The Christian Obligation to Be Generous to the Poor
Of all the teachings of Jesus certainly laboring for the well being of the poor is of the most central. Any student of Jesus has to be struck by the ethic of sacrificial love and extravagant giving. Consider this teaching recorded in Luke 12:
29 And do not seek what you will eat and what you will drink, and do not keep worrying. 30 For all these things the nations of the world eagerly seek; but your Father knows that you need these things. 31 But seek His kingdom, and these things will be added to you. 32 Do not be afraid, little flock, for your Father has chosen gladly to give you the kingdom.33 “Sell your possessions and give to charity; make yourselves money belts which do not wear out, an unfailing treasure in heaven, where no thief comes near nor moth destroys. 34 For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.
In my own contemplation of Jesus, one of the most compelling aspects of Jesus is that more than anyone else Jesus challenges me to serve the poor. Many other passages of the New Testament challenge the follower of Jesus concerning our obligation to generosity. 1 John 3:16-18 commands the Christians,
16 We know love by this, that He laid down His life for us; and we ought to lay down our lives for the brethren. 17 But whoever has the world’s goods, and sees his brother in need and closes his heart against him, how does the love of God abide in him? 18 Little children, let us not love with word or with tongue, but in deed and truth.
Clearly, the Christian is to live by different set of values than those who are not followers of Jesus. As Christians, we are to use any discretionary resources to alleviate the suffering of others as opposed to our own luxury and pleasure. While we are called to serve the poor and suffering of the world, the question remains how ought we to go about doing this.
Many churches have food pantries. Many churches give to emergency relief funds. Is this the limit of our obligation? Are we merely to give charity and supply for the destitute emergency needs.
While we are commanded as followers of Jesus to demonstrate our faith in the love of God by being generous, we are often troubled by the observation that often charity in the form of aid is ineffective. This observation that often charity might actually do harm is quite demotivating. The question of how we are to help and serve the destitute can be answered if we consider the difference between development and charity.
To help understand the difference between development and charity or aid, I will make a few definitions. These definitions are not meant as being necessarily technically accurate but simply to be used as tools to help focus our efforts.
By charity, I mean giving materially to meet the immediate needs of people. The food pantry is a great example of charity. Currently, the world is seeing a famine in the Horn of Africa which may be the worst of our generation. Certainly, in these situations charity is absolutely necessary. These people need emergency aid and to stand by and watch such suffering is cold and inhumane. Nonetheless, wisdom compels us to think deeper about what we can do to help poor communities.
Wisdom compels us to consider the idea of development. Development is the process of growing a person or a community’s capability to provide freedom from suffering for themselves. Development respects the agency of the individual. For example, about one billion people on the planet lack the capability to provide for themselves and their family’s nutrition. In these societies, men and women lack the education or the resources to generate value which can be consistently transacted for food. In these communities, the individuals lack the freedom to avoid malnourishment. The community is underdeveloped to the extent that its citizens lack opportunity. Our obligation is to assist in developing the capacity in these communities to give opportunity to their people. When we can provide such capacities through the application of wisdom and planning and resources, it is development that is our obligation. We are obligated not just to blindly give charity but to wisely assist in development. For example, charity might see the need for medicine while development sees the opportunity to develop a health care system. A health care system includes building nursing schools and for-profit hospitals. In such a system, businessmen build businesses, local nurses gain employment and local citizens gain access to health care. This example illustrates a few important differences between charity and development.
- Development requires leadership. Such a plan to develop, in this case, an improved health care system is a long term project. Intelligence is required to design a long-term plan. Emergency relief has its logistical difficulties but development of a health care system is far more complex. This involves the founding of schools and interaction with government agencies and educational institutions in the West. Such a plan is ambitious, but only such a plan for development actually brings prosperity and dignity to a community. Charity brings dignity to the giver while development brings dignity to the community being developed.
- Development requires long-term commitment. Jesus taught us that when we make a plan to obey Him, we must consider the size of the challenge. Development is a commitment that requires extensive resources: time, money and intelligence. The church is an extensive institution that is prepared to make just this type of commitment. Christians are not alone in their plans to assist the poor of the world. We are perfectly situated to make long-term, even multigenerational, commitments to other communities around the globe.
The time has come for Christians to move beyond charity and consider our obligation to bring to the poor of the world actual development and dignity.