Skip to main content

Columnists Remarkable Providences

Welfare reformation

Welfare reformation

The same choice is before us: Bread and circuses, or Bible and work?

When it comes to welfare, some reporters and politicians continue to offer hysterical rather than historical perspective. In Washington, anyone who remembers what happened two years ago is an expert, and someone who can describe what American life was like a century ago is a guru. But the welfare wars actually go back several thousand years, and there's a lot we can learn from past struggles.

Early on, Israel and Rome showed contrasting patterns of welfare. The biblical model emphasized gleaning, with direct alms going only to widows who had demonstrated good character, and to others who were truly helpless. Pagan Rome's idea of welfare highlighted bread and circuses, which meant giving the poor enough food to keep them in misery, along with gladiator contests to distract them from their plight.

Early Christians emphasized real change rather than governmental spare change. They believed in turning away from both idols and idleness: The able-bodied were to work. Some Christian communities established "the three-day rule," which meant that strangers received food and lodging for three days. After that, they had to go to work or at least show evidence of responsible behavior. If they sat around, aid was terminated.

Over time, however, some Christians stopped fighting poverty, and even began to see it as a road to holiness. They leaped from the biblical argument that the love of money is the root of all kinds of evil, to a belief that money and material things by themselves are evil. They took vows of poverty and went begging from city to city, thinking this would draw them closer to God, and give almsgivers the opportunity to trim years in "purgatory."

With theological slippage and economic hard times, alms requests at church entrances became customary. Some beggars were honest but wrongheaded, or impoverished by illness. Other special pleaders, however, were swindlers capable of wounding themselves or even crippling their own children to pad pathos.

Situations sometimes became extreme. A Lyon, France, bishop around 1500 invited beggars from all over Europe to come to his city so parishioners could bolster their own efforts to gain salvation by contribution. Soon, local resources were overtaxed and people were dying in the streets. Church leaders had to call the whole thing off.

Then came the Protestant Reformation. Martin Luther criticized the theology of nonessential alms-giving and called for "the abolition of all begging throughout Christendom." Soon, families and friends cared for the poor in Wittenberg, with the church as backup. Deacons met weekly to discuss particular cases and distribute aid.

John Calvin in Geneva taught from chapter two of Genesis that poverty is not natural or desirable: "Men were created to employ themselves in some work, and not to lie down in inactivity and idleness. When God ordained that men should be exercised in the culture of the ground, he condemned, in his own person, all indolent response."

Calvin showed that voluntary poverty arose within a wrongheaded salvation-by-works mentality. In his commentary on the book of Amos he noted that poverty does not make people godly, and might even make them more susceptible to Satan's snares: "When men are pressed by famine, they would sooner sell their lives a hundred times that they may save themselves from hunger, no matter what the price."

Calvin fought poverty by encouraging new businesses, particularly weaving. He taught that all vocations except those forbidden by God (such as assassin-for-hire) are good. He understood that loans to grow a business were different than loans to a starving man, and that charging interest on the former was legitimate.

Geneva's war on poverty was well-ordered. To make sure that real needs (and only real needs) were met, the city of 12,000 had 28 districts, each with a population of about 425. A district supervisor screened all requests and presented to the deacons any he thought deserved approval. Deacons visited homes to verify needs.

Although many refugees from theological persecution streamed into Geneva, and the diseases of that age created numerous orphans, only about 5 percent of Geneva's population received financial help, almost always short-term. Deacons, thinking entrepreneurially, sometimes used church funds to pay for tools, raw materials, and the initial rent on a shop, so that refugees who were artisans could get to work.

Work rather than begging, help to those unable to work, start-up help to those willing to work, but no help to the able but lazy-this was the Reformation model. Geneva was a small city by today's standards, and ours is a big country, but the fundamental understandings still apply, as time goes by. We need a welfare reformation.