno’s underlying thesis.

  • Jason Lee

    Wouldn’t wearing a tie accentuate the fact that some don’t have ties?

  • Paul Johnston

    Forget the tie metaphor. :) It is the tragic co-opting of the Christian message by LT advocates that is the concern. Where in scripture was “feeding” contexted as solely material? When were political solutions prioritized? How does one really nourish another, if moral and spiritual concerns aren’t also considered essential?

    The inescapable truth of the Gospels is that poverty=immorality=poverty, they are codependants. A guilty man will on occasion offer food or temporary respite. Only a moral man facilitates the needs of others until they are met.

  • SamB

    Dan at 1: Thanks for the link to the response. A very good response. I don’t know if any response is as severe as Jesus’. If that doesn’t change us, what will? Also I changed most when I befriended some homeless people. A lot of us did. We brought them into our community. All left but two. And I think we are slowly being drawn back to how we viewed them prior to getting to know them.

  • Richard

    @ 4

    I want to clarify my understanding of what you’re saying. Does, “The inescapable truth of the Gospels is that poverty=immorality=poverty, they are codependants” mean that poor people are poor because they’re immoral and “bad.”?

    If it does, is the opposite codependency true, that the wealthy and middle class are moral?

    If it doesn’t, what did you intend to communicate?

  • Paul Johnston

    Poverty is immorality, not the relative measure of material goods one possesses. Poverty is not the exclusive domain of the materially poor. Often their material poverty is no reflection on their behavior whatsoever. A man does not necessarily starve because he is immoral. Sometimes sin is involved, sometimes it isn’t.

    An immoral man, spiritually impoverished, irrespective of his material well being, will always allows another to starve when he has the means to rectify his brothers plight.

    There is no poverty in a moral world (heaven). No amount of money or material wealth, apart from morality, will irradicate poverty. In point of fact, it will likely increase it.

  • Dan S.

    It seems that one can agree that top priority is addressing the needs of the poor, and yet disagree with how those needs are addressed. One might also argue that supporting policies that superficially address the needs of the poor while simultaneously supporting that which keeps the cycle of poverty going is no real help at all.

    In short, both sides of the argument can agree on the goal, but have genuine (and well-intentioned) differences on the methodology used to achieve that goal.

  • Charis

    One does need to look at WHY someone is short of money and not enable irresponsibility and addiction. Please see Moonshine or the Kids?

  • Michael W. Kruse

    Not sure I’m ready to embrace all of Reno’s thesis but he is making some important points.

    It is ironic to hear liberationists and leftists talk about how Christians have surrendered to the materialism of neo-liberal economics. Yet they merely exchange the materialism of “homo economicus” for Marxian materialism, the dialectic of class conflict, preference for the poor. It is only about the haves and the have-nots. They see only the parts of Scripture that seem to support this. They have no theology of work, of production, or of what a justly ordered system would look like that would generate wealth and well-being. (Without creating wealth there is nothing with which to be generous.) Whoever has power and wealth is automatically evil, something clearly not in Scripture.

    Libertine behavior by those with power corrodes social institutions and it is the poor who are most vulnerable to the negative consequences of eroded structures. To that point I think Reno is right and it is about more than just material lack.

  • Randy Gabrielse


    Your labels of “liberationists and leftists” ring in my ears not as labels, but as epitaphs.

    Libertine behavior by those with power worries me, but I am in some ways even more worried by moral and Christian people with power who presume that they are entitled to a certain standard of living while the poor remain poor.

    Randy G.

  • Patrick

    Gleaning forced the “poor” person to work for the food. Considering our sinful natures, I think God was onto something there.

    This is one of my personal conundrums. Always give or use judgment?

    At our local rescue ministry, they have rules and are strict with them. On the other hand, if you act right, you will be fed and housed tonight.

    I think we have to use wisdom when giving myself. No doubt Christ desires for all His people to give freely.

  • JST

    Jesus was closer to Karl Marx than Ayn Rand or Adam Smith.

