Should government coerce charity?

Should government coerce charity? January 2, 2013
Should government coerce charity?
David Castillo Dominici, FreeDigitalPhotos

When it comes to the question of social justice, there is more at play than the needs of the poor. Charity requires not only a recipient but also a giver, and that increases the issue’s moral complexity.

From the earliest days of the church, care for the poor was central. It’s there in the New Testament writings, in Christ’s own words even. It’s there in the Didache, which directs Christians to spend time with the lowly (3.9) and give their firstfruits to the poor (13.4). And great pastors and preachers like Basil the Great spoke often and forcefully on the matter.

“How many precepts you ignore, since your ears are plugged with avarice!” said Basil in one sermon, adding, “if we all took only what was necessary to satisfy our own needs, giving the rest to those who lack, no one would be rich, no one would be poor, and no one would be in need” (I Will Tear Down My Barns 6, 7).

For Basil, all we have is a gift from God. Any surplus is intended for those in need. We have the privilege and joy of giving it away. Unless, of course, we don’t. And we find a picture of this in the New Testament too.

Free to give

When Ananias and Sapphira lied about their gift to the church, the Apostle Peter asked, “While it remained [in your possession], was it not your own? And after it was sold, was it not in your own control?” (Acts 5.8)

There are perhaps many angles to explore with this story, but the one that seems to bear on this issue at hand is that Ananias and Sapphira were free to give their possessions. “[W]as it not in your own control?” Peter judged Ananias and Sapphira not for being stingy, but for lying. The gift was theirs, and they could determine what to give.

This introduces the first layer of complexity: What is the disposition of the giver? The surrender of our goods should be voluntary, not compulsory. Charity is only charity if it is willing.

Unfortunately, however, compulsion is almost always assumed in the public discussions around the topic of social justice. We jump from the moral imperative to give to the political expediency of a forced transfer, to the legal tactic of a compulsory program. That is not only a stretch, but betrays a misunderstanding of virtue.

Meaningless virtue

In Against Heresies Irenaeus spoke of “the ancient law of human liberty” and explained that “God made man a free [agent] from the beginning, possessing his own power, even as he does his own soul, to obey the behests of God voluntarily, and not by compulsion of God. For there is no coercion with God. . .” (4.37.1).

How else to you explain the prophets, the apostles, and Christ himself urging us toward virtue and away from vice? “[B]ecause,” said Irenaeus, “man is possessed of free will from the beginning, and God is possessed of free will, in whose likeness man was created, advice is always given to him to keep fast the good, which thing is done by means of obedience to God” (4.37.4).

Virtue hangs upon choice. If God made us good, rather than allow our moral effort, “it would come to pass, that [our] being good would be of no consequence, because [we] were so by nature rather than by will, and are possessors of good spontaneously, not by choice. . .” (4.37.6).

External compulsion

If synergia implies God and the individual working together, not God working on his own, how much less does it mean God and some third party taking the goods of the individual to give for him? Giving alms is indeed part of our sanctification, but as Chrysostom preached,

By alms-doing I do not mean that which is maintained by injustice, for this is not alms-doing, but savageness and inhumanity. What profits it to strip one man and clothe another? For we ought to begin the action with mercy, but this is inhumanity. If we give away everything that we have got from other people, it is no gain to us. (Homilies on the Gospel of John 73)

Here we have yet another layer of complexity. Even Basil — as harsh as he could be on the rich — recognized that taking a man’s possessions is wrong. It may in some sense be theft to hold onto that which should be given to the poor, but as Basil also acknowledged, “Is not the person who strips another of his clothing called a thief?” (I Will Tear Down My Barns 7).

Resolving the moral tension

There is a moral tension here that must be resolved by the voluntary activity of the individual. It cannot be compelled by the external coercion of others. If God does not coerce virtue, then neither do his people. To remedy one evil with another is self-defeating. It not only runs counter to the character of God, but also robs people of God’s intended gift for their salvation: the free participation in his work through charity.

