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WHAT IS OUR CHRISTIAN RESPONSIBILITY TO THE POOR?
Eric Snow, sermonette, 1-8-05, Ann Arbor, Michigan UCG
The recent Tsunami disaster along the coastline of the Indian Ocean in Asia is an almost unimaginable disaster. Can we really conceive of (say) 150,000 people suddenly getting killed in just a few hours? (Show pictures out of Newsweek). If you are a typical American, and you’re not a veteran who had combat experience, it’s likely you’ve only seen dead people at funerals, in the hospital, or perhaps a close relative who died at home. The need for mass burials to prevent disease, in which huge holes are dug by bulldozers and earth moving equipment and dozens of bodies just thrown in before being covered up, is a mind blowing horror to us. Lafarge’s own likely 300+ dead in Aceh, Indonesia at its cement plant there.
As a result of this incredible disaster, some have called on President Bush to cancel the parties and unnecessary events his inauguration this month. They will cost, in privately donated funds, about $40 million. Is it a sin for him not to do so? Should he at least trim back? Speaking more generally, is life meant to be a perpetual guilt trip about any pleasures we have that others don’t have?
But this disaster leads to a much broader issue: What should Christians do to help the poor? How much should they give, as a percentage of their income? How much should we help people who are in the world, who aren’t true Christians? How much should we do in good works to help the poor and weak? How much time or money should we spend in service projects or on charities in our local communities?
We have to consider whether or not we’re giving enough in money to help the poor. For there’s no question that Scripture is full of statements about God’s people needing to sacrifice to help the poor.
S.P.S. While avoid extremism and wasteful charity, we as Christians need to examine ourselves personally about whether we are giving enough money and time in good works to help the weak and poor.
It’s admittedly easy to have some resentment on this issue because of how the tithing system in the church worked years ago. We tithed on gross, and paid a separate third tithe twice in a seven year cycle. But we aren’t off the hook completely just because the UCG has officially declared that our human governments, if they use enough in taxes to aid the needy, are collecting the third tithe from us already.
We can turn to many, many texts on this subject. The Old and New Testaments are full of them. So, do we think that after paying our taxes we don’t need to do anything more? I really think we should. Consider how wealthy average Americans are, compared to most in the world today and compared to most people in the past. Many unimaginable or rare luxuries of (say) two centuries ago are now totally commonplace, such as having cars, hot and cold running water, electricity, refrigerators, color TV’s, telephones, personal computers, etc. Even after Caesar (or Uncle Sam) takes his mandatory cut of our income, we still have far more than most in the world have. Should we be giving up more of it?
Have we structured our lives economically that it is hard to give anything? Have we bought as big of a house and as expensive of a car as possible? Then do we think, “We’ve got nothing left over to give?” Is this reasoning spiritually good? This gets back to the kind of brass tack specifics I raised in my last sermonette. Should we, say, divert some of the money that would go into our 401K for retirement, and turn that into treasure in heaven instead? Is it radical thinking that if we could easily afford a Buick that instead we should get a Chevy, and give the difference to help the poor in the church or the world? (Admittedly, the old third tithe system forced decisions harsher than this to be made).
Let’s take the last verse first. Our first priority should be to help brethren in need. It’s much easier to help effectively those we know rather than those we don’t, or those who share our values rather than those who don’t. Victor Kubik’s recent article in the United News, “Life Nets,” set of rules for helping. Example of insecticide treated nets that saved members from dying from malaria: Small expense, big payoff. Micro-businesses, self-sufficiency goal, making distinction between worthy and unworthy poor, must work to eat issue.
Now, for the other verse: Do we suffer from “compassion fatigue”? After all, we all know, long before the tsunamis hit Asia, what a bottomless pit the Third world countries in their needs. But, much like preaching the gospel to the world, just because the task is so gigantic doesn’t mean we shouldn’t do anything. For example, maybe when we come to the Sip N Snack each month we should donate canned goods that are equal or twice as much in cost to what we bring to eat then. So that when we feed ourselves then, we also help to feed others later. If we lack money, but still have reasonable health, we can give our time instead by joining various service projects in our local communities that help others, such as (say) literacy tutoring.
Have you heard of “practical atheists”? These are people who say they believe in God, but that belief has no obvious effect on how they live their lives.
Well, are we “practical Ayn Randians”? That is, by our voluntary actions do we mostly deny any responsibility to the poor and weak? For paying our tithes and paying our taxes merely proves we aren’t thieves and that we don’t want to go to jail. There’s not much positive moral merit to do what’s required.
True, we have to avoid extremism on this subject. The old way of doing a separate third tithe on gross income, at least for some people, came down to this. This issue comes up with Bush’s inauguration about canceling all the parties and extra events involved. For calls to cancel them may be taking advantage of a human tragedy to make political cheap shots. They may also reflect envy as well. For almost any expense anybody makes, above a bare subsistence level, besides preaching the gospel, will be less worthy than spending money on the victims of the Tsunamis. For example, suppose someone said here today, “All the money we would spend today at restaurants while fellowshipping should be instead be sent to the American Red Cross to help people in Asia hit by these giant waves”? Do we think, emotionally, like Ayn Rand did in this extract from “Atlas Shrugged” (read from p. 958 or p. 956). We also know that government provided charity can backfire, by breeding dependency among the poor and by imposing forced heavy burdens on taxpayers that kill their incentives to produce. The results of the 1990’s welfare reform law shows that many who were dependent can be forced to become independent. A distinction between the worthy and unworthy poor needs to be made, which angers liberals, “blaming the victim,” etc. Those who inflicted misery on themselves, largely or completely, and those who were wrecked by forces mostly or entirely beyond their control, should be treated differently. The illegitimacy, divorce, career change, family life, feminization of poverty, Mother Teresa (by 1970, foundations saved nearly 8000 destitute outcasts in Calcutta alone from death) examples/issues.
Conclusion: We need to be willing to give voluntarily help to the poor above what is required by taxes and tithes. We need to study our own financial condition and personal lives, and see if we could give more money and time in doing good works. True, we do need to avoid extremism in how much we give, such as occurred in some cases under the old third tithe system. We also should give wisely, in ways that aren’t wasteful and don’t exploit the giver by breeding laziness in the receiver. We should also prioritize helping brethren in need first. But we must not casually blow off the many texts that speak of our duties to the poor, for do we believe it when Jesus said in Luke 12:33-34: “Sell what you have and give alms; provide yourselves money bags which do not grow old, a treasure in the heavens that does not fail, where no thief approaches nor moth destroys. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”
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