A little story from the past

Sometimes at work I help people learn more about their families. Many of the people who come into our part of the library are interested in genealogy. Some are getting started on the hobby; others are experienced researchers hoping to find some new information in our collections.

Sometimes I work with donated papers that give the history of various families. Someone did a lot of genealogy in the past. Now that they are gone, their children are not sure what to do with all their papers and photographs, and they offer them to the library. We accept these donations. They may be useful to people in the future who are doing genealogy—perhaps even the grandchildren or great-grandchildren of those who did all the work in the first place. They may also offer information to historians looking for details about the lives of people from the past, the kind of details that aren’t generally included in standard histories of those times.

Working with papers donated by one family, I came across the kind of minor story that depicts life from an earlier time. A certain woman was born in Ohio in 1821. When she was sixteen, she got married. Her husband died a few months later. Before he died, he promised his only suit of clothes to his best friend, provided that the friend would take care of this woman and of the child she was carrying. The child, a son, was born in March 1838. The next year, this woman married the friend who had promised to take care of her and her son. Her family biographer concludes, “She always felt sorry that she had to bury” her first husband “in his work clothes.”

When I talk about wealth, I mention having enough food to eat two or more meals a day. I talk about climate-controlled houses with hot and cold running water and indoor flush toilets. I talk about owning more clothes than you can wear at one time. This man had wealth—he had a suit to wear on special occasions, as well as his work clothes. He promised away that wealth for the good of his wife and his unborn child. His widow was embarrassed that he had to be buried in his work clothes.

Have you any complaints about your wardrobe today? J.

The Industrial Revolution, part two

The Industrial Revolution did not happen overnight. Everywhere it occurred, it was a gradual process. Ways were developed to manufacture more and more items that people needed or wanted. High-quality steel and steam power were applied to more and more uses. Transportation radically changed with the introduction of railroads and steam-powered boats. Later would come the horseless carriage, or automobile, first powered by an electric battery, but soon improved with gasoline engines. By the twentieth century, air travel also appeared.

Technology led to more technology, and also to scientific discoveries, and then new scientific discoveries offered new technology. Electricity was understood and harnessed for technology. Glass lenses, already invented in the late Middle Ages, were combined into telescopes—Galileo was one of the first to aim a telescope at the sky rather than at distant features on earth—and then into microscopes. Chemical research and development multiplied the rate of innovation. Cheaper production of paper—made from wood pulp rather than from cotton rags—opened a new world of books, magazines, and newspapers. Before long, technology offered instant communication and the preservation of sounds and images, all of which would have seemed magical to people who lived only a short time earlier.

Every historic change brings both gains and losses. Access to new forms of material wealth and comfort enticed many people away from the timeless promises of religion and of the Church. Meanwhile, urban poverty also multiplied as more families left agriculture and crowded into the cities. Factory owners hired women and children; their smaller hands and bodies suited the new machinery, and they were less likely than men to demand better working conditions and higher pay. Unemployed men sometimes turned to crime or to alcoholism. Prisons were filled with petty criminals and with men whose only crime was debts they could not repay. Frequently their wives and children joined them in the prisons because they had nowhere else to live. Meanwhile, the crowded conditions of the cities and the output of the factories caused pollution of the air, the water, and the land.

In theory, the capitalist laws of supply and demand would fix these problems. Factory owners, seeking to maximize their profits, would compete with each other for the better workers, offering higher wages. Competition for more customers would result, not only in lower prices, but in higher-quality products. In theory, governments would remain uninvolved in the economy—“laissez-faire,” meaning “leave it alone,” was the capitalist message to governments. But even Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations acknowledged a need for some government regulation. Governments exist to protect citizens from dangers abroad and dangers at home. Governments do more than arrest and punish thieves and murderers. They inspect factories and their products, ensuring safety for workers and for customers. They respond to pollution, treating sewage and gathering garbage and requiring respect for the environment. Governments even created child labor laws, sending the children to school instead of the factories. An image was created of the Victorian family—the father earning wages to support the family, the women staying home to care for the house and the children, and the children having time to play and lessons to learn. Many families were unable to achieve this dream, but the ideal existed all the same.

