Why Giving to the Poor Is No Longer a Legitimate Christian Response

Maybe I’m skeptical, ignorant, or taking way too much liberty in writing a post like this. I’ll never know if I don’t post it though. Here is my thought; giving to the poor in our society should no longer be the primary Christian response to seeking justice for the poor. I think there is a higher calling for Christians to partake in, and I don’t think it is throwing money at people. For the record, this is strictly speaking about first world countries, not third world situations.

Here is a problem we have right now in North America. We live in the richest society on earth. There is so much excess it’s nauseating. The issue is certainly not that we don’t have enough to go around. With the statistics on food waste alone in our country we can be sure that this is not the issue. There is plenty of food available and ready to be consumed. I’ll even go out on the limb here and say that I don’t even think distribution is the problem in this continent. There is plenty of food that makes it to the supermarkets, farmers markets that could easily be distributed into those that need it. Most people that we know that are in any kind of dire or poor condition live in cities and cities always have lots of food. These are the same folks that have multiple TV’s, satellites, Internet, vehicles and roofs over their head; the working poor some call them. You know people like us. I’m not trying to insinuate anything, they are like us, their values are similar to us middle-class folks in terms of where we spend our money and our wants of entertainment and luxury. I’m just trying to make a simple point, that even the most poor in our society are able to live a lot better than people in the same shoes three hundred years ago. The problem in our society is not that we don’t have enough money. I don’t even think it’s that we are not distributing it out well enough. There is so many safety nets, and social programs and frankly so much money available in our society that it seems ridiculous to simply throw more money at it. We’ve tried to fix all sorts of things like this, but more money just seems to complicate and make things worse.

I know the system is lopsided. But even those that are worse off still get money coming in from somewhere. I’m generalizing here, I know, but hear me out. The main issue in North America isn’t that we are poor and we need to help the poor be not poor anymore. I do think that giving to the poor is a good discipline and shouldn’t be stopped, I just don’t think that can be our goal.

The issue of the poor in our society, or who we would call poor is not that they don’t have enough money to live beautiful and sustainable lives. The issue is that those who we would call poor try to live like those we would call wealthy. This is why we see those that live below the poverty line with most of the amenities of those who live well above it. Society in general has elevated leisure, entertainment, speed and mind-dulling activities. Those with extra cash at their disposal just have more of all these things. The poor are no better than the wealthy, and the wealthy are certainly no better than the poor. The church generally has just fed into this system in an unhealthy way. We give money to those that ask, we setup food banks so the poor can come and get groceries, we do missions trips into the poorest neighbourhoods and try to up the living conditions just a little bit. Don’t get me wrong, these are all valiant efforts. Unfortunately, these efforts are way to integrated with the systems of oppression that got them there in the first place. The church is just giving handouts so the poor can last longer in an already messed up system that is just destroying those at the end of it. The money and aid that we give helps temporarily, but our mission needs to be a bit more permanent than that.

The Christian response thus far is to help people scrape by in this kind of lifestyle. We give out money and groceries for them to take home and spend and use at will on whatever need or want they run into. All the while we live in our bigger homes, with our needs taken care of and we are constantly reaching out from a place of privilege to help them get to where we are. This is an elitist and unhelpful approach to the poor and it certainly isn’t modelling a sustainable and equitable lifestyle that I think the kingdom values.

The proper Christian response is not to make them middle class or to keep giving them money, but to model and include them into a way of life of contentment that says simplicity and living off less is a better way to live. Dan wrote about this a bit ago and his response was that we must become poor. I’d like to expand on this a bit. I don’t think the response is becoming poor (even though it probably will lead you to be poor), but rather model a life of contentment, peace and joy while being poor. Christians should be living healthy lifestyles, taking care of their neighbours, seeking peace even while having no disposable income to partake in the luxuries of our culture.

“Jesus is the story that forms the church. This means that the church first serves the world by helping the world to know what it means to be the world. For without a “contrast model” the world has no way to know or feel the oddness of its dependence on power for survival. Because the church the world can feel the strangeness of trying to build a politics that is inherently untruthful; the world lacks the basis to demand truth from its people. Because of a community formed by the story of Christ the world can know what it means to be a society committed to the growth of individual gifts and differences. In a community that has no fear of truth, the otherness of the other can be welcomed as a gift rather than a threat.”
– Stanley Hauerwas

If the church is to become this “contrast model” to the world, then this won’t look like setting up new programs, shuffling poor people through them, throwing money around and hoping that the poor become middle class and then assuming everything is fixed. The contrast model in this situation I think is the church needs to become a poor community of folks that are committed to simplicity, sustainability and contentment in the face of the lies and pressures of our culture. We don’t need money to be happy. We don’t need tvs, cars, fast food, alcohol or craploads of material good to be living well. The church can live well because we don’t derive our strength from these things at all. When the church can model this, and then when the church can successfully bring others into this way of life, then I think we will actually be taking care of the poor. Taking care of the poor will no longer be helping them not be poor anymore, but modelling a way of life where you can be poor and be ok with it.