  • JohnM

    The most common proximate causes for ending up flat broke and homless in America? In my observation, in order of occurence:

    A. Substance abuse – perfectly legal alcohol as much as illegal drugs
    B. Inability/unwillingness to cooperate with or give back to other people – employers, relatives, authority figures etc.
    C. Mental illness
    D. Sometimes, plain bad luck – illness/disability, disaster, etc.

    Or some combination of the above.

    If you’ve read this far and you’re wondering – I was employed in a Salvation Army homless shelter. No formal study, just what I saw, and as I said, proximate causes.

  • Susan N.

    Dan (#1) – Thank you. Your words make me want to cry. I would encourage others commenting here to take the time to read Dan’s link.

    Isaiah 58: exactly…

    And this:

    To some who were confident of their own righteousness and looked down on everyone else, Jesus told this parable:

    “Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee stood by himself and prayed: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people—robbers, evildoers, adulterers—or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.’

    “But the tax collector stood at a distance. He would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, ‘God, have mercy on me, a sinner.’

    “I tell you that this man, rather than the other, went home justified before God. For all those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.” (Luke 18:9-14, NIV)

  • Michael W. Kruse

    Randy #15

    “Your labels of “liberationists and leftists” ring in my ears not as labels, but as epitaphs.”

    I’m sorry you hear them that way. I was intending to be denotative. The seminaries and much of the hierarchy of my denomination (PCUSA) are dominated by these perspectives. And I’m not intending to be hyperbolic … not using these a pejoratives against run-of-the-mill USA Democrats, but actual liberationists and leftists.

    Dan #1 offered a link to a response at his blog. He identifies himself as a liberation theology guy and one of the half-dozen resources he links to Marxist/Anarchy resources. You are right that I profoundly disagree with these camps but what labels would you have me use?

  • Michael W. Kruse

    Randy #15

    “… but I am in some ways even more worried by moral and Christian people with power who presume that they are entitled to a certain standard of living while the poor remain poor.”

    I couldn’t agree more. But that is not a production of the current economic mix of the world. That has been the constant struggle from before Jesus’ time and will be with us until he returns. None of that negates they need for social structures that produce sustainable human flourishing. Can we really not say both things at once?

    Just distribution isn’t ONLY about equalizing wealth. There are at least three variables on which justice can be measured:

    Equality – Everyone gets the same.
    Merit – Everyone gets what they produce.
    Need – Everyone gets what they do based on some calculus of need.

    If you go for perfect justice on any one of these, then you end up with radical injustice on the other two.

    What I’m rebuffing is simplistic moralist “preference for the poor” redistributionism. The poor are not so many cattle to be fed and clothed. They are human beings in God’s image and our mission should be that all the poor that can be made able to participate in work, exchange, and the creation of community abundance.

    Relief aid is often needed in times of crisis. But if rehabilitation and development are not in view, with relief-mindedness as the primary mode, then we dehumanize the very people we supposedly have a prefer.

  • Dan

    Hi JohnM (#14),

    Your comment is the sort that I found especially dangerous to those who are not actively journeying alongside of street-involved people because you look like your might know what you are talking about (based upon your experience) when, in fact, the research actually suggests very different causes for homelessness. I promise I won’t provide another link to my own self, but I delivered a lecture at a university here in Canada on this subject and you may find it to be of interest:

    Granted, the subject matter is a little different as I look at youth, not adults, but a good many of youth who experience homelessness turn into adults who continue to have that same experience.

    As for the comments of Michael W. Kruse (#10), well, “wealth” is only created when some choose to horde that which belongs to all.

    If you want to cut to the core of the differences between the vision of life together offered by the Christian Scriptures and the vision of life together offered by contemporary law and order, then the major point of division is the (idolatrous) notion of “private property.”