Christians in Europe resisted the problems of industrialization. Christians denounced the emptiness of life with more wealth and comforts but no spiritual meaning or significance. They also reached out to their neighbors most in need. Often the romantic arm of the Church—the Pietists and Methodists and others of that ilk—were most active in resisting the darkness. Members were urged to turn from petty crime and from addictions to alcohol, tobacco, opium, and other dangers. Doing so, they were also equipped to reach out to the poor, the hopeless, and the victims of addiction. Sunday Schools met the needs of children still employed six days a week in the factories. Food and shelter and medical care was offered to families in need. Even though more lives reflected the novels of Charles Dickens than those of Jane Austen, Christianity offered spiritual hope and practical help to many who otherwise were victims of the dark side of industrialization.

The same Christianity also defended the Enlightenment principle that all people are created equal, with human rights to be respected and protected. Abolition of slavery followed industrialization as it moved from the United Kingdom to other European nations and to parts of the world colonized by European nations. At times, the freed slaves and their descendants were as badly oppressed in a wage-earning economy as they had been under slavery. Still, the message of equal rights and equal opportunity sent educators and social rights activists to the people with the greatest needs—and those who sent them were generally leaders of the Church.

For a while, the proposals of Enlightenment thinkers remained interesting theories. European governments grew increasingly powerful, centered around royal leaders such as Louis XIV of France and Peter the Great of Russia. Warfare over national policy was just as destructive as warfare over Christian doctrine had been. Indeed, exploration and colonization meant that European wars had now become World Wars, even without Roman numerals to identify them. The War of Spanish Succession (1701-1714), the War of Austrian Succession (1740-1748), the War of Jenkins’ Ear (1739-1748), and the Seven Years War (1756-1763) all involved many European governments, their armies, their navies, and their possessions overseas. King Charles of Sweden set a pattern later to be followed by Napoleon and Hitler when, in 1708 he invaded Russia, eventually destroying an empire (his own). But Enlightenment theories and industrialization would soon lead to a new kind of conflict, revolutions which would not be industrial or scientific, but which would be political, economic, and world-changing. J.

Freedom, government encroachment, and compromise

The range of options between pure socialism and pure capitalism is a spectrum which includes free market capitalism and the welfare state. Sometimes advocates of capitalism accuse their opponents of promoting socialism when those opponents only want more restrictions for the benefit of workers and consumers without desiring socialism. Sometimes people even call for socialism without realizing that what they truly want is not socialism but merely a more comprehensive welfare state. Labels can be slippery tools in our hands, especially when we exist on a spectrum of options.

One of the clearest guides to distinguishing capitalism and socialism is intent. Those who want a few more regulations to protect workers and consumers are still working within the free market system. Those who want to spread the wealth—to take money away from the rich and give it to the working classes, or to give away for free what was formerly bought or earned—by taxing and penalizing wealth are clearly working for socialism and against capitalism.

Here is one example I have seen online: imagine a society where the wealthiest people are earning $50,000 a year and the poor are earning only $25,000 a year. Imagine a change that brings the wealthiest people up to $100,000 a year and lifts the poor to $50,000 a year. Someone inclined to support capitalism will rejoice that all the people in the society have seen improvement. Someone inclined to socialism will complain that the disparity—the difference between the wealthy and the poor—has doubled because of the change, and that disparity is not fair.

Kurt Vonnegut, in one of his novels, imagined a society that tried, by law, to make life fair for everyone. People stronger than average were forced to carry weights. People smarter than average were forced to wear earpieces that distracted them with random noises. People more attractive than average were forced to wear clothes and makeup that made them ugly. Such efforts to make us more equal in every way clearly cause more harm than good. Bringing the higher-level people down to average does not necessarily help lift the lower-level people up to average. In fact, every attempt to reduce the wealth of the richest people through taxes and other legislation only causes them to move their wealth away from the places where it is vulnerable. It discourages them from making more wealth by selling improved products, hiring more workers, and performing other tasks that increase the wealth of the rich and also add benefits to the working classes and the poor.

