Thursday, December 2, 2010

Charity and Justice

There is a piece on First Things that talks about charity by the sword. Can the government make people love their neighbor? The answer, of course, is No. Faith, hope, and love are theological virtues. We cannot force people into these virtues. They have to surrender to God. Surrendering to the sword does not count.

But the real question is what is charity? Consider Chesterton:
Charity is the power of defending that which we know to be indefensible. Hope is the power of being cheerful in circumstances which we know to be desperate. It is true that there is a state of hope which belongs to bright prospects and the morning; but that is not the virtue of hope. The virtue of hope exists only in earthquake and eclipse. It is true that there is a thing crudely called charity, which means charity to the deserving poor; but charity to the deserving is not charity at all, but justice. It is the undeserving who require it, and the ideal either does not exist at all, or exists wholly for them. For practical purposes it is at the hopeless moment that we require the hopeful man, and the virtue either does not exist at all, or begins to exist at that moment.
So what the government is doing when it guarantees basic living, health care, eduction, etc. for the poor is forcing people to exhibit the virtue of justice. Justice is not a theological virtue. It is a cardinal virtue. Those we can cultivate without reference to God. Governments should cultivate them for the good of society. Certainly making theft illegal is one way a government cultivates the virtue of justice. Making health care available to all is another way.

Now this guy does make this distinction but not consistently. For example he says:
Protestant authors such as Tony Campolo have advocated for charity by the sword in a more directly partisan manner. “I buy into the Democratic Party,” he wrote, “. . . because there are over 2,000 verses of Scripture that deal with responding to the needs of the poor.”
But are the 2000 verses of scripture dealing with charity or justice? He begs that question. But many of those verses come in the prophets and they are addressed to the Kings of Israel and Judah. That means they are not just thinking about individual choices but public policy.  Many of those 2000 verses even use the word justice. So it is not fair to assume he is advocating charity by the sword. That is just partisan exegesis. That is assuming any interpretation that leads a person to support a political party I don't like must be wrong.

It is interesting that Republican worry about legislating morality when it come to the poor. Democrats worry about it when it comes to the unborn or gays. The truth is we are a million miles from charity by the sword. There was a time when that was a problem but it isn't now.  We are in danger of imposing evil by the sword. But we tend to worry about problems we don't actually have. It is the problems we don't acknowledge that kill us.

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