Don't Like Handouts? Neither Does the Bible

By Bill Flax

Many passages in Holy Scriptures implore rulers to treat the poor fairly.

It is only a slight exaggeration to suggest God measures nations largely by justice towards "the least of these." Is charity best dispensed publicly through a secular state or privately by churches? Does Washington really not do enough?

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Let's not confuse justice with grace.

Despite the demagoguery trumpeted every election, America's rich pay almost all our taxes while the less fortunate are net recipients of government largesse. Washington's focus has shifted from defense and foreign affairs into social programs advancing egalitarianism. The federal government's primary endeavor reflects paying people not to produce.

Many assume these public initiatives represent biblical governance concerning the destitute but such passages were proclaimed under very different political and economic contexts. Americans take for granted that those without political connections can still acquire property, enjoy legal rights, access the ballot, testify in courts, and obtain medicine, police, fire and other protections.

However, throughout antiquity (and many places still), justice was seldom blind. Far more frequently the state pillaged the poor. Government didn't exist to protect all citizens equally, but to empower rulers as an instrument of plunder.

Might made right. Without defined constitutional parameters, justice generally reflects the whims of the powerful.

The law favored parties possessing something which those wielding authority desired. In feudal societies, wealth was a function of hereditary aristocracy. Taxes went almost exclusively against serfs or peasants. The nobility were exempt because sovereigns sought their support. Wealth wasn't earned by serving others through profitable production, but by confiscating output through stultifying taxation.

Tax collectors were amongst the most vilified sinners in Scripture. They abused their privileges to extract excess spoils from their countrymen. Such taxes slammed the "least of these" who without legal recourse had no voice. Courts were generally inaccessible on class or caste bases. The poor were particularly vulnerable to tyrannical rulers and political corruption. The rich fended for themselves.

When Jesus and numerous prophets demanded justice, they weren't advocating secular handouts.

To any extent these admonitions were political, they didn't espouse "social justice" or egalitarianism, but for an end to persecution. As Dr. E. Calvin Beisner observes, "When the Bible speaks of doing justice for or to the poor, it does so in light of their having suffered injustice."

Christ said little regarding politics other than railing against hypocritical Jewish leaders who enriched themselves off others' efforts and twisted the law to sanctify their privileges. This had occurred regularly since Samuel warned Israel against a king.

The Bible repeatedly mandates impartial justice, even as God is no respecter of persons. The Bible doesn't prescribe tilting the scales to favor anyone, impoverished or otherwise. Scripture calls for the scales to be measured fairly so even widows, orphans and cripples can obtain justice.

Per Mosaic Law, "You shall do no injustice in judgment. You shall not be partial to the poor, nor honor the person of the mighty" (Leviticus 19:15).

Government was instituted by God to uphold justice. To retain its scriptural imprimatur, the law must be administered blindly so as not to oppress; nor unfairly elevate the poor.

Equality under God provided the foundation for equality before the law and the impetus for why such ideas initially sprouted in the Christian West. The Creator's handiwork is clearly seen. His moral statutes are chiseled into man's conscience. Our relationship with God informs our unalienable natural rights. Human dignity, legal equality and personal liberty reflect biblical values imparted on Western Civilization.

In America, a land predicated on the rule of law over the rule of men, justice clearly does not substantiate expanded state social programs. While legal equality has not, nor ever will be perfect because man is fallen, America perhaps exemplified the closest manifestation of impartiality yet. We clearly fell short, but sought the biblical ideal of treating the poor equitably better than most.

Thus, the poor poured in from the world over. They weren't treated as pawns, nor were they unfairly placed on pedestals. Free to pursue their dreams, America became the land of opportunity where immigrants grew rich riding the capitalist escalator to higher living standards. This continues; immigrants arrive daily seeking prosperity unavailable from whence they came.

Functioning markets provide the best antidotes to poverty.

Upward mobility is stunted without respect for property, the sanctity of contracts and an even playing field where merit and effort can accrue rewards. Markets have boosted many more than handouts ever have. Social programs foster dependency instead of economic ascendancy. But property rights in free economies propel prosperity lifting even paupers to previously unfathomable affluence.

America's poor are materially better off than even the richest biblical figures. The gravest dietary danger afflicting our lower classes is obesity. Even welfare recipients enjoy access to technological advances, nutritional, health and entertainment options unimaginable in antiquity.

By current notions, Solomon was deprived, ruling without modern medicine, electricity, air-conditioning, television, automobiles, cell phones, etc. David never took him to Disneyland. In absolute terms, our poor are wealthier than kings of yore. Basing state policy on relative measures devolves into covetousness.

Impartial justice ultimately generates unequal results, but everyone fares better than lands where equal outcomes are enforced. Inequality also tends to be more pronounced where government favors certain parties as we currently experience in Crony Capitalist America reeling under Washington's intrusiveness.

In modern political discourse, so imbued with statism, opposing government favoritism gets confused with hating whosoever would have otherwise been favored. For instance, opposing wealth redistributions is misconstrued as despising the indigent. Yet, extolling government supplants church charity with state services. Secular welfare programs let injustice trump grace.

Biblical benevolence assists those incapable of boosting themselves. Scriptural commands to support the needy apply differently when one's plight stems from irresponsibility, sloth or from succumbing to debilitating addictions. For these, Christian compassion revolves around restoring them to the community and reconciling them to God -- not enabling self-destruction through handouts.

If you truly love the poor, the best charity is weaning someone off state relief. Instead of advocating government dependency, which undermines families, we should encourage responsibility; which with a modicum of effort lifts workers' material standing.

Preferring legal equality (and Christian charity if required) over government handouts isn't hateful; it's in keeping with biblical injunctions.

Bill Flax is a Baptist, banker and weekly contributor for Forbes.com Opinions. Bill is the author of The Courage to do Nothing: A Moral Defense of Markets and Freedom and a contributing writer for The Cornwall Alliance.

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