One Weird Trick to Help the Poor

It's hard to find a spot on the earth today where governments are not trying to "redistribute" income or wealth. One of the intentions of this effort is to help the poor, whether the poor are defined as the "proletariat" or as the indigent, jobless, or disabled. The programs of "redistribution" have been going on for decades; far from being new or untried, they are the norm across much of the world, and have been for the last half-century (in some places, even longer). What we have found, in all this time, is that in spite of diligent redistribution (and even, in some cases, coercive, centralized control of economic outcomes), there continue to be poor people, and many of them at any given time are in grave distress.

In fact, all attempts to rigidly control and direct economic outcomes create economic problems. In centralized socialist economies the problems include generalized poverty, the restriction of opportunity to political patronage, shortages of necessities, and widespread corruption. In less-centralized and freer economies, the problems range from high unemployment to inflation, erosion of household wealth, and public debt crises.

After many years, we have learned what happens when we seek to "redistribute" income or wealth. The goal of "redistribution" becomes more important than actually helping the poor. The abstract idea of removing income or wealth from some and transferring it to others trumps everything else. Seeking to "redistribute" income or wealth is not, in fact, a very good method of helping the poor; it is better characterized as a method of wielding power and seeking to control outcomes.

Presuming to move around the earnings and assets of other people in this way is not based on any biblical principle. In fact, I believe it has become critical—for Christians, in particular—to acknowledge that God has not commissioned us to stand in this relation to each other. There is no basis in any scriptural concept for the idea of coercing "redistribution" among our fellow men. Instead, scripture is clear that we are not to identify our fellow men as the source of our problems, either individually or collectively.

When Paul says in Ephesians 6:12 that "our struggle is not against flesh and blood" (NIV), his meaning applies to rich people as much as it does to anyone else. None of God's promises to us is contingent on the performance of other humans. In God's reality, the "rich" are not an obstacle against whom we have to struggle. Like our parents, bosses, and spouses, the rich are just other people. There is no theoretical condition in which their existence is somehow an evil to be overcome or an antithesis to be resolved. Indeed, there is no theoretical system at all governing our moral relation to our fellows; there is only God, His personal instruction, and the spiritual conscience of the individual. Ideological views on this matter are extra-biblical; every moral compulsion we are under is a personal one between each of us and God.

When Paul gave his instruction to the Philippians—"in humility value others above yourselves" (2:3)—the admonition covered our orientation toward the rich as well as the poor. We are not excused from valuing above ourselves those who are richer than we are. If we take a cavalier attitude toward their earnings, rewards, and belongings, we are as wrong as if we were to take such an attitude toward the poor.

When Jesus said on the Mount of Olives "judge not, or you too will be judged" (Mt. 7:1), he did not add an exception authorizing us to judge rich people. However we interpret Jesus' words to the wealthy young ruler in Luke 18—e.g., "Sell everything you have and give it to the poor"—we cannot make scripture tell us to judge the young man, or execute Jesus' prescription as an act of state against him. Jesus, who restored life and performed miracles to feed crowds, did not need the young ruler's money. His concern was for the young ruler's soul.

Helping the poor is something God has actually told us how to do, and there is no instance in the Bible in which it involves "redistributing" other people's income or wealth. This doesn't mean that it can't involve public assistance provided from our taxes. But if the pretext for the expenditure is a scheme of "redistribution," then our purpose is not pleasing to God. "Redistribution" is an abstract goal, focused on numbers rather than people, and based on an invidious and theoretical dissatisfaction with material conditions. "Helping the poor," by contrast, is focused on the people involved, and is a goal that can only be satisfied through personal attention and observation.

It is hard to think of any example in the New Testament that justifies treating the people around us as anonymous "third parties" differentiated by income levels. Indeed, the life of Jesus and the adventures of the Apostles preclude any idea of seeing our neighbors in a systematic, impersonal light. Jesus told us what it means to love our neighbor in the parable of the Good Samaritan (Lk. 10:25-37). The Samaritan gave direct succor to the victim of a roadside robbery, and as numerous Bible teachers have pointed out, he also went on his way and attended to his own affairs. He gave time and resources to help a fellow man in distress, but his condition did not change, nor did it need to. In God's economy, giving is an expression of bounty, not a form of expiation or apology, or a search for sort of socioeconomic homeostasis.

Our ability to collect data on each other has not made us wiser than the God who created us. The basic moral relation of the universe is still between the individual and God. In that relationship, each of us is the sinner, and there is no other human in the room—not even a rich person who isn't giving enough to the poor. When God appoints us to help the poor, He knows far better than we do what other people could be giving. The reason He's talking to us is that He wants us to reach for our wallets and schedule our time. That's the one weird trick that God has ordained to make a difference—in helping the poor, and in demonstrating our own trust, obedience, and compassion.