hungry homeless man

The Christian Obligation to the Poor: Do No Harm

Christians are called to aid those less fortunate.  I think that we often mistakenly take this calling as merely material.  Rather than thinking about helping those who are “poor in spirit,” we limit our focus to those who are poor in a pecuniary sense.  Rather than offering hope and comfort and forgiveness and love for the deepest needs, we think only of offering alms.

Despite this criticism, I think there is value in helping others in a material way.  The question is how?

We are all familiar with the dangers of dependency associated with various forms of charity.  So then, how can we engage in Christian charity without fear of making things worse than when we started?  How can we know what charitable acts will not have unintended consequences?  How can we truly improve the material lot of the less fortunate?

First, we should see charity, as all virtues, not as a matter of public policy but a matter of individual behavior and personal, not collective, duty.  (This article by Baldy Harper is an excellent and clear reminder of how we should go about genuine charity.)  However, if we are going to enter the realm of public policy with our charitable efforts, we need to think clearly about what we intend to do and what is likely to happen.  I propose that, in regards to helping the poor through policy, the crucial point is this: “First, do no harm.”

There exist today innumerable government policies that do manifest harm to the poor.  If we seek to improve their situation, it is incumbent on us to study at least basic economics so we can see how minimum wage laws, business regulations, tariffs and subsidies hurt the poor.  The undoing of bad policy, not the making of new policy, should be priority number one. New social welfare programs, redistribution schemes and other “progressive” reforms are not helpful to the poor, and in the very least should not even be considered until the policies known to be harmful are removed.

I believe U.S. immigration restrictions are some of most harmful policies to the poor today* – at least in terms of U.S. policies.  If Christians in America want to talk seriously about materially helping the poor, they should focus their attention on removing barriers to immigration before they pack up and head out on short-term humanitarian missions.  I find it shocking how many Christians, even those actively engaged in efforts to help the poor, still support policies that make it a crime for the poor to peacefully seek a better life for their families.  I am dumbfounded by Christians who help to rebuild poor communities after disasters, or who seek to build relationships with the poor and at the same time advocate building a physical wall at the border barring the poor from the same opportunity we have.

The common refrain, “I’m not opposed to legal immigration, just illegal immigration,” is devoid of meaning for any thinking Christian.  If the laws of man are not in and of themselves moral as are the laws of God, than making an act illegal is not sufficient to make it wrong.  If moving your family to a place that improves your situation is wrong, who of us is right?

Christians who support some immigrants – skilled workers, engineers, individuals from some countries and not others – might heed a poignant reminder from James:

“For if a man comes into your assembly with a gold ring and dressed in fine clothes, and there also comes in a poor man in dirty clothes, and you pay special attention to the one who is wearing the fine clothes, and say, “You sit here in a good place,” and you say to the poor man, “You stand over there, or sit down by my footstool,” have you not made distinctions among yourselves, and become judges with evil motives?”’ James 2:2-4 (NASB)

Saying to the poor, “You stand in this line and fill out this paperwork” while we say to the “skilled” workers, “come right in!” seems to defy the notion of not being “respecters of men”.

As I mentioned previously, I firmly believe that what Christians have to offer is so much more than physical comfort.  I think our duties are to help the oppressed, wearies, burdened, lonely, depressed and desperate in the deepest, spiritual sense.  However, if we claim to care about the material well-being of the poor, and if we seek to improve their lot not just with private efforts but by public policy, I do not see how any new policy can be recommended while the massive harm of immigration restrictions looms overhead.


*Tariffs, subsidies, trade restrictions, foreign aid and foreign military intervention are also incredibly harmful to the poor.  Protecting rich (by world standards) U.S. farmers by cutting the poor out of the market is economically and morally backward.