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The Table Video

Alvin Plantinga

On the Moral Significance of Poverty

John A. O'Brien Professor of Philosophy Emeritus at the University of Notre Dame
February 6, 2012

Nicholas Wolsterstorff addresses the viewpoints of both the past and the present on poverty. Throughout the session, Wolterstorff goes back to justice, how love deals with justice, and how the Church or government can deal with this problem of poverty.


Let me elaborate a little bit on what Greg was suggesting, on how I came to issues of justice. I did not come to issues of justice because it was part of what I was assigned to teach or reading or anything like that. It was more that the issues came to me. First one like this. I was teaching at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Michigan, in September, 1975. I was sent by my college to a conference on Christian Higher Education from around the world, which was held in Potchefstroom, South Africa. Potchefstroom is a smallish city about an hour’s drive from Pretoria. Johannesburg, sorry.

At this conference there were, well South Africa in those days was divided up into what they call whites, and coloreds and blacks. That was the terminology used. There were so called white South Africans there. Mainly Afrikaners but some of them English and so called blacks and so called coloreds. There were people from other parts of Africa. There were a lot of Dutchman, and some of us North Americans. The Dutch Afrikaners which is the language of, the Afrikaners in South Africa, is derived from Dutch, and though Afrikaners is quite different from contemporary Dutch, each can understand the other.

They speak their own language. The Dutch were very angry. They were very well acquainted with Apartheid. Some of you are, Apartheid is in the distant past for some of you. The Dutch were very well acquainted with Apartheid and were very angry, and though the conference was not about Apartheid, they grabbed every opening they could find, to vent their anger at the Afrikaners. The Afrikaners in turn seized every opportunity that they could find to vent their anger at the Dutch for being so angry at them, and for being so judgemental and so forth, and so it went for a day and a half, until neither party had anything to say to the other anymore. Actually, they hadn’t had anything to say about it for about a half a day already.

Anyway, they kept talking for half a day, so then the so called blacks and colored from South Africa got up, and began to talk about the indignities that were daily heaped upon them, and issued a cry for justice. I shall never forget it. The response of the Afrikaners took me completely aback. The Afrikaners said justice is not the issue. Benevolence is the issue, and we Afrikaners are a very benevolent people. Some of us have large houses, and there are blacks in the backyard, families, and we give them Christmas gifts.

We give them clothing that our own children have outworn, so we’re generous, and Apartheid itself, has to be understood as benevolence. As generosity. There are, depends on how you count, some 10 or 11 different nationalities in South Africa. Depends on whether you count the Afrikaners and the English as one or two nationalities, but 10 or 11, and we think said the Afrikaners, that each of these nationalities should find its own identity. Its linguistic identity, its cultural identity and so forth but if these different nationalities are to find their own identity they’ve gotta be pulled apart, right?

That’s Apartheid. Benevolence of justice is not the issue. We are a benevolent people, and here’s what I thought I saw. Here’s what I know I saw. Benevolence being used as an instrument of oppression. Shall never forget it. I then did what academic people do. I bought yards of books. Became acquainted with, both with blacks and coloreds and whites and went back to South Africa several times and so forth.

The second episode that Greg hinted at was this. In May of 1976, I was invited to a conference on Palestinian Human Rights, on the west side of Chicago. I was living in Grand Rapids, Michigan, so to get to the west side of Chicago, is a fairly easy three hour drive. I’ve no idea why I was invited to the conference. I never really understood what it is in myself that led me to go to the conference, but I went. There were about 150 Palestinians there, almost all of them, maybe all of them, Christian. I had not thought of Palestinians as Christians.

I suppose if you’d asked me I would have said, well, yeah there are some Christian Palestinians, but I thought of them as Muslim, but here were 150 Christian Palestinians, and once again they issued a call for justice, and they poured out their guts, in language that I subsequently learned is for lots of North Americans too hot to handle. A passionate call for justice. There were many things about the conference that took me utterly aback.

A representative of the PLO. It was a PLO. This was when we still have the PLO before there was Palestinian administration actually. There was a representative from the PLO who was allowed by the State Department to come to this conference. Under the stipulation that he see to it that no more than five people at a single time could hear him talk, and I thought, if our policy is so fragile, that if he gets up and you name it, eight people hear him talk, that the State Department revokes his permission to be there.

There’s something profoundly wrong about it. Once again I was confronted by my fellow Christians, by a call for justice. Here we go. I did the usual thing. Bought yards of books. Visited the Middle East several occasions. Became chair of the organization that sponsored this original conference and so forth. You see the point. I didn’t go to. I didn’t seek this awakening. It happened to me. In both cases, my experience, I concluded that I could only put my experience in classic Prothestant terms.

I was confronted by a call from God to speak up for these suffering people, in whatever way was appropriate. That it would be deeply religiously irresponsible of me not to do so. That’s what I did, and I’ve a long book on justice out there. Actually two of them. Kind of thick and so forth. You might wonder how does this constitute speaking up for these wronged people, but that’s what’s behind it all. That’s what’s, if it had not been for those two speeches, for those two experiences, I’m not sure that the theme of justice in scripture would have jumped out at me, the way it did after those two experiences.

