Common Roots: Ancient Evangelical Future Conference

Should Christians care for the poor?

With Jeremy Corbyn likely to be elected as the next Labour leader, there is a good chance that we will all be faced with a much clearer choice at the next election. For Christians, this will raise more acutely the question of how important care for the poor is in their voting decisions. (Whatever else you do, please don’t try and quote the parable of the sheep and goats; that has nothing to do with care for the poor.)

One of the strange ironies of modern Western life is the way—by accident rather than by design—aspects of our life appear to be moving closer to the ancient world than previously. With the collapse of the dominance of Christendom morality, attitudes to sex and sexuality appear to be converging (or reverting?) to ancient views, and the same is true in aspect of economics. The distribution of wealth in developed countries now almost exactly matches that of the Roman Empire, with a small socio-economic elite controlling an enormous share of the wealth and power. And as in ancient Rome, access to that wealth and power depends on being a member of an elite clan—being born into wealth, attending the best places of education, and developing networks of relationships which give further access to wealth and power. Free market economies generally have the lowest levels of social mobility.

It is therefore highly instructive to understand a little more about the ancient world, and how it was that the early Christian movement was transformed—during its period of fastest growth and development in any period of history, in any culture—from being a small and marginal movement to becoming a major social force in the Empire.

Last year, Andrew Wallace-Hadrill presented a short series of programmes on ‘The Other Pompeii: Life and Death in Herculaneum’ based on findings from recent excavations there. He painted a picture of a very sophisticated lifestyle, in which the inhabitants had just about every amenity that we might imagine. Food was plentiful; the city had a plumbing and drainage system that would have put parts of Victorian England to shame; there was time for leisure activities. At a material level, people appeared to have just about whatever they wanted. So what was the appeal of this nascent Christian movement in such a context?

Part of the answer comes from another classical study. Larry Hurtado, best known for his work on the early veneration of Jesus, recently posted about some older research on poverty and charity.

Speaking for myself, I’m often finding valuable scholarly work on various matters pertaining to the world in which early Christianity emerged, such as this book: A. R. Hands, Charities and Social Aid in Greece and Rome (London: Thames & Hudson, 1968). It’s a well-researched and balanced discussion of ancient attitudes and practices toward the “less fortunate” in society, which provides a valuable context in which to view attitudes and practices reflected in the early Christian texts.

Here are some representative observations by Hands:

  • “In the vast majority of texts and documents relating to gifts in the classical world, it is quite clear that the giver’s action is self-regarding, in the sense that he anticipates from the recipient of his gift some sort of return.” (26)
  • In records of the time, “. . . the motive which is constantly ascribed to the donor by the recipient–and, indeed, asserted by the donor himself–is philotimia or philodoxia (love of honour or glory). . .” (43).
  • “. . . the classical preoccupation with philotimia left little room for any mention of pity–or of ‘the poor’ as peculiarly deserving of such pity.” (61)
  • Although there are commendable expressions of the notion that the wealthy should give more generally (and examples of this humanitas), “It is . . . among a comparatively few rare spirits, even within the cultured Latin-speaking class of the Empire, that this distinctive humanity is, if anywhere, to be sought.” (88)
  • The more common pattern of public provision by the wealthy was to direct the gifts to town councillors and others of standing in the town, or to give larger shares/portions to such people: “. . . discrimination by factors of three or five is quite normal.” (91)
  • Hands also touches on child-exposure, noting that the practice seems to have been particularly focused on disposing of unwanted female children. Families were often limited to one child, or perhaps two sons, but “more than one daughter was very rare.” (69-70).
  • Hands notes, however, that Jewish families (and then Christians as well) were known as not practicing child-exposure, at least as a group. (Note, e.g., the reference in Acts 21:9 to Philip who is ascribed there four daughters.)
  • In light of the current financial crisis over Greece, one other statement caught my eye, which I hope it is not too mischievous to repeat here: “The Greeks, in particular, were notorious, not least in the eyes of fellow Greeks, for their unreliability in handling money.” (19)

It is worth reading this alongside studies such as Bruce Longenecker’s Remember the Poor. The book as a whole is the fruit of many years’ study of this subject by Longenecker, a New Testament specialist, and some of the chapters are adapted from articles that have been previously published. But the book as a whole puts together a compelling argument that Paul has a clear commitment to the care of the poor as an integral part of his teaching, and that this was a hallmark of the Jesus-groups which he founded, taught, led and wrote to.

All this won’t on its own determine how we vote—but it must surely be a significant factor. I suspect most Christians will object to a culture of benefits dependency, if only on the basis of Paul’s terse injunction ‘Ya don’t work—ya don’t eat!’ (2 Thess 3.10, more or less). We might recognise that some people’s misfortune is the result of their own fecklessness. But we might have strong objections to a system that is so unforgiving for those at the ‘bottom’, and much less so for those at the top. And we might even take a stand against a system which curbs government spending by cutting income primarily for the least well off, accelerating an already rapidly growing divide between rich and poor.

First printed at Psephizo and reprinted by permission of the author.

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