Saturday, February 6, 2010

Jesus vs. Robin Hood

Several years ago, there was a fad in which people wore bracelets, shirts, hats, and other paraphernalia emblazoned with the letters “WWJD.” The letters stood for the phrase “what would Jesus do?” and encouraged the wearer to think about how Jesus would react to a situation and follow His lead. But how would Jesus react to the public policy debates that are currently raging in our country?

Jesus cared for the poor. Much of His time on Earth was spent ministering to the poor. There is evidence that that Jesus and His disciples gave money to the poor. In Matthew 26:6-13, a woman pours oil on Jesus’ head and the disciples are aghast. They complain to Jesus that the oil could have been sold and proceeds given to the poor. Jesus answers that the poor will always be present, but that she had anointed Jesus for burial, since He knew that His death was coming soon.

Similarly, in Matthew 19:16-22, a rich young man comes to Jesus and asks how to have eternal life. Jesus replies that he should keep the commandments. Then, when pressed, Jesus tells him that he should sell he has and give it to the poor in order to store up treasures in heaven. After the young man sadly leaves, Jesus makes His famous statement that “it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God” (v. 24). He goes on to say that while this is impossible with man, “with God all things are possible” (v. 26).

After the resurrection of Jesus and the spread of the new church throughout the Roman Empire, helping the poor remained a cornerstone of Christianity. There are numerous references to early churches helping the poor in the books of the New Testament. Several references in Acts speak of gifts to the poor (2:45, 9:36, 10:5, 10:31, 24:17). One passage in Acts (4:32), even contains a description of what some call an early form of communism in which the Christians pooled all of their possessions. In Romans 15:26, Paul writes in praise of Macedonian and Achaeans Christians who helped the poor of Jerusalem. In Galatians 2:10, Paul states that the early church leaders were all in agreement that Christians should remember and help the poor. James instructed us to not give preferential treatment to the rich (James 2:2-6).

Many liberals and progressives through the years have taken these exhortations to heart. Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal and Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society were attempts to help the poor by utilizing the machinery of government. One problem with these type of governmental programs is that they are notoriously inefficient, which makes us poor stewards of the resources that we have been given (Matthew 25:14-30). Similarly, the government approach too often finds money going to corrupt organizations like ACORN instead of groups that can provide real help such as the Salvation Army, CARE, and the Red Cross, to name a few.

Another problem with the governmental approach is that there is no Christian precedent for involuntarily taking from one person to give to another. All of the gifts to the poor that have been described here were voluntary. None were compulsory. Even if we look to the tithe of the Old Testament law, it was not taken by force even though it was claimed directly by God.

In contrast, when the government takes over the role of charities, it does so by using the “WWRHD” method. What would Robin Hood do? Robin Hood stole from the rich to give to the poor. Modern day governmental income redistribution programs do the same thing. Money is taxed from those in the upper income brackets and redistributed through government programs to those in lower income brackets. Along the way the government takes a cut for administrative costs and overhead.

A key difference between the days of Robin Hood and modern times, however, is that the rich of Robin Hood’s day were pretenders. Prince John has assumed the throne the absence of his brother, Richard the Lion Hearted, who was the rightful king. John and his friends were essentially looting the kingdom and living off of the rightful belongings of others.

In contrast, the rich of our society are primarily entrepreneurs and businessmen who have earned their wealth legally and constructively. The wealthy of our day do not live off the backs of the lower classes; they drive the economy and provide jobs and wealth for the rest of society… whether they intend to or not!

The wealthy drive the economy in two ways, both of which are beneficial. First, they provide investment capital either through direct investments or through lending. This enables businesses to start or expand. Growing businesses hire new workers, which helps to lift more people out of poverty. Second, the wealthy consume goods and services. This consumption obviously drives businesses that provide these goods and services, enabling them to expand and hire more workers. As jobs are created and more people work their way out of poverty, there is more consumption driving more businesses to hire more workers in a repetitive cycle.

This does not mean that the rich (or the rest of us) should not give to charity. When Jesus instructed us to help the poor, it was as much for our sake as theirs. Learning to give helps the giver as much as the recipient of the gift (and I don’t mean through tax deductions!). Giving helps us break the cycle of materialism and realize that we are not the center of the universe. Giving also makes us feel better about ourselves. When we take time out of our busy lives to aid those who need help, we grow spiritually. We miss out on these gifts of our giving when our money is taken from us and channeled through government.

While taxes take a specified percentage of our income, each individual knows better what he can afford to give. Many people have needs that are not are not reflected in tax laws. For example, some people spend a portion of their income to help support elderly relatives, put siblings through school, or some similar cause that is worthy, yet not tax deductible. Some people might not have money to spare, but can still make donations of their time and effort. These people are short-changed when we consider taxes as the way to support charitable work.

Well meant (but not-so-well thought out) government policies sometimes hurt the very people they were intended to help through the Law of Unintended Consequences. By removing financial barriers to raising children with only one parent, the government contributed to the decline of the family. By essentially paying people not to work, the government keeps countless people from assuming rewarding and fulfilling roles in society.

Finally, when the government assumes the role of charity, it takes away support from real charities. Both Christian and secular charities have much less overhead than the government and can be very effective because they can target their support to people who really need it. Nevertheless, when government takes and increased share of incomes for its redistribution schemes, it takes away from the resources available to these groups. If people take home less money, they have less to give to charity.

Jesus does want us to support the poor, but he was more concerned about the spiritual welfare of both the rich and the poor than the physical condition of any of us (Mark 9:47). His primary concern was that we become aware of our sinfulness and accept the salvation that He offers. Charitable giving is one of the ways that we can spread the gospel message, while helping ourselves and others at the same time. When Robin Hood politicians usurp the role of charities, we all become both spiritually and financially poorer.


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