Government’s job is to protect the rights of all people and to defend citizens from those who would harm them. A right to life includes protection from invasion and from crime; reasonable people still differ and debate whether that right to life also includes guaranteed food, clothing, and shelter for all citizens. In a democracy, the government is chosen by the people to do the will of the people; however, doing the will of the people means more than following and obeying the latest opinion polls. Those elected to govern are expected to learn and understand what is best for the people. Elected officials and their appointed staffs consider proposals, research them, and ultimately vote whether to enact them. Opinion polls might show that more than half the population wants college to be free for all students. Elected officials must still study and learn whether free college would be a benefit to most citizens or whether the cost of free college, assumed by the government, would become a burden to most citizens. Those who govern balance benefits and burdens. They speak to each other about these benefits and burdens. Their votes represent, not only the opinions of the people they represent, but also the best interests of those they represent. As a result, their votes often disagree with the opinions of the majority of the population.

Moreover, a representative government cannot condone injustice, even if the majority wants to be unfair to the minority. In protecting human rights, the government considers all the people, not most of the people. Even though the government has fallen short of it duty in the past, permitting oppression and abuse of some of its citizens, the solution is not to be unfair to a different group. (Two wrongs do not make a right.) We cannot change the past; we can only start with the current situation and move forward, seeking to make things better for all people.

Every person running for office states positions to attract like-minded voters. Different candidates have different priorities among the number of issues that matter. Elected officials work together for the common good. Each official holds some positions that cannot be compromised and others that can be compromised. Negotiation and compromise are part of the art of politics; they are necessary skills for anyone who seeks and gains elective office.

When a government gives each benefit that some citizens wants and then forces all the citizens to pay for all the benefits, that government cannot last long. The value and cost of various benefits must be considered; agreements and compromises must be reached. The more a government encroaches upon the freedom of its citizens—even with the encouragement of many or most of those citizens—the more that government fails to govern wisely and successfully. Sooner or later, the government that offers too much and promises too much and charges too much will collapse. The social contract is canceled when government demands too much of its citizens, because they still retain their basic rights to life, to liberty, and to property. Government does not give these rights to people, and it cannot take them away. J.

The welfare state

Already the free market economy reflects a compromise between pure capitalism and pure socialism, although the free market preserves the benefits of capitalism and permits only necessary legislation to moderate the economy. Governments limit pollution of the air and land and water. They make sure that the products sold to consumers are safe. They also regulate work areas for the safety of the workers. Governments even place limits upon who can work—setting minimum working ages to keep children out of the work force—and they limit the number of hours per week required of workers and demand rest times and meal times for workers.

A further compromise between pure capitalism and pure socialism is called the welfare state. Although some kinds of government welfare can be detected in ancient times—the Roman government subsidized bread and circuses for the people—the real welfare state began in the late nineteenth century as a result of the conflict between the ideas of capitalism and socialism. Otto von Bismarck introduced the welfare state to the newly-formed country of Germany in the 1880s. Fifty years later, Franklin Roosevelt introduced aspects of the welfare state to the United States as part of his New Deal, an attempt to overcome the troubles of the Great Depression.

Behind the welfare state lies the concept that all people have rights and that governments exist to protect those rights. In the original definition of human rights (life, liberty, property), the work of the government was largely negative. The government was not to deprive people of their rights without due process (a declaration of war or a criminal trial, for example). The government was to protect the rights of some citizens from enemies and criminals that would violate those rights. But, at first, no one said that the government should guarantee life by positive efforts to support the lives of all citizens.

People have basic needs. We need food and drink, clothing and shelter, and other physical supplies. When John Locke and Thomas Jefferson wrote about a right to life, they did not intend for the government to feed and clothe and house all citizens. People who work are given money, and they use that money to purchase what they need. People who do not work receive care from their families—children, the elderly, and the ill generally expect their families to feed and clothe and shelter them. Churches, community groups, and other charitable organizations care for those who are lacking the support of a family and those whose needs surpass the capacity of their family to meet. The government, therefore, had no role in supporting and protecting the poor beyond its essential task to keep enemies and criminals from taking advantage of those who were poor.