Employing Basil and Chrysostom as proof texts for a political platform is a misuse. Rather they are like the prophets, apostles, and Christ himself in exhorting us to virtuous action. Unless we wish to exacerbate the problems we seek to solve, we must somehow find our way to a charity that disdains compulsion as much as avarice.

I’ve written once before about Basil the Great and social justice. The article provides some limited but helpful background on his personal story.

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  • scotmcknight

    Is Deuteronomy coercive?

    • Joel J. Miller

      Is Deuteronomy binding?

  • scotmcknight

    Joel, I’m not sure that gets us off the hook … the text clearly legislates charity for the poor. And Jesus’ statements about the poor often trade in imperatives too. Is that coercive?

    • Joel J. Miller

      Thanks for carrying this forward. I think the question about whether the Law is binding is important. Deuteronomy 15, which in part involves the cancelation of debts and generosity toward the poor, assumes application in the nation of Israel; the commandment speaks, for instance, of the land and foreigners (incidentally, the debt forgiveness only applied to Israelites, not the foreigners).

      I don’t believe that a law meant to govern the nation of Israel is binding on other nations. Further, how would we apply it? Are we going to cancel loans for college, cars, and homes if someone can’t pay them back in seven years? Also, how does such a reading affect other areas of contemporary legislation, including the treatment of currently noncriminal offenses, e.g., adultery, etc.?

      I’m 100 percent with you about the moral imperatives. Christ is pretty clear in Matthew’s depiction of the Last Judgement. But ongoing validity of civil legislation is another matter. The value in sermons by those like Basil is that they stress to the point of pain those imperatives and presume the effective use of moral suasion (in the noneconomic sense of the term). And in the case of Basil it was effective. His congregation opened its coffers.

      I’m not sure exactly how this applies, but I also find Paul’s point in Galatians 3.24 to be interesting, that the law was a schoolmaster. The control was provisional and formative, not perpetual.

  • Honest to goodness question – why are the same Christians who vote on the basis of pro-life claims by politicians and lobby against same sex marriage and such always the ones who then want to claim that charity via government is wrong because it’s coercive? (And don’t get me wrong – I am pro-life and support marriage as between a man and woman.) Also, why is the assumption that taxes must be coercive? People vote all the time for politicians who say straight-out that they will raise taxes. In fact, areas which vote most consistently Democratic are also areas with the highest incomes. I think the question can just as fairly be why are so many people unwilling to chip in willingly to help each other out? Why is there a segment of the population which sees taxes as coercive rather than as a means to the ends of providing for what we all need?

    And for churches and church folks to complain about the coercive nature of taxes to provide social services is rather rich. Before food stamps, there were people in this country starving. Where was the church? Before social security, the majority of our elderly lived in poverty. Where was the church? The church pays no taxes and the money which it receives is tax exempt as well, so taxes cannot be used as an excuse. The church uses its money on itself. It is obsessed with bigger houses and cooler sound systems. On average only 2-3% of funds a church collects goes towards charity. Likewise, the average Christian keeps 97% of their income to themselves. If the church were doing the work of providing for those in need, then perhaps we wouldn’t be using the government to do so.

    If we are being coerced into providing for the needy, that’s an indictment of us – not a sign of a bad government. If the church could say, “we’re doing such a great job of making sure that everyone has what they need that these government programs are superfluous”, then we can make an argument about the coercive nature of taxes. But as it stands, this is an argument which any decent Christian ought to be downright ashamed to be making.

    • Joel J. Miller

      There’s a lot here to address. First, I’ll let pass the idea that I should somehow be ashamed for saying that virtue should be noncompulsory. Second, I’ll agree with you that Christians have not done enough to alleviate the plight of impoverished. That’s why Basil was preaching in the first place. But the mere fact of societal need does not necessitate (nor justify) a political response. As I said in my response to Scott, Basil was effective. I write about that here and think it’s an encouraging story.