  • R Hampton

    Michael W. Kruse,

    If you are not familiar with the Roman Catholic Church’s concept of Social Justice, I suggest reading Pope Benedict XVI’s encyclical letter, “Caritas in Veritate”:

    58. The principle of subsidiarity must remain closely linked to the principle of solidarity and vice versa, since the former without the latter gives way to social privatism, while the latter without the former gives way to paternalist social assistance that is demeaning to those in need. This general rule must also be taken broadly into consideration when addressing issues concerning international development aid. Such aid, whatever the donors’ intentions, can sometimes lock people into a state of dependence and even foster situations of localized oppression and exploitation in the receiving country. Economic aid, in order to be true to its purpose, must not pursue secondary objectives. It must be distributed with the involvement not only of the governments of receiving countries, but also local economic agents and the bearers of culture within civil society, including local Churches. Aid programmes must increasingly acquire the characteristics of participation and completion from the grass roots. Indeed, the most valuable resources in countries receiving development aid are human resources: herein lies the real capital that needs to accumulate in order to guarantee a truly autonomous future for the poorest countries. It should also be remembered that, in the economic sphere, the principal form of assistance needed by developing countries is that of allowing and encouraging the gradual penetration of their products into international markets, thus making it possible for these countries to participate fully in international economic life. Too often in the past, aid has served to create only fringe markets for the products of these donor countries. This was often due to a lack of genuine demand for the products in question: it is therefore necessary to help such countries improve their products and adapt them more effectively to existing demand. Furthermore, there are those who fear the effects of competition through the importation of products — normally agricultural products — from economically poor countries. Nevertheless, it should be remembered that for such countries, the possibility of marketing their products is very often what guarantees their survival in both the short and long term. Just and equitable international trade in agricultural goods can be beneficial to everyone, both to suppliers and to customers. For this reason, not only is commercial orientation needed for production of this kind, but also the establishment of international trade regulations to support it and stronger financing for development in order to increase the productivity of these economies.

  • Michael W. Kruse

    #13 JST

    Back in the 80′s I read the “Communist Manifesto,” “Das Capital,” and most of Marx’s other major works. I studied him in depth for social theory classes. I’ve read Adam Smith’s “Theory of Moral Sentiments” and “The Wealth of Nations,” as well as reading countless articles and a few books about Smith. I’ve read about Rand but haven’t actually read her work (yet).

    Both Marx and Rand were complete materialist utopians, though Marx saw the journey moving through collectivism and Rand through radical individualism.

    Smith, on the other hand, while likely a deist, was in the center of the Scottish Enlightenment. Much of his ethics was based on explicit Christian morality. Despite the efforts of Rand followers and libertarians to use Smith’s metaphor of the “invisible hand” (used once in the Wealth of Nations and not related to markets) to give the market a quasi-deity status, Smith had a far more integrated view of humanity. The highest virtue for him was benevolence … empathy and love for others … but that is insufficient for building an economy.

    I wouldn’t include any of the three as theologians for the Christian faith, but Smith was by far closer to Jesus teaching than the other two.

  • Michael W. Kruse

    R Hampton #19

    Thanks for that. You will find sentiments in Centesimus Annus by John Paul II. You will also find much teaching about the importance of the poor. That is what I like about Catholic social teaching. It is so much more holistic, nuanced, and paradoxical than the ideologically aligned nonsense that passes as Christian ethics in too many Protestant circles.

  • Michael W. Kruse

    Dan #19

    Private property is explicitly and implicitly embraced all throughout Scripture. You can’t tell people not to steal if people have no ownership and no restitution can be made to “owners.” You can’t be generous if you don’t own anything to give.

    You are reading Marxist ideology back into Scripture, not from it.

  • RobS

    Maybe Russ is suggesting that when we become such a part of modern culture that we develop a poisonous attitude to “not care”… well, that is the point where we will not likely be able to help anyone that’s poor. If we step back to see more of what’s good and honorable in life, we might also consider the plight of the poor and then we’d take steps to help them be enabled and lifted out of poverty (or at least to a better sustained level).

    I’m just trying to interpret…

    But Jesus… a lot of what He seemed to do was enable the poor — I just realize He healed the most destitute (blind, crippled, lepers, etc) and that gave them (many for the first time ever in their life) a chance to enter society, be productive, know of His saving grace and amazing love, and hope for the future. A dose of those things for the poor are good.

    As pointed out, some poor just choose that path (the sluggard described in Proverbs) and spending a lot of time and effort with those people is tough.

