This article first appeared in ABC Religion and Ethics in 2014 and is reproduced by kind permission of the author and publisher.

“They asked only one thing, that we remember the poor, which was actually what I was eager to do.”  Paul the Apostle (Galatians 2: 10). I begin with Paul’s report of what he was asked to do by the church in Jerusalem as a reminder that to be asked to remember the poor is an ongoing Christian obligation. 

Yet, as Bruce Longenecker makes clear in his thorough analysis of the early Christian commitment to care for the poor it is by no means clear who the poor were that Paul was to remember.  Nor was how the poor were to be remembered made fully explicit.  Money was to be collected from Gentile Christians to support the church in Jerusalem, but that collection does not seem directed for the poor as such.

The End of Charity

In particular Longenecker argues that any attempt to construe “remember the poor” as a “church politics” strategy separated from the gospel itself is problematic.  In other words “remember the poor” was not in itself a way to deal the tension between Jewish Christians and non-Jewish Christians.  There is little evidence, according to Longenecker, that the Jerusalem followers of Jesus were known as “the poor.”  Therefore Longenecker argues that the followers of Jesus in Galatia would not have recognized Paul’s reference to the poor as referring exclusively to the followers of Jesus in Jerusalem.[1]

Longenecker’s careful analysis of the ambiguities surrounding Paul’s commitment to the care of the poor is not meant to challenge the general presumption that Paul and the early church in general did not assume that Christians had an obligation to care for the poor.  Indeed he argues that, though economic assistance to the poor was not exhaustive of the good news of Jesus, neither was it peripheral to that good news.  “Care for the poor was thought by Paul to be a necessary hallmark of the corporate life of Jesus followers who lived in conformity with the good news of the early Jesus movement.”[2]

I call attention to Longenecker’s account of the commitment to the poor by the early followers of Jesus to remind us of the commonplace presumption by Christians that we are a people of charity.  We are supposed to care for those less well off.  Almsgiving is constitutive of what it means to be a Christian.  Yet how Christians have cared for those who have less has recently come under severe criticism.  I want to explore that critique and hopefully provide a constructive response.

One of the reasons I am intent to address questions surrounding what it means to remember the poor, or in other terms, why charity is at the heart of Christian living is I do not think I have adequately dealt with the challenge that Christians must be a community of the poor that cares for the poor.  Claims such as “the first task of the church is to not make the world more just but to make the world the world” may seem to suggest that justice toward the poor by Christians is not a high priority for me.  I certainly do not think that to be the case, but the question of how Christians care for the poor is all important.  I think it may well be true that I have not sufficiently emphasized or explored that “how” in my work.

One of the reasons I have tried to spell out what it means to “remember the poor” is I am not sure how best to do that without turning the poor into objects.  I am quite suspicious to the phrase “the poor.”  That is not quite accurate.  I am highly suspicious of that phrase as produced by capitalist economies.  “The poor” cannot help but become an abstraction because capitalist need “the poor” to secure their own identity.  In other words the production of “the poor” as a general category reproduces and legitimates those that have benefited from capitalism.  Concern for the poor becomes an ideology but like any ideology cannot be acknowledged as such.[3]

I will try to address these matters below but I cannot pretend to give them the kind of attention they deserve.  You would need to know more about modern economics than I do to get at these issues adequately, but one of the characteristics of capitalist economies is the production of economics as a mathematical field that makes those outside the field amateurs.[4]  But just as it is said that war is too serious to be left to the generals so it is that economics is too important to be left to economist.[5]  I am happy to report, however, that though I may have not engaged modern economics practice and theory sufficiently I have had students that have done so.  Much of what follows is deeply indebted to them.[6]  Before exploring the how of remembering the poor, however, I need to indicate why so many now seem to think charity has become so problematic.

In fact we seem to be living in a time in which people have lost confidence in giving.  This is true of secular forms of giving as well as a conclusion drawn by many Christians who once were committed to charity toward the poor.  A vast literature, a literature written by people who often had been agents or at least supporters of aid to poor countries, now exists in which such programs are seen to have produced little good or even worse have been deeply harmful.[7]  There are four primary reasons given for the failure of aid to poorer countries.

First and foremost aid is said not to work because the aid given was not effectively planned.  Money was simply thrown at a problem with little idea of how the money could be best used to make a positive response to a definite need.  As a result the aid did not get to the people that actually need it but instead was virtually stolen by those in power.  Secondly it is argued that even when aid is more carefully planned it does not achieve its objectives because aid is inherently a negative process.  Aid creates a dependency in those who receive the aid that cannot easily be rectified.

Third aid simply is a bandage on a wound that is much deeper than aid can address.  Aid, it is argued, simply cannot overcome the chronically unjust international economic systems.  Globalization is but another name for capitalism in which those that have will continue to have and those who do not have can do little to counter the power of the “haves.”  Finally it is argued that aid does not work because it was not designed to work.  Indeed it is not even clear what it would mean for aid to work.  The poor are poor because for numerous reasons but the bottom line is the poor got left out of the development of advanced economies and there is little one can do to rectify that reality.