      • “The mere fact of societal need does not necessitate (nor justify) a political response”. Really? We are a government of the people, by the people and for the people. It is entirely appropriate for us to decide to use the levers of government to address societal needs which when left unaddressed result in suffering, oppression and death. And it does always amaze me that the same people who believe that we as a nation will be held to account for falling away from God, condoning abortion, etc will turn around and argue that God’s concern regarding the needy doesn’t extend to our government’s care for the needy.

        Providing for the needs of the poor, infirm and powerless without any coercion is an ideal. To work towards that ideal, you promote what it would take to reach that ideal. Attacking the stop-gap measure currently in place to cover our failure to live up to that ideal isn’t helpful. I know that it’s probably not your intention, but this argument really amounts to “my right to be free from any coercion is more important than keeping people fed, housed, medicated, etc.” It’s to claim that your right to do as you see fit with your own money ought to take precidence over a child’s right to simply survive. And that is an argument which Christians ought to be ashamed to be associated with. Again, to the extent that taxation for charity can be considered coercive (many people willingly chose and desire the government to do this and so cannot be considered coerced), that is an indictment of our failure and nothing more.

  • 123

    I’m not sure there is a Christian argument that taxes = theft or that government social programs = charity. There are wholly secular libertarian ideologies that espouse these sorts of views, and some Christians espouse these views, but they are not necessarily Christian according to either the New Testament, Christian tradition, or the history of taxation, laws against theft, charity and government social programs in the Christian world (whether under Christian or non-Christian governments). I think there’s a bit of a sleight of hand going on in these arguments that equates things that need not be equated (to give Christian sounding justifications for external political/economic/social beliefs.)

    The Gospels and Christian tradition never equate taxes with theft, for instance, and Our Lord does not ‘deepen’ and ‘expand’ the Commandment against stealing in the way he expands the Commandments against adultery and murder to include thoughts of lust and anger. No one seems to have argued in this way until quite recently, and even if someone has it is far from the mainstream of Christian consensus. That is, Ananias and Sapphira have nothing to tell us about taxation and government social programs, they have a lot to tell us about giving to the church.

    I’m also not sure why some refuse to see that charity and social policies/programs by the government are different, though sometimes overlapping categories. For instance, giving to a food shelf or soup kitchen is different than SNAP (“food stamps”), for instance – though governments can also provide support through food shelves and soup kitchens, too. In addition, government may have an interest in providing affordable housing or public transportation or public health/medical services for its citizens, but this is different than a person or a church or a community group opening their homes or hostels, giving people rides, or operating clinics and hospitals for the same ends.

  • I want to chime in on the Deuteronomy question, as it reveals a key distinction. As St. Paul makes so abundantly clear in numerous passages, we are NOT bound by the law. The Torah was given as the civil code of a society. It is much more than just moral law. Tithing was non-optional, but then there were no other “taxes.” Tithing was the main tax by which the priests and their families were supported. Alms giving was not optional either, just like for any good Muslim who hopes to go to heaven, giving alms during Ramadan isn’t really optional either, along with tithing. There is NO need for a Christian to feel bound to ANY of the Mosaic law. Did not Paul say “all things are permissible but not all things are profitable” Paul is not concerned about perpetuating a Jewish civil code. He is about trying to integrate a huge gentile conversion with the existing Jewish Christians. As such, the gentiles needed to learn to tithe for the sake of the salvation of their souls, ie-liberty from bondage to possessions, and the helping of their brethren. The extreme alms giving we see in early Acts was nothing more than an out pouring of mutual support because all these converts probably lost their jobs and places in society and they sold their possessions as an act of love. So no, I don’t believe a case can be made that the Mosaic law binds us today, or is even really relevant. The fact is, that Christ and His Church have called to a much higher standard, as with all things in the Mosais law, of which tithing and alms are a small part. Along with paying taxes to our government, we need to support our local church, and give to the poor and needy-because we want to. We are not to be like the Mormons where the Bishop keeps a spreadsheet with everyone in his Parish’s giving records and salary records so he can make sure they are giving their full 10% We are to give sacrificially, from the heart, because we need to give for the sake of our souls. To the broader questions, governments cannot possible legislate Charity, like they can’t legislate forgiveness, or kindness, or any other good thing against which “there is no law” as Paul writes. Government does have a duty to take care its people, especially the most disenfranchised. The reason why our government does so much of this, is clearly because Christians (myself included) have failed miserable in providing for the poor. I think that one of the best idea that our government has ever had, is the tax breaks for alms giving. It was genius. It encourages giving by lowering the tax burden on the giver, and it providers for many NGO’s to exist that relieve govt. of much of its burden. Where would we be without United Way or the Red Cross….

