Calvin and Chrysostom on the blasphemous idea of ‘the undeserving poor’

From John Calvin, to Marilynne Robinson, to Martin Marty, to here, this is the theologian and reformer on what we owe to all the poor:

The Lord commands us to “do good to all men,” universally, a great part of whom, estimated according to their own merits, are very undeserving; but here the Scripture assists us with an excellent rule, when it inculcates that we must not regard the intrinsic merit of men, but must consider the images of God in them, to which we owe all possible honor and love.

Calvin never earned the nickname “golden tongue,” but he gets his point across there: the obligation to do good is universal and cannot be “estimated according to their own merits.”

Now for a bit of the old golden tongue himself, which I’ve posted before, and will likely keep posting until it seems that even mega-church pastors from Orange County understand.

This is from John Chrysostom’s 21st homily on 1 Corinthians:

It is foolishness and a public madness to fill the cupboards with clothing and allow men who are created in God’s image and likeness to stand naked and trembling with cold, so that they can hardly hold themselves upright.

Yes, you say, he is cheating and he is only pretending to be weak and trembling. What! Do you not fear that lightning from Heaven will fall on you for this word? Indeed, forgive me, but I almost burst from anger.

Only see, you are large and fat, you hold drinking parties until late at night, and sleep in a warm, soft bed. And do you not think of how you must give an account of your misuse of the gifts of God?

… On the other hand, you question very closely the poor and the miserable, who are scarcely better off in this respect than the dead: and you do not fear the dreadful and the terrible judgment seat of Christ. If the beggar lies, he lies from necessity, because your hardheartedness and merciless inhumanity force him to such cheating. … If we would give our alms gladly and willingly, the poor would never have fallen to such depths.

… But for him, who prays and calls on God, and beseeches you humbly and modestly, to him you will vouchsafe neither an answer or a glance, but at the most, you will give him a reproach and say: “Why does such a one have to live and breathe and see the light of the sun?” And while God says to you “Give alms and I will give thee the Kingdom of Heaven,” you hear it not.

… Indeed, for your charioteers in the circus, you are ready to sacrifice your own children, and for your actors you would deliver up your own soul, but for the hungering Christ, the smallest piece of money is too large for you to give. And if you do sacrifice a penny for once, it is as if you were giving away your whole property. Truly, I am ashamed when I see rich people riding about on horses decorated with gold and with servants clad in gold coming along behind them. They have silver beds and multitudes of other luxuries. But, if they have to give something to a poor man, suddenly they themselves are the poorest of the poor!


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  • Ol’ Bill Shakespeare did a pretty good job too:

    HAMLET: Good my lord, will you see the players well bestowed? Do you hear, let them be well used; for they are the abstract and brief chronicles of the time: after your death you were better have a bad epitaph than their ill report while you live.

    POLONIUS: My lord, I will use them according to their desert.

    HAMLET: God’s bodykins, man, much better: use every man after his desert, and who should ‘scape whipping? Use them after your own honour and dignity: the less they deserve, the more merit is in your bounty. Take them in.

  • Rupaul

    Thank you, especially for the Chrysostom quote. This is something I’m going to print out and show my son. We had the experience while traveling recently of meeting a street person who convinced us that she needed (rather large) taxi fare. I was somewhat suspicious. The shopkeeper of a store nearby told me that she stood there and told the same story to people all day. I was not sure what lesson to draw from this. Now I know. Even though she lied to us, would I want anyone I cared for to be in her situation for a minute?

  • veejayem

    To quote from one of my favourite “switch off your brain and break out the popcorn” films, John Chrysostom was self-evidently “one mean mu-mu- uh, servant of God”.

  • Helena

    What! Do you not fear that lightning from Heaven will fall on you for this word? Indeed, forgive me, but I almost burst from anger.”

    Johannes Historinicus would be more like it. But Libanius wasn’t much better that way.

  • Robyrt

    You know you’re on the wrong side of a theological question when John Calvin is arguing for mercy and charity and you aren’t. :-P

  • I agree wholeheartedly in terms of sentiment, best intentions, sincerity and so on. I think that it is important not to stop there, however. Sentiment, intentions, sincerity, authenticity, meaning well– we must go beyond these to question our own actions. 

