John Chrysostom and the 47 Percent

There are 47 percent of the people who will vote for the president no matter what. All right, there are 47 percent who are with him, who are dependent upon government, who believe that they are victims, who believe the government has a responsibility to care for them, who believe that they are entitled to health care, to food, to housing, to you-name-it – that that’s an entitlement. And the government should give it to them. And they will vote for this president no matter what. … These are people who pay no income tax. … [M]y job is not to worry about those people. I’ll never convince them they should take personal responsibility and care for their lives.

This week for class, we had to read Christianization and Communication in Late Antiquity, by Jaclyn Maxwell, a book summarizing the many preserved sermons of John Chrysostom, the famed fourth-century preacher from Antioch, and using them as a way to describe how early Christian preachers attempted to “Christianize” their congregations.

One thing that stood out is that the Christian mandate to care for the poor has never been particularly well received – or easy to carry out. And whether we’re in fourth-century Antioch or 21st-century America, the demonization of the poor to relieve our own consciences is an ever-present temptation.

Consider Clement of Alexandria’s comments in his treatise, “Who Is the Rich Man that Shall Be Saved?”

Clement wrote and delivered this address to help ease the minds of the wealthy residents of Alexandria, who were troubled by Jesus’ instructions to the rich young ruler, followed by his comments about the difficulty the rich will have getting to heaven. But Clement apparently recognized a tendency among the wealthy to be too discriminating about who received their charity:

Do not you judge who is worthy or who is unworthy. For it is possible you may be mistaken in your opinion. As in the uncertainty of ignorance, it is better to do good to the undeserving for the sake of the deserving, than by guarding against those that are less good to fail to meet in with the good.

In other words, it’s better to give money to the undeserving poor than to miss out on a chance to give to someone truly in need.

Clement wrote about 200 C.E., less than a century after the last texts of the New Testament were written.

Two centuries later, Chrysostom – which, by the way, was a title of respect given to certain orators; it’s Greek for “Goldenmouth” – faced similar sentiments.

“Despite their religion’s emphasis on the care of the poor,” Maxwell writes,” most upper-class Christians still retained some customary contempt for the masses.”

Chrysostom was relentless in his admonition to give alms to the poor, and the attitude of his congregants toward the homeless beggars they saw on their way to church is not unlike what we see in modern-day Christianity:

At times, he referred to the poor who waited outside the doors of the church. More fortunate people were expected to appreciate beggars because they were preferable to thieves and because their example reinforced the values taught by the preacher. … Chrysostom spoke of the guilt that they should feel when they were all dressed up for church and paraded past the poor who crowded the church’s steps. [70]

This reminds me of a discomfiting story told by Mark Hewitt, founder and director of Love and Care Ministries in town. At the request of different preachers, he will “dress up” as a homeless man and park himself outside the church’s doors before the Sunday morning service then, at the appropriate time, amble up the aisle and reveal his true identity. Needless to say, stories he tells – of being ignored or, worse, being noticed with contempt or greeted with efforts to evict him from the property – are heartbreaking.

The sad condition of many of these people inspired [Chrysostom’s] sermon On Almsgiving, which admonished Christians for allowing the beggars to suffer. On the way to church, Chrysostom had seen “many lying in the middle of the streets, some with their hands cut off, others with eyes missing, others covered with incurable sores and wounds.” The more fortunate Antiochenes dismissed these wounded people as fugitives and foreigners, who came to the city for an easier life. Chrysostom agreed that they were not all natives to the city, but maintained that this did not lessen their worthiness for alms. He criticized the almsgivers who were too careful about deciding who deserved their charity.Even if they were aggressive or deceitful in their begging, Chrysostom placed all of the blame for their misfortunes on tight-fisted Christians. [71]

Again, this reminds me of modern-day life in a church-saturated city, where I have heard Christians dismiss the men and women on the street corners as here simply because they know our city is more generous than others. On the one hand, the reputation is there, which is positive; on the other, the reputation is used as an excuse to restrict generosity.

This insidious notion of the “deserving” versus the “undeserving” poor has infected every level of our discourse. It determines whether we roll down the window and give change to the guy with the cardboard sign. It shows up in our attitudes toward the impoverished who live in the neighborhoods around our churches. And it reveals itself, sometimes more surprisingly honest than others, in our political discourse.

And, frankly, it shows up a whole lot more when certain politicians – Republicans and conservatives especially – talk about the poor.

For example, when Mitt Romney, one day after being booed at a speech to the NAACP for promising to repeal Obamacare, tells a much whiter, wealthier audience, “If they want more free stuff from the government … go vote for the other guy” – when he rails against those Americans who don’t pay federal income taxes (but do pay payroll taxes, sales taxes, state income taxes and property taxes) as people he cannot convince to “take personal responsibility for their lives” – he is engaging in the centuries-old practice of Christians forsaking their calling to soothe their consciences.

That it is centuries old does not make it right, either at the personal, the congregational or the societal level. While governments have a duty to combat waste, fraud and abuse, the notion of rejecting certain segments of the poor as less deserving of help is no less odious today than it was when John Chrysostom’s voice echoed through the sanctuaries of Antioch.

Jesus never made a distinction when he called on his followers to be advocates for the needy; we would do well to consider whether the distinctions we create are not merely an effort to justify our failure to answer that call.

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3 comments on “John Chrysostom and the 47 Percent

  1. […] same level of harm when they are abstracted away from the outcomes of their actions.”“It is better to do good to the undeserving for the sake of the deserving, than by guarding against those that are less good to fail to meet in with the […]

  2. Giles says:

    I have been homeless. I used to go to free food handouts, almost all by Churches. Most of the homeless didn’t beg. Most of the beggars weren’t homeless. If I can give I’ll give to charities not beggars. There was a TV program here (UK) that followed Romanian beggars back home to film the mansions they have built with the benefits they have claimed and their begging. If someone chooses to give to charities for people who are actually homeless rather than giving to people who beg but often have far more that doesn’t make them bad people. I’m not a conservative. I’m one of those who believes the state should house the homeless etc. But it’s not about deserving and undeserving poor. It’s about giving to those who actually are poor rather than those who use moral blackmail. Yes Jesus did say when you give alms give to all who ask. But I think that means if you are going to give to beggars it must be first come first served as you don’t know who is genuine. But if you wanted to be ultra literal, in many places, especially poor countries, your children would starve because you have given away all, and you’d have nothing for those you know are in need. And yes I walk past beggars. If you’re not going to give why patronise with a smile? Better to find someone sleeping out who hasnt asked and give to them. What would Jesus do? Well like the queen he doesn’t seem to have carried money so he didn’t have to practice what he preached. The dollar you give to a beggar could give an African child clean drinking water and food if you give it to charity. Is that a less compassionate option.

  3. Giles says:

    To clarify, the Romanian beggars were begging here (UK) and the reporters tailed them home to Romania. Its the cost of living difference that enable them to build houses. Also our welfare is much more generous than yours, though some deserving people get nothing while others milk the system.

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