I understand that as part of your mission month you’re concentrating on poverty, so this is providentially, directly relevant, to new people here. Here’s the question that I’d like you to think about with me. What is the moral significance of poverty? What are the moral categories that we should use when thinking about people who are impoverished? What are the moral categories we should use in thinking about our response to their situation? I should make clear that I’m not talking about those who for religious reasons, let’s say, are voluntarily poor. Who adopt poverty as a way of life, as part of a monastic community or something like that. That’s off to the side. What are the moral categories that we should use?

Not infrequently, one hears it said about such people that they’re lazy and don’t want to work. Now when that’s said it’s assumed of course, that they should not be lazy, and that they ought to want to work. The moral category being used in those cases is either explicitly or explicitly, the moral category is that of guilt. The poor person is guilty, for being lazy, and for not wanting to work. If that’s one’s view of the poor person, that the basic category to use is that they’re guilty for being lazy, and not wanting to work, if that’s the right moral category to use, then obviously the appropriate moral response on our part is to exhort the person to get to work, and if after our preachments and our exhortations and you really ought to get to work and so forth, if after all that he still doesn’t want to work, then it’s appropriate I suppose to pressure him and maybe even exert some punishment or hard treatment of some sort.

My ear tells me that that’s how some at least of our politicians think about the matter. Some of them have declared themselves opposed to unemployment benefits, because they say the money that people get from unemployment benefits, is more than available jobs would pay, so they calculate, so they decide not to go to work, and instead get more money from unemployment benefits. Unemployment benefits encourage and reward laziness. What’s being assumed here of course is that for all these unemployed people there are jobs in fact available. Well okay, so that’s one common way of thinking about the poor. They’re lazy.

Unemployment benefits make it worse. They’re guilty A couple of things in reply. First, of course it’s true that some poor people are lazy. Of course it’s true, and don’t want to work, but I would have thought that poor people do not have a monopoly on laziness. I have the impression that a fair number at least of wealthy people are also lazy, and don’t much like to work, and that a good many of them manage either to stop working at an early age or in case their wealth is inherited basically they manage to never work at all.

If the social evil in which one has one’s eye is guilty, being lazy, and not wanting to work, then one better be just as denunciatory of the wealthy lazy as of the poor lazy. Secondly, anybody who knows poor people, as you’re gonna discover, you know already, it’s preposterous to declare that poor people in general are poor because they’re lazy and because they try to avoid working. Some desperately want to find work and can’t find it. Some work for very little financial reward. I grew up in the farm country of Southwest Minnesota.

Tiny little farming village of 200 people. My parents were very poor. We just scraped by, but nobody thought that that was because my parents were lazy and tried to avoid work. In fact, basically my mother and father worked from as I remember it now, from dawn to dusk. Sundays was a rest day, but his every day was a work day from 6:00 in the morning you name it, until whatever. Second, I think more common than the view that the poor are guilty because they’re lazy, and that we should treat them as such, probably more common is the view that they are unfortunate.

They’re poor because of too little or too much rain. Because of bad farming practices, inherited from their predecessors. Because of poor education. Because of an economic recession resulting in loss of jobs. Because the bread winner in the family has died. All kinds of unfortunate things. On this way of thinking the poor are not guilty. They’re unfortunate. They’re victims of big social ecological happenings. They’re among the social unfortunates. It’s unfortunate that some people are poor. Just as it’s unfortunate that some are lame and deaf or blind, and of course being unfortunate is just not a moral category. It’s a purely factual category.

If one’s basic category for thinking of the poor is that of unfortunates, then I think one or the other of the following two responses is invariably forthcoming. One response is this. There’s basically nothing to be done about it. It’s unfortunate but there’s nothing to do about it, or at least there’s nothing to do about it that won’t make things worse than they are already. Nothing to be done about it, other than to pray that God will deliver them from their unfortunate condition. Right? It’s unfortunate that there are poor people, but you’ve heard it. New Testament quotation.

The poor we always have with us. Nothing much to do about it. That’s a non moral response to a non moral understanding of the situation. Unfortunate, nothing to be done about it. There are no moral categories being involved there. That’s one response to understanding the poor as unfortunates. The other response to understanding the poor as suffering from misfortune, the other response is the response of charity.

Charity obviously being a good thing to do. Those of us with resources should alleviate the condition of the unfortunate poor. We should extend charity to them. That’s how most people in the world. I think they were right about it. That’s how most people in the world understood the response of governments and of NGOs to the earthquake in Haiti. That this was charity being extended to people who suffered the misfortune of this calamitous earthquake.

Though I read recently that only about 10% of the promised charity has come through to Haiti. I don’t know firsthand whether that’s true or not. It’s my impression, how about you? It’s my impression that most Christian relief, development, and service organizations think of themselves as charitable organizations. Charity is the basic moral category that they use. For them the moral significance of poverty and of other kinds of misfortune, is that the poor are candidates for charity. It’s likewise my impression that most Americans in general if they don’t think of the poor as guilty of being lazy, think of them as unfortunates, who are candidates for charity, and we then get into big arguments. You’ve heard them.