    My contribution to this discussion is to bring up Hegel’s notion of the Beautiful Soul. I will quote a small excerpt from an article titled ‘Beautiful Soul Syndrome’ by Timothy Morton which I read recently and is a top Google result for the term. 

    “Hegel held that philosophy wasn’t just about ideas, it was about attitudes towards ideas. These attitudes were kind of as yet unthought ideas, ideas that hadn’t yet been fully realized consciously. If, as Donald Rumsfeld has claimed, there are known knowns, known unknowns, and unknown unknowns, there are also, as Zizek adds, unknown knowns—things that we know, but we don’t know that we know them: the unconscious, if you are going to be psychoanalytic. So once you realize what your attitude towards an idea is, that attitude itself becomes an idea, towards which you have yet another attitude which you’ll need to figure out—and so on in a dialectical progression that Hegel calls the phenomenology of spirit. Philosophy,therefore, is the history of philosophy, and history is inextricable from philosophy. […] 

    “[…] an attitude that maintains its grip precisely to the extent that it hasn’t been fully thought, consciously. This is the attitude I am calling Beautiful Soul Syndrome […]

    “Hegelianism claims that ideas also come bundled with attitudes, attitudes that may even be encoded into the ideas themselves, like operating software, so that the idea is unthinkable as such unless you also plug in some kind of attitude towards it. Like a vanishing point in a perspective picture, ideas select for certain ways of being understood. This is a strange feature of ideas, which some call ideology. Ideology is not a well understood term, because we think it means belief, which we think means an idea you are holding onto tightly—these two assumptions are themselves ideological, unfortunately, and obscure what ideology actually is.The horrid thing about ideas, says ideology theory, is that they come bundled with attitudes, as Hegel claims, so that the attitude is as it were an automated feature of the idea—it just kind of pops up when you have it. In other words, the attitude isn’t a subjective state that is somehow independent of the idea you’re thinking. That’s why attitudes are hard to get rid of: they’re hardwired into “that” side of reality, rather than “this”one. […]”

    How does any of this apply to your excerpt by John Chrysostom? Let me first give the example that Timothy Morton uses in his paper ‘Beautiful Soul Syndrome.’ He discusses the idea of boycotting and whether it is truly anti-consumerist or not. This might seem irrelevant, but a concrete example may be very helpful before examining what John Chrysostom wrote above in his 21st homily on 1 Corinthians.

    From Morton’s paper:

    “Romantic consumerism can go one step higher than the Kantian aesthetic purposelessness of window-shopping, when it decides to refrain from consumerism as such. This is the attitude of the boycotter, who emerges as a type in the proto-feminism of the Bluestocking circle in the1780s and 1790s, and which Percy and Mary Shelley, and many others,continued. The specific product boycotted was sugar, which was sentimentally described as the crystallized blood of slaves. By describing it thus, the boycotter turned the object of pleasure into an object of disgust.In order to have good taste you have to know how to feel appropriate disgust, how to turn your nose up at something. So the zero degree performance of taste would be spitting something disgusting out, or vomiting. So the height of good taste performativity is abstaining from sugar, and spice if you are one of the Shelleys, who held correctly that spice was a product of colonialism. (Their vegetarianism was thus not only anti-cruelty, but also anti-flavor.) 

    “The attitude of the boycotter is that she or he has exited consumerism, but one could just as easily claim that this attitude is itself a form of consumerism, as I’ve just argued. It’s a performance of a certain style of aesthetic judgment. So thinking that you’ve exited consumerism might be the most quintessentially consumerist attitude of all. In large part this is because you see that the world of consumerism is an evil world. You,having exited this world, are good. Over there is the evil object, which you shun or seek to eliminate. Over here is the good subject, who feels good precisely insofar as she or he has separated from the evil world.

