Charity—a loving spirit concretely expressed in unselfish good deeds to one’s fellow man—is a primary Christian duty. Nobody who has read the New Testament can come to any other conclusion.
In his parable of the good Samaritan (Luke 10:30-37), Jesus explains what it means to love one’s neighbor as oneself. When the Samaritan happened to encounter a man who had been badly hurt by robbers, he compassionately ministered to the man’s needs. This was in stark contrast to two other men who already had seen the wounded man and left without helping him. The vivid contrast was made even more stark by the fact that the merciful man was a Samaritan, whom Jesus’ own people, the Jews, despised as religious inferiors, while the heartless men who ignored the victim’s plight—a priest and a Levite—came from the ranks of the religious elite.
The good Samaritan gave what he could to help the wounded man. He first took care of him himself, and then, when his own pre-existing commitments necessitated his departure, he paid an innkeeper to nurse the man back to health.
In this famous parable, Jesus illustrated, with exquisite (and typical) brevity and simplicity, the two forms of Christian charity: first, assistance provided personally and directly to another; second, rendering assistance indirectly by donating one’s own property to those who have the time and skills to tend to those in need, in lieu of our own hands-on assistance.
As a thought experiment, let’s imagine the story of the good Samaritan taking a different twist. Let’s suppose that the Samaritan, upon spotting the badly wounded man, also sees a rich man walking by. Let us then suppose that the Samaritan is a big, powerful man who intimidates the rich man into handing over enough money to pay for the wounded man’s care. The man in need would still receive the help that he so desperately needs, but would the Samaritan still touch our heart, and would he have acted selflessly? Would we remember him as a paragon of Christian virtue and charity?
Jesus had not demanded that the Samaritan take money from strangers on the street by threat of force. That wouldn’t feel right, would it?
The obvious difference, of course, is that in Jesus’ parable, the Samaritan acts voluntarily—out of the goodness of his own heart—whereas in my hypothetical, counterfeit version, the Samaritan engages in an ersatz pseudo-charity by forcing someone else to pay for the good deed that the Samaritan wants to be performed. Is it true charity to be generous with other people’s money?
This is the murky moral territory onto which many Christians stray in the name of “social justice” or the social gospel. The desire to help those in need is laudable, but the means often employed by advocates of “social justice” are not.
Many Christians commit a fundamental error when they call for government to redistribute wealth to the poor, the sick, the needy. Government necessarily introduces the additional factor of compulsion into the equation, as government employs organized force.
If we wouldn’t justify an individual collecting funds for the poor by threatening passersby, then how do we justify government using the threat of fines or imprisonment to extract property from some to give it to others? In the words of Thomas Jefferson, “It is strangely absurd [to suppose] that a million human beings, collected together, are not under the same moral laws which bind (or liberate) each of them separately.”
This isn’t to say that no collective action should be taken to minister to the poor. Indeed, many churches and various private-sector charities are doing praiseworthy work for those in need, and they merit our financial support. The common factor, though, in these nongovernmental organizations is that participation is voluntary. Nobody compels you to belong to a certain church or contribute to a specific charitable organization. It is your prerogative and choice.
By all means, be charitable. But don’t mix charity with compulsion. Jesus never did.