Abdication of responsibility is not a Christian value

There’s a meme-pic circulating right now quoting Jimmy Carter, which essentially says that you can’t object to tax dollars going to help the poor and still claim Christian values.

Really? I’m all ears. Please show the book, chapter and verse where it says “Render unto Caesar so that Caesar may help the poor.” You can claim Christ’s backing on a great many things, but you will be hard pressed to provide evidence that Christ ever advocated something so indirect and poorly-executed as governmentalized charity. Can you even call it charity if someone takes money from you and then decides how they want to help the poor with it, putting some in their own pocket along the way. It’s not charity if it’s mandatory.

On a very high level Mr. Carter is correct. If you are truly a Christian you can’t object to helping the poor. But to say that in order to be Christian you must support the government using your tax dollars to help the poor is really, really a stretch. If you can’t think of at least a few reasons why the government might not be your first choice for distributing charity your faith in government is approaching religious zealotry levels, and you really need to take a much harder look at government in general, and ours in particular.

Let’s say there’s a poor person that needs help. Let’s call him Joe, and let’s say that $20 is going to really to help him out right now. What would be the best way to help Joe?:

A) Give Joe $20.
B) Give the United Way $20 to help Joe.
C) Give a church $20 to help Joe.
D) Pay $20 more in taxes to help Joe.

Giving $20 directly to Joe is the most efficient way, obviously. Give it to a charity or even a church and there’s a chance not the full $20 will reach Joe, although that church or charity may have a greater range than you do. If you don’t know Joe personally or know that he needs the help you can’t help Joe at all. And Joe may have an easier time asking a faceless organization for money than someone he knows.

The same could be said for the government as other organizations. They also have the reach to ensure money gets to wherever it is needed. It may even exceed the reach of other organizations. But how much of that $20 gets to Joe? If you just pay $20 more in taxes you’ll be lucky if Joe sees $5. According to this Washington Post info-graph, 13% of taxes go to safety net programs, 21% goes to Medicare, Medicaid, and CHIP, and 20% goes to Social Security. So depending on how you want to define what kind of help Joe needs, he may get only $2.60 of that $20. If he’s a hungry, sick senior citizen he may get as much as $11.20.

But let’s not forget those percentages likely include the cost all the government workers and facilities to implement those programs. The chart didn’t include any separate line items for government payrolls. Now how much do we think Joe’s really getting? You may think it’s acceptable to pay nearly 10 times as much in taxes, or $200 to make sure Joe gets his $20, but what if the government takes another $10 off the top as it’s delivery fee?

Do you get a warm-fuzzy feeling spending $400 to make sure Joe gets $10?

More importantly, what part of my Christian values should tell me 5% efficiency is a great way to help Joe? I don’t know about yours, but mine don’t. My Christian values tell me that if I can’t give the money directly to Joe myself, the next best thing I can do is go to my church with that $20. I can’t vouch for all, but I know that my church (and I know because I’ve been responsible for my congregation’s finances in the past), when I give $20 to help out someone in need, will make sure all $20 goes to help out people in need.

There are no administration costs, because there is exactly one person between me and Joe, and he is a volunteer. What’s more, he knows Joe’s situation specifically. If Joe needs that money for medical bills he can make sure it goes toward his medical bills. If Joe needs it to help pay his utilities it will go toward his utilities. If he needs food, he’ll get at least that much in food. Yes, there are some rules in which they have to operate, but they have much more flexibility than a government program often does. Joe doesn’t have to worry about how to use food stamps for car repairs.

If I happen to live in an area where the contributions are in excess of the local need, that money remains ear-marked for the poor, but gets pulled up to a higher level where it becomes available for areas where the need outweighs the contributions. If any personnel are paid to administrate this, their pay comes out of completely separate contributions and funds. The money dedicated to the poor remains 100% committed to that purpose. It’s sacred money.

So please tell me how it is un-Christian of me to prefer to help the poor by giving to my church instead of paying more taxes? Ideally I would know Joe well enough to know Joe’s needs myself and give that money directly to Joe, but as a backup, I still would prefer my church to the government as the intermediary. Call me funny, but I’d prefer that Joe get $20, not $2.60, or even $11.20. I could help eight “Joe’s” for what it costs me to pay the government to help just one.

But that’s not the only reason why otherwise charitable people might still not want the government as their intermediary. There is always room to disagree over just what really helps the poor. Governments, by nature, are bureaucratic entities. Nothing can get done without first writing a bunch of rules about it first. Ever try to write rules that cover every possible circumstance? Either you are too broad or you are too detailed. What works well in one corner of the country may work terribly in another.

For example, suppose we want to help keep the poor warm in winter, so we set up a program to give poor people $200 per month through the winter to help pay their utility bills. Except that will probably be too much in Florida or Texas (or Hawaii), too little in Alaska, and of no help whatsoever to someone living in their car or on the street. And some people will complain (and not without cause) that just handing them the money doesn’t ensure they don’t squander it on non-essentials.

