Don’t Heap Contempt On the Poor, Ever. Even if you think they ‘deserve’ it.

So, some colleagues (whom I also count as friends) and I came across this ridiculous list of “20 Things the Rich Do Every Day” on Dave Ramsey’s blog. While I hear that Ramsey’s work has been helpful to many, we were taken aback by the context-free presentation of these (unverified) statistics, all of which paint the rich as enlightened, healthy, intelligent, benevolent, disciplined and the poor as…well, the opposite of all that.

Some things on the list were patently ridiculous, such as #7:

“70% of wealthy parents make their children volunteer 10 hours or more a month vs. 3% for poor.”

(Could that have something to do with the fact that poor children of working age have to, you know, GET PAID for their work?)

Anyway, Caryn Rivadeneira, Marlena Graves, and I have offered our responses to this piece in a group post. Below are some of my thoughts from that piece. Click through to read the entire three-part post.

From Proverbs, we might conclude that God rewards the hardworking with wealth, while poverty is the result of laziness. The book is full of aphorisms like, “A slack hand causes poverty, but the hand of the diligent makes rich” (10:4) and “Do not love sleep, or else you will come to poverty; open your eyes, and you will have plenty of bread” (19:13).

This idea—that people who are poor are poor simply because they haven’t cultivated the right habits—gets labeled as biblical, but tends to foster a contempt for the poor that’s anything but.

Scripture reminds us many times poverty itself is by no means a cursed state (Prov. 15:16) and condemns contempt for the poor: “Those who oppress the poor insult their Maker, but those who are kind to the needy honor him” (Prov. 14:31). Deuteronomy 15:7-8 warns Israelites not to be “hard-hearted or tight-fisted toward your needy neighbor. You should rather open your hand, willingly lending enough to meet the need, whatever it may be.”

The Bible doesn’t indicate that people must be worthy of such generosity; no provision made for excluding the person from charity because of laziness. We see that kindness and generosity are to be given without reservation, without restriction. Perhaps this is because all good things—including the ability to work hard—come from divine grace. The prosperity that can follow hard work is not exclusively our natural and inevitable reward, but in fact a gift from God.

{Read the whole piece here.}

“Open Thy Hand Wide”: Moses, Calvin & the Origins of American Liberalism

This morning I saw that Al Mohler–a prominent spokesperson for what is called conservative evangelical and, most interestingly for the purposes of this discussion, Reformed, Christianity had shared a short piece in the National Review with the alarming subtitle:

“Schools see it as their job to make kids reject their parents’ conservative values.”

The author, Dennis Prager, is perhaps not known for moderation in his opinions, but I found the piece a fascinating example of exactly the kind of polarization in thinking that Marilynne Robinson describes in the introduction to her book The Death of Adam, a collection of essays that all

“assert, in one way or another, that the prevailing view of things can be assumed to be wrong, and that its opposite, being its image or shadow, can also be assumed to be wrong. They undertake to demonstrate that there are other ways of thinking, for which better arguments can be made.”

In the post, Prager pits equality against liberty, a “secular America” against a “God-centered one” and “multiculturalism” against a “unifying American identity.” His values–and those of his readers–are the older, more traditional values. He assumes that one either must regard America as

 ” ‘the last best hope of earth’  or else little more than an imperialist, racist, and xenophobic nation.”

It is notable that the article is titled “Conservative Parents, Left-Wing Children,” as if “liberal” were too kind a word to apply to these prodigals. Re-reading Robinson’s When I Was A Child I Read Books recently, I enjoyed her discussion of the term as it occurs in English Puritan translations of the Bible, and in Puritan thought more generally.

“in Renaissance French, liberal meant ‘generous,’ and of course the word occurs in the English Puritan translations, the Matthew’s Bible and the Geneva Bible, which were followed in their use of the term by the 1611 Authorized [King James] Version.”

Robinson, who is well-known as an admirer of John Calvin’s who just so happens to have read the man’s works carefully and extensively (perhaps exhaustively), argues that the concept of ‘liberality’ comes from Deuteronomy 15:13-14 and is “central to American social thought from its beginning.”

She quotes Calvin’s sermon on that text:

“If we thank God with our mouthes, confessing that it is he which hath blessed us, & in the mean while make none account of such as he has sent to doe us service in the increase of our living, by taking paynes and toyle for us; all our thanking of him is but lip-labor & utter hypocrisy.”

and again on the question of begging and provision for the apparently unworthy:

“if a man forbid begging, & therewithal doe no almes at all it is as much as if he did cut the throtes of those that are in necessitie. Nay, we must so provide for the poore, and redresse their want, that such as are stout beggars and apparently seeme not to be pitied may be reformed.

We do this not because they are deserving, Calvin says, but because of the image of God in them. From Calvin’s Institutes: 

“The Lord commands us to do ‘good unto all men,’ universally, a great part of whom, estimated according to their own merits, are very undeserving; but here the Scriptures assists us with an excellent rule, when it inculcates, that we must not regard the intrinsic merit of men, but must consider the image of God in them, to which we owe all possible honor and love.”

Robinson then shows how John Winthrop, in his famous address to the newly arrived Puritans in Massachussetts in 1630 (“A Modell of Christian Charity”) makes a similar argument for generosity, and how that man known little more than for one fiery sermon, Jonathan Edwards, made a similar case again, going further to insist that

“The proper objects of our liberality are not limited to ‘those of the same people and religion’ [yea, a plea for tolerance and multiculturalism from this “intolerant” Puritan father!?] because ‘our enemies, those that abuse us and injure us, are our neighbours, and therefore come under the rule of loving our neighbours as ourselves.”

Edwards, like Calvin and Winthrop, insist that there can be no exception or excuse to liberality. Edwards, in a most un-libertarian fashion, even says that relief provided “by the town” (of which he does not, apparently, disapprove) still does not excuse the Christian from her obligation. Here is Edwards:

“[I]t is too obvious to be denied, that there are in fact persons so in want, that it would be a charitable act in us to help them, notwithstanding all that is done by the town.

Nor is there any sense that charity is only for those who are completely destitute:

“It does not answer to the rules of Christian charity to relieve only those who are reduced to extremity.”

Finally, Robinson again:

“There is clearly a feeling abroad [in that National Review piece!] that God smiled on our beginnings, and that we should return to them as we can. If we really did attempt to return to them, we would find Moses as well as Christ, Calvin, and his legions of intellectual heirs. And we would find a recurrent, passionate insistence on bounty or liberality, mercy and liberality, on being kind and liberal, liberal and bountiful…[t]hese phrases are all [Jonathan] Edwards’s and there are many more like them.”

So going back to where I started–that “Reformed” Christian leader’s recommendation of the piece that urges a return to “Judeo-Christian” and “traditional American” values, I can only paraphrase the inimitable Inigo Montoya from The Princess Bride:

“You keep using those words. I do not think they mean what you think they mean.”

And that probably goes for those who’d claim the label ‘liberal’ but who see religion–and especially Christianity and certainly people like John Calvin and Jonathan Edwards–as enemies of their cause. I suspect that the truth may be far less easily divided along ideological lines.

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