I've heard this claim a lot lately, and it seems to me bizarre, particularly when it focuses on an example like the Good Samaritan. A friend actually told me recently that the Good Samaritan didn't rely on the government to take care of the man, appealing to that as if it were an argument against governments being involved in addressing matters of need or equity or safety. That seems to me to be making a virtue out of an unfortunate reality. We could easily say that, if additional troops or police were sent to patrol the road from Jerusalem to Jericho, to eliminate bandits and protect travelers, that would interfere with individual charity. But that doesn't seem to me to be a valid argument why, when we have the opportunity, we should not put systemic structures in place as a community that address underlying social problems. It is, as one blogger recently put it, the difference between charity and justice – between putting a band-aid on wounds vs. trying to prevent injuries.
Helping a victim is good. But isn't trying to avoid people becoming victims better still?
The truth is that Jesus didn't explicitly say anything about what his followers should vote for or try to accomplish by means of government. They lived in a dictatorship, and so unless they were to take up arms and violently take over (something that Jesus seems to have opposed and which has not consistently proven an effective means of social change in the past), then their options are to expect God to do something, or to live in such a way as to present a challenge to society. Jesus' followers in fact did both, although not always to equal extents. But it does not merely seem perverse to suggest that, because Jesus didn't say how Christians should use their influence in a democracy, therefore they shouldn't use it. It also seems hypocritical, when those who take such a stance when it comes to addressing poverty, employment, and access to health care, nevertheless are happy to use their vote to influence society in other ways and in other areas.
There have been several posts on other blogs that relate to this topic. One is James Martin's three variations on Jesus' parables, reflecting what they might have sounded like if some of his followers' stances today had been Jesus' own (HT Morgan Guyton). Here's one of them. Click through to read the others:
The Rich and Therefore Blessed Young Man1. As Jesus was setting out on a journey, a man ran up to him and knelt before him, and asked, “Good Teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?” 2. And Jesus said to him, “What have you done so far?” 3. And he said to Him, “Well I was born into a wealthy family, got into a good school in Galilee because my parents donated a few thousand talents, and have a high-paying job in the Roman treasury managing risk.” 4. Looking at him, Jesus felt a love for him, for the rich young man was blessed, and said to him, “One thing you lack: A bigger house in a gated community in Tiberias. Buy that and you'll be all set. And make sure you get a stone countertop for the kitchen. Those are really nice.” The disciples were amazed. 5. Peter asked him, “Lord, shouldn't he sell all his possessions and give it to the poor?” Jesus grew angry. “Get behind me, Satan! He has earned it!” Peter protested, “Lord,” he said, “Did this man not have an unjust advantage? What about those who are not born into wealthy families, or who do not have the benefit of a good education, or live in the poorer areas of Galilee, like Nazareth, your own home town?” 6. “Well,” said Jesus, “first of all, that's why I left Nazareth. There were too many poor people always asking for charity. They were as numerous as the stars in the sky, and they annoyed me. Second, once people start spending again, like this rich young man, the Galilean economy will inevitably grow, and eventually it will all trickle down to the poor. Blessed are those who are patient! But giving the money away, especially if he can't write it off, is a big fat waste.” The disciples' amazement knew no bounds. “But Lord, what about the Scriptures that tell us to care for the widow, for orphans, for the poor, for the sick, for the refugee? What about all the many passages about justice?” 7. “Those are metaphors,” said Jesus. “Don't take everything so literally.”
Also important on this topic is Fred Clark's post on what happens to widely-touted statistics about charitable giving when you remove giving to churches from the equation (also discussed by Hemant Mehta). See too Tim Suttle's piece on charitable giving among the poor, the rich, and the candidates.