  • Dan

    Michael (#22),

    You can steal if you try to claim for yourself what belongs to everybody or, more likely, what belongs to somebody who has greater need of it than you. You can also be generous when you choose to forgo that which is essential to you in order to sustain another person (a practice that happens more frequently amongst poor people than other classes).

    Anyway, I don’t expect to convince you on this point on a blog thread (and I am increasingly convinced that the ideology of “private property” really is the single greatest way in which contemporary Western Christianity is caught up with that which is death-dealing, so not many are convinced) but you may want to try rereading Scripture. I would also suggest the Gonzalez book called “Faith and Wealth.” You may find that the Church Fathers read the Scriptures very differently than you (regarding “private property”).

    (PS — I’m not so much a Marxist as a Christian and an anarchist, which are really two different ways of saying the same thing a lot of the time.)

  • Michael W. Kruse

    Dan #18

    Also, wealth is not created through hoarding. Wealth is created when people transform matter, energy and data from less useful forms to more useful forms. More wealth is created through trade. People mutually exchange something they have for something they value more creating a win-win wealth increasing transaction. Specialization of labor and technology dramatically increase productivity and trade.

    In pre-industrial times (and indeed still in some lesser-developed economies today) you had people like the man who tore down his barn to build bigger barns. In the 1st Century Palestinian context, that took grain off the market, making grain more expensive for everyone and especially for the landless poor. That is hoarding. People in modern market economies do not hoard. They put their money on deposit at the bank that is then used by businesses to grow their business, by people to finance houses, or for any number of uses. They buy financial securities, thus putting their resources to productive work, creating more wealth and jobs for themselves and others. People who hoard in modern economies … locking up resources and not putting them to productive uses … are destroying their own wealth-making potential and are looked upon as foolish in modern economies. Wealth is not created by hoarding. It is destroyed by it.

  • Susan N.

    I’m interested to know how this concept of hoarding might relate to supply and demand? Recently, the president approved the release of some of our emergency oil reserves in order to bring the price of gas down, at least in the immediate future. So when OPEC or the big oil corps mess around with limiting the supply, that is not in a way “hoarding” to drive up prices? This may be off-base, but this seemed similar to what is being discussed here.

  • Michael W. Kruse

    Dan #24

    “You can steal if you try to claim for yourself what belongs to everybody or, more likely, what belongs to somebody who has greater need of it than you. You can also be generous when you choose to forgo that which is essential to you in order to sustain another person (a practice that happens more frequently amongst poor people than other classes).”

    You could do all those things but that emphatically is not how the Bible portrays this. You are torturing what the Scripture says to make it confess your ideology.

    I have read Gonzalez. Got the book right here beside me on the shelf. He has some good stuff but he is not an economist or a historian, and when he speaks to the role of capitalism he does so not from his field of expertise.

    I have read the early church fathers. I’ve read Aquinas. I’ve read the Scholastics. The picture is far richer than you describe and the preponderance was certainly not in direction of the abolition of private property. The Early Church Fathers generally affirmed private property and assumed there would be differences in wealth but they were emphatic on the dangers of wealth and the obligation to use wealth in service of the community, and particularly the poor. This laid the seed for what became the Roman Catholic social teaching of private property with a social mortgage.

    Private property, and the ability to protect, it has been one of the most important developments in the rise of human flourishing that is unfolding in the world today. The challenge for much of human history has been the arbitrary appropriation of property by kings, strongmen, and governments. We have developed the institutions that now make that practice difficult and has empowered people to live out the God given role of stewardship of creation, given by God in Genesis. It is the lack of private property rights in emerging nations that leaves the poor with a tenuous hold on as much as ten trillion dollars in capital that is not employable because it is outside the formal economy. One of the single most important needs of the poor is property rights and institutions that respect them.

  • JohnM

    Dan #18 – What I described is a ground level view of common immediate causes that tend to put, and keep, individuals in a condition of homelessness vice a detailed academic explanation of whatever circumstances lie behind those immediate causes, and I stand by my comment.

