A ‘Social’ Approach to Poverty

on August 7, 2014

Conservative commentator Glenn Beck ignited quite the firestorm back in 2010 when he attacked the concept of social justice, telling his listeners not to attend churches that mention it on their websites. After receiving a fair amount of flak from a variety of Christians, Beck clarified what exactly he meant by ‘social justice’. “Here’s my definition of social justice,” he said, “Forced redistribution of wealth with a hostility toward individual property rights, under the guise of charity and/or justice.” Basically, Beck and his critics were having two entirely different conversations, because they each had two different conceptions of social justice.

Glenn Beck had a false impression of what social justice is, but it didn’t come from a vacuum. Increasingly, the term social justice is used in secular and religious circles as a catch-all for “any social or political goal I believe in.” I’ve seen the term attached to battles over the name of the Washington Redskins, net neutrality, performances of Gilbert and Sullivan’s The Mikado, and organic farming. All four of these above links are from religious sources, three of which are Christian. I disagree strongly with Beck’s characterization of “social justice,” but I also understand that it comes from a political and religious landscape where the phrase has been stretched beyond its breaking point.

It was for this reason that the first article in the IRD symposium on social justice set out to define social justice. The Acton Institute’s Dylan Pahman made a distinction between ‘social justice’ and ‘justice’ I wholeheartedly endorse. To briefly summarize: the classic definition of justice is giving someone their due.  Social justice is going above and beyond that and giving someone their “social due,” that which is due to them as a member of a society. Punishing a burglar is justice, but organizing a fundraiser to help out the victim is social justice.

Nowhere is this distinction clearer than the issue of poverty.  Justice is a matter of rights and obligations. But society is full of suffering and hurting people who have no right to relief they don’t earn themselves, and full of people with no obligation to help total strangers. Also complicating matters is the fact that sometimes the most downtrodden members of society, such as prisoners or addicts, are in the position they are as a result of their own actions. From a legalistic point of view, “justice” would mean leaving them to their self-inflicted punishment.

But Christians are called beyond simply giving each person what they’re entitled to. There is no shortage of Bible verses commanding Christians to care for the poor and downtrodden. Those who care for the poor are blessed (Proverbs 19:17,Proverbs 28:27), and whatever is done for the poor is done to Jesus Christ himself (Matthew 25:40). It is not enough to simply love the poor; that love must be borne out with actions (James 2). We are called beyond justice to social justice. We are called beyond justice and to mercy.

The Bible also lays out a vision of how we are to care for the poor, or more accurately, how we are not to care for the poor. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus denounces those who lavishly give to the poor in the sight of other men in order to increase their own reputation. Jesus preaches that those men “will have no reward from your Father in heaven.” Likewise, Paul say in 1 Corinthians 13:3, “And though I bestow all my goods to feed the poor, and though I give my body to be burned, but have not charity, it profiteth me nothing.” The reoccurring theme is that giving to the poor is the be all, end all; it ought to be done out of a personal sense of love and charity.

It’s hard to reconcile this mandate for loving charity with government systems of welfare and wealth redistribution. To be blunt: governments don’t love. Perhaps its possible that there are Christians who sign their checks to the IRS every April and simultaneous feel the transformative love of God in their lives. And perhaps its possible that the millions of food stamp or welfare recipients feels genuine gratitude towards their fellow Americans and God. But for the most part, by making Uncle Sam the middle man, the spiritual gifts that would flow from personal charity are distilled and diminished. More to the point, even if government was an effective vehicle for exhibiting one’s love for the poor, taxation is mandatory under penalty of the law. There’s is simply no Biblical basis for taking what is justly one man’s and giving to another. 

When it comes to tackling poverty, a Gospel-centric approach to social justice requires us to be, well, social. It isn’t enough to pay taxes, tithe, and send a check to a charity every so often. It required making a connection on some level with the downtrodden, be it be volunteering at a homeless shelter, taking the time to give a personal touch to a shoebox for Operation Christmas Child, or setting aside time for prayer. There’s a reason why charities like World Vision give you a picture of a child thousands of miles away and encourage letter-writing. Practically speaking, people are more likely to give when they feel a sense of shared humanity.