We get into big arguments, over whether the government should, or should not be in the business of extending charity. Some people say it should. Some people say it should not. We assume that government welfare programs are charity, and some of us then argue that’s a good thing. After all we Americans are generous people and we want to provide a safety net as it’s called, and others argue that you’ve heard it, charity is simply not the business of government. It’s the business of individuals, and it’s the business of churches like you and so forth, but it’s not government business. If one thinks of aid to the poor as charity, extended to the unfortunate, then four things typically come along. First, one will think of what one is doing as over and above the call of duty. Charity goes beyond duty. It’s an act of grace on your part. It’s a display of generosity.

It’s a gift. If it’s charity. Second, since it’s a gift rather than a duty, it’s morally optional, whether you will extend charity or not. If something goes beyond duty, if it’s duty you ought to do it If it goes beyond duty, then it’s up to you, whether you’re going to do it or not. Third, if you think of it as charity, you’re going to expect gratitude from the recipients. That’s what we pretty much all expect when we give a gift.

Some indication of gratitude. Perhaps combined with praise for our generous character. Everybody here, I feel sure in saying, has felt annoyed and aggrieved, when you gave a gift to somebody, and they express no gratitude for it whatsoever. Act as if they had it coming. It’s annoying. Fourth, if it’s a gift, if it’s charity, if it’s a gift, you’re free to condition the giving of the gift on good behavior. Since it’s optional. You can say or think, look I’m not gonna give it to you until you shape up and start acting better.

These are features of charity. It’s optional. You can condition it. You don’t have to give it. You expect some gratitude. It’s a good thing on your part and so forth. To pull it together so far, what we have so far is this. Some people when they think of the poor, uses their basic category. The moral category of guilt. The poor are guilty of being lazy and not wanting to work, and the morally appropriate response to that is get to work! Shape up, get to work, and put some pressure on them to do that and so forth. Other people when they think of the poor don’t think in terms of guilt so much but think in terms of misfortune or unfortunate, which is a non moral category, and then you can either say, yeah, it’s too bad but there’s basically nothing to be done about it, or nothing that won’t make things worse, or you’ll say let’s extend some charity. Let’s be good and extend some charity.

That’s you remember now what I said at the beginning, that’s how the Afrikaners were thinking of what they were doing. They were being charitable. Giving gifts and trinkets to the kids in their backyard. Incidentally some people at the conference were extremely skeptical of these stories. I was not skeptical. I believed that the Afrikaners who had large houses, and servants in the backyard, were in fact, handing down their childrens’ clothing.

It seems plausible to me. Doesn’t it to you? Were giving small Christmas gifts and so forth, so it didn’t seem to me implausible. The business about Apartheid, being an act of benevolence and charity, that did seem to me wildly implausible. So two ways of thinking about the poor. Now a third way.

Very different from those two ways of thinking. Let me introduce this third way by reading a few passages from the Christian church fathers. Your and my and ancestors, Christian ancestors, from the third, the fourth, the fifth century, third and the fourth century actually after Christ. Would have been nice if I’d had these on a sheet of paper for you, but I’ll read them. Here goes. The first one comes from one of the fathers writing in Greek. Basil of Caesarea in present day Turkey. Basil lives from 330 to 379.

This is what Basil says. “Will not one be called a thief, who steals the garment of one already clothed, and is one deserving of any other title than thief, who will not clothe the naked if he is able to do so? That bread which you keep, belongs, belongs, to the hungry. That coat which you preserve in your wardrobe belongs to the naked. Those shoes which are rotting in your possession belong to the shoeless. That gold which you have hidden in the ground, belongs to the needy.

Wherefore, as often as you were able to help others, and refused, so often did you wrong them.” That’s pretty startling language. Here’s what one of the fathers writing in latin, Ambrose, who was Bishop up in the Northern Italian city of Milan, this is a brief one. Not from your own do you bestow upon the poor man, but you return from him what is his. You return to the poor man what is his. Now here’s at greater length from John Chrysostom, 347 to 407. Chrysostom was one of the great preachers of the Eastern church. A fiery preacher. He criticized the empress for her jewelry, and whereupon the empress booted him out of Constantinople, and he spent the remainder of his life in Antioch.

He’s preaching a series of seven sermons on the parable of Lazarus. What I’m gonna read you comes from the first sermon. He begins these just before. No, I think he preaches the first one just after New Years, and he says, I notice that you people seem a bit sleepy this morning, but let me preach anyway, and then he finishes his fifth sermon and says, I notice that you people are getting a bit bored with these sermons on Lazareth, so I’ll interrupt for a few weeks, and then I’ll come back. My feeling is so what’s new? Here’s John. You gotta visualize him as standing in the great church, it wasn’t before the present big church, but standing in the great church in Constantinople, probably the emperor and the empress and so forth. Here he goes. This also is theft. Not to share one’s possessions.

Perhaps this statement seems surprising to you, but do not be surprised. I shall bring you testimony from the divine scripture saying that not only the theft of other people’s goods, but also the failure to share one’s own goods with others is theft and swindle and fraud. The rich man is a kind of steward of the money which is owed for distribution to the poor. He is directed to distribute it to his fellow servants who are in want. If he spends more on himself than his need requires, he will pay the harshest penalty hereafter. For his own goods are not his own, but belong to his fellow human beings.

