Friday, September 14, 2018


I have written on this before, but I come back, just for clarity. Christians can talk a lot of nonsense when they get rolling sometimes.

Two stories:

There was a continuing drama in one of my college dorms, of a boy who had flunked out/dropped out after the first semester but didn’t want to go home.  He wanted to continue to hang out at college. One of his friends took him in, letting him sleep in his dorm room and keep some of his stuff there. The story had complications of girlfriends, money, and medical conditions, but the major complication was that the real roommate was less enthused about the arrangement, and became progressively less enthused as the semester wore on. I admit I only heard one side of it, but that’s the summary. The friend had wanted to be generous, and gave to someone in need. However, the room was not his room but the college’s, though he was renting it in some sense. The college had rules forbidding this sort of arrangement. Not that anyone enforced those rules much, but they were there.  More directly, the dorm room was not “rented” to one person, but to two. The friend, taking in the ex-student, was giving away something that was not entirely his.  The original roommate had an equal stake.

I started working at the state psychiatric hospital not long after my intense, born-again, hangin’ with the Jesus Freaks experience.  (Which was pivotal and good for me, by the way, don’t get me wrong. I write it humorously but not dismissively.  They taught me much.) I was viewing Scripture in a new light, in terms of simple and literal obedience.  The Bible says to give to those who ask, so give to those who ask. Not all state hospital patients were constant beggars, but a fair number were, especially for cigarettes or money for coffee. It’s easy to be critical, but they didn’t have many ways of getting even a little money. It was also not uncommon then for smokers to bum off each other in a pinch – you just kept an eye out for guys who were always receivers and never givers in those exchanges.

At the hospital – none o’ that. No cigarettes, no money given. The reasoning was sound. Not only were some of them on behavior plans whereby they could earn cigarettes or money, so keeping them on that strictly was part of treatment, but there was a more general type of treatment.  We didn’t want to train people to be beggars if they were going to be living in the community. They, more than other people, needed to not offend their neighbors, passers-by, possible landlords or employers. I don’t know that we fixed things much.  We didn’t make things worse, at least. So I learned the command to give might not be absolute.

Let me head in the other direction.  There is a simple, straightforward way of interpreting Scripture that I think is not only valid, but may be best for our own spiritual improvement and being Christ in the world. Those who ask, get.  Those who have need, receive.  If God has put someone at your door, or in your neighborhood, or somehow in your orbit, then maybe that’s your job, no questions asked.  If the US government disagrees, well, obedient Christians have a long history of doing things governments don’t like. That approach is much closer to that of the early church.  It just is, there’s not much way around that. However, the early church had little earthly power.  They weren’t called to make administrative decisions affecting many people.  They may have had difficult decisions, within the churches or in their immediate sphere, but they didn’t rule over much in the secular world. Therefore, we don’t have much example of what they would have done, and the words of Jesus, Peter, and Paul do not address such questions directly.  Whatever conclusion we come to about charity, it is a conclusion, based on our understanding, the teaching of others, and hopefully, the Holy Spirit. If we take examples from the OT about how strangers should be entertained – and I think we should – then we are also stuck with the examples where YHWH encouraged his people to be, uh, really unkind to other tribes. We don’t actually have much scriptural example of what Israel was supposed to do when lots of other people wanted to migrate in. There were traders, occasional strangers, and invaders.  That’s pretty much what we have to go on.

When one is a ruler or administrator, what you have charge of is not yours by ownership.  It belongs to others, perhaps collective others.  The ruler of the city may be legitimately empowered to decide when to fight, when to bribe, and when to surrender. Yet the city is not his – though until very recently in human history the effect was usually the same. He administers, he does not own. Like a steward, he holds in trust.

You can take the position that "I am the administrator, in some sense assigned by God, and I am going to be generous with the goods of my people. We will give to all who ask, we will be generous to the poor to the point of impoverishing ourselves." I can picture a Christian administrator taking that approach, even when ruling a secular state. I can't prove to you that this is not the right thing.  I may be clouded by the secularism of my country and my era. Just to mention, however, that such an approach could also be applied to social issues with equal fairness. That may dampen the enthusiasm of those who were ready to jump on that bandwagon.
The lines seem messy when government is representative.  The government holds administrative power in trust for the people.  No, wait, the government holds administrative power in trust for God, who put it there.  Except, what if only some of the people believe in God? Well, it’s still God’s - Scripture says.  Or if the government isn’t godly, do we give to who they say, or not? What about trying to influence the government?  We can do that, right? Who owns this city?

Those discussions are book-length and more, and I am not any better equipped than any other citizen to decide what is best. I just want it to be clear that there is a difference between giving away what is clearly yours, such as your money, your house, your food, and giving away things that belong to other people, or to the people as a whole. (Like citizenship. Or Medicaid. Or voting.) Immigration has an effect on the employment opportunities of people here, especially young people, and more especially black, Native, and Hispanic young people. (That’s just one thing immigration affects, BTW.) A representative government seeks to balance the need to protect those jobs with whatever cultural or long-term needs we have - to express our generosity, stimulate growth, and contribute to world stability. Any government might do that well or do that poorly.  If an individual Christian, or a church, or a denomination decides that the government is not being generous enough, they have freedom to give away their own stuff, even if it pisses off the government (“You are not licensed”)  or their neighbors (“You’re encouraging more people to come”).  What they aren’t empowered to do is give away other people’s stuff.