  • Jeff Dobbins

    Excellent post, Joel! The scriptures clearly teach a moral compulsion to help the poor; however, it does not teach compulsion by the civil authority in forcing citizens to do so. Similarly, in places such as I Tim. 6, there are instructions to those who are rich in this world’s goods where the warning itself implies that it is not implicitly wrong to have such wealth. If having wealth was inherently sinful, then there would be no need for such teachings to “rich” Christians. The admonition in every case would simply be to surrender your goods and become poor.

  • 123

    It’s also worth noting that the Bible enjoining Christians to individually and ecclesially give to the poor does not prohibit Christians from supporting the government or others giving to the poor. So, great, the Bible doesn’t command government to care for the poor, must we then fight for the government not care for the poor? Have any of the tax cuts of the past 12 years resulted in a massive increase in private charity such that one can believe individuals and churches could take up the slack from a gutted social safety net? I don’t think so. And while the economy got an initial goose from tax cuts, the results of the financial crisis and Great Recession have left many worse of than before – not to mention the stagnation in wages for almost all Americans who don’t happen to be in financial services or founders of dot coms that didn’t explode in 2001. So, it’s not like tax cuts – sorry, cuts in government theft – actually helped people take care of themselves better. Perhaps we should also talk about the economic policies that undercut the stability and continuity of communities and families remaining local to care for each other.

    Perhaps we should look at corporate and elite rent-seeking and welfare before we start attacking the poor, sick, and powerless who don’t have the funds to support lobbyists (agents of rent seeking), ad campaigns, and the buying of politicians.

    • Joel J. Miller

      A few thoughts:

      (1) Neither does it mandate it, and there are legitimate reasons to think the government does a less-than-stellar job of helping the poor. For one, we’ve spent about $17 trillion since the Great Society in antipoverty measures and have achieved very little. The newest reports on citizens in poverty shows the rate is almost as high as it was in the 1960s. (As a comparable example, spending in the war on drugs has done nothing but skyrocket while use remains the same; we have no problem calling that a failure.) Meanwhile, the poverty rate had been going down before 1964 — since the 1950s — indicating that some of the early success of the war on poverty was likely owing to momentum from other positive, prior changes in the economy.

      (2) Liberals and conservatives give roughly the same to charity (with some qualifications). To say that tax cuts didn’t increase charitable giving is just to say that both liberals and conservatives are evidently selfish.

      (3) I’m not attacking anybody, and I don’t think that kind of language is remotely helpful. I raised in the piece above what I consider real moral problems with compulsory charity. We can argue about whether that’s a category error (e.g., taxes vs. charity), but the language I used was measured and in no way hostile, let alone to the poor. I highlight the centrality of helping the needy in the piece itself and link back to a previous piece on Basil which does the same.

      (4) While there are aspects of the book I’d reconsider today, I’ve taken aim at rent-seeking, corporate influence-buying, and the entire political racket in a 2006 title, Size Matters.

      Rather than see this conversation as a binary exchange, it would be useful to recognize that there are nuances here.

  • i’m confused–are taxes the government intends to use for charity coercive in a way that taxes for any other purpose are not?