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Charity: Biblical and Political

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Charity is defined as an “act of loving all men as brothers because they are sons of God.” This is a purely personal matter; an act voluntarily performed by one person for another; an act of faith in God and His commandments for governing our relationships with our fellow men. When we keep this concept in mind, it becomes a simple matter to distinguish between true charity and the spurious schemes that now masquerade under its name.

The original concept of charity as an expression of love, now appears to have been largely replaced by a concept of government-guaranteed security…. [But] how can charity — the love of a person for his fellow men — ever be connected with force and compulsion in any form? Are not these two concepts — the voluntary law of love of person for person, and the compulsory law of force of person against person — irreconcilable in all respects?

Over and over again Jesus emphasized this teaching. Always He spoke of what one does with his personal life, with the responsibilities which are the cost of his being a person. With love and understanding and example, He explained that there can be no escape from personal responsibility by taking refuge in customs and in laws and in a subserviency to the state. In fact, in His condemnation of the tradition or law of “corban,” Christ specifically stated that no person could use the law to relieve himself of the responsibility of caring for the aged and dependent members of his family. He said that this denial of responsibility was a rejection of God’s commandments, even though the excuse for denying such responsibility was “corban” — a dedicating of one’s resources to God. And since Jesus would not accept even this high purpose as sufficient excuse for rejecting personal responsibility for the maintenance and welfare of one’s kindred, how do you suppose He would react to our present-day mania for turning this responsibility over to the secular state? What does the future hold for a nation wherein parents have come to believe that the purpose of government is to relieve them of the responsibility for their children, and wherein the children in turn demand that government relieve them of the responsibility for their parents?

The Christian philosophy of freedom of choice and personal responsibility for one’s own actions was offered to men who were steeped in totalitarianism. It is not surprising that it was difficult for them to understand this concept…. But the parable of the talents teaches that equalitarianism is not a Christian concept. In truth, God has designed each person to be an individual; except in value before God and before the law, no person is identical or equal to any other person. And as for the references in the New Testament that allegedly advocate some equalization or common ownership of resources, they are always on a voluntary basis among persons who wish to participate. They are never advanced in the form of a commandment or a law. Compulsory collectivism, on the contrary, takes both responsibility and resources from the individual and places them in the secular state. This is a denial of the rights of the individual, as well as a denial of his duty, for then the individual ceases to be a person who must make account for his stewardship of the gifts granted by God. As a collectivized member of the state, man is held accountable to the state for his every thought or action, and so the collectivization has deprived him of his birthright as a personality accountable only to God….

The proponents of social control by the state collide as directly with the teachings of Christ as would two trains running toward each other upon the same track. Jesus was so uncompromising in his insistence that responsibility be placed upon the individual for both his personal life and for his attitude toward others that Jesus never suggested an institution of any kind that could take the place of such individual responsibility. Nor did He ever mention an institution or a power to which an individual could transfer such responsibility, either by acquiescence, force, or plunder ….

There is no Christianity in the concept that pressure groups, desiring material benefits, have the right to use the power of the state to take property from some individuals for the material gain of those who have the political power. That is plunder, and it is still plunder even if Robin Hood declares that he is robbing the rich to help the poor.

It is strange that even many of our churchmen should trust neither themselves nor others to do the right and the good thing about the need of the world. But we can see that they lack faith when churchmen themselves advocate these civil laws to take money away from people by force to give it to those who demand material benefits. This procedure may be a way to distribute money, but it is as far from being a spiritual experience as anything in this world could be.

We need new recognition of the power which lies within us. We need to know that the life of God is within us in far greater measure than we now believe. We turn despairingly to the state, which is the vainest of hopes, because we do not believe enough in either God or man. Let us lift up our hearts. For which one of us is it that will refuse his help in a case of real human need? You? I? Or is the finger to be pointed again at that nebulous scapegoat “someone else”?

I write as a minister, and I want to attest that through an experience of thirty years I have never seen a church member fail to respond to an authentic case of human need. And from those who could and did help when I have described such a case, I have invariably received expressions of gratitude that the opportunity was presented.

It is that faith which we need restored today. If we will only believe that such is the spirit of man we will not only be believing more in God, but we shall receive a response from the people of God that no one has yet dreamed of. We act as though the opposite were true — that men are not really like God and are unable and reluctant to be moved by Him.

If we need laws to make people treat men of other faiths and races as friends; if we need the police power of the secular state to take money from men for human need; if it is believed that the only hope of a city of God is to seek the alternative of a collectivized mass leveled to the lowest common denominator of mentality and ability — if all this be the limit of our hope for mankind, then even such activity is sheer futility, for even if such an effort could be achieved it would have no meaning at all for mankind….

The concept that the community is a moral object which can accept … responsibility is utterly absurd. Only persons are moral or immoral; responsible or irresponsible. Society and community are secular in form and substance; they are terms describing social units which are without moral significance at all. There is no more of a moral sense, good or bad, about a state or a community than there is about a crowd at a game. One would not dream of saying that he could give over his responsibility for himself, or for his brother, to the crowd in the bleachers. And no more can a Christian believe that he can do so with the state….

In defense of their acts, some of these legislators point out that they — like Christ — have distributed food to those who were hungry, and clothed those who were naked, and housed those who were cold. This is a true statement. But, nevertheless, they have rejected Christ in the process. They have introduced the evil principle of force into an arrangement that should be voluntary. They have made a Roman holiday out of a responsibility that is essentially spiritual, both for the giver and the receiver. These rulers of men have rejected the spiritual, and have made this stated or implied compact with their supporters: Elect me to a position of power and I will then reward you — or others designated by you — with special privileges and the money that I will legally take from others.

Robbery is thus legalized. Equality before the law is thus denied. Personal responsibility is thus rejected. Freedom is thus destroyed.

This political approach to charity may or may not be effective strategy for winning elections, but let us never inject the name of Christ or the principles of Christianity into this sordid bargain. Rather let us hang our heads in shame at the evil we have done or tolerated in the name of charity — especially to the very ones we have claimed to be helping. Let us search for the lesson to be found in this statement by the Apostle Paul: “And though I bestow all my goods to feed the poor … and have not charity, it profiteth me nothing.”

Let us render unto the state that which belongs to the state, and unto God that which belongs to God. It is God’s commandment that there must be a personal concern, as well as a personal sharing, with those in need. The use of the force of government in this area of compassion and charity precludes any personal expression of Christianity. It becomes a mechanistic and secular thing, devoid of feeling. So let us return to the teachings of the Gospels, and render unto God our willing response to those of His children who need our help and ourselves.

This is an excerpt from Clinchy’s essay, “Charity: Biblical and Political,” which appeared in Volume I, Essays on Liberty, published in 1952 by The Foundation for Economic Education, Irvington, New York. Reprinted by permission.

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    Russell J. Clinchy (1893-1981) was a minister in the Congregational Church in Connecticut.