Sunday, February 13, 2011

What Would Jesus Cut?

A few days ago I received an e-mail from the Christian leftist organization, Sojourners. The subject line asked "What Would Jesus Cut?" The body of the e-mail contained the following two paragraphs:

The biblical prophets make clear that a nation’s righteousness is ultimately determined not by its GNP or military might -- but by how it treats its most vulnerable people. Jesus says our love for him will be demonstrated by how we treat the “least of these.”

We can’t move backwards on programs proven to work: international aid targeted at empowering women; vaccines and bed nets combating deadly diseases; school lunch programs and early childhood education that give poor children the opportunity to thrive; tax credits that reward work and help stabilize families. These are dollars we can’t afford not to invest.
As I've noted before, we certainly are called to love our neighbor as ourselves and this love, when directed toward the poor and needy, must manifest itself by providing real material help to those who truly need it. I have also warned about treating as materially poor those who merely have less prosperity than others. I have also written many times about the need for using ethical means to achieve ethical ends. Good intentions are not enough.

We should keep these principles in mind when considering the above exhortation from Sojouners. They are correct when they say that societal righteousness is not measured by GDP or our military spending. Also one of the good works demonstrated by righteous people is charity to the poor. A fundamental problem with the rest of the statement, however, is its assumption that what "we" do must be done by the state. It is a large an not logically necessary leap from "We are called to be charitable to the poor," to "A righteous society will have an extensive welfare state."

In the first place, it is not clear at all that the programs mentioned above have been proven effective. There is a large literature documenting the ineffectiveness of foreign aid to produce sustainable development, which is the best way to reduce poverty in less developed nations. The link between domestic welfare programs and personal development is also tenuous.

Another problem with the message from Sojourners is the assumption that the money spent on these projects are "investments." In fact, they more resemble government consumption. Investment is the voluntary directing of saved income toward capital accumulation and the employment of that capital in its most productive use. Calling government spending funded by coercive taxation or monetary inflation "investment" is doing violence to language.

Forcing taxpayers to pay for such programs, even if worthwhile, likewise does violence to the citizenry. It is a violation of the Christian ethic of property and, hence, cannot be accepted as a truly Christian approach to ministering to the poor. If Christ wishes us to adhere to the ethics He has revealed to us in Scripture, perhaps Jesus would want us to cut a lot more government spending than Sojourners assumes.

A better solution would be for the church to be the church. Churches should fully fund their diaconate and charge them with earnestly ministering to the needs of the poor as they become aware. The diaconte should be pro-active and eager to minister. However, they should be wise in their ministration, so as not to promote the very problems they seek to alleviate. More importantly, the church should preach the Gospel to all, making disciples of all people. This two-pronged approach will minister to both the material poverty of the poor, and, more importantly, the spiritual poverty of those who do not know Him.

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