I recently had a conversation with a friend who I would consider part of the “Christian Left.” As I’ve mentioned before, those on the Christian Left tend, generally speaking, to reject evangelical assumptions about Scripture, such as inerrancy or perspicuity. Many, like my friend, are sympathetic to modern textual-critical scholarship and doubt the authenticity and authority of entire books of the Bible, especially those of Paul. These folks are often referred to as the “red-letter Christians” since, in their view, the loving and tolerant teachings of Jesus trump anything else in Scripture.
One Biblical author who gets almost equal weight, though, is James, and it’s easy to see why. James has little patience for playing at religion, and a lot to say about social justice.
In the course of dialoging with my friend about federal welfare programs, I quoted from James, perhaps to establish my social justice cred, and also to preemptively rebut potential accusations that I don’t think Christians have a duty to care for the poor. When I looked up the passage I had in mind, to quote it accurately, I was a little surprised. James 1:27 reads,
Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world. (NRSV)
Now, I always hear about the orphans and widows, but rarely hear about remaining unstained by the world, to the point that I forgot it was even part of the verse. This prompted a thought. While I believe it is certainly possible for Christians to support social welfare programs that demand more and more tax revenue and ever increasing government power, what happens when James 1:27a butts heads with James 1:27b? In other words, what happens when our attempt at following the first half of James’ instruction ultimately forces us to compromise on the second half? When Christians place the necessary responsibility of caring for widows and orphans in the hands of an increasingly secular entity whose goals are frequently in opposition to other important Christian beliefs, this dilemma is sure to follow.
A perfect example would be the recent HHS mandate, part of Obamacare, that requires Catholic and Evangelical institutions to pay for the contraceptive coverage of their employees or students. This requirement runs directly counter to one of the most cherished (and assaulted) beliefs of Christianity, the value of the unborn child. In essence, the government has mandated that Christian employers and academic institutions must financially support a worldly stain on their employees and students, and accept that stain by implication. Thankfully, many of these institutions are fighting the mandate, but the fate of such legal cases is still far from certain.
If we ask, then, whether Christians ought to capitulate to the modern liberal ideal of the omni-competent state, the answer, I think, should be no. We cannot legitimately appeal to passages like James 1:27 to justify higher taxes and more welfare programs when the organization we have chosen to care for the widows and orphans is increasingly hostile to the other half of “pure and undefiled” religion.
An obvious objection is that we cannot refuse to aid the poor simply because the government is not as Christian as we would like. But this turns on a false alternative. We are not forced to choose between a totalizing welfare state or no welfare at all. James is calling us as individual believers to live out this kind of selfless lifestyle daily and in the flesh. In short, he is calling us to lives of charity. Yet it should be obvious that allowing the government to tax you in order to theoretically spend some of that tax money on nameless, faceless people is not equivalent to a selfless life of charity. James expects you to have more skin in the game.
You can give that same money to a mercy fund at your church, and not only will all of it go to actually helping the poor (since your Elders and Deacons are, or should be, unpaid volunteers), but you can actually put your boots on the ground and help to do the volunteer work yourself. And it doesn’t have to be a church. You can give your time and money to any small, volunteer-based group in your community. The main point is that James is calling every Christian to personally engage in the work of charity, not to indirectly participate in the abstract idea of charity. (I should add, this is especially true of those who fall into a low enough tax bracket that they do not end up paying any taxes, while eagerly voting to raise taxes on other, wealthier people).
Instead, I would argue that putting more money back in the hands of individuals enables them to do what James is calling them to do, without the potential excuse that paying taxes relieves them of responsibility. Moreover, it takes that same money out of the hands of federal bureaucrats, who have a record of wasteful spending and mismanagement that helps no one, least of all the poor.
If we really want to live out the calling of James 1:27, we should work to rein in an out of control government and put the responsibility of helping the poor, widows and orphans back in the hands of our local churches and other community groups.
The flip side of that coin is that we must be willing to actually shoulder that responsibility.