    The very poor are neither always and entirely responsible for their own poverty nor always and only victims with no responsibility for their condition. I reject both oversimplifications.

    As for private property, what little the poor can claim as their own they too value.

  • Michael W. Kruse

    #26 Susan

    You are right. The OPEC cartel could withhold production to keep the price up … but its tricky.

    They have to make enough to cover their operations. So everyone drilling to the max would drive prices so low they would all suffer.

    However, if everyone withholds to drive prices higher, the higher the prices go, the harder it is to keep everyone in the cartel on board. Someone is going to be tempted to put their excess product on the market, and when they do, the whole thing comes undone.

    Furthermore, OPEC isn’t the only oil producer in the world. Should they get too greedy, the Russians, the Americans, or the Brazilians may step up their production in response. You really have to have something approaching a true monopoly to benefit from the hoarding scheme. True monopolies are very rare in a global market.

    My understanding is the prices have been rising due to disruption of production in Libya and fears of short-term shortages due to other possible disruptions. The release is Obama’s short-term patch to ease the fears of oil investors over the supply and keep prices from spiking.

  • Diane


    I may misunderstand you, but my sense is that when the Bible on economics happens to disagree with the gospel according to Michael Kruse :), we must dismiss Biblical economics as anachronistic, as in the example of the Sermon on the Mount–that is based on an ancient, “zero-sum” economy that no longer exists–therefore–ignore what Jesus says there. On the other hand, we (Ie, Michael Kruse) like private property, so anything the Bible has to say in approval of that validates hanging onto private property. Marxists “read backwards” from their ideology–you, of course, don’t. Is this what you are saying? Does the Bible have to agree with your notion of what makes economic sense or do you have to agree with the Bible whether it makes economic sense to you or not? Who is torturing who? Who is in charge here? :)

  • Tom

    “Throughout history, most kings who got very rich did so because their people got very poor. King Jesus became poor so that we might become rich” Leonard Sweet
    I think much of the problem is caused by things getting more and more unbalanced. The change for 10% to 20% of wealth in the U.S. being held by the top 1% is our version of building bigger barns. It means that the poor and middle fight over the smaller pool of leftovers. Once people gather a large pool of money, it is too easy to infuence the system to make the pool larger and even pass it on to family members to build on. After a while, things get out of wack (a technical condition meaning the it ain’t right)
    The link below is worth looking at.

  • Michael W. Kruse

    Diane #30

    I think I recall from other conversations that you believe women should exercise full-leadership roles alongside men and that slavery should be abolished. I presume you do not believe in a flat earth with a dome over it and you don’t believe in a literal six day creation. That is to say, you disagree with the Bible on these issues. Yet you insist on a literal unqualified reading of texts that deal with economic issues. Seems to me that when the Bible disagrees with the gospel according to Diane, we must dismiss the Bible as anachronistic, but when it agrees with Diane on economic issues that validates her views and says we must hold on to them. Economists “read backwards” into Scripture (but certainly not old earth scientists). Diane, of course, does not. Is this what you are saying? Does the Bible have to agree with your notion of what makes sense or do you have to agree with the Bible whether it makes economic sense to you or not? Who is torturing who? Who is in charge here? ;-)

    To develop Christian ethics concerning a topic like economics we have to constantly ask two questions.

    What does the Bible say about economics?
    What does the discipline of economics tell about economics?

    Does the Bible assume a zero-sum economic game? Yes. The Bible assumes a zero-sum game.
    Does economics affirm a zero-sum economic game? No. Just to give one data point, in 1750 we had a world economy of about $400 billion. Today we have an economy of $50 trillion. Clearly it is not a zero-sum game … or at the very minimum … the “sum” is well beyond anything the ancients dreamed of.

    “Does the Bible and the Early Church assume private property? Yes. The both explicitly and implicitly embrace private property.
    “Does economics affirm private property as a positive thing.? Yes. Studies across time and cultures show that as property rights become stable and predictable, human flourishing … at least in material terms … improves.

    (And let me add here that there are also things that the Bible corrects about economics. Human beings cannot be reduced to utility-calculating machines optimizing their wealth.)