The poor man says John, the poor man has but one plea, his want and his standing in need. Don’t require anything else from him, but even if he is the most wicked of all people and is at a loss for his necessary sustenance, let us free him from hunger. The alms giver now uses a nautical metaphor. The alms giver is a harbor for those in necessity. A harbor receives all who have encountered shipwreck, and frees them from danger, escorts them into its own shelter, and so you likewise, when you see on Earth the human being who encountered the shipwreck of poverty, don’t judge them. Don’t seek an account of his life, but free him from his misfortune. Need alone is the poor man’s worthiness.

We don’t provide for the manners but for the man. We show mercy to him not because of his virtue, but because of his misfortune, in order that we ourselves may receive from our divine master, his great mercy. I beg you remember this without fail, that not to share our own wealth with the poor is theft from the poor and deprivation of their means of life. We don’t possess our own wealth, but theirs.

You can understand why the well to do in Constantinople were annoyed with John. I’m sure what you think. I’m sure that Basil, Ambrose. I could read you lots of other passages from the church fathers to the same effect. I’m sure that Basil, Ambrose, and John, believe that some of the poor were poor because they were lazy. Guilt of being lazy, and they ought to be treated as such. I mean they don’t happen to say that here, but I’m just absolutely sure of that, and the concept of charity was of course, I’m sure part of their, you can find that in other passages. Not here, but other passages. They knew about charity, that they had that concept, but did you notice, that they don’t preach guilt to the poor here, nor do they preach charity to the well to do. They didn’t say to the wealthy, be good, be charitable, and so forth Here’s what they say.

Did you catch it? The extra shoes in the closet of the well to do person belong to the poor person who has no shoes. Belong to. The extra food in the cupboard of the well to do person belongs to the poor person who has no food and so forth. That’s part of your and my Christian heritage. To put it in terminology that you and I are familiar with, though terminology that I discovered some people don’t like, the poor person has a right to those shoes and to that food, because if something belongs to you, then you’ve got a right to it, and furthermore, it’s what philosophers and so forth call a natural right. None of these three people appealed to the laws of the surrounding society.

There’s no reference to the laws of Constantinople whatsoever. It’s just. They come as human beings, says John. Basil puts it from the negative side. From the dark side. Not only do the extra shoes of the well to do person belong to the person who has no shoes, if the well to do person doesn’t give the poor person shoes, then the well to do person wrongs the poor person, so I call that putting it from the shadow side. Wrongs, wrongs the person. Look, if you deprive somebody of what they’ve got a right to you’ve wronged them, but the same point can be put more positively by using the concept of justice. If you’ve got a right to being treated a certain way by me, then if I don’t treat you that way, I’m not treating you as justice requires. I fail to do what justice commands, and so for these three church fathers, here’s what I’d like you to think about with me. For these three church fathers, the fundamental moral significance of poverty.

There will be exceptions, but the fundamental moral significance, is that it issues to us a call to do justice. Like it or not, this is part of your and my Christian heritage. Yep, sometimes the poor are lazy. Maybe quite often, and yes, sometimes there’s nothing to be done about poverty. That’s true, but in the normal case, the moral significance of poverty, is that it presents us with a call to do justice. Where did this way of thinking come from?

This way of thinking about the moral significance of poverty. Did Basil, Ambrose, John, and the other church fathers just invent it? Dream it up? Or did they sort of absorb it from their surrounding Pagan society? Maybe you’ve heard it in the passage from Chrysostom. It comes from the bible. The passage that I read you from John Chrysostom, leaves off, begins with, as you just heard from the scripture reading and so forth, so the category, let me put it before you, the category that scripture uses, almost all the time, for the moral significance of poverty, is the category of justice. Almost all the time. The impoverished present us with a call to do justice. I could give you probably a couple hundred passages to that effect. Let me tonight content myself, with just two of them.

Here’s one from Psalm 72. The Psalmist is describing the good king. The ideal king. Here’s what he says. He’s addressing God actually. May the King judge your people with righteousness, and your poor with justice. May the King defend the cause of the poor of the people, and give deliverance to the needy, and crush the oppressor. Notice, the King in defending the cause of the poor, and giving deliverance to the needy, is fulfilling his mandate to do justice. Nothing is said about charity. Nothing is said about guilt and so forth.

The church fathers were basically echoing that idea. Let me just take one other passage. This is from the beginning of Isaiah 10, the first two verses. “Woe to those who enact evil statutes and to those who constantly record unjust decisions. So as to deprive the needy of justice, and rob the poor of my people of their rights.” Lots of passages to that effect. Here are three ways of thinking about the moral significance of poverty. They’re guilty, nothing to be done about them, and coming out of the church fathers, and they are reflecting your and my scriptures, the poor, most of the time, are being treated unjustly. To come to their aid is not to extend optional charity, it’s to as all three of Ambrose, Basil, and John say it’s to give them what belongs to them, to return to them what belongs to them. Now that leaves open. That’s how we should respond, to understand the moral significance of their condition.