Some have countered these critiques of aid by arguing empirically that it can be shown that aid has made a difference because without aid there would be more in poverty now than in fact are in poverty if aid had not been given.  That claim, however, is hard to sustain as an empirical generalization.  It can be asked, for example, how you could know how many would now be in poverty if aid had not been given.  In effect this is an argument from silence that the critics of aid find unpersuasive.

It is important to note, however, that critics of aid seldom argue against emergency aid to peoples or countries that have experienced cataclysmic events.  So it is assumed that aid should be given when people are suffering from floods, earthquakes, and wars.  Yet even this kind of aid is criticized by some on the left as a form of United States imperialism.  This general distrust of poorer countries of the United States is not limited to those who represent the forms of aid of the government but also has increasingly been directed at those who work for NGO institutions.  Even though an NGO is allegedly independent of the government those who work for an NGO report that they are inevitably viewed as agents of the foreign policy of the State Department.

I have briefly reviewed the debate about international aid because many of those same considerations seem to have found a home among some Christians who are having second thoughts about Christian charity.  I am thinking in particular of books like Robert Lupton’s, Toxic Charity:  How Churches and Charities Hurt Those They Help.[8]  What makes Lupton’s critique of charitable endeavors by Christians so compelling is he is not a representative of conservative political or economic interest.  In fact he has been an enthusiastic participant in the kind of mission enterprises he now so effectively criticizes.  He has, moreover, spent many years working with urban poor in Atlanta as well as around the world.  In short he is a person who has experienced what he now criticizes.

One of the most interesting questions raised by Lupton, a question as I noted also explored by Longenecker, is how the poor are identified as well as what makes them poor.  Failure to address those questions is often the reason so many attempts to address poverty fail.  For example, Sam Wells, reports he learned from being a vicar at an estate in Norwich, England that poverty is not primarily about money.  Money no doubt plays a role, but according to Wells he discovered as part of a government funded regeneration process that poverty is “about having no idea what to do and/or having no one with whom to do it.”[9]

Wells observation is the heart of Lupton’s worries about Christian charity.  Lupton fears, fears schooled by extensive engagement with programs designed to “help” the poor, that too often with the best will in the world Christians have robbed those they wished to help of the imagination necessary to sustain the community processes that offer a new way of life.  Lupton is particularly critical of mission trips which may make those who have made the trip happy but effect no lasting change for those who have been the subject of the kindness of strangers.  Such trips almost become a parody of themselves when those returning look more like tourist who have been on holiday than people worn out by hard work.[10]

Lupton concerns about such trips, however, is not primarily about what the trips mean for those who go on “missions,” but the effect it has on those who they go to “help.”  He fears that not only is no lasting change enacted, but that those that have been the subject of such charity may even be harmed.  Too often the help provided weakens those they serve by introducing technologies that cannot be sustained after those who have brought the technologies leave.  Even more disturbing such trips invite and foster forms of dishonest relationships by inviting those that are allegedly being helped to be “grateful” for these intrusions into their lives.  Finally mission trip interventions can erode the work ethic of those being helped with the result that their dependency is deepened.

According to Lupton these results are often unavoidable given the presumption of those that go on such trips that they are trying to help by doing something for the poor.  Lupton argues, however, that the challenge is to be with the poor.  To be with the poor means one must first learn to listen to the poor and by listening to discover that the poor are not without resources for survival.  That means at the very least if you want to be with the poor a commitment of time is required for the building of trust necessary to sustain honest relationships.

Such relationships will often depend on those who have gone to serve the poor willingness to be served by the poor.  I have seen university students transformed by such trips.  As Lupton suggests they went on the trip to do some good, but they soon discovered that they lacked the linguistic and everyday skills to survive in the villages in which they landed.  As a result they had to depend on poor for survival.  That they, the rich, had to be cared for by the poor gave them a whole new perspective on what it means to be of “help.”  They learned to observe and listen.  Their survival depended on it.

Lupton’s understanding of the form charity must take to avoid degrading the recipient of charity draws on the wisdom of the organization committed to organizing the poor called the Industrial Areas Foundation.  In particular Lupton’s position seems quite similar to what the IAF calls the “Iron Rule.”[11]  That rule is quite simple:  “Never do for the poor what they have (or could have) the capacity to do for themselves.”[12] Indeed most of Lupton’s positive recommendations mimic the work of community organizers seeking, as Wells suggests, that the task is to discover imaginative alternatives through the building of community.  How this can be a form of charity that is not toxic I now want to explore.

Why Charity is an Obligation for Christians

To be a Christian is to be obligated to be charitable.  This is true whether you are rich or poor, healthy or ill, old or young, male or female, oppressed or free, established or disestablished.  Indeed it is particularly important that Christians who are poor understand that they too must be charitable.  To be poor does not mean you lack the means to extend charity to another.  You may lack money or food but you have the gift of friendship to overwhelm the loneliness that grips the lives of so many.  That all Christians must exercise charity has, of course, everything to do with Matthew 25: 31-46 in which we are told:  “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.”

