What Would Jesus Cut?

Religious progressives are often quick to condemn those who extol the virtues of market economies for focusing too much on material concerns. This charge of materialism is, in fact, a core and valid insight contained in most critiques of consumerism, a phenomenon in which people tend to equate their own value and meaning with the things they can buy or possess. But consumerism is just one manifestation of the problems with a materialistic mindset, and the commodification of compassion at work in the assumptions of many progressives is equally troubling.

We have seen this kind of commodification at work most recently in debates about the federal budget, where campaigns like “What Would Jesus Cut?” decry proposals to lower government spending on social programs. As Jim Wallis puts it, “the moral test of any society is how it treats its poorest and most vulnerable citizens,” but on this view a particular level of government expenditures is equated with that moral test. This kind of logic is also at work with efforts like The ONE Campaign, which takes its name for the proposed amount that should be devoted by governments to foreign aid programs.

The problem with this perspective isn’t that it views material reality as important and instructive. The Lord himself spoke to the relationship between physical goods and spiritual orientation: “For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also” (Luke 12:34 NIV). The problem is, rather, that the material becomes the primary, even sole, focus when making moral judgments. In this way campaigns that commodify compassion judge morality purely in quantitative terms. If we spend more on social concerns, we are deemed to be more compassionate, more just.

But this kind of moral calculus fails precisely because it doesn’t account for the qualitative differences in various kinds of responses. Other things matter, such as the “who” and “why” of charitable assistance. An EBT card issued by a government official shouldn’t be judged to be the same as a “cup of cold water” given by a Christian in the name of Jesus Christ.

The difference between the quantitative and the qualitative views of compassion are illustrated well in the case of “The Widow’s Offering” (Luke 21:1-4 NIV). In this encounter, Jesus watches as wealthy people come to offer their gifts to the temple. He singles out a poor widow, however, for particular praise when she places two very small coins (essentially pennies) as an offering. “Truly I tell you,” he said, “this poor widow has put in more than all the others. All these people gave their gifts out of their wealth; but she out of her poverty put in all she had to live on.”

Jesus’ words upset our merely material paradigms for evaluating compassion. On the quantitative level, they require us to look not simply at the amount of a donation, but also at the proportion of that donation. The two pennies the widow gave represented a larger portion of her property than the comparably vast sums given by the wealthy. But this deepening of our quantitative judgments leads us into the spiritual realm, where the quality of the gifts might also be recognized. The widow’s offering isn’t judged to be greater simply because it represents a proportionally greater material offering. No, this proportionally greater giving also is evidence of a different spiritual motivation. When she is said to give “out of her poverty,” Jesus points to more than her material status. This woman lives by faith, knowing that human beings live on “more than bread alone” and out of her spiritual, as well as material, poverty she puts in “more than all the others.”

We cannot truly measure compassion merely by looking at the level of government expenditures or the amount of money given, as easy and as tempting as that might be. These material concerns are important, but not all-important, factors in coming to grips with the complex realities of charitable activity. So just as we shouldn’t define the meaning of life in terms of income or GDP, neither should we commodify compassion by ignoring the spiritual realities of charity.

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  • eyeclinic

    When people ask me “WWJD” or “WWJC”(in this case) I reply OJK-Only Jesus Knows, because every time men thought they had Jesus backed into a corner, he always came up with an alternative that men didn’t consider. I try not to think with the mind of God since his “thoughts are far above my thoughts.”

  • rakeys

    I would be more inclined to favor government support for the poor if it were consistent in applying the principle that “the moral test of any society is how it treats its poorest and most vulnerable citizens”.
    Many of those in favor of increasing aid to the poor also push Contraception and Abortion. Tuly the most ‘vulnerable citizens” are the babies in the womb. We kill over 1,000,000 vulnerable citizens each year often under the guise of helping the poor and with government encouragement. They want all of us to pay for it.
    Jesus asked us to help the poor, and wants that donation to come from the heart. Maybe a bigger tax deduction for charitable donations is a better way to encourage people to donate to the poor. Instead our government wants to shut doown Catholic Charities and other groups because they don’t dispense contraceptives or let gay couples adopt little children. One center that helps young girls caught up in the sex slave trade will not receive any more federal funds because it does not advocate abortion for these girls, and will be forced to shut down.
    When the government becomes the sole giver of aid to the poor, then our taxes, and thus our aid to the poor, becomes “give to Caesar what is Ceasar’s”, not a true gift from the heart.

  • krby34

    rakeys: I would finish that thought from scripture by saying and we are denying giving back to God what comes from God. Catholic Charities will not shut down, they existed before the government funded these activities and will afterward because dollars don’t meet the real need of people. Their stomach is empty but really they have an emptiness in their heart.