Sunday, October 26, 2008

Just Charity: "Charity" and "Compulsory Income Redistribution"

If anyone would like a peek into the inanities we have to endure here in West Michigan, just consider a recent guest commentary in the Religion section of our local paper, The Grand Rapids Press. In it the author excoriates the "compulsory income redistribution" that he believes stands in contrast to "true Christian charity." (As further evidence of the ludicrosity (?) we have to live with in West Michigan: the same paper endorsed McCain for President.)

I just sent off the following to the Press for consideration to be published next Saturday, but I'm not sanguine it will be published, so I'll post it here:

Just Charity

By James K.A. Smith

Some very important things can be lost in translation. Paul Rhoda’s recent commentary on Christian “charity” is a clear reminder of this. Having filtered the notion of “charity” through the libertarianism of Lord Acton (with a little help, I suspect, from his ideological heirs at the Acton Institute), Rhoda ends up with a very strange version of the Bible. Let’s call it the PRV, the Paul Rhoda Version.

If his commentary is any indicator, the PRV is a peculiar book. It’s not even really a translation; it’s an anthology—a Reader’s Digest compression with some heavy edits and omissions. The result is a different book.

Let’s consider just one of his claims: according to Rhoda, “Christian compassion is voluntary.” But such language of “voluntariness” is a modern invention. Our notion of something being “voluntary” implies that it is optional and un-coerced. In fact, we might even deserve some praise for doing what’s only “voluntary,” as if this was going above and beyond the call of duty.

But did the early church see compassion and charity as “voluntary?” Or, to take up Rhoda’s specific case, did the early church see “income redistribution” as “voluntary?”

The short and easy answer is, “No.” We can note at least three reasons.

First, such a conception of “voluntary” charity assumes a notion of freedom and autonomy that would have been utterly foreign to the Hebrews and to first-century Christians. According to the biblical picture, to be “free” is not to be autonomous or un-coerced. We are free when we are empowered to do the good. The strangeness of the biblical picture is that true freedom comes in subjection to the risen Lord. It is slaves of Christ who are truly free.

Second, the biblical narrative makes no dichotomy between love and justice. The biblical word sometimes translated as “charity”—the Greek word agape—does not refer to something that is optional for Christians. If it were, how could it be commanded throughout the New Testament?

Finally, the PRV seems to just leave out those cases that contradict Rhoda’s claims. For instance, Ananias and Sapphira seemed to have worked with something like Rhoda’s conception of “charity.” According to Acts 5, they were generous and charitable. Having sold a piece of property, they came to the apostles and made a big show of their charitable “donation.” What was the result? Peter renounced the couple’s selfishness! They were holding back. In fact, they both immediately died under judgment (Acts 5:1-11). Is this any way to treat charitable donors? What was the problem?

Well, they must have been reading the PRV. They mistakenly assumed that the redistribution of their income was a “voluntary” matter. But the early church had a clear and established practice of compulsory property redistribution. They sold what they had, pooled their resources, and had all things in common (Acts 2:44-45; 4:34-37). The church was living out an alternative economy—one compelled by gratitude and constrained by love. This wasn’t optional or voluntary, but was the reflection of a people serving a gift-giving King.