That Christians believe we meet Christ in the poor means charity for us is not just another way to be kind to someone less fortunate than ourselves.  As Gary Anderson argues in his book, Charity:  The Place of the Poor in the Biblical Tradition, the kind of charity found in the Bible is not simply compassion.  Rather charity in the Bible, Anderson argues, is nothing less than a declaration about the metaphysical structure of the world.  It is so because charity is “not just a good deed but a declaration of belief about the world and the God who created it.”[13]  Anderson argues that charity must be at the heart of what it means to be a Christian because charity is the very heart of God.

That charity is a claim about the very character of all that is Anderson attributes to the discovery of the people of Israel that there is an intrinsic connection between the worship of God and the care of the poor.  In particular he calls attention to Moses speeches in Deuteronomy in which Moses links the practice of bringing the first fruits of the harvest to the temple along with the “tithe for the poor” in Chapter 26: 12-16.  Accordingly the tithe for the poor becomes part of the sacrificial practice that is the heart of Israelite worship.  That sacrifice and caring for the poor were interrelated is the necessary practice that shaped the people of Israel’s understanding that what they gave to the poor was in fact a “loan” to God.  They did so because they understood even if the one who owed the money might never be able to pay back the loan the loan will be paid back by God himself.  The obligation to care for the poor, therefore, was understood by Israel as a loan first and foremost given to God.  That is why Proverbs 19:17 became the central text shaping the people of Israel’s practice of caring for the poor.  In Proverbs we are told “Whoever is kind to the poor lends to the Lord, and will be repaid in full.”[14]

Anderson stresses the importance of this way of understanding charity because it makes clear that to give to the poor is not “just another act of charity,” but rather an encounter with God.  Loans can be joyfully given to the poor because who could imagine a better guarantor of a loan than God. Anderson draws on a contemporary example, Mother Teresa, to exemplify this mode of charity.  Mother Teresa’s refusal to establish any endowment for her order to survive, Anderson suggests, exemplifies her presumption that the order she founded must always be ready to give one’s whole self to the poor.   She sought to establish an order in which the sisters were committed to live in total reliance on God because to learn reliant on God is necessary if you are not only to help the poor but to be with the poor.

Anderson draws on Ben Sira and the book of Tobit to show how almsgiving in Judaism was often compared to the sacrificial offering enacted in the temple.  Ben Sira is particularly important because, according to Anderson, he taught that acts of charity toward the poor were equivalent to temple sacrifice even when the temple was no longer standing.  The reason this is so significant is it makes explicit that the relation between charity to the poor and sacrifice.  Charity is more than a horizontal action involving a donor and recipient, but the sacrificial character of charity makes clear that charity also has a vertical dimension.  To give alms was and is to perform an act of worship of God.  Anderson even goes so far as to describe acts of charity to be sacramental.[15]

Anderson’s use of the language of “sacrament” suggests that though he is making a historical argument about the continuities between Tobit, Sirach, rabbinic Judaism, and early Christianity, he is also making a theological point not only about how charity has been understood by Christians but how charity should be understood by Christians.  Quite simply Anderson believes that charity to the poor has the power to save because one meets Christ through the concrete showing of mercy.  The poor are quite literally sacramental because they are mediators of the Godhead.  Anderson supports this way of understanding charity by quoting Pope Leo the Great (d. 461) who claimed that almsgiving is “so important that, though the other virtues exist without it, they can be of no avail.  For although a person be full of faith, and chaste, and sober, and adorned with other still greater decorations, yet if he is not merciful, he cannot deserve mercy.  For the Lord says ‘blessed are the merciful for God shall have mercy on them.’” (Matthew 5: 7) [16]

Anderson, also, draws attention to the observation by Basil the Great that when one assists the poor a gift is offered but in the form of a loan.  It is a gift, according to Basil “because of the expectation of no repayment, but a loan because of the great gift of the Master who pays in his place.”  Anderson suggests Basil observation supports the sacrificial character of charity.  It does so because such a view of charity challenges the presumption that charity is primarily for the poor person.  That the gift is in the form of a loan, Anderson suggests, means the natural interpretation of the giving of the loan assumes God will provide the appropriate reward.

Anderson argues that would be a misinterpretation of how Basil understands almsgiving.  Basil, according to Anderson, means quite literally that God receives the gift given to the poor.  Anderson supports this reading of Basil by calling attention to Basil’s admonition that Christians should, “Give the money, since it is lying idle, without weighing it down with additional charges, and it will be good for both of you.  That will be for you (the donor) the assurance of the money’s safety because of God’s custody; for (the poor) who receives it, there it there is the advantage of its use.  And, if you are seeking additional payment, be satisfied with that from the Lord.  He Himself will pay the interest for the poor.  Expect kindly acts from Him who is truly kind.”[17]

Bruce Longenecker in his Remember the Poor provides a compelling account of Paul’s concern that the poor be remembered that supports Anderson’s account.  In particular he argues that Paul’s mission to the Gentiles as well as his encounters Greco-Roman urbanites, suggests that Paul embodied and exemplified the interconnections between Eucharistic action and the care for the poor.  Paul understood the care of the poor as the outworking of divine grace found in Christ, but Longenecker argues this did not distinguish the Jesus-movement understanding of these matters from Judaism.  According to Longenecker the only difference between the Jewish and Christian understanding of charity was the Christian inclusion of gentiles as recipients of charity.[18]