That leaves open how scripture understands their condition as such. That’s our response. Our response is to treat them as justice requires, but how about their situation as such? The scripture understand the poor as unfortunates. As a group them with those who have a broken ankle, had a stroke, heart attack, unfortunates. Well you may have noticed that John Chrysostom did speak of poverty as misfortune, but the biblical writers don’t speak that way very often. I mean if asked, I’m sure they’d say, that sometimes there are droughts, and it’s unfortunate that people are impoverished, so of course, sure, but that’s not how they usually talk about it.

What they usually do is group the impoverished with three other groups of unfortunates. Three other groups of vulnerable people. The widows, the orphans, the aliens, and the impoverished. Over and over in the New Testament, that quartet of what I call the vulnerable, the widows, the orphans, the aliens, and the impoverished, and here’s what’s really striking, and for all of us unsettling, scripture almost always describes them as downtrodden. We in our society often use a circular metaphor. They’re peripheral. They’re on the margins.

It’s much more typical of scripture to talk about them as downtrodden, and what that suggests obviously, is that the impoverishment on which the biblical writers have their eye is not something that just befalls people, but is the result of unjust social laws and practices. Not only are we treating the poor unjustly, if we fail to alleviate their condition, but their condition itself is often typically an indication of injustice, of being pushed down, downtrodden, and what that implies obviously, is that not only does justice require that we alleviate the condition of the poor, it obviously implies that what we have to do is try to change the structures and the practices that press them down. In short, let me sum it up.

I think for the biblical writers, it’s clear, that the moral significance of poverty in the usual case, is that it represents a double violation of justice. The poor are unjustly downtrodden, and are in our failure to do anything about it. We once again treat them unjustly. The moral significance of poverty in scripture, for the most part, is not that the poor are guilty of being lazy, or that they’re just unfortunates, but that they’re victims of injustice, and that something is required of us, and not optional charity. One last point. Recall once more the verse that I read from Psalm 72.

What we heard is that it’s the responsibility of the King, the government, to see to it that justice is rendered to the poor, and what scripture teaches in general about government is that its business is to secure justice, Romans 13. The business of government is to secure justice, punish wrongdoing, encourage right doing, runs throughout scripture.

The basic business of government is to secure justice. May not be the only business, but basic business. When we put these two together, I as a biblical Christian find it impossible to avoid the conclusion, that government has a responsibility with respect to the condition of the poor. Has a responsibility to see to it that they are treated with justice. It’s open for discussion as to how government is going to achieve that goal.

That’s open for discussion. I think what’s not open for discussion on biblical Christianity, is that injustice is typically, poverty is typically an effective injustice and it’s the business of government to see to it that there’s justice in society. Once again, it may be that handing out doles is one of the worst ways for government to see to it that justice is rendered to the poor but it has to see to it that it is. I think applications for our situation are so clear and obvious, that it would be overkill to speak at length about them, but I’ll take one that I know is controversial.

Over the past three years, we in the United States have had, shall I say an intense debate, about the availability of healthcare, to citizens in general, and all kinds of categories have been used for talking about that. To my ear, the main categories have been the categories of freedom and cost. I’ve been astonished at how seldom to my ear moral categories were used in the discussion. Maybe I missed something, but freedom.

You’re compromising my freedom, if you make me buy health insurance, and cost, the present system is just too expensive. I think it’s impossible to avoid the conclusion that scripture urges you and me to raise the question of justice, when thinking and talking about healthcare. Not that issues of freedom are irrelevant. Not that issues of cost are irrelevant, but issues of justice. I think you and I are compelled to ask, whether in a wealthy and technologically sophisticated society such as ours, the poor have a right to decent healthcare?

Does justice require this, or is it optional charity? If justice requires it then we have to ask, what should government do about it? Once again, what it should do is up for discussion. It’s been my impression that as I said, that very few people, very few of us, have been using the category of justice, or indeed any moral category in discussing the issue of healthcare. Let me close with that. I told you what opened my eyes to issues of justice.

Those two experiences with the blacks so called blacks and coloreds in South Africa, and the Christian Palestinians. They’re on the west side of Chicago. I suppose if you had asked me before those two experiences does the bible talk about justice? I suppose I would have said, well yeah, but didn’t jump out. Those two experiences made it jump out. I now think that justice is written to the very fabric of scripture, and that what it urges you and me to do, is to recognize that the involuntarily impoverished are issuing to you and me a call to treat them justly. Thanks. [audience applause]

Man: What do we gain by labeling a moral imperative as justice versus charity? If I have a non optional obligation to look after the poor then what do we gain by labeling it as charity or justice? That is, one might think that I have an obligation to be charitable to the poor. What is the difference between saying this obligation is a matter of charity, and saying it is a matter of justice? Especially if we claim that the relevant actions are morally obligatory, and not merely optional?

I would say that the question sort of, this isn’t a very nice thing to say, the question sort of answers itself. Charity, what I mean by, I think what anybody means by it, charity goes beyond the obligatory. You can mean other things by charity, but goes beyond the obligatory.

