Rights & responsibilities

In comments to the post below, Mark brings up this particular scripture passage as one of his favorites:

For even when we were with you, we gave you this rule: "If a man will not work, he shall not eat." (2 Thessalonians 3:10)

Mark suggests that this verse seems to him to rule out "welfare." I'm not sure why. Mark doesn't say, specifically, what he means by "welfare." Clearly he's not referring to assistance programs like unemployment insurance, since to be eligible for such assistance one must be willing to work.

So let's assume he's referring to the program most commonly meant by the umbrella term "welfare" — TANF (temporary aid to needy families), which replaced AFDC (aid to families with dependent children).

The recipients of these programs are single mothers and their children — the people whom the Bible refers to as "widows and orphans." The vast body of biblical teaching on widows and orphans — which commands both the king and the people to provide for their support — might seem to contradict Paul's rule in 2 Thess. 3:10. But keep in mind that Christian teaching has always held that the raising of children is work. Widows were not regarded as the "idle … busybodies" that Paul condemns in the next verse. They were regarded as people with a very important and difficult job that didn't pay very well, i.e. the care of their children. (See, for a recent example of this teaching, section 19 of John Paul 2's rich encyclical "On Human Work.)

It's worth noting that some of the staunchest opponents of gender neutral English translations of the Bible insist on reading this passage as gender neutral. Their translations (as the NIV above) have Paul saying "If a man …" yet they freely read this as "If a single mother …"

Here's the gender-neutral NRSV:

For even when we were with you we gave you this command: Anyone unwilling to work should not eat.

This passage entails a clear responsibility to work. With that responsibility comes the corresponding right to work. This is why unemployment — the idling of those willing, indeed desperate, to work — has long been regarded by Christian social teaching as among the most grievous economic injustices. (In Laborem exercens, mentioned above, John Paul 2 refers to the "scourge of unemployment" and says that it is "in all cases an evil.")

This connection between rights and responsibilities is an important aspect of Christian teaching, but the implications of this are often overlooked in America. Here we like to embrace the responsibility — clubbing the poor over the head with 2 Thess. 3:10 — while denying the right.

St. Paul's rule for the Thessalonians is often cited as though it were an argument for welfare repeal. It's not. It's an argument for full employment.

  • Marley

    Thanks for addressing this, Fred. I wanted to comment on that post, but where to begin???? How blithely the religious right dismisses people from their purview. It’s amazing how convenient Christianity can be in some people’s hands.

  • Willoughby

    Christianity is both weapon and armor in the hands of some people. It shields you from responsibility toward those who don’tshare your beliefs and provides you with a bludgeon to use against them. Honestly, if it weren’t for a few people like Fred, I would have given up hope for Christianity a long time ago.

  • folby

    I’d like to add my praise here too. I often cite Fred in arguments and discussions. Many thanks for providing a counter to the religious right.

  • Melis

    Using that argument against Welfare is like using the verse about the rod of correction to justify beating the crap out of your kids.
    What about the verses: The poor you will always have with you, and you can help them any time you want. Mark 14:7
    Do not seek revenge or bear a grudge against one of your people, but love your neighbor as yourself. Leviticus 19:18
    also recounted by Christ, see Mark 12:33b -to love your neighbor as yourself is more important than all burnt offerings and sacrifices
    Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world. James 1:27
    People who slough off the need to care for others make me angry. Thank you for acknowledging the hyposcrisy of our own irresponsibility in denying others rights.

  • james

    The other thing to note, of course, is that in a labour-intensive agricultural society there are almost always more than enough jobs to go around for everyone who is able-bodied, because (1) labour is usually the limiting resource and (2) plenty of work does not require any very exceptional skills. Thse who complain that “no man hath hired us” are sitting around in the bazaar, gossiping — and they still get their full pay for the little work they do do.
    There’s a great deal in the NT which can be used to ground the right to work, just as it also used to be used to ground the responsibility of those who are better off to support those less well off by their magnanimity and eleemosynary acts.

  • halle

    let’s note that Mark has no reply.

  • Ab_Normal

    Okay, it’s time for me to go home and go to bed — I read the quote from JP2 as “the scourge of employment” and thought, “Dang, I finally agree with the Pope about something!”

  • Kevin Carson

    That verse would also seem to rule out rent, interest, and profit on capital, as well as welfare.


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