That is why I Corinthians 11 is so important for Longenecker because there we see explicitly how Eucharistic action and the poor were linked by the presumption that through sacrifice.  Longenecker observes that the poor lay at the heart of Paul’s theology because “caring for the poor lies at the heart of the identity of Jesus-followers, because it lies at the heart of the story of Jesus who is proclaimed as Lord and at the heart of the story of the sovereign deity who judges all.  For Paul, remembering the poor was to lie at the heart of the eschatological identity of communities he had founded, and was itself a practice integral to an embodied proclamation of the good news.”[19]

This becomes particularly important because it helps us better understand the political implications of the Jewish and Christian understanding of the obligation to care for the poor.  For what was so startling about that commitment, at least what is so startling if the likes of Peter Brown and Bruce Lonenecker are right, is the commitment to care for the poor was unknown by the Romans.[20]  To be sure some Romans were benevolent but they gave to the poor primarily as a way to be recognized as an important person to whom honor is due rather than an expression of care for those in poverty.[21]

Indeed Peter Brown even suggests that Christian bishops invented “the poor.”[22]  They did so not simply by urging wealthy Christians to give to the poor, but by claiming that the community as a whole as represented by the office of the Bishop had a responsibility to care for the poor.[23]  To claim to have such a responsibility meant the poor could be identified as a class of people who had a claim on the church.  As a result “the poor” were singled out as an entity in a manner that was simply unknown in the ancient world.[24] According to Brown the bishops seem to have understood that care for the poor represented a power that gave them social standing otherwise unavailable.  Brown even suggest that charity toward the poor was one of the main reasons Christianity became the established religion of Rome.

Brown’s point can be nicely supported by the famous episode in which the emperor Julian tried to force pagan priests to give alms to the poor in the hopes they could out do the Christians.  As Longenecker observes Julian sought to trump the generosity of Christians in the hope that Pagan religions might reclaim their influence in Rome.  Julian it seems recognized a real enemy when he saw it.  Thus his claim that “the impious Galileans” support not only the poor, but ours as well and he did not mean it as a compliment.[25]

By calling attention to Anderson’s and Longenecker’s account of charity I have tried to show what an extraordinary thing it was for Christians to continue Israel’s presumption that to care for the poor cannot be separated from their worship of God.  But we dare not forget that it is Jesus that we worship as Christians.  That means how Christians understand charity may not be the same as how that practice is understood in Judaism.  Yet I hope I have made clear whatever that difference may be the common commitment is stronger yet.  The gospels make clear that those that were poor and vulnerable were of particular significance in Jesus’ ministry.  But just as important is the recognition that the one who said you will always have the poor with you was poor.[26]  That is the one we meet in prison, who is hungry and sick, that is the one with whom we eat when we share his body and blood.

Charity in the World of Capitalism: Some Christian Responses

You may now be wondering if not puzzled where we have gotten.  I began by recounting contemporary worries and doubts about aid to the poor by secular as well as Christian agents.  Charity from such a perspective seems to do more harm than good.  But now I have given you an account of charity that makes it obligatory on Christians.  Does that mean we must do what cannot help but be a failure in the name of serving our God.  How to go on?

I will have some suggestions about how to go on, but first I have to make matters even more complex by engaging questions about charity in modernity.  One of the reasons, and it may well be the reason, charity has become problematic in our day is due to the transformation of our lives by what is generally known as capitalism.  I cannot, even if I were competent to do so, provide an account of that multi-splendid thing we call capitalism.  But what I need to do is at least suggest how some aspects of Adam Smith’s account of capitalism has implications for how we understand as well as practice charity.

I need to warn you this is not a diatribe against capitalism.  Indeed my primary purpose is to give an account of what I take to be the great moral project that shaped Smith’s account of capitalism.  That purpose can be put very simply.  Smith sought to do nothing less than to give an account of emerging economic relations that would eliminate the poor.  He wanted to make begging a thing of the past.  Through the division of labor and the establishment of a free market he sought to show how a system was possible in which wealth would be created sufficient to make every person self-sufficient.

Smith was, of course, a great moral philosopher having written The Theory of Moral Sentiment prior to writing An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations.[27] Kelly Johnson, whose work I am indebted for the account of capitalism I am about to give, describes questions about the relation of these two books as the “Adam Smith problem.”   The problem, according to Johnson, is The Theory of Moral Sentiments has at center of Smith’s ethics sympathy but Wealth of Nations seems to assume we are self-interested agents because if we were not self-interested competition as the organizing principle of social organization could not be sustained.  What seems to be a contradiction between these two perspectives Johnson argues is a deep mistake.  It is so because the way Smith understands sympathy is not opposed to what seems to be an underwriting of self-interest in The Wealth of Nation.[28]

Sympathy, for Smith, is the key to our moral lives.  It is so because sympathy makes possible the imaginative possibility that I can imagine, even against my own will, other peoples situations and lives.  We are people affected by other people making possible our ability to understand lives quite different than our own.  Smith saw no tension between sympathy and self-interest given the fact I am only able to know myself by seeing myself reflected through the eyes of others.  Smith’s account of this process is very complex, but suffice it to say that Smith sought to give an account of our dealings with one another that makes possible our ability to take an impartial perspective that is equivalent to reason itself.

