The Bible, Culture, and Care for the Poor

Charity and care for the poor are nearly synonymous with the tradition on which the West is built. In ancient Israel, God commanded that the corners of the fields remain unharvested so that the poor would have food (Leviticus. 19:9). And the story of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:30-37) is a defining image of charity. Likewise, the apostle Paul enjoined followers of Christ to do honest work, not only for their own well-being, but “so that he may have something to share with anyone in need” (Ephesians 4:28). The early Christians were so committed to this charitable ethic that even non-canonical documents underscored it. For instance, The Didache, an early Christian guide book said: “Give to everyone who asks thee, and do not refuse”; and the Shepherd of Hermas called on believers to “Give simply to all without asking doubtfully to whom thou givest, but give to all.”

Interestingly, today, 68.4% of all religious-based non-governmental organizations are either Christian (57.4%) or Jewish (11%). Where the legacy of the biblical tradition is weakest, so is charitable giving. In his recent survey of the data, Who Really Cares: America’s Charity Divide, Syracuse University professor Arthur C. Brooks maintains that:

There is so little private charity in Europe that it is difficult to find information on the subject—so irrelevant is it that few researchers have even bothered to investigate . . . Specifically, no Western European population comes remotely close [to] the United States in per capita private charity. The closest nation, Spain, has average giving that is less than half that of the United States. Per person, Americans give three and a half times as much as the French, seven times as much as the Germans, and fourteen times as much as the Italians.

Some Europeans argue that their high taxes pay for what Americans cover with private funds. Brooks points out, however, that

One technical problem arises with this argument: The average tax burden in all European countries is not higher than it is in the United States. A British family, for instance, relinquishes an average of 10.8 percent of its household income to the government in income taxes. This is lower than what an average American family pays—11.3 percent.

This data should not be an occasion for American triumphalism, but a solemn warning about what ignorance of the Bible and the erosion of the Judeo-Christian tradition may mean for the world’s poor.