If you want to run a refuge, accepting all at your building downtown regardless of ability to pay or legal status, you can do that, not just in an emergency but all the year round. Feed ‘em.  Hire nurses to be there 24-7. If the people you serve are here legally, then all of us, through the government, have signed off on services they are eligible for.  But when you refer illegals to government services, you are giving away other people’s stuff, that you don’t have any authority over. If those people take low paying jobs nearby then you have given away some black teenager’s job. Once you start giving away other people’s stuff, even at several removes, then you have a responsibility to enter the conversation about balancing. If you give away a room in your house, your husband and children are affected.  You may be empowered to administer what is given away, but they have given up something, and you are supposed to balance that. You might feel great about the little girl smiling about the new life she has in America, or at least, feel better because no one is showing you pictures of sad little girls anymore. But you don’t see the sad girl who can’t get a job, or if you do, you blame someone besides yourself for that. One side is highly visible, and made highly visible.  The other side is almost invisible, but it is just as real.  If you want to go small picture charity, that’s respectable. It may even be the proper simplicity for a Christian no longer involved in the powers of the world and just being Christ in the Street.  But when your small picture is actually photographs and reports from somewhere else, then you have entered the big picture and have to think in terms of balancing claims. You can’t have that both ways.

Here’s the rant: 

There are churches, or movements within churches, who advocate that America should take in more refugees, or illegals. It is fair to ask how many are they currently supporting, whether they can take on any more, and to multiply that over the other churches they are associated with that they think will join them. Oh. You aren’t actually supporting any refugees yourself?  You aren’t paying for interpreter services, and rent, and food, and medical care, or beating the bushes to find someone who will donate those?  You aren’t bringing them to job interviews and making sure they have a ride to work? The special needs kids with complicated problems – that’s just on the school district, right? Oh.  I see.  Well that's quite different then.  Who is you are addressing with your political proposal?  Asking for a friend.

So you yourself aren’t actually doing much, just sending a visitor or an advocate once in a while. But you’re sure that somebody somewhere will be able to figure all this out if we just take more.  You’ve decided you need to be America’s conscience, because America is rich, especially those other people, and you have mind-read that their motives for not signing on are evil.  Your fantasy that we are all doing these wonderful things together is mostly just saying there’s plenty of other people’s money. Said The Pieman to Simple Simon: "First show me your money."

I’ve done refugee resettlement.  It’s really hard. Somebody has to go over more than once a day to teach English, take them shopping, register for school, call employers, get them to doctors, help them find countrymen, so you usually need a dozen people for about six months (plus a collection of individuals for single favors), and then gradually back off.  For one family.  I’m not doing much of anything now except sending money to a refugee church nearby. Maybe I should – maybe Jesus put them in my lap and I’m denying it. But at least I’m not going to the signup sheet and writing in your name. So I’d appreciate it that you not write in my name because you think Jesus told you to.


Sam L. said...

An entirely logical argument, AVI.

Texan99 said...

I admit this argument grabs me all the more firmly because it punches my hypocrisy buttons, and perhaps because it so often seems to let me off the hook personally. But also, it is a benign and practical approach for anyone who genuinely wants to make life better for people in general. It's a well-functioning feedback mechanism. Spending other people's money is addictive: you get a big rush of ego gratification for no cost. What's to stop your indulgence? If you stick to doing good with your own widow's mite, you'll be forced to reconcile your duty/desire to do good with your willingness to do without your own material pleasures. What you do manage to give will be more honest, less corrupting to yourself as a form of indulged thievery, and more likely to work the change in your soul that altruism is good for. You're less likely to spin off into craziness, because you'll feel the bite personally as you ramp up your efforts. Not many of us are truly capable of feeling the bite to other people--otherwise why would we find altruism so difficult to start with?

For this same reason I believe few of us are capable of engaging in much long-distance charity to strangers without ill effects on ourselves, those closest to us, and even in the end the distant beneficiaries. Better to do the best we can with the people God places in our direct path. If we run out of work to do there, we can always expand our horizons. In the end, if we can avoid the ever-present temptation to force other people to carry out our charitable duties for us, we'll have dodged a big bullet, maybe one of most corrupting.

Unknown said...

While the article makes a very good point — that Christians should be cognizant of the difference between giving away their own stuff and giving away the stuff of others — it misses an equally if not more important point.

Christians are taught and most believe that they should emulate Jesus Christ and that their lives should in some manner reflect his. So, when considering what are a Christian’s obligations with regard to important social problems like poverty and immigration, we should remember that Jesus, when offered the power to rule the world, declined the offer. Instead, he chose to leave in place rulers who not only denied his divinity but who eventually unjustly executed him. He even ordered his disciples to obey their oppressive rulers (“render unto Caesar ...).

Of course, our Lord’s willingness to let sinful men decide how the world should be ruled and submission to cruel and unjust men simply reflects His Father’s own decision to give his creation moral freedom. God could compel our obedience but He has chosen to let each of us decide for himself how to live. This should be the starting point when considering what, as Christians, we should do when someone asks us to join a movement that seeks to deny others moral choice.

This is not to say that Christians can’t participate in organizations or activities designed to force others to do things they don’t want to do. Christians can be policemen, judges, prison wardens, tax collectors and like. They just can’t claim that others should do what they are told because God commands it.

Assistant Village Idiot said...

@T99 - I had not thought of the dynamic situation of it being rewarding to "do good," with having to pay for it. Yeah, I'd want more o' that.