Once the significance of sympathy is recognized as the heart of Smith’s understanding of the moral life the importance of the division of labor can be appreciated not only because it makes possible wealth but it does so by forcing us to sympathetically to imaginatively enter the lives of others.  The “system” is meant to create a world in which I can desire the admiration of others because I have the ability to admire others.  That, however, is why Smith has such a problem with beggars.  Because Beggars do not seek to be admired they become parasites.  Johnson observes Smith thought people rightly despised beggars because they do not want to feel, as they will be tempted to do, any sympathy with those who refuse to be self sufficient.  Beggars are morally corrupt because they refuse to “see” themselves rightly by entering into the perspective of the impartial spectator.  Instead Beggars use their suffering to coerce others to be in sympathy with them.[29]

Smith distinguished, however, between the poor and beggars.  The poor could be subject to our sympathy as long as they sought to be like those who were not poor.  Yet it was Smith’s hope that capitalism as a system for the production of wealth would provide an alternative that would eliminate poverty.  Indeed one way to think of Smith’s vision is to see capitalism itself as a system of charity.  No longer will individual acts of charity be required because the system itself will raise all the boats as the water rises.  Capitalism so understood is an extraordinary utopian project.

Of course the difficulty with such projects is they invite the illusion that though things may not be working out, i.e., we still have the poor among us, all we need is more time and the system will take care of itself.  The other alternative is to blame those who have not become self-sufficient by suggesting they lack some essential virtues to make the system work.  As a result the poor get blamed for being poor.  I hardly need to mention that the poor are often subject to such judgments in advanced capitalist societies.

It did not take long for those deeply influenced by Smith to recognize that the poor were not going away.  The inequality of wealth as well as the continuing existence of beggars made it clear that the poor, particularly the poor in England and America, were not simply an anomaly.   What would be the Christian response?   The name of the response, a name that is still quite prominent among those who want to do “something about the poor,” is called stewardship.  Johnson, interestingly enough, credits John Wesley as the originator of this response to poverty.  Thus the Methodist slogan:  Make all you can, give all you can.

Though Johnson credits Wesley with the idea of stewardship as a way for Christians to care for the poor, it was Archbishop Sandy that was the first to state the fundamental idea that defined stewardship.  According to Sandy “The rich man is a servant to the poor, to relieve and comfort him as he is able; for that is right and to that end God hath made him rich, that he as a faithful steward may bestow rich blessings upon the family and household of God.”[30]

According to Kelly Johnson the problem with this strategy as a response to poverty is it conflates two claims, that is, only God is the true owner of my wealth, yet the wealth is a gift given to a person, who therefore has uncontestable right to do what they wish with the money.[31]  Moreover stewardship gives far too much control over our assumed private “property.”  As a result, Johnson observes, stewardship as a way to negotiate wealth occludes other theological questions about matters such as just wages or the ethics of usury.[32]

There was another alternative in response to the kind of poverty capitalism produces.  It was called the social gospel.  The social gospel was a movement in the late nineteenth century in response to economic depression and poverty that was devastating the industrial cities of the United States.  Those associated with the social gospel saw that it was not sufficient to care for the poor through charitable acts for the problem of poverty was systemic.  Christians should continue to be charitable, but far more important was addressing the social conditions that made them poor in the first place.

As the social gospel developed the language of justice began to displace charity as a description of how Christians should respond to poverty.  Charity sounded too much like philanthropy and philanthropy was seen to be part of the problem.  It was part of the problem because too often what was given the poor served to mask from the giver and receiver the structural injustices that kept people in poverty.  Reinhold Niebuhr was the great name associated with this turn toward justice.

In particular Niebuhr’s book, Moral Man and Immoral Society, a book that Niebuhr understood to be quite critical of the moral idealism of the social gospel, represented the turn toward justice as crucial for addressing question of poverty and inequities.[33]  In particular Niebuhr was quite critical of what he took to be the political naivity of the social gospel.   What the representatives of the social gospel missed, from Niebuhr’s perspective, was the role of power for the achievement of justice.  For Niebuhr the only way to do something substantive about poverty was to use the technologies of power available to the dispossessed to challenge the often hidden power of the established order.

Yet when the poor used strikes and other forms of direct confrontation they were often described as being unreasonable at best and at worst it was said they threatened violence.  Those that benefit from the way things are always call for peace or, once confronted by those they have oppressed, say they cannot respond to violence.  What those that benefit from the way things are cannot recognize is “that when collective power, whether in the form of imperialism or class domination, exploits weakness, it can never be dislodged unless power is raised against it.”[34]  For Niebuhr, therefore, if you want justice you must recognize that conflict and possibly violence will be necessary.