    “I am now describing Hegel’s beautiful soul, who claims precisely to have exited the evil world. Now the twist that Hegel applies here is so beautiful that’s it’s worth pausing over […] Hegel does not claim that the world may or may not be evil—he doesn’t claim that what is wrong with the beautiful soul is that it is prejudiced and rigid in its thinking. The world is not some object that we can have different opinions about. No: the problem is far subtler than that.The problem is that the gaze that constitutes the world as a thing “over there,” is evil as such. 

    “This is so brilliant that it’s worth repeating. Evil is not in the eye of the beholder. Evil is the eye of the beholder. Evil is the gaze that sees the world as an evil thing over yonder. […] Evil is the materialism that sees evil as a lump of nasty stuff over there that I should be hell bent on eliminating.”

    Now I hope it may be more apparent how John Chrysostom’s perspective is none other than Hegel’s beautiful soul, who sees evil over there as such (along with the necessary counterpart of innocent, naive victims who need a savior).

    Another author who has written about this is Robert Bly, in a chapter titled ‘The Naive Man’ in his book ‘Iron John.’ In it, he describes the naive man as a self-styled healer, doctor and savior of others.

    It is this naivete itself which is problematic. While the intentions, sentiment, sincerity, authenticity and so on are without question, it is the naive perception of evil as something “out there” that is problematic.

  • Like I keep saying, we help the deserving poor because they are good people. We help the undeserving poor because *we* are. 

  • Lonespark

    …I guess I don’t see why you need the first part, then, Ross.

    I categorically reject the notion of the underserving poor.  People are people.  They like and want and crave things and stuff.  They have ambitions and desires and virtues and flaws.  The idea that wealth affords you the luxury of imperfection, of simple humanity, is repellent and monstrous.

  • Anonymous-Sam

     I was about to say, what makes us so undeserving? Yes, there are deadbeats out there who’ve never lifted a finger to help themselves, but there are just as many who’ve beaten themselves bloody trying to pull themselves out of that well by their bootstraps. :P

  • Sgt. Pepper’s Bleeding Heart

    There are no undeserving poor. All anyone has to do to deserve life’s necessities is to be alive.


    I love John Chrysostom. He needs to be quoted more often. 

  • This reminds me of that interview with Rev. Tim LaHaye — you know, the one where when the interviewer asked why, as a biblical literalist, he hadn’t sold his fancy home and given the money to the poor. LaHaye insisted that his current lifestyle helped “advance the Gospel” more.
    And when the inteviewer tried to draw his attention back to the poor, LaHaye’s response was, “You know how much I pay in taxes?”
    St. John Chrysostom’s got your number, Reverend.

  • hapax

     All the poor are “undeserving”.

    Nobody deserves poverty. 

    (Even those who freely choose poverty as a spiritual discipline view it as a “gift”, not as a punishment that they have somehow *earned*.)

  • Sgt. Pepper’s Bleeding Heart

    I’ve never heard “deserving poor” as implying that it’s poverty that they deserve; rather than they deserve assistance.

  • hapax

     Oh, I wasn’t disagreeing with you there;  it’s merely that I hate that locution.

  • ohiolibrarian

    Can I be the only one here who when I saw “Calvin and  …” automatically filled in “Hobbes”?

    Well, I guess it’s philosophers all the way down.

  • Makabit

    Can I just say that, as a Jew, I resent having to appreciate Chrysostom’s writings on tzedakeh so much?


  • Jenny Islander

    I’ve read that in the hallowed days of Victorian England–you know, manly men, women performing femininity, children invisible unless well scrubbed and primed to entertain, all the dirt tucked away out of sight–the “deserving poor” were the people who were well off enough to always appear clean and neat, albeit shabby.  If you were so poor that you couldn’t wash, you were not welcome to the jars of jelly and bowls of soup the deserving poor received.  Citation needed, though.

  • Lori

      I was about to say, what makes us so undeserving? Yes, there are deadbeats out there who’ve never lifted a finger to help themselves, but there are just as many who’ve beaten themselves bloody trying to pull themselves out of that well by their bootstraps. :P  

    There are also plenty of rich people who are deadbeats and have never done anything to help themselves except cash the checks from the trust fund set up with the money some long-dead ancestor earned or stole.

