Taking Care of the Poor: A Christian Distinctive

It is rare and pleasant when one runs across a scholarly defense of Christian virtue published in a non-theological volume. While doing some sermon study today, I found this interesting article on Christianity and the welfare state. I offer it to the blogosphere as a reminder of the noble history of Christian concern for the poor, and as food for thought in our cultural dialogue regarding poverty.

The Oldest New Deal
by Michael Bernstein
reprinted from the Yale Free Press, April 2000

Everybody thinks we should feed the poor, and everybody always has. At least, one would be excused for thinking so in modern America. Despite vast disagreements on family life, economic structure, and other fundamental goals, virtually all Americans believe that the poor should be fed, clothed, and housed. The Left and Right disagree on methods but not on the goal. In spite of moral relativism, we seem to have stumbled upon a universal moral maxim. How did we find it?

Some insight may be found in a most unusual episode in Roman imperial history: the establishment of the Roman welfare system. In 361 AD the Christian emperor Constantius died and Julian became sole ruler. In his youth he had studied under a Neo-Platonist and privately converted from Christianity to paganism. When he ascended to the throne Julian publicly revealed his conversion and earned his epithet, “the Apostate.” He organized public sacrifices of oxen to the Roman gods, frequently performing them himself, and set about reviving the polytheistic religion that Christianity had replaced. Much to his surprise, Julian found that he could not initiate a Pagan Great Awakening by stripping Christianity of its imperial support.

Julian hated Christianity, but he understood that it flourished under martyrdom, so he took non-violent measures to stamp it out. The emperor barred Christians from all imperial offices and positions of prestige. He closed several major cathedrals. He also forbade Christians to teach grammar, rhetoric, and philosophy, since the classic works in these subjects were produced by a pagan culture. Yet even these measures proved insufficient to revive paganism.

Julian blamed the failure of his project on the Christians and their charity. They were making the pagans look bad: “The impious Galileans support not only their own poor, but ours as well,” Julian observed in a letter to his high priests. He believed that much of Christianity’s appeal grew out of its humanitarianism. Julian had nothing but contempt for the Christians; he insisted on referring to them as “Galileans” to emphasize their provincial roots. But paganism was just not competitive without charity.

The essential problem for Julian was that pagan hospitality extended only to one’s own kind. The Roman Empire was a multicultural society whose provinces shared little in the way of culture. The constituent groups of the swiftly united Empire were of different races, spoke different languages, and practiced different religions. Their imperial government exacted nothing other than taxes and obedience. It was, in many ways, an example of the multicultural vision of America.

Unlike Americans, however, the people of the Roman Empire only took care of their own. Charity began and ended with one’s own group in society, whether it was national or religious. A citizen of Sicily considered other Sicilians to be his neighbors; the problems of Gaul were of no concern to him. Pagans would never have fed the Christian poor either.

Against this backdrop, the Christian practice of universal charity was surprising and attractive. So Julian wanted it demolished. Instead of resorting to the harsh methods of his persecuting predecessors, Julian channeled imperial resources into an emulation of Christian charity. He ordered his pagan hierarchy to establish hospices for anyone in need, “not only those of our own number,” and to provide wine and wheat to the poor for free, He further instructed his priests to “accustom Hellenes to acts of good will of this kind.” The fractured multicultural world of the Roman Empire, in which everyone cared only for his own, was to be reconfigured into an imperial welfare system for the purpose of imitating the hated enemy.

It was an act contrary to pagan tradition and to the diverse Empire Julian governed. Julian did not claim it was an inherently good idea: He reassured his priests in the text of his letters that his purpose was only to take from the Christians the credit they had earned from their good works. He wanted to wipe them out, and he assumed that once an imperial system for feeding and housing the poor had been established, the Christian charitable societies would die out. It was a very clever idea: to beat the Christians by appropriating one of their most appealing practices.

That this idea was ever Christian has been lost on our society. We are daily casting off the restraints of Christian morality, and regular church attendance is limited to a small fraction of our population. Yet we hold on to the idea that the poor should be clothed and fed, having largely rejected the religion that produced it.

Indeed, if the Left succeeds in turning America into a multicultural society, there is every reason to believe that Americans will, just like their Roman predecessors, begin to care only for members of their self-proclaimed identity, If you think of yourself as a homosexual or a WASP or a Pakistani before an American, you will naturally wonder what the plight of other Americans has to do with you. Universal charity was never obvious before the Christian era, as Julian well understood. And multiculturalism, by itself, will never produce universal charity.

Julian died in battle nine months after he sent out the orders for the welfare system. Since his predecessors did not continue the scheme, we do not know how it would have worked out. But the American experience with welfare seems to validate Julian’s plan. President Roosevelt believed that the New Deal would not discourage the charitable and mutual-aid societies that had been serving the American poor previously, but Julian knew better. Christianity itself did not die out, as Julian had hoped, but much of its charitable work did. Likewise, private welfare organizations and societies shrank to a small fraction of their former size once the New Deal went into effect. They have remained so to this day.

The flip side is that Christian societies were quite able to take care of the poor in the Roman Empire and in America. For Julian, this was the entire problem: the “Galileans” had raised expectations in the Empire that a revived paganism would have to meet. Christians were feeding both their own poor and the pagan poor as well.

Just as Julian only established the welfare programs for the temporary purpose of defeating Christianity, so too were Roosevelt’s welfare programs originally intended to vanish as soon as the Depression did. Unfortunately, the program was not retired but advanced, with disastrous consequences.

Can the genie be put back in the bottle? That is, could the welfare system be rolled back entirely and the burden shifted to private charitable institutions? That depends on how seriously we take the maxim of universal charity. From these historical examples, it appears that a nation of Christians would have no trouble. Even a nation of people who consider all Americans to be their fellow citizens might pull it off. Julian would be the first to say, however, that a bunch of disparate cultures will not incline to this practice any more than the Roman Empire did. He would consign universal charity to the same rubbish bin as Christianity, and there appears to be very little standing in the way of America doing the same thing.


Leave a Comment

  1. There’s a great example of this in Denver where a local church is trying to eliminate the need for the foster care system (which in our studies for adoption, my wife and I have learned it is absolutely corrupt) by taking over the placement of kids from the government. Their goal is 0 wait time for kids in their county. Pretty cool stuff.



  2. “That depends on how seriously we take the maxim of universal charity”
    That line stuck out to me the most. I sometimes complain about the way things are in society, but what am I doing that will promote change?

  3. interesting. Imagine if Christian charity was so prevalent that debate over state welfare systems became irrelevant. Let’s go for it!

Leave a Reply