Whereas justice is what’s required of us. Christian relief organizations, you can think of them in two ways. I think classically they’ve been thought of as charitable organizations. I think many of them are in fact engaged in justice. You people are involved in the international justice mission, right? That’s a very clear, I mean, international justice mission is very clear that what they’re doing is, maybe some of it is charity, but what they’re doing is rendering justice to children and women especially who are, they do a bit more than this, but they concentrate on who are enslaved, sex slaves, work slaves, and so forth.

I think the title of IJAM is the right title. This is not an optional thing for you and me to do but in so far as we can do anything about it, it’s a call. It’s our obligation. It’s justice asks it of us, whereas charity you can choose who you’re going to be charitable to. If your church has a benevolence fund and my denomination it was traditionally called a benevolence fund then you can decide to whom to give benevolence of course. Why not?

Or in fact whether to give it. I think the basic difference is right there, and what struck me then in these church fathers when I first read them. I mean look when I first read these church fathers, I was sort of open because of the experience in South Africa, and the experience with the Palestinians on the west side of Chicago, but this was jolting. I mean these three, Basil, Ambrose, Chrysostom, saying that those extra shoes belong to the poor person.

That’s strong language. It’s not John saying to the wealthy people, it’d be a good thing if you gave these your extra shoes. It’d be a noble thing. They belong, so that’s, the question sort of contains I think the crucial distinction.

Why don’t we go to, is there a question on the floor that somebody would like to ask? Yes?

I was curious, I guess this question’s related to the first but looks at the other part of the moral significance, so misfortune versus downtrodden, and part of this I’m just wondering about the practical significance, but I guess I would have thought the poor is unfortunate, just as I would have thought the widows maybe it was injustice that killed their husband, but maybe it was just bad circumstances, but I guess my question is, I would have thought misfortune could generate duty, so I walk by someone who is drowning. It’s not just that it would be a nice thing if I helped them, it would be, but I owe it to them, and they can exact it from me, from a kind of way, so I’m wondering if, I guess I’m really thinking about this question more practically speaking, there’s a really practically significant difference in thinking of the poor as unfortunate, because that can generate duties, versus downtrodden. I’m wondering if you think that will really affect our practices as Christians.

Yes. Good question. What I said is that it’s one way, in which people often think about the moral significance of poverty is they are unfortunates, and then I mentioned two responses, fairly characteristic responses. Sometimes there’s nothing to be done about it, or at least nothing that won’t make things worse, and the other is let’s be charitable, but I think you’re absolutely right that very often, and that is seemed to me was the language that was used for Haitian relief. It was charity, but you’re absolutely right.

Misfortune may generate obligation, absolutely, and I would just be wronging the person if they’d been hit by a car, and had the misfortune of being hit by a car on the street in L.A. somewhere, and I’d just walk past, of course I’d be wrong. Yep, you’re absolutely right. I could in talking about, thinking of them as unfortunate, have said that very often, the right response will be a third response. Not nothing to be done, or let’s be kind to them, but boy, I’m obligated to do something here. Absolutely.

I have the mic so I get to ask a question. Okay, you’ve spoke of the moral obligation, or the moral category of caring for the poor. One issue I know that many of us struggle with because it’s in the news today, what happens to the moral category of people who have violated a particular law of the United States to immigrate here illegally, is there then still a moral obligation to care for them if they are in this country illegally?

I have not thought through the right response, the right detailed response to the problems of immigration. I have not been a politician running for office who would be compelled to think it all through, but it does seem to me that what you and I have to constantly keep in mind, is they may have broken some law, and that’s not insignificant.

Business of government is to establish a code of laws and so forth, so as to secure justice, but they’re human beings. Created in God’s image, and it seems to me we’ve always got to keep that in mind. We may not treat them with indignity. Now what that involves about, amnesty standing in a, going back home and getting back in an immigration line, I don’t know about all that. I mean it’d be nice if I did, but I don’t.

I did see another hand back here, and I’ll walk back.

I was wondering if you could speak on the concept of justice, and reintegrating the idea of love with justice, because is there a way in which, if we think of justice apart from love, as just purely moral obligation, that it could potentially be litigious without love. Is the question clear, or?

How long a speech should I give? I mean that’s a really important question, I think. Let me give a slightly lengthy answer. Coming down to us from the ancients, from the ancient world, are two great imperatives from Jesus and Old Testament, love your neighbor as yourself, both from ancient Pagan thought and from scripture, do justice.

Two great imperatives, and it’s not the least bit obvious of course on the face of it how those two imperatives relate to each other, which is why the question arises. I would say that most discussions in the west about the relationship between love and justice, see them as in some way in tension with each other or as pitted against each other, and the classic literary expression of that is of course Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice, in which you’ve got justice and mercy in conflict with each other, but that’s one example of the basic theme if you find it in the theologians, the philosophers.

The question for you and me to ask is this. Here’s one of the questions to ask. When Jesus said, when Jesus said love your neighbor as yourself, the second and the greatest commandment likened to the first is love of your neighbor as yourself. What did Jesus mean by love? The standard view is the love there, is a love that goes beyond what justice requires. That’s been a standard view.