God gave his Law to his chosen people, the Israelites. He said that poverty would not exist if his Law was obeyed, but God acknowledged the reality of sin when he said, “You will always have the poor with you.” Jesus calls his people to be loving and generous, caring for those in need. If every Christian obeyed those commands to their fullest extent, poverty would not exist. Today’s Christians must confess that we have not perfectly followed the commands of Jesus. The poor, the needy, the homeless, and the oppressed among us reveal our shortcomings, our sins, our need for forgiveness. Christians are forgiven. Jesus paid the debt of all sinners in full on the cross. Being forgiven, Christians are being transformed into the image of Christ, doing what Jesus would do. Because the transformation is not complete, the poor and needy and homeless and oppressed are still among us.

Socialists point to the poor and oppressed and blame capitalism for their plight. Rather than acknowledging the sinful nature of all people, they focus their accusations upon the wealthy, the business owners, the people who benefit most from capitalism. Bismarck and Roosevelt did not want to renounce capitalism and endorse socialism. Instead, they used the authority of the government to require more help for the needy from those who could afford to offer help. Businesses are required to give their workers health insurance, disability insurance, and retirement plans. Under Social Security (part of the New Deal), workers are taxed to provide the government money; that money pays other people—chiefly the elderly and the disabled—not to work.

Does its defense of the right to life require the government to guarantee food, clothing, shelter, education, and health care to every citizen? This question defines the debate between conservatives and liberals in Europe, North America, and much of the rest of the world. The more services the government undertakes to feed the hungry, shelter the homeless, and provide medical care for the ill and injured, the more money it must collect from all its citizens. Government programs tend to be less efficient and more expensive than comparable programs under private ownership. Wealthy capitalists and their foundations often provide help for the poor that addresses their needs more specifically and more completely than government programs. On the other hand, when citizens begin trusting the government to solve the problems of the poor, those citizens often become detached from the problems of the poor, losing their compassion and their willingness to help their neighbors one person at a time.

Many Americans who say that they support socialism are actually longing for a more complete welfare state. They do not necessarily want their government to run all the factories, all the farms, all the hospitals and clinics, and all the means of production. They merely want a guarantee that all the hungry will be fed, all the homeless will be sheltered, and all the sick will receive the care they need. Calling for socialism, they blame the wealthy for creating and perpetuating the needs of their neighbors, and they accept no personal responsibility for causing or for solving those needs. The welfare state is not as bad an answer to human problems as is pure socialism; but it falls short of being the best answer available. J.

Blessed are the poor…

  Jesus says, “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you shall be satisfied. Blessed are you who weep now, for you shall laugh… But woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation. Woe to you who are full now, for you shall be hungry. Woe to you who laugh now, for you shall mourn and weep….” (Luke 6:20-21, 24-25)

What does this mean? Are poor Christians the only good Christians? Are wealthy people banned from the kingdom of heaven? Is money a sin and wealth a crime? Should all Christians give away their possessions and live in poverty until the Day Christ appears in glory?

Some Christians have taken the words of Jesus in that way. Others have read the rest of the Bible and have found more context for these sayings of Jesus. God has blessed the wealthy—he did not reject Abraham or David or Solomon or Lydia because they had worldly wealth. He allowed Job’s wealth to be stripped away from Job, but at the end of the test he gave Job twice as much wealth as he had at the beginning. If Jesus wanted all Christians mired in poverty, he could not expect us to give food to the hungry, clothing to the naked, or shelter to the homeless. If Jesus wanted all Christians to be mired in poverty, he would not expect his people to set aside money to help the poor, to do the work of the Church, and to support workers who spend their careers working for the Church and Christ’s kingdom.

At times, Jesus seems sympathetic toward capitalism. He tells parables about investing money, expecting a profit (Matthew 25:14-30, Luke 19:11-27). In fact, Jesus told more stories about money and investment and business than he told about planting seeds, tending crops, or taking care of sheep. Jesus knew that his followers would be involved in the world. He always intended to bless some of them with worldly wealth, making it possible for them to love their neighbors and to provide for the needs of the poor and the oppressed.