So if you tweak the program to balance it between the states where it costs more to heat a home and the states where it costs less, and pay the utilitiy companies directly instead, then what? What about the guy in Minnesota who, to save money, bought a small house with a wood stove. He can cut his own wood for free, but needs a truck to haul it, and occasional repairs on his chainsaw. This program can’t help him, even though he’s trying to require as little help as possible.

My church could have found him someone with a truck to help out for next to nothing, paid for his chainsaw repairs, arranged a bunch of teenagers to help him stack it, and commended him for his self-sufficiency. While they were there they might have been able to notice if he needed some additional food to make sure he’s okay should a storm keep him shut in for a few days, or if he has some other needs they might not have known about. There’s little chance the government could be that flexible and that specific.

Let’s get one thing straight: I’m not opposed to my tax dollars going to help the poor. But if I question how they use it, what’s wrong with that? Aren’t we supposed to hold our government accountable for how it uses our tax money? If not, why did so many people get upset about $2000 toilet seats for the military? If we’re going to have them use part of our taxes to help people, shouldn’t we be checking to see if they’re really helping those people? Fire-n-Forget Charity is not really charity. It’s an open invitation to fraud. If you trust the government implicitly you’re not paying attention: the only difference in White House occupancy, usually, is which party’s friends get the graft.

So ideally, at least in my view, we best live up to our Christian values by helping the poor ourselves. We won’t always get it perfect, but we’ll certainly be able to tailor our help to meet the need much better than government can. And, because we can’t be everywhere, we give part of our charity to the most efficient organization we can find to reach out to others.

In some instances that may very well be the government. There is little chance my parents or any of their charitable friends could have provided the institutional-level care my sister required during her life spent in a near-vegetative state. Even if they could have provided the money they couldn’t have provided the care. Nor would it have been as efficient to duplicate hundreds of similar care situations across the state as it would be to fund one facility sufficient to cover the same need.

We need government involved in charitable activities. But we need to build a society, first and foremost, where people, not institutions, take on the bulk of the responsibility for caring for one another. Paying taxes helps, but it’s far too impersonal, and far too inefficient. It’s also not as rewarding. You’ll never get the same satisfaction from helping some nameless face across the country as you will reaching out to your next door neighbor and helping them in specific, meaningful ways. Even just giving some money to the guy at the gas station who asks me to help him out of a tough situation feels better than writing out my tax check. Who gets a surge of satisfaction looking at their paystub and noticing the federal withholding line?

Christ paid his taxes. But how many times did he tell someone who came to him “Hey, I paid taxes. Go ask the Romans for help”? He likely wouldn’t have complained if the Romans did use part of the taxes funds to help the poor (and some Romans were well known for their charity to the Jews). Very little that he did or taught was concerned with the government. He came to teach individuals how to live. And he told individuals to help the poor. His commandments to all of us were much more personal than “give to a faceless entity and hope they do the right thing with it.” His goal was to make government charity unnecessary by having each of us step up to help each other directly.

So you can rightly argue that Christians are failing in that regard. But to claim we don’t live up to our values by refusing to abdicate responsibility for the poor to the government is disingenuous. If paying taxes were all that Christians were doing to help the poor, you could be right in criticizing them for objecting to how the government helps the poor. If you abdicate that responsibility to the government you have little standing to complain.

But criticizing Christians for complaining that they could do a much better job with that part of their taxes the government devotes to helping the poor may very well be off the mark. Who are you to question their Christianity for feeling upset that Joe’s got $2.60 in his pocket instead of $20? Why would Jimmy Carter claim the government is the ideal charitable mechanism, if that’s indeed what he’s suggesting (or, the Internet being what it is, if that’s even what he said)?

Such criticism is similar to claiming that you can’t complain about tax dollars going to fund the military and still claim to value peace. A strong military is only one possible mechanism for peace and, however necessary, not the most ideal one.

I won’t say that “Government is not the answer.” As with the “War is not the answer” trope, that really depends on the question. But when it comes to truly effective charity and caring for the poor, government is far from the best answer. There are certain things governments are good at, and we should fund them to do those things, but when it comes to helping the people around us who need help, we are the answer. And based on his own personal example with Habitat For Humanity and other organizations, I think Jimmy Carter and I can agree on that.

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4 Responses to Abdication of responsibility is not a Christian value

  1. Phillip Lozano says:

    Millions of poor are aided by programs like SNAP and SCHIP. Individual charity is in no position to help that many. “Render unto Caesar so that Caesar may help the poor.” – it sounds clever, but it exposes a fundamental level of myopic self-righteousness that denies the fact that these programs are able to do more to provide food and medical care for the needy than all the church bake sales in the world.

    • Thom says:

      I don’t see why you need to resort to insult. Don’t your arguments stand on their own? I don’t think you appreciate the amount of aid rendered by non-governmental charities each year, but no matter. I conceded in my post that the government has its place in the process, even if it is far from efficient. Too bad you feel the need to dismiss churches and the good they do and, for that matter, seem to miss much of the point of the post.

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