Touchstone: A Journal of Mere Christianity
“Deep Charity” first appeared in the September 2005 issue of Touchstone.
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The Libertarian Failure
As libertarianism grows more popular among conservatives of all kinds, including Christian conservatives, it is important for us to understand the logic of the position. Some of it is compatible with Christian orthodoxy (which does not make it true) and some is not. The libertarian position on charity is not.
Christians believe that we are under an obligation to share our goods with those in need. Libertarians, however, claim that no such obligation of charity can exist, and they rest their case on a forceful argument. If you have a financial obligation to the poor, they say, then the poor must have a corresponding right to some portion of your worldly possessions. But if they had such a right, it would involve the absurdity that property could simultaneously be yours by possession and theirs by right. Therefore, no such obligation exists.
This argument is obviously valid (the logician’s term for compelling), which means that no one can both grant its premise and deny its conclusion. The reasonable Christian must therefore either reject its premise or accept its conclusion.
The difficulty is that reasonable Christians can do neither. To accept the libertarian conclusion means believing that Christians are under no obligation to be charitable. Hence, the unregenerate Scrooge could be a Christian, which is unthinkable. To reject the libertarian’s premise means abandoning common sense, for it is obvious that nothing can simultaneously be yours by possession and someone else’s by right.
Reasonable Christians appear to be in a fix.
However, things are not quite so bad. The libertarian argument takes for granted that charity is nothing more than a simple relation between rich and poor. Reasonable Christians reasonably challenge that assumption—and once challenged, the argument falls.
The defect in the libertarian view of charity is that it leaves out the most important party involved. In addition to the horizontal transaction between haves and have-nots, about which the libertarians reason so flawlessly, there is also the vertical relation between the haves and God, about which they are silent.
How radically things change when that imposing third party, God, is put into the argument! Since God gives us everything we have, not only our goods but life itself, we cannot repay him, let alone place him in our debt. That is why the Bible calls us, even at our best, unprofitable servants. We have an obligation to God that we can in no way discharge. The only currency recognized by God is obedience, and even perfect obedience could at most (perhaps) repay the interest on our debt.
Christians, therefore, must do what God wants of them, and he wants us to love our neighbor. It is he who gives us the obligation to share our goods with those in need. He obliges Scrooge to be charitable toward Cratchet, without making Cratchet legally or morally entitled to what he receives from Scrooge. Scrooge owes to God what he pays to Cratchet.
Libertarians turn out to be a bit like the woman whom Jesus met at the well, who told him that the well of religious truth was deep and that he had nothing with which to draw. In the metaphorical sense in which she was speaking, she was right about the first thing, and wrong about the second. She was wrong, but not as wrong as the libertarian.
The libertarian says to us: Sir, the well is not deep (it’s just a transaction between the rich and the poor), and you have nothing with which to draw (your faith is of no significance in this matter). Libertarians recognize neither the depth of the well nor the vessel with which we Christians are able to draw.
Graeme Hunter teaches philosophy at the University of Ottawa. He is the author of Radical Protestantism in Spinoza's Thought (Ashgate). He is a contributing editor for Touchstone.
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