Crucial for Niebuhr’s position was the presumption that democracy was the most preferable form of government for the achievement of more nearly just social orders.  It is so because democracy allows if you demands that open ended conflict be part of the social organism.  Niebuhr knew well, as he acknowledges in Moral Man and Immoral Society, that democracies are the creature of as well as the servant of commercial classes, but he argued that though democracy was subject to ideological perversion it is the best alternative we have if we want to achieve justice for the poor.

But that means that a commitment to justice requires those so committed abandon any presumption that justice can be achieved without the use of force.  Thus Niebuhr’s forceful claim that “once we have made the fateful concession of ethics to politics, and accepted coercion as a necessary instrument of social cohesion, we can make no absolute distinction between non-violent and violent types of coercion or between weapons used by governments and those used by revolutionaries.”[35]

I think it fair to say that Niebuhr changed the world in terms of how Christians particularly in America understood how the poor were to be served.  Rather than focusing of individual acts of charity now Christians tried to imagine social policies that would make the poor no longer poor.  Niebuhr’s extraordinary ability to imagine as well as support policies that offered some care for the poor was remarkable.

Christians, under the influence of Niebuhr, became more concerned with trying to make the government the agent of care for the poor rather than “remember the poor.”  For the political realm was seen as the way social goals could be used to qualify the excesses of capitalism.  As a result Christians increasingly came to believe that their obligation to care about the poor could be met by voting for the left wing of the Democratic Party—a vain ambition given the fact that there is now no left wing of the democratic party left.

Often the result of these strategies was nicely articulated by Peter Maurin in one of his Easy Essays. Maurin, Dorothy Day’s great friend, observes:

At the beginning of Christianity the hungry were fed, the naked were clothed, the, homeless were sheltered, ignorant were instructed at a personal sacrifice. And the pagans used to say about the Christians. “See how they love one another.” The pagans do no longer say about the Christians, “See how they love one another,” but say, “See how they pass the buck to social agencies.”

It would be unfair to suggest that Niebuhr is the person responsible for the results Maurin finds so regrettable.  Yet Niebuhr, in many ways still a child of the social gospel, legitimated the presumption by many Christians that the best way to express our obligation to the poor was by being on the right side politically.  There is nothing wrong with thinking it important to be on the right political side, but lost in that way of trying to fulfill our obligation to the poor is how we find in the face of the poor the face of Christ.  Missing in Niebuhr is any understanding of the relation between worship and charity Anderson so helpfully made articulate.

I am not in any way trying to belittle or leave behind the commitment to justice for the poor the social gospel and Niebuhr represented.  I worry, however, when that way of understanding the Christian obligation to be with the poor overwhelms concrete acts of charity.  Interestingly enough I suspect the social gospel and Niebuhr’s way of trying to create more just societies was a quite appropriate response to capitalism.  But I fear too often the attempt to defeat an enemy may make us a mirror image of that we oppose.

A Plea for Charity

As I noted above I am often criticized for my claim that the first task of the church is not to make the world more just but to make the world the world.  Given the account of charity I have tried to develop I hope that claim may not appear so self-satisfied.  For it is only when the church is a community of charity that the world has some means of recognizing itself.  Though the world may often appear to be more charitable than the church it is crucial to remember that for the church the care of the poor cannot be separated from the worship of God.  Worship makes possible, I hope to suggest, that Christians have the time to be with the poor.  Put even more strongly Christians can imagine being poor.

“World” names the impatience with the poor for their inability to imagine not being poor.  The world does not have time to be with the poor, to learn with the poor, to listen to the poor.  To listen to the poor is an exercise of great discipline, but such listening surely is what is required if charity is not to become a hatred of the poor for being poor.  We must listen to the stories the poor have to tell because only by listening to such stories do we have the means to know how to go on.

If we do not learn, as Wells argues, to be with the poor we will continue to be caught on the unhappy ecclesial choices of being a church whose identity is primarily constituted by worship of God and a church which is fundamentally about “social action.”  By calling attention to Anderson and Longencker I have tried to provide an account that is an alternative to that unhappy choice.  Worship and charity are inseparable. The challenge is to know what that might look like.  What does learning to be “with” look like.

I suspect most rich Christians, filled as we are with the anxiety about our wealth, try to do something for the poor before we have listened to their story.  Of course listening, being with, and working with the poor are not mutually exclusive activities, but I fear we often want to help the poor without getting to know who the poor may be.  I suspect we do so not from some ideology against the poor but rather I suspect we prefer to do for the poor rather than be with the poor because the poor scare the hell out of us.

As an alternative I think as Christians we need to know how to be with the poor in a manner that the gifts that the poor receive do not make impossible friendship between the giver and the recipient.  For friendship is the heart of the matter if we remember that charity first and foremost names God’s befriending of us.  If the poor are not befriended there is no way to avoid the problems I sketched at the beginning of this essay.  I do not mean to suggest that friendship is some kind of magical relation that will make the dependencies associated with aid less likely.  Friendships, at least superficial friendships, are just as likely to produce dependency as direct aid.

But genuine friendship depends on people being truthful with one another.  There is no substitute for people being honest.  That means one should never confuse an unwillingness to tell the truth with charity.  It is, moreover, true that simply because someone is poor they will not lie.  Not to hold the poor accountable for what they say and do is to rob them of learning to live a life worth living. 