The problem is not with how much money people have; the problem is with how much money people want. A poor person can still be guilty of idolatry, dreaming about the wealth and riches he or she desires. The Ten Commandments close with warnings against coveting—wanting the property of another person. God blesses some people in poverty and some people in wealth. Being poor in spirit is not a matter of how much you own; being poor in spirit is a matter of how much your possessions own you.

The Bible endorses no economic system. Through history, most Christians have accepted whatever economic system surrounds them, doing their best to love God and serve their neighbors with any blessings God provides. When given a choice, though, the Christian does not only ask, “What is best for me?” The Christian asks, “What is best for my neighbor? Which system offers the greatest promise of helping the poor and oppressed, of making life better for all people?” In the rare instances where Christians may choose, their choice should reflect love for neighbors rather than greed and self-centered thinking.

Jesus said, “For it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God.” When those who heard it asked, “Then who can be saved?” Jesus did not answer, “the poor, and those who give away all their possessions to become poor.” Instead, he said, “What is impossible with men is possible with God.” Salvation comes only from the work of Jesus Christ. It is not earned by being poor or by becoming poor. Jesus endorses neither capitalism nor socialism; Jesus condemns neither capitalism nor socialism. He rescues sinners whether they are rich or poor or middle class; he rescues sinners whether they live in a capitalist country, a socialist country, or any other kind of country. The work of Jesus is for all people; Christianity transcends politics and economics. J.

What’s wrong with capitalism?

Two principle complaints about capitalism are that it perpetuates inequity of wealth and that it both causes and worsens poverty. While these might seem to be two sides of the same coin, they are not the same complaint at all. In fact, when advocates of socialism combine these two complaints into one argument, they are working to undermine the very strength of capitalism, its reason for existence.

People once believed that wealth is stagnant, that if one person gains wealth, another person must lose wealth. Adam Smith demonstrated that labor adds value, and that wealth is not stagnant. When capitalism works as intended, everyone benefits. Competition between the wealthy business owners helps their customers to have more choices and also provides their workers with more opportunities to earn wages and improve their lives and those of their families.

God in his creation (or Nature, if you prefer) did not make all people the same. Some people are stronger than others. Some are more physically attractive than others. Some are smarter than others—and there are various kinds of intelligence, so that one person may excel in one kind of thinking while the next is better in a different intellectual field. To hold that all people are created equal is not to hold that everyone must have the same advantages and the same benefits. The fact that some people are born into wealthy families and others are born into poor families is neither the fault of capitalism nor a reason to abandon capitalism. We are all different in several ways; but still we maintain that we all are created equal.

Deuteronomy 15 teaches that, if all people followed God’s commands, there would be no poverty. The same chapter warns us that the poor will always be with us. Capitalism might seem contrary to Christian and humanist principles of loving one’s neighbor, helping those who need help, and caring for the needy and the oppressed. A wealthy capitalist seeks to increase his or her wealth. As selfish as that sounds, the capitalist actually is a servant to his or her neighbors. To increase wealth, the capitalist seeks to provide a product that consumers want or need. The capitalist seeks to make that product more desirable—higher quality, more affordable, or in some other way better. At the same time, the capitalist creates jobs, paying workers to create the product and so providing for those workers and their families.

As the Industrial Revolution emerged, wealthy capitalists found an excess of labor on their doorsteps. More and better food from overseas expanded the population, and enclosure of agricultural lands drove more poor families off the land and into the cities. Craftsworkers were overwhelmed with new competition. At the same time, business owners were using steam and steel to become more efficient, offering products that were both better quality than before and more affordable. Work moved from homes into factories. Only wealthy people could afford to maintain factories and to purchase the new machinery of steam and steel. Often they combined their wealth, creating corporations. The rich became richer, but it was not inevitable that the poor had to become poorer.

I tell my history students that, for every Jane Austen novel they read, they must also read a Charles Dickens novel. Dickens captured the problems of the Industrial Revolution vividly in his fiction. Women and children worked in factories, because they would accept less money for their labor and would cause fewer problems for their managers. A large underclass of unemployed men frequently turned to crime, both out of need and out of boredom. Cities were dirty, overcrowded, and dangerous. Disease ran rampart through the population. For these reasons, nineteenth century socialists predicted the overthrow of capitalism. They expected working people to rise up and demand their rights, including a larger share of the wealth to which their labor was contributing.

