St. John Chrysostom's Obsession with the Poor

St. John Chrysostom's Obsession with the Poor: Part II
by pragerfan

October 1, 2007

In my previous article, I talked about what I felt to be somewhat of an obsession with the poor of St. John Chrysostom. Amity Shlaes pointed out in an article she wrote for Imprimis (the publication of Hillsdale College) that, during the 1932 election, Franklin Roosevelt often talked about the "forgotten man." Roosevelt tried to paint the forgotten man as the intended beneficiary of his "New Deal." A vote for Roosevelt was a vote for the poor, the downtrodden: a vote for the forgotten man.

Of course, the forgotten man's benefits must be paid for somehow, and here Shlaes pointed out Roosevelt's error. The concept of the "forgotten man" was an earlier idea that went something like this.
Let us suppose that A and B join together and decide that the poor would be benefited by a tax increase to fund a social program. However person C knows nothing about this program, and may not even approve of the program itself. Neverthess A and B pass a law requiring C to forfeit a part of what he earns in taxes to pay for the social program. According to the earlier concept, person C, not the poor man, is the forgotten man.
Of course Roosevelt didn't care that he had misappropriated the concept as it benefited his political end and he won the 1932 election by a landslide.

However, it seems that an accurate concept of the "forgotten man" is very important in discussing our moral obligations to the poor. Let me start with three brief declarations.

First, giving to the poor must be voluntary. Coerced charity - whether by the state or by the church - is not charity at all.

Second, there is nothing inherently more righteous about a poor person than a rich person.

Third, God requires that we treat both the poor man and rich man justly (Leviticus 19:15).

Giving to the poor must be voluntary: there is no spiritual benefit, in my view, to coerced giving. Whether that giving is done through the threat of jail or that of loss of salvation, it is simply immoral to coerce someone into such giving (the exception is the tithe, which is a Biblical command). As Nassif points out, it is the Spirit of God which will lead people to give to the poor, and God will do that in HIS time, not ours. We also can persuade people to give - not by bashing the rich ("the rich can only be so at the expense of the poor," or "if one is rich it is only through dishonest means.") but rather by a sincere desire to help people cope with and hopefully escape their present situation. In the end however it must be through persuasion and conviction, not by edict or law, that people are moved to give. Christ did not force people to give to the poor. It was always a voluntary decision.

There is nothing inherently more righteous about a poor person than a rich person: If poverty is a moral good, then wealth is a moral evil. However, St. Paul simply did not say riches are inherently evil. It is the love of money (that is, money as an end in itself) which is the "root of all evil." But if one views wealth as a means and not an end, he can accomplish great things. Let's be honest: one could even argue that someone who is rich is, objectively speaking, capable of doing far more good for others than someone who has no wealth.

Third, God requires that we treat both the poor man and rich man justly. As I pointed out below, Leviticus 19:15 is one of my favorite Old Testament verses because God commands we treat everyone justly, regardless of his wealth or social status. People generally understand this to mean the poor must be treated decently, but it also means the rich must be treated decently as well. It is as wrong to commit injustice to a rich man as it is to a poor man; we are all equal in the eyes of God.

I'll now turn to the issue of community giving. In Acts we read about the early Christians who sold everything they had and laid it at the Apostles' feet. This was motivated by the early Christians' love for God and desire to do good. But there is no condemnation of those who although they believed, were unable to do so (or were not recorded as having done so). For example, the Ethiopian eunuch to whom St. Philip witnessed certainly was a rich man yet there is no record of his selling his possessions (or abandoning his service to Candace, the Ethiopian Queen).

As we all value freedom, neither do I condemn those who have wealth, who could give to the poor, and yet refuse to do so. What place have I to judge them? I agree that it is sad that these people are not moved to give, but that is their business. We will all have to give an accounting to God, but on this earth under the laws of men, I have no legal or spiritual right to dispose of someone else's wealth or property as I see fit.

St. John Chrysostom seems to be describing a utopia. If we lived in a utopia, no one would be poor: everyone would have everything they need forever.

However, we don't live in a utopia: as Dennis Prager notes, everyone in history who has tried to create a "heaven on earth" ended up creating hell.

The better way is to recognize we live in a fallen world. By using the power of argument and persuasion, instead of the force of ecclesiastical and secular law, we will promote greater Christian charity.