I cannot help but conclude that Christians now owe our poor brothers and sisters the truth.  That truth is quite simple.  It is, as Pope Francis suggests in his Apostolic Exhortation, Evangelii Gaudium, that “God’s heart has a special place for the poor, so much so that he himself ‘became poor’” (II Cor. 8: 9).  The entire history of our redemption is marked by the presence of the poor.  Salvation came to us from the ‘yes’ uttered by a lowly maiden from a small town on the fringes of a great empire.  The Saviour was born in a manger, in the midst of animals, like children of poor families…When he began to preach the Kingdom crowds of the dispossessed followed him, illustrating his words: ‘The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor’ (Luke 4: 18).  He assured those burdened by sorrow and crushed by poverty that God has a special place in his heart:  ‘Blessed are you poor, yours is the kingdom of God.’” [36]

Pope Francis continues observing the option for the poor by the church is first and foremost a theological category rather than a cultural, sociological, political, or philosophical one.  He obviously does not think these categories are mutually exclusive, but the theological emphasis is significant because, as he puts it, he wants “a Church which is poor and for the poor.  They have much to teach us.  Not only do they share in the sensus fidei, but in their difficulties they know the suffering of Christ.  We need to let ourselves be evangelized by them.” (198)

Pope Francis’s rhetoric can invite sentimental construal of what it means to be poor, but he indicates he understands how what he is calling for will demand much of those called to befriend as well as be befriended by the poor.  Though he does not discount the importance of activities or programs to assist the poor his primary emphasis is how, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, we can become attentive to the poor.  Such an “attentiveness is the beginning of a true concern for the person which inspires in me effectively to seek their good.  This entails appreciating the poor in their goodness, in their experience of life, in their culture, and in their way of living the faith.  True love is always contemplative, and permits us to serve the other not out of necessity or vanity, but rather because he or she is beautiful and beyond mere appearances.” (199)

There is nothing naïve about Pope Francis’ call for the church to attend the poor.  From his perspective it is not sufficient to do something for the poor.  Rather they must be included in work we are all called to perform for the common good.  Pope Francis seems to understand that friendship with the poor is more likely when we have work to do in common.  So it is not us and them, but rather how we become one in that work that is rest called the worship of God.  Charity so understood surely has some chance of being with the poor in a manner that avoids the dishonesty and dependency associated with charity aimed at doing something for the poor.

For in truth the deepest problem is most of us want to be agents of charity without having to receive charity.  But the truth is our very being depends on our learning to receive the gift of Christ.  Pope Francis suggests that perhaps the greatest failure of the church’s care of the poor is the lack of spiritual care for the poor.  He observes that the majority of the poor have a special openness to the faith, but they need God and the church cannot fail to offer them God’s friendship.  Such an offer begins with basics such as sharing with one another the celebration of the sacraments.  (200)

Pope Francis does not make any specific recommendations about policy for state agencies to do something about poverty.  But he is quite explicit that the “thou shalt not kill” applies to what he describes as economies of exclusion and inequality.  When an elderly homeless person dies of exposure we should rightly call that murder.  We simply cannot stand by when food is thrown away while people are starving.  (53)  Nor can we wait for “trickle-down theories to work because they will never work.  Rather what must be acknowledged is “the culture of prosperity deadens us.”  (54)  Accordingly he uses strong language arguing that “not to share one’s wealth with the poor is to steal from them and to take away their livelihood.  (57)

Like Paul we are asked to do one thing – remember the poor.  Such a remembrance turns out to be a challenge for no other reason than it will force us to identify not “the poor” but this person’s suffering.  As I suggested at the beginning of this paper locating the poor is no easy matter, but it has to start somewhere because there is no anywhere.  But there is this elderly couple who have run out of money who sit in the pew in front of me every Sunday.  That is where I think we must begin if we are “to remember the poor.”

© Stanley Hauerwas

Stanley Hauerwas is the Gilbert T. Rowe Professor of Theological Ethics at the Divinity School of Duke University, USA. Though he is often identified as an ethicist, his work is more properly described as theology.