To act out of love is not to act as you do because justice requires it, and if you do act as you do, because justice requires it, you’re not acting out of love. The second love command is presented by Jesus and accepted by the questioners, as the heart of the law, the Torah, but it’s not just the heart of Torah, it is actually a quotation from Leviticus 19. It seemed to me some years back, when I became aware of that, that a helpful thing to do, would be to look up Leviticus 19, and see what its context was and maybe that would give us some illumination.

If you do look up Leviticus 19, what you find is that part of the law code that Moses that God is issuing to Israel through Moses, and this law it’s interwoven with issues of justice. To the landowners, don’t go over your wheat fields a second time, but leave a grain that’s fell down for the poor and so forth. That’s an act of justice and so forth. What you get in Leviticus 19, is a whole series of quite specific moral injunctions.

Don’t hold a grudge against your neighbor for example. If your neighbor’s done something wrong, reprove your neighbor lest his guilt be on your hands. I mean a whole fascinating series of detailed injunction and then at the culmination of it, and so love your neighbor as yourself.

Here’s the moral to be taken from that. In its original context, justice was not seen as pitted against love, but justice was seen as among the examples of love. Not the only examples, but among the examples. I think that you and I have to think of biblical love, New Testament love, as incorporating justice.

The love that Jesus enjoins on us, at least does justice, does more than that, but it does that at least. That’s how I’ve come to see. I think they should be seen as locked together like that and not pitted against each other. I don’t see any other way to read the context that are in Leviticus 19.

Okay, let’s take another question up on the screen. In the book, When Helping Hurts, by Corbett and Fikkert the author states that we are all poor, the fall affected us all. Some also are materially poor. The author states that all four relationships have been broken, our relationship with God, others, the Earth, and with ourselves.

One would you agree that, all are poor just in different ways, and that the relationships listed above, have all been broken because of the fall? Second the author also claims some in North America have a God complex that separates and places us above the poor, thus hindering our effectiveness, in ministering to the poor.

Good question. My answer first to the number one is yes. [audience laughing] But, so there is this haunting refrain. Over and over and the prophets and the Psalms and Deuteronomy and the Torah. Pentateuch, first five books. When the authors mention justice, widows, orphans, aliens, and the impoverished. I can’t help but think that they meant literal widows, and literal orphans, and literal aliens, and literal impoverished.

In some sense we’re all poor, yeah, but I don’t, what do you think? What is orphans, aliens, and the impoverished? In Psalm 72:8, when the King’s business is to render justice to the needy. It doesn’t mean all of us, it means the needy. In some deep sense we are all poor, true, but there’s this other sense. The social. The widows, the orphans, the aliens, and the impoverished. I think that one thing that happens when we think of helping the poor as an act of charity on our part, is that it does encourage an attitude of superiority.

The Afrikaners felt superior to those to whom they were being benevolent. There’s just no doubt about that. I think it’s very difficult, when you think in those ways, not to think of yourself as superior, but if you think of yourself as, in the way Ambrose, and Basil, ans John Chrysostom were thinking, that you’re giving the poor person what belongs to him or her, that does not encourage superiority feelings, does it?

When I give a student, I’m teaching a class, and the student has done a bang up job in the class and I give him or her an A, that doesn’t make me feel superior to the student. I’m just giving her what she has a right to. I think it’s, in answer to the two, I think it’s a good question. I think it’s attitude of superiority goes much more with thinking in terms of benevolence.

Man: Dr. Wolterstorff, we have a question from the back now.


Man: I’d like to preface this by saying, this isn’t a challenge. I appreciate what you’re saying, but given the existence of a culture of poverty in which a sense of dependency, despair, and inferiority is prevalent, among various downtrodden groups, do you have any thoughts on how you would deal with a situation where charity, which is meant to alleviate one of the injustices that you talked about, actually can contribute to this sense of despair and dependency that exists, which contributes therefore to the existence of poverty which is the second injustice that you talked about? In alleviating one injustice, you’re actually reinforcing another.



I think what you and I constantly have to think about as Americans and as Christian Americans, is how to prevent, how to go towards curing exactly that mentality. You’re absolutely right. That should be high on our agenda. Yep.

Not everybody poor has that culture of poverty mentality. My parents certainly didn’t have that. They were poor. I knew that they were poor. No doubt, they knew that they were poor, but it was a different mentality, but where that mentality is present, we should do all we can to correct it, yep.

Let’s take another question on the screen. Shall we allow government, to be the primary giver in charitable means or can the church fulfill that role and in doing so build Christ’s authority in charitable means?

I think the government should not think of itself. I think the government should think of itself hardly at all in terms of charity. I think it should think of, biblical proclamation is government’s business is justice. Not to say they can’t do some more, build some infrastructure, which maybe you can’t quite argue for in terms of justice and so forth, but the basic category is, government should not basically be in the business of charity.