Before the Industrial Revolution, families worked together, whether raising food on the land or producing crafts such as shoes, clothing, and candles. Women often were members of guilds, equal to men active in the same crafts. Factories tore apart families. They separated adults from children and women from men. Over time, the dream of the Victorian family developed: the family in which the man was the sole worker and breadwinner, the children went to school and played at home, and the women stayed home to raise a family. This idyllic picture never represented reality for most of the population. But, over time, society and government began to work in that direction. Labor laws took children out of the factories and put them in schools. Other laws began to clean the cities, reducing industrial pollution and untreated sewage. The free market found means of regulating itself so that capitalism did not imply poverty for the working class. More about this will be said in a future post. J.

Why socialism?

Given its abysmal track record, why would anyone advocate socialism today?

The reasons for suggesting socialism today are much like the reasons for proposing socialism in the nineteenth century, before it had been tried and had failed. Life is unfair. Poverty and oppression are wrong. All people deserve a fair chance to rise above their situation, to have a happy life, and to perform to the best of their abilities. Because that does not happen as often as it should, socialism was once suggested as a correction for the world’s problems. Even though socialism has failed, some people today are willing to overlook those failures and give socialism another chance, because in theory socialism addresses some of the injustices that exist in the world today.

It’s not fair that a back-up infielder can earn more money in one baseball season than a third grade teacher earns spending forty-five years in the classroom teaching children.

It’s not fair that a thousand people work in a factory forty hours a week, then go home to squalor and hunger, while the owner of the factory lives in luxury without ever having worked a day in his life (because he inherited the factory from his father).

It’s not fair that these inequalities are reinforced, to a measurable extent, by gender, ancestry, language, appearance, and zip code, not to mention physical and emotional disabilities.

Socialism promises to address these injustices, to make people equal, to eradicate poverty and its accompanying problems. Socialism promises to care for the poor and needy and oppressed, to rescue them from the clutches of greedy rich and powerful capitalists, to end their oppression and to allow them to live up to the potential of their lives as human beings.

But socialism has never kept these promises.

If wealth is to be redistributed, the first question is how it is to be divided. Should each person receive an equal amount of wealth? Should those with greater needs be given more and those with fewer needs be given less? Should those who work hard and produce more benefit for others be paid more than those who contribute less? All of these answers have been proposed, but none of them ever has been accomplished.

Compare North Korea to South Korea, and judge for yourself whether socialism reduces or increases poverty and injustice. Compare Mao’s China of 1970 to Xi’s China of 2020 and judge for yourself whether socialism heightens or lowers a nation’s wealth and the average wealth of that nation’s citizens. Consider again why people fled East Germany, North Vietnam, and Cuba—was it because they wanted to live where life is less fair, or was it because they believed that life would be better (and more fair) in a free market economy?

When Jesus said, “The poor you always have with you,” he was being realistic and not defeatist. Jesus still wants his followers to care for the poor and oppressed, for widows and orphans and foreigners among us. But Jesus was quoting Deuteronomy 15:11, which says, “There will never cease to be poor in the land.” But that verse follows closely after Deuteronomy 15:4-5, which says, “But there will be no poor among you; for the Lord will bless you in the land that the Lord your God is giving you for an inheritance to possess—if only you will strictly obey the voice of the Lord your God, being careful to do all this commandment that I command you today.” Poverty exists because people—even God’s people—have not lived the lives that God wants to see people living.

The world contains more than enough food to satisfy its population; but the food is not distributed evenly. The world contains more than enough room for everyone to live comfortably; but some people are crowded into cities and living on the streets. The world contains enough resources to meet the needs of people everywhere. Thanks to science, the food supply has grown even faster than the human population. But the world is not fair. Socialism tries to force justice upon all people, redistributing the wealth for the benefit of all. Instead, socialism supports a bureaucracy of managers while increasing rather than diminishing the misery of the workers.

Socialism claims to be a better way. Free market economies have shown themselves to be the better way. History demonstrates repeatedly that free market economies benefit more people than socialism. But some people listen only to the promises of socialism and do not consider the historic record. J.