    There is something called a ladder of abstraction in ethical reasoning. Think of “Love your neighbor” at the top of the ladder, “there shall be no poor among you” in the middle of the ladder, and “leave crops for gleaning” as being at the bottom of the ladder. Each proceeds from the one before it. Our economy has changed. We are no longer in that agricultural context. We respond by ascending the ladder to the imperatives that clearly do apply … “there shall be no poor among you” … and work the specifics back into our present context.

    The zero-sum game question is akin to questioning whether or not the world is flat with a dome over it. The ancients believed this. They were operating with limited knowledge and they applied general ethics to their context accordingly. To the degree that thinking the world is flat or that the world is a zero-sum game influenced their ethics, we must ascend the ladder and then redeploy into our context.

    With property rights, the Bible and the church clearly affirm them … not in perfect correlation with modern economies but with such similarity that the ideas largely overlap. Has something changed that says we need to ascend the ladder and redeploy in our context … to abolish private property? I say the answer is no.

    Dan is saying that A) the Bible and the early church opposed private property, B) in response to that teaching we should oppose it today, and C) experience teaches that private property is destructive.

    I’m insisting that “A” is not true and that “B” does not therefore follow. The challenge must be to show that property rights are harmful in ways unanticipated by earlier generations. ONLY then do we have something on a par with zero-sum game assumptions of the ancient world.

    What I’m suggesting Dan is doing is concluding (incorrectly, IMO) that private property is evil. He is then projecting the conviction back into Scripture and reading out of it a mandate against private property. I did not say that private property is above examination because Scripture affirms them. I said A) that private property is not condemned in Scripture (and you can’t condemn them on that basis now) and B) no evidence has been presented why we should condemn them, in fact the evidence is for their positive benefit.

    All that is to say that discernment is achieved by engaging Scripture, tradition, experience, and reason, in Christian community, surrendered to the Spirit.

  • Naum

    @Michael.W.Kruse wrote: Does the Bible and the Early Church assume private property? Yes. The both explicitly and implicitly embrace private property.

    Is not Acts 2:42-45 and Acts 4:32-37 a direct renunciation of private property?

    And is not the notion of “private property” at odds with all belonging to God, and humankind charged with being good stewards, treating creation with care and honor?

    I believe native Americans would have some peculiar notions about “private property” and the Western European conquest of such lands they held “in commons”. As well as the multitudes of unfortunate and misfortunate herded off lands, all across the globe and throughout history, that someone came in with a bigger stick, armed forces, letter of “the law”, etc.… and forced those living peaceably on the land off…

  • Tom

    Is the economy a zero sum gain? Not completely, but when too much wealth gets concentrated in one small class of people, the other classes tend to struggle more. Our economy durring the 50s and 60s was an aberration due to the wars earlier in the century. We had destroyed the industrial production of most of the world leaving us as the only game there was. This caused unpresidented growth and prosperity. As we are slipping more and more now, the wealthy are able to hold on and even prosper while the middle continues to sink. Not a zero sum gain but close in many ways.

  • Tom F.

    What makes me nervous about Reno’s proposal is the “option” for the poor (some sort of moral discipline) has often been used as less of “hand-up” out of poverty and more as way to justify a “hand’s off” approach because the problem is simply individuals who are poor don’t want to work hard enough (they lack moral discipline).

    That said, I think I probably don’t substantially disagree with Reno. I do disagree with the hard-right, radical individualism that exists within some parts of conservatism and libertarianism would put the responsibility for this moral discipline entirely on the back of the poor. It would insist on seeing human beings apart from the communities that nurture these moral disciplines (including economic ones).

    Perhaps most damning, this radical individualism would be blind to the way in which certain systemic ways of doing economics (both radical free market and totalitarian communism) are disruptive to the moral communities that nurture these moral disciplines. Without going into too much detail, it is not possible to promote a “one-size fits all approach” as both too much and too little government (local or federal) can lead to economic patterns which disrupt the communities that nurture the moral (which is also economical) development of the citizens that the larger nations and economies depend upon.