The rather odd part of much of what the Gospel says about giving to the poor is that it focuses on spiritual growth and eternal reward of the gift-giver. But there is without a doubt spiritual benefit for the recipients of charity beyond material gains. Having one’s needs met comes with a sense of relief, but a sense of gratitude comes only with the knowledge that someone else cared enough about you. In learning to feel gratitude towards man, we become closer to feeling gratitude towards the God from whom all blessings flow. And for many people who feel defeated, rejected, and despised by society, the mere knowledge that you are loved can be more powerful than every dollar Washington can throw at a problem.

  1. Comment by Byrom on August 8, 2014 at 10:11 pm

    To elaborate on a “social” approach to poverty, one must define what it means to be poor. In the United States, poverty is defined by arbitrary standards of income by the federal government. Today, there are few really poor people in our country. The “poor” have cars, cell phones, big-screen TVs, expensive sneakers, air conditioning, microwaves, medical care, public schools, and so on. This standard of living – fabulously rich to many in other parts of the world – is made possible by redistribution from the productive to the non-productive (often by choice) members of society. I do not describe these persons as “poor.”
    On the other hand, there are people whom I would describe as truly poor. For example, in my city, there are periodic news stories about elderly persons living alone, with fixed incomes and no family, who are unable to adequately care for themselves. Other people are living in homeless shelters for one reason or another. These are among the people who need our attention as servants of Jesus Christ.

  2. Comment by Karmasue on August 9, 2014 at 7:14 pm

    Byrom – you have the same tired stereotyped description of “the poor” that I hear a lot from those who get their ideas from the news: elderly people on fixed incomes living alone and people in homeless shelters.

    But that is not the root of poverty in this country. There are millions of rural American families living in abject poverty, in homes that are falling apart, in towns that are crumbling. It is profound and complicated. Most work hard every day, often from sun up to sun down. They don’t have clean running water, or electricity, and often go without meals in order to make sure their children eat. One illness, one catastrophe, one accident can devastate them.
    Some have broken families, and broken dreams. And all have broken hearts.

    Maybe once you get a handle on what poverty really looks like, you will understand better why it is more than a “Christian” issue, and why private charities alone cannot fix this.

  3. Comment by MarcoPolo on August 9, 2014 at 3:20 pm

    I’ve often wondered how some of the “overly compensated” CEO’s of major corporations like those in the Health Insurance industry, who earn tens of millions of dollars per year, can qualify such salaries?
    There may, no doubt, be many who give generously to charities, but doesn’t such wealth compel the person, (be they christian or of any other religion) to bestow great sums for charitable purposes?
    I’m sorry to be slightly off point, but the idea of ‘wealth redistribution’ isn’t really such a terrible thing if it’s in the form of raising the tax rate on those who can afford it. After all, how much is enough to live on for some of those in question?
    God forbid they should have to suffer the loss of dignity that so many today must endure.

  4. Comment by Karmasue on August 9, 2014 at 7:32 pm

    “And for many people who feel defeated, rejected, and despised by society, the mere knowledge that you are loved can be more powerful than every dollar Washington can throw at a problem.”

    But it won’t put food in your child’s mouth, it won’t put a roof over your head, and it won’t pay the electric bill in winter.

    You seem to think you can just love that “poor” right out of their wretched lives. And they have to learn to be grateful – to you. Because “a sense of gratitude comes only with the knowledge that someone else cared enough about you.”

    But this one is my favorite “There’s is simply no Biblical basis for taking what is justly one man’s and giving to another.” Certainly not that little “render unto Caesar” thing in Mark which was specifically about tax collection.

    I couldn’t find where Caesar asked Jesus how He thought those taxes ought to be distributed.

  5. Comment by Lephteez Arfoneez on August 10, 2014 at 7:49 pm

    Beck got a lot of flack over his “social justice” comment, but he was completely right, left-wing churches almost always use the phrase “social justice” on their home page, and without fail it refers to being pro-feminism, pro-abortion, pro-gay, pro-illegal immigration, etc. Anyone shopping for a church ought to be glad for this tip from Beck, because “social justice” lets a person know right off the bat that this church is heavy on PC, lite on God.

  6. Comment by John S. on August 11, 2014 at 7:21 am

    Governments care for the poor, disadvantaged, etc not out of a sense of justice or fairness but rather as a necessity to maintaining social order. Terms like justice, compassion, caring are used to justify the actions and make it palatable both to those from whom money is taken and those to whom it is given.

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