4 Comments

  • In their social engagement early Methodists were not highly bureaucratic, but instead emphasized the role of the individual members and their base communities. For example, aid to the poor was to be personally delivered by members rather than collected and delivered by a third party. Marquardt notes, “Wesley…demanded that those active in the social work of his fellowship must deliver help to the poor, not merely send it. To him, the gulf between the strata of society appeared too great for the wealthier people to know the gravity of the poor’s actual situation.” Wesley was concerned that the normal methods used to dispense charity perpetuated the conditions the charity was meant to eliminate.

  • Mr. Colquhoun:
    There are some pretty important points that you have made here. I think, generally, the point you are trying to get across is for Christians to *not* throw money at the poor. That is all fine and dandy. But that doesn’t mean we should stop, by any means, for it would be unwise to not use money in that capacity. We are certainly called to use our money wisely. However, it does not stop there. You are right – money is not the answer. But there is more to it. Money is not the *whole* answer…it is a stepping stone towards other means by which we can reach to the poor. We, in using our monetary gifts, go even further and see things through. We develop relationships. We call these people. We give them our *time*, and several other things. Hauerwas is certainly a respectable theologian, but there is more to say biblically. The whole idea of Acts was the work of the Holy Spirit being manifested in God’s people, the Church. In Acts we see all kinds of possessions shared amongst the church, not excluding money. They “gave to whoever was in need”. Money is not the problem, it is how money is used that is the problem. Futhermore, in the case of Luke 16, Christ is teaching his disciples about being wise with one’s possessions. In 16:9 Jesus says something very confusing: “I tell you, use worldly wealth to gain friends for yourselves, so that when it is gone, you will be welcomed into eternal dwellings.” This was explained to me recently as I had been reading through Luke. In essence, we are to be wise in sharing and helping those in need with our worldly wealth so that we will be welcomed by those in eternal life whom we had previously helped. Money is not inherently evil; the method with which we use it and have used it is evil. Christ shed his blood on the cross to make right with himself ALL things in heaven and on earth, including the means we use to give to the poor.

  • Generally speaking, I don’t like generalizations. (I realize that that statement proves me wrong, but that was the point.)

    One of the generalizations I don’t like is the simple use of the word ‘poor’ to describe a wide range of situations. Many people have some kind of need. Most of them may well appreciate the handouts of food or cash, but as you say, that isn’t enough. Some of them need addiction recovery support (not just financially, but actual, one-on-one support through the healing process). Some need supportive housing. Some need adequate training and support in budgeting. Some need adequate training and support in job searching. Some need adequate support in achieving mental and/or physical health.

    As most of us know, it isn’t as simple as it might look, but it isn’t as impossible as it looks either. Sure, more government programs might seem like the answer, but perhaps what is really needed is each of us finding a ‘someone’ to actually befriend and support in their particular struggle.

    Like Dan said, we need to be more involved ourselves, not just giving $$ to an organization for them to do the right thing with it.

    Another part we can play is standing up for justice, and helping those with no voice have the clout they need to receive the help they need.

    Some of us will be strong in one area of assistance, others will do well in another. Together, we can bring the Kingdom of God to people who really need it.

    I like what you say about the church becoming an example of how to live well on less. THAT might be the hardest thing to accomplish. Most of us don’t want to give up our middle-classedness. If we REALLY lived for a few weeks in the shoes of some of the people we want to help, we would have a better understanding of the issues. Living on the street or in a shelter, eating at a soup kitchen or out of a dumpster, trying to keep mentally alert and coordinated enough to make it through the day, finding the emotional health to give up an addiction–those are the things that we middle-class types haven’t experienced much of. Or if we have, we are together enough to still have our families, homes and jobs.

    Thanks for the challenge.

  • “When the church can model this, and then when the church can successfully bring others into this way of life, then I think we will actually be taking care of the poor. Taking care of the poor will no longer be helping them not be poor anymore, but modelling a way of life where you can be poor and be ok with it.”

    I was in class today and someone (I forget what the conversation was about) was adamant that it was the Church’s job to help the poor. And, of course, the half of the students that were actually paying attention gave a rousing applause!

    While I think there is some truth to that statement (“the Church ought to help the poor”) I don’t think it goes far enough (as some have pointed out). It’s not that the goal of the Church ought to be to help the poor, either by giving or by “modelling a way of life where you can be poor and be ok with it.” But rather, I wonder if a goal of the Church ought to be to imagine (and live in/out) a society where being poor is an impossibility.

    I’m open to imagining what this might look like along with you!

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