    We have to get past the dichotomy of poverty being either all individuals problems or all the governments problem, and we need to start seeing the moral communities that Reno hints at as the final way we evaluate either private economic action or public government policy. And I think Reno could have said more about looking at the ways in which government policy affects those moral communities.

    I apologize for the length!

  • Michael W. Kruse

    Naum #33

    Naum, all good questions. Here are my thoughts.

    The only places where we find something approaching the abolition of private property is the passages you mention. They stand out from everything else in the Bible.

    I’m no Greek scholar but I’m told that the verbs relating to economic actions in these passages are imperfect, not aorist, likely indicating that something other than a timeless transcendent practice was in view. The context is Pentecost. Thousands of people had come into Jerusalem for the Passover, likely bringing provisions for the Passover week. It was now weeks past that time. Some would have run out of provisions. From 2:44-45 and from 4:32-37 it is hard to determine what it exactly is meant by holding “everything in common.” Was EVERYTHING sold and put into a giant kitty? Or were people of such one accord that they weren’t worrying about economic concerns and when someone else had need they sold something off to raise the funds to help them?

    These passages are followed by Acts 5:1-11. Ananias and Sapphira lie about the proceeds from property they sold. The issue is not that they held some of the proceeds for themselves. Peter readily affirms that they had the right to keep part or all of it if they choose to:

    Acts 5:3-5
    3 “Ananias,” Peter asked, “why has Satan filled your heart to lie to the Holy Spirit and to keep back part of the proceeds of the land? 4 While it remained unsold, did it not remain your own? And after it was sold, were not the proceeds at your disposal? How is it that you have contrived this deed in your heart? You did not lie to us but to God!”

    They were trying to make it look like they gave more than they really did. I think Luke is making a stylized rhetorical statement about the movement of the Spirit in his comments about holding everything in common and Ananias and Sapphira are the antithesis. But the “held in common” notion clearly was not the abolition of private property.

    Furthermore, supposing everything was sold and put into a kitty. This is not abolition of private property. The kitty is the private property of a newly established communal living community who directs the management and distribution of the funds.

    Jesus does call some to abandon all possessions for the unique work of following him during his earthly ministry. But others, like Zacchaeus, return to their work … as a low life tax collector, no less. There is no call to abandon private property. Jesus affirms the Ten Commandments, which include not stealing or coveting what someone else OWNS.

    1 Cor 11:21-22

    21 For when the time comes to eat, each of you goes ahead with your own supper, and one goes hungry and another becomes drunk. 22 What! Do you not have homes to eat and drink in? Or do you show contempt for the church of God and humiliate those who have nothing?

    The assumption here is that people here have different financial status. There is rebuke for insensitivity but not for owning property.

    2 Corinthians 2:8 Paul shames the Corinthians into giving to the poor in Jerusalem by comparing them to the generous Macedonians. But the underlying assumption is the both communities have private property out of which they are being generous.

    1 Timothy 6:6-10 Talks of being content with what we have (i.e., what we OWN) and warns against unwarranted desires to get rich but he doesn’t call abolition of private property. He warns against the love of money but not money itself.

    If abolition of private property was in view that would have meant the immediate abolishment of slavery. That did not happen.

    All that is to say that whatever the two isolated passages related to Pentecost mean they were not about the abolition of private property.

    More in a moment …

  • Michael W. Kruse

    Naum #33

    “And is not the notion of “private property” at odds with all belonging to God, and humankind charged with being good stewards, treating creation with care and honor?”

    Just the opposite. Without ownership, there is no stewardship. If private ownership is at odds with belonging to God, then so is communal or governmental ownership.

    “Steward” is the word we use to translate the Greek oikonomos, household manager. At a large Roman villa you would have a vast estate with acres of agriculture, family, slaves and the core of you business enterprise. The paterfamilias, head of the household, selected a steward to manage the estate, particularly in his absence. The steward was his agent with all the power to manage the household, including making binding contracts as if he were the head of household.