  • [1] Bruce Longenecker,  Remember the Poor:  Paul, Poverty, and the Greco-Roman World  (Grand Rapids:  Eerdmans, 2010), p. 202.
  • [2] Longenecker, Remember the Poor, p. 1.
  • [3] I am indebted to conversations with Luke Bretherton for helping me articulate these worries.
  • [4] For an extremely instructive account of the development of economics as a mathematical science as well as some of the problematic aspects of that development see E. Roy Weintraub, How Economics Became a Mathematical Science  (Durham:  Duke University Press, 2002). 
  • [5] For an account of as well as a critique of modern economics for disembedding economic relations from social and political realities see Luke Bretherton’s, Title of New book, Chapter 8.   
  • [6] I am thinking primarily of Daniel Bell’s,  Liberation Theology After the End of History:  The Refusal to Cease Suffering  (London: Routledge,2001); Kelly Johnson,  The Fear of Beggars:  Stewardship and Poverty in Christian Ethics  (Grand Rapids:  Eerdmans, 2007); Christopher Franks,  He Became Poor: The Poverty of Christ and Aquinas’s Economic Teachings  (Grand Rapids:  Eerdmans, 2009); and Kathryn Blanchard,  The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism:  Christians, Freedom, and Free Markets  (Eugene, Oregon:  Cascade Books, 2010). 
  • [7] I am thinking of books like William Easterly’s,  The White Man’s Burden:  Why the West’s Efforts to Aid the Rest Have done so Much Ill and So Little Good  (Oxford:  Oxford University Press, 2007) or Thomas Dicter, Despite Good Intentions:  Why Development Assistance to the Third World Has Failed (Amherst:  University of Massachusetts Press, 2003).  More controversial is Dembrisa Moyo, Dead Aid:  Why Aid Isn’t Working and How There is a Better Way for Africa  (New York:  Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2009).  For a more positive view see Jeffrey Sacks,  The End of Poverty:  Economic Possibilities in Our Time  (New York:  Penguin Group, 2005)
  • [8] Robert Lupton,  Toxic Charity:  How Churches and Charities Hurt Those They Help  (New York:  Harper Collins, 2011).
  • [9] Samuel Wells,  God’s Companions:  Reimagining Christian Ethics  (Oxford:  Blackwell Publishing, 2006), p. 7.
  • [10] I once had an encounter with a very influential Southern Baptist seminary president whose office was filled with the heads of wild animals he had killed in Africa after he had been on mission trips to that continent.  I hope I may be forgiven for being a bit cynical about his motivations for such trips given his love of killing the animals of Africa.
  • [11] For an extremely insightful account of the IAF see Jeffrey Stout,  Blessed Are The Organized:  Grassroots Democracy In America  (Princeton:  Princeton University Press, 2010).  Stout provides a wonderful account of how anger can be and often is a resource for social change.  He also stresses the importance that political action be concrete.  He is quite critical, therefore, of the utopian visions often associated with Christian social commitments which, as Stout wonderfully puts it, end up “unwittingly assisting actual lions in the destruction of actual lambs.” p. 42.  For Stout on the iron rule see pp. 136-137.
  • [12] Lupton, Toxic Charity, p. 8.
  • [13] Gary Anderson, Charity:  The Place of the Poor in the Biblical Tradition  (New Have:  Yale University Press, 2013), p. 4.
  • [14] Anderson, p. 30.
  • [15] Anderson, Charity, p. 105.
  • [16] Anderson, Charity, p. 9.
  • [17] Anderson, Charity, p. 31.
  • [18] Longenecker, Remember the Poor, p. 206.
  • [19] Longenecker, Approaching the End, p. 155.
  • [20] Longenecker provides an extensive treatment of the Roman treatment of the poor in Remember the Poor, pp. 60-107.
  • [21] Longenecker,  Remember the Poor, p. 107.
  • [22] Longenecker provides a very useful account of the economic and political classes in ancient Rome in Remember the Poor, pp. 36-59.
  • [23] Robert Wilken makes this point in his The First Thousand Years:  A Global History of Christianity  (New Haven:  Yale University Press, 2012), pp. 156-157.
  • [24] Peter Brown, Poverty and Leadership in the Later Roman Empire  (Hanover, NH:  University Press of New England, 2002), pp. 6-9
  • [25] Longenecker and Anderson report on the Emperor Julian’s attempt to reestablish pagan religion through generosity.  See, Longenecker,  Remember the Poor, pp. 86-87 and Anderson, Charity, p. 17.  
  • [26] For my reflections on this claim see my sermon entitled, “The Appeal of Judas,” in my A Cross-Shattered Church:  Reclaiming the Theological Heart of Preaching  (Grand Rapids:  Brazos Press, 2009), pp. 94-98.
  • [27] Adam Smith,  The Theory of Moral Sentiments, edited by Raphael and Macfie.  (Oxford:  Clarendon Press, 1976).  Adam Smith, An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations, edited by Campbell and Skinner (Indianapolis:  Liberty Classics, 1981).
  • [28] Kelly Johnson, The Fear of Beggars, p. 102.
  • [29] Johnson, The Fear of Beggars, p. 106.  Johnson notes that there is a shift in Smith’s views of beggars from the Theory of Moral Sentiments to The Wealth of Nations.  In the former beggars are by definition ignoble, but in The Wealth of Nations begging is but one form of exchange that commercial life depends on.(p. 109) The difficult, of course, is that beggars are not productive, but then neither are most priests.  Smith, of course, was not that happy with priests.      
  • [30] Quoted by Johnson, The Fear of Beggars, p. 80.
  • [31] Johnson, The Fear of Beggars, p. 88.
  • [32] Johnson, The Fear of Beggars, p. 98.
  • [33] Reinhold Niebuhr,  Moral Man and Immoral Society  (New York:  Scribner, 1932)
  • [34] Niebuhr, Moral Man and Immoral Society, p. xii.
  • [35] Niebuhr, Moral Man and Immoral Society, 179 
  • [36] Pope Francis,  Evangelii Gaudium, paragraph number will appear in the text.