    If we’re not going to talk about the undeserving rich (and we’re not) then we shouldn’t be talking about the undeserving poor either.

  • George Bernard Shaw parodied that aspect of Victoriana to great effect in “Pygmalion.” Alfie, Eliza Doolittle’s father, took enormous pride in his status as one of the undeserving poor, which freed him from the awful burden of being too proud to accept charity and too honest to forgo larceny. He was undone (sort of) in the end when Henry Higgins described him to an American philanthropist as “the most original moralist in Britain” and the philanthropist left him a sizeable bequest in his will. Consequently, Alfie was compelled by the awful scourge of Middle Class values to get cleaned up, marry his common law wife, and spend the rest of his life on the run from poorer relatives who suddenly crawled out of the woodwork to hit him up for charity.

  • In the Victorian era, if you were a woman, to be a member of the “deserving poor” you had to be judged sexually appropriate by the middle class. Middle and upper-class men visited prostitutes at a staggering rate in Victorian England. But it was the women who were vilified, not their clients. And the first question always asked of a poor woman was, what did she do sexually? 

    As for a poor man, if he was married (to a “respectable” woman) and did not drink, then he might be acceptable. If he wasn’t Irish.

  • Uh, I really would not want to be helped by someone who thought I didn’t “deserve” help, but that they were such a wonderful person to stoop to help undeserving me. I don’t know what I “deserve”, but I know I don’t like condescension, and I don’t like being used as a way for someone else to feel good about themselves.

    Who’s “we,” anyway? Well, it obviously excludes poor people. 

    You do not have the right to judge whether or not poor people “deserve” help simply because you have money and we do not.

  • We do indeed talk about the undeserving rich. Many do so – in just the way you have now! Calvin’s point is a perfect picture of divine grace – not to those who deserve it, but to those who need it.

  • I hope you will notice that Calvin did not say that we should help the undeserving poor because we are good and wonderful. I hope you noticed that he said that we should help them because they bear the very image of God, which is of great value.

  • Jen

    If we’re not going to talk about the undeserving rich (and we’re not)
    then we shouldn’t be talking about the undeserving poor either.

    Oh, but we *are* talking about the underserving rich – it’s just that the conversation is usually about how horrible it is to collect inheritance taxes – after all, whoever actually *earned* the money in the first place paid taxes on it then….  


  • Rupaul

    @facebook-603627982:disqus , I tried, but I can’t see how Morton’s criticism applies to the Chrysostom quote. Isn’t Chrysostom pointing *away* from applying a category to the poor? He doesn’t say “the poor need a savior”. He says, you can afford it, stop making excuses, and look at what part you played in their plight. (I’m not sure whether following your link to Morton is worthwhile; the “anti-flavor” snark applied to the Shelleys is silly, and the argument in that paragraph seems weak and rather third rate lit crit.) Hegel certainly was aiming at at a religious type that is found frequently among world-denying monks, etc. but Chrysostom gives no sign of this.
    I’ll look at Morton though if you come back here and strongly recommend it, though. I’m fond of “Ph. of Spirit”, and would enjoy reading applications of it beyond the usual “false consciousness” part. (I read the Beautiful Soul chapter last year sometime but it’s not very fresh on my mind).

  • Sgt. Pepper’s Bleeding Heart

    Uh, I really would not want to be helped by someone who thought I didn’t “deserve” help, but that they were such a wonderful person to stoop to help undeserving me. I don’t know what I “deserve”, but I know I don’t like condescension, and I don’t like being used as a way for someone else to feel good about themselves.

    When I was poor I was OK with being helped by whoever was prepared to pay the electricity bill, condescending or not. It was better when assistance came without social strings attached, but I’d take smug assistance over no assistance any day.

    My father, who was a wonderful man in many ways, was too proud to beg. My mother, on the other hand, was willing to sacrifice pride for school shoes. When we kids were old enough we helped her to look at herself in a way that regained her pride, largely by ditching the burden of middle class social expectations.

  • Joeydarwin

    We are all undeserving, that is the point.