    Let’s be very clear about this concept. The steward is not the ultimate owner of the property. He must answer to the paterfamilias. But that is just the point. He will be judged based on how well he “OWNED” the property in the absence of the paterfamilias. The steward is the surrogate owner of the property. If he is denied rights to the property, or property is arbitrarily taken from him by others, he is being denied his role as steward and his paterfamilias is disrespected in the process.

    Now, with that said, private property is never absolute. Within Christian ethics there is the call to generosity, willfully giving of your property. The aim is to raise morally responsible citizens who will manage their property well for themselves and for broader concerns. There are also legitimate claims that the community can assess against private property. The crucial issue is respect for the integrity of each person and their stewardship role (owning property and managing it) and pressing legitimate community claims through orderly and just processes. Yes, the big question is what constitutes the last part of the previous sentence but the notion that private property somehow means absolute ownership is a canard. (There may be a few libertarian fanatics who believe it is absolute (probably reading too much Rand) but I don’t know of any Christian ethicists who teach this.)

    I’ll also add that while individuals play the oikonomos there clearly seem to be subsidiary oikonomos roles played by communities, governments, and even humanity collectively. This is not a replacement for personal stewardship but it adds another layer to thinking about how the individual and community share the responsibility. The danger is in trying to make it all one or the other.

  • Michael W. Kruse


    There is no question about the abuse of the powerful and the imposition of their ways on others. That has been the way of the world and America has participated in that injustice as well.

    As to Native Americans, they were hardly the noble savages leaving peaceably on the land. Books like “1491″ highlight that Native American peoples were more technologically advanced, more urbanized (not simply living off the land), and less peaceful than has traditionally given credit. Pre-Columbian American history is a story of communities replacing one another, sometimes violently.

    As Jared Diamond and other researchers have noted, if past hunting and gathering communities were anything like ones encountered in recent decades, there was incredible violence. Much of it centered around protecting turf and men battling over “ownership” of spouses.

    Western colonization and destruction is not excusable. But what has emerged out the chaos of recent centuries is that clear stable property rights reduce violence and advance prosperity.

  • Susan N.

    Michael W. Kruse, I don’t disagree with you that private property ownership is not the root of all evil that some may believe. That is an oversimplification of the problem, imho, just as claiming that a person’s poverty can be rooted in their own general immorality. I found some truth in what JohnM shared in #14. Sadly, often those caught in the cycle of poverty can’t see their way out of it. “Learned helplessness” is for real. Economic assistance is more effective when given with accountability measures. This may even allow the recipient of aid to maintain some dignity and gain some sense of control over their circumstances?

    What I find most offensive about Reno’s article is the apparent “demonization” of the poor — the assumption that if these people were not so generally immoral (adultery, divorce, stealing, alcohol/drug addiction, violence), then their economic status would not be so dismal. To add insult to injury, Reno implies that we who own and manage our property well are clearly the moral superiors of the poor. If only…if only we would behave in a visibly upstanding manner and show the poor by example how to be good…problem (poverty) solved. To say that those who have learned (or grown up privileged) how to be successful, financially-speaking, are automatically morally superior to the poor is, imho, the height of arrogance. It is narrow-minded stereotypical thinking.

    I have known poverty. I have known, up close and personal, people who are caught indefinitely in the cycle of poverty. I know that what Russ Reno has said is a GROSS oversimplification, and his solution too is an insult to those of us who have been fortunate enough to escape and avoid poverty.

    Even poor people, believe it or not, have moral virtues. Different maybe from someone who has been blessed with the ability to become financially secure, a good productive citizen, however one wants to describe material prosperity.

    If we go and serve, get to know a few real people caught in poverty, I think many minds would be broadened on this issue. But JohnM has spoken some truth also. Sometimes, our efforts to help will either be rejected or manipulated. It is hard to handle these experiences without growing cold and hard-hearted and self-protective against the poor. That is where I admire Dan (#1). He has learned to apply wisdom and discernment alongside the impulse for compassion. Tough but tender-hearted.

    This is an area that presses urgently on my heart for a response. As I step out in faith to respond (whether it be here on JC in discussions or in face-to-face encounters with the poor), I am confronted with how much I have to learn and how far short my abilities fall. Lord, give us grace…