When you give

“Thus, when you give to the needy, sound no trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, that they may be praised by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. But when you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your giving may be in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you” (Matthew 6:2-4).

Although giving to the needy necessarily involves another person, the act of giving still is largely between ourselves and God. In Jesus’ day, giving to the needy did not involve charitable organizations, income tax deductions, and other technicalities. Today the government allocates money to help the needy. As a result, some people lobby the government for more help or for different kinds of help. Hundreds of other organizations also help the needy; they are funded by contributions, which they seek to raise in a variety of ways. Not all the needy get the help they need from the government and from charities. Some beg on the roadsides for money, and others travel from church to church asking for money. Some are truly poor and needy. Others have chosen poverty and begging as a way of life. Many are under the control of addictions or other mental disorders. All the same, in the United States today, more ways of helping the needy exist than ever before in any time or any place.

Because there are so many ways to offer help to the needy—and because we all receive frequent reminders of the help that is needed—we easily forget that the help we give to others is a secret part of our relationship with God. The Lord has given most of us more than we need so we have the privilege of sharing what we have with others. We begin by helping the members of our family and those nearest to us. We continue by seeing what we can do to assist the needy person who crosses our paths. Merely handing out money does not meet the needs of all the needy. Instead, we can provide food for the hungry, shelter for the homeless, clothing for those who lack clothing, and time to visit those who are sick or in prison or lonely. We have different opportunities to serve our Lord by helping the least of our neighbors. When we choose to give to charities, we take time to think—maybe even do some research—to make sure that our money, our time, and our resources are accomplishing the greatest good possible.

If we try to keep for ourselves everything the Lord has provided us, we sin against God and against our neighbors. When we waste our resources—even when we carelessly give to liars and con artists—we sin against God and against our neighbors who have real needs. (Yes, Jesus did say, “Give to everyone who asks.” At the same time, Jesus wants us to be wise stewards of the property he has entrusted to us. He wants each of us to do the most good possible with what we have.) Jesus stresses that, when we give to the needy to call attention to ourselves, we sin. Being self-centered about the help we give to others taints our giving, keeping it from being recognized by God as a good work.

We sin every day. We need God’s forgiveness every day. God forgives us every day. He sends us forgiveness as surely as he sends us daily bread, more than we need, so we can share what we have with others. Jesus sets an example for us to follow. When he healed the sick, he told them not to talk about it. He told them to keep the healing secret. Even today, as Jesus meets our needs for daily bread and daily forgiveness, he does it in a way that other people do not notice. Often, his gifts even escape our attention!

Because our sins are forgiven each day, we are free to be like Jesus. We are free to use what we have to help others. After all, God gave us more than we need so that our help given to others is part of our relationship with God. As we help, we are free to help quietly, so the matter remains secret between ourselves and God. J.

Poor in spirit

“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5:3).

What does it mean to be poor in spirit? Possibly Jesus is describing people who lack spiritual qualities, saying that even they can be blessed by God, in spite of their spiritual poverty. That possibility is unlikely, though; on another occasion Jesus said, “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God… but woe to you who are rich, for you have already received your comfort” (Luke 6:20, 24). As uncomfortable as this truth might be for us, Jesus is talking about wealth as the world means wealth, and Jesus then says it is better to be poor than to be rich. He also said, “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God” (Matthew 9:24).

Is there no hope for the salvation of the wealthy, as wealth is measured by the world? What about Abraham and Solomon, who were both very wealthy? There is hope, because Abraham and Solomon were not owned by their possessions. It is not how many possessions you own that determine whether you are poor in spirit; the question rather is how much do your possessions own you? What Abraham and Solomon possessed did not matter much to them, because their eyes were on a better world. Though they were wealthy, they were poor in spirit, not being owned by their possessions.

A pauper with nothing in this world might still fail to be poor in spirit, if that pauper envies other people and dreams of what he or she would do with a million dollars. “Poor in spirit” describes a person’s attitude towards wealth and possessions, whether that person has wealth and possessions or only wishes for wealth and possessions. Lack of interest in worldly wealth is a virtue to Jesus; it is also a virtue in other religions. Stoics and Buddhists teach their students to be disinterested in this world, not to care about riches or about poverty. Disinterest in worldly wealth is a common theme among the religions of the world.

