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The "Deserving Poor"?

In my ongoing research on OT economic laws, I came across a book called Theonomy: An Informed Response in the basement of the New College Library. A blast from the past, if ever there was one. Theonomy was all the rage in my little circles during my first years of theological awareness (2002, perhaps?), though my little circles were rather late to the party, and theonomy was certainly already on its way out. It has since disappeared with scarcely a trace, another victim to the changing tides of theological fads. Its leading adherents have scattered to the four winds, and, except for a few die-hards laboring on in obscurity, have shoved their old theonomic garments into the dark recesses of their theological closets and have emerged well-clad and well-shaven, trying their best to look respectable.

One such former theonomite was the now Right Reverend Ray Sutton, and it was his article in the book, dealing as it did with issues of poverty and economics, that caught my eye. Turns out that it was a response to objections that theonomy didn't have much concern for the poor, indeed, was downright callous about the problems of relieving poverty. I was intrigued. After all, from my study of OT economic law thus far, I would think that if anyone was concerned about the poor, sensitive to their plight,a and aggressive about helping them, it would be those who wanted to return fully to the laws of the Torah. After all, there has been scarcely any law code in history which did so much to try to help the economically disadvantaged. How could theonomists be accused of such things? Surely Sutton would vindicate their cause!

Well, not really. In fact, he quoted George Grant more than he quoted the Torah, and although he repeatedly insisted that theonomists cared very much about helping poor, he repeatedly spoke of the need to give aid only with conditions attached, and to distinguish between the deserving and the undeserving poor. Only the deserving, it seems, should be the objects of our charity. Now where do you get this in the Bible? I agree with Sutton that modern state welfare systems are broken; that they make problems worse instead of better, because they give handouts instead of real help. Charity does need to involve responsibility and accountability. But Sutton's way of talking about this is certainly not Scripture's. Where do we see the language of "charity with conditions" or of "the deserving poor" in Christ's ministry? The whole point of Christ, as I understood, was the unconditionality of his love and the undeservingness of our condition. But, admittedly, theonomists want to follow the OT law, not gospel law. But where does the OT law share our conservative obsession with helping only the deserving poor, and doing so only with conditions attached to make sure they don't abuse our help? Does the Sabbath legislation say, "And in the seventh year, you shall forgive all debts, but only upon the condition that the forgiven debtor proves himself responsible and godly in his use of money. If you think he might use the debt-forgiveness as an excuse to squander and gamble, then by all means, refuse to forgive it"?? Or does the gleaning provision say, "Leave the corners of your field for the poor, but observe the poor as they come along and only allow the deserving and godly poor to come glean"??

The most striking feature of Biblical principles of charity is how indiscriminate, unconditional, and seemingly careless they are. How could anyone possibly spin them into a confirmation of conservative parsimony?


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November 30, 2009 at 4:58 PM  

"Leave the corners of your field for the poor, but observe the poor as they come along and only allow the deserving and godly poor to come glean"??

I think that in that case the 'deserving' were the ones who came out to the field to harvest it for themselves. The mandate was not to harvest your entire field, set aside an edge's worth and hand it out to people along the street; it was to make food available to those who would work for it.

December 1, 2009 at 7:51 AM  

I should clarify, I suppose, that I haven't read any theonomists and I'm not necessarily supporting (or attacking) their entire position. Just making a particular point.

December 1, 2009 at 7:52 AM  

Hey Melissa,
Yes, I agree, and Sutton does use that specific example to make part of his point. Which is why he is on to something...certainly Biblical charity is not the same as a modern welfare system.

My concern though is that the terms in which Sutton and the theonomists try to articulate that difference is far more helpful than harmful. To bring terms like "the deserving poor" into the discussion is, I think, dangerous and destructive.

And I think there is something significant in the way the food is just left there for the taking...which does not fit with the conservative emphasis on carefully managed, regulated charity that maintains clear distinctions of property rights. The field owners were not supposed to harvest all the grain, set aside some in a bin for the poor, and then make the poor come work for them, in return for a distribution from the bin. It was just left there for the poor to come gather as if it were from their own field.

December 1, 2009 at 2:11 PM  

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