It should be in the business of justice. Can a church fulfill that role? I think it’d be a wonderful thing, if churches and synagogues and mosques were so effective in the United States, that government said there’s no problem. There’s just no problem with poverty. It’s not a problem in the U.S. That’d be terrific. I think, but that’s not how it is. Churches should know that, be doing more than they can, but once upon a time when everybody in Western Europe, or everybody in Western Europe was member of the church, charity could be basically in the hands of the bishops. Not the government, but the bishops. That’s how it was for many years, but given our pluralism, lots of people, lots of Americans are not members of churches. That’s not an option anymore.

Okay, there’s a question here.

Hi. I have a practical question. With regard saying that it’s robbing from the poor by not giving to them when you have the ability to, if I suspect or anticipate that a poor person might use money for something like drugs or other potential? I’m sorry.

Say it again.

This is in regard to saying that you’re robbing from the poor if you don’t give when you have the ability to. If I suspect that they’re gonna use money for drugs or other detrimental activities and I don’t happen to have other things like shoes or clothes or blankets on me, how am I supposed to know when giving money to the poor is what actually is good for them?

We should do all we reasonably can to see to it the money’s not spent on drugs. When I was still teaching at Yale in New Haven, there was a policy of a lot of people, of giving the beggars chips that could only spent in the local restaurant or something like that. Instead of cash just chips, and it was a way of dealing with it. Also there was a famous beggar in New Haven, who if you just gave him 50 cents, his response was, if that’s all you can afford, you need it worse than I do. [audience laughing]

Man: Let’s take another question on the screen.

Minimum contribution.

Man: What do you make of the standard economic advice given for savings, putting away for retirement, et cetera? Do you see this advice consistent, or inconsistent with Christian charity and compassion for the poor?

This is putting away, if I understood this is putting away money for one’s own retirement. Do I think of that as charity, or as compassion for the poor?

Man: Is it inconsistent with it?

Inconsistent with it? I think, I guess I think, if you’ve got available money to put away for retirement, it’s a responsibility on your part to do so, but I’m not sure that’s getting at the thrust of the question.

Man: Yeah, I think the thrust would be that with as much poverty that’s around us that we see, is it consistent to think of oneself?

Well, I mean if the choice is, not putting away any money for retirement, but giving it to the poor, so what then happens to you, when you are 65 or whatever? Among, I guess I haven’t thought so much hard about it, but I think if you have the money it’s part of your responsibility, to save for your retirement, old age. Maybe about one more.

Man: Okay. We have a little bit more time.

What are your views on the commercialized approach in an attempt to alleviate poverty? A couple examples would be Product Red, the endeavors of Bono, the lead singer of U2, do you believe that this approach helps resolve the double violation of injustice? There are a lot of organizations out there that try to raise money through selling certain products. Gap, Apple, in an attempt to raise money to alleviate poverty. Do you think that this approach actually works in actually alleviating the injustice of poverty?

I think, look, you heard me say two things. One, as I read, two things coming out of scripture, and going on into the church fathers. Justice is the business of government, and involuntary poverty is an issue of justice, but you heard me then say also that in general the government has to see to it that justice is done, but if justice is being done, in some area with some respect whatever, then government stays out of it. Government’s concern is taken care of. I think you and I in all kinds of ways should be in the ways you mentioned so forth, should be seeing to it that we carry out our God given requirement. To see that justice is done to the poor. All kinds of different ways. The ways you mentioned and lots of others. I think that government should be an issue of last resort, but it should be a resort.

Man: Let’s take one more question from the back and then Ill wrap it up.

But this man here has been really eager to ask.

Sorry Wheland, okay, all right. He just gave up his question so that, why don’t you stand up and ask your question instead of me coming all the way over? You want the microphone, all right.

This was an act of charity on my part. [audience laughing]

I think it was an act of justice.

I’m just trying to unpack your personal views, and you seem really rhetorical opening for going either way on the answer to this question and I’ll preface it by saying, I’m neither an economist nor a libertarian. It’s going to be asked in an amateur fashion. Alleviation of poverty, over longer term. I think it’s important to talk about a temporal aspect, and the relationship of that to the creation of employment, the creation of jobs, and the responsibility of government in the act of justice to take acts that create jobs over the longer term.

The coercive power of government to distribute money over the shorter term, has been demonstrated over several centuries of economic thought, to be found to be not conducive to the creation of long term employment for people. Could you unpack your views on that aspect of long term job creation, as opposed to coercive dispersing of money over the shorter term, and the effect that has on the creation of jobs in any society or culture?

I think one of the ways in which government can exercise. One of the most basic ways in which government can exercise its responsibility in this area, is to have policies, that don’t create but encourage, employment over the long haul. Jobs over the long haul. The right sort of policies for that. In the short fall, no government ever has been or ever will be wholly successful in that endeavor.

No economy ever has been or will be wholly successful in that endeavor. There are always some who, because it’s not wholly successful, there are some whom don’t have jobs, and government has to see to it, doesn’t have to give a dole. Seems to me its responsibility to do justice is to see to it that those people are not just allowed to mold or to starve.

Could we give Dr. Wolterstorff another thank you? [audience applause]

Woman: Biola University offers a variety of biblically centered degree programs ranging from business to ministry to the arts and sciences. Visit to find out how Biola could make a difference in your life. [upbeat music]