How does one acquire this splendid ability to be disinterested in the world and to be more interested in higher truths? Stoics and Buddhists teach that a person must work at developing such an attitude. Jesus offers an easier way. He says that the virtue of disinterest in wealth is the result of a gift, a blessing from God. The name of that blessing is the kingdom of heaven.

No one can earn a place in the kingdom of heaven. We do not earn a place in God’s kingdom by forcing ourselves to be poor in spirit. The kingdom of heaven is God’s gift to us because he loves us. Through the life and death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, we are rescued from all our failings, including any sinful interest in worldly wealth. God claims us as his children and makes us citizens of his kingdom. We are promised eternal life with Jesus in a new creation. Even today we are already citizens of that new creation. Our membership in the Church that trusts Jesus, our invitation to speak within God in prayer at any time, our confidence that God is taking care of us today and meeting all our needs: all these good things are privileges of our citizenship in the kingdom of heaven.

Because we have these privileges, we can be poor in spirit. We can stop being concerned with the wealth and pleasures that the world offers, as our attention is diverted to the other kingdom where we are citizens. Those who are blessed with the gift of the kingdom of heaven will, by nature, become poor in spirit. This, according to Jesus, is one way we might recognize the people who have received his gift of the kingdom of heaven. J.

Protecting lives

God says, “You shall not murder” (Exodus 20:13).

Luther explains, “What does this mean? We should fear and love God so that we do not hurt or harm our neighbor in his body, but help and support him in every physical need.”

Salvageable adds: This commandment prompts discussions in many controversial areas: abortion, euthanasia, the death penalty, and just and unjust wars, to name a few. Christians should seek God’s will in these extreme cases, but too often Christians become absorbed with these cases and overlook the everyday ways in which we are tempted to sin against this commandment.

This is the first of four brief commandments which protect, in order, lives, marriages, property, and reputations. (They are so brief that three of them are tied for shortest verse in the Bible, if we count letters in the original languages rather than in English translations.) Luther indicates that we not only are forbidden to kill our neighbors, but we are not to hurt or harm them in any way. Jesus goes even further, indicating that rage and insults against a neighbor also trespass this commandment.

Obedience to this commandment involves attitudes as well as actions. All human life is to be respected and even treasured. We should not even want to harm a neighbor. This includes deliberate acts of violence, and also carelessness. When we carelessly risk harming a person’s life or health, we break this commandment. That applies to our own lives as well. We are to be good stewards of our bodies—neither obsessing over our health and fitness to the point of idolatry, nor engaging in unhealthy habits that can shorten our lives or reduce our ability to serve God by helping our neighbors.

Even neglect is sinful. Not only are we to avoid hurting and harming others, but we are to help and support others. Both Old and New Testaments call God’s people to care for widows and orphans and all that are poor and vulnerable. Deuteronomy 15:4-5 says, “But there will be no poor among you; for the Lord will bless you in the land that the Lord your God is giving you for an inheritance to possess—if only you will strictly obey the voice of the Lord your God, being careful to do all this commandment that I command you today.” But Deuteronomy 15:11 says, “There will never cease to be poor in the land.” God knew that his people would sin, failing to honor and protect the lives of their neighbors, allowing selfishness and greed and cold-heartedness to keep them from caring about the lives of their neighbors. Those sins continue today. Enough food is produced in the world each year to feed every person alive, preventing starvation and diseases caused by malnutrition. The food is not distributed evenly, though, so that those who have more than enough can share with those in need. Politics, waste, and greed all play a part in the inequities of the world. We could be doing better.

Special circumstances call for a lifting of this commandment. Soldiers on a battlefield behave in ways that would be inappropriate anywhere else. Medical and religious professionals help families make difficult decisions about care given to the terminally ill. Many Christians believe that it shows respect for human life to deprive a murderer of his or her life. Even Jesus laid down his life as a sacrifice, dying so his people can live, purchasing forgiveness for all of our sins, including sins against the lives of our neighbors. J.