Economics 101 & Public Square & Theology 101

The Piety Myth

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God’s Heart for the Poor

During my senior year in college, I decided to read the Bible straight through quickly rather than in bite-sized chunks. When I did so, a larger pattern jumped out at me: God’s abiding concern for the poor, and his expectation that we share his concern.

God’s concern for the poor isn’t some sidelight. It follows straight from what Jesus tells us are the two greatest commandments. In Matthew 22:34-40, a religious figure asks Jesus which commandment is the greatest. Jesus replies,

Love the Lord your God with all your heart and all your soul and all your mind. This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: Love your neighbor as yourself. 

Another time a lawyer asks Jesus how he can inherit eternal life. Jesus tells him he has to fulfill these two greatest commandments. The lawyer, sensing an unattainable goal, looks for a semantic loophole in the word neighbor. In response, Jesus tells the story of the Good Samaritan found in Luke 10:30-35.

Jesus’ point in telling this parable is that instead of trying to whittle away the definition of neighbor to get off easy, we should strive to be the good neighbor to everyone else. Unfortunately, Christians, as I’ll explain later, have not always been good neighbors, even when they have the best of intentions.

For any follower of Jesus, then, that we should care for and help the poor is not the question. The question is, how do we do it well?

The Piety Myth and the Poor

“Piety,” said the Christian philosopher Etienne Gilson, “is no substitute for technique.” What he meant is that having the right intentions, being oriented in the right way, doesn’t take the place of doing things right.

Myth #2: The Piety Myth – focusing on our good intentions rather than the unintended consequences of our actions. 

Our minds and motives aren’t isolated compartments. God gave us minds and reason, so we’re responsible for thinking through the consequences of our actions. In fact, it’s morally self-indulgent to feel good about our motives when it comes to actions that affect the world. Fixating on our motives can become a stumbling block, distracting us from discovering the right action at the right time.

To combat the Piety Myth, we need to exercise prudence. Prudence means “to see reality as it is, and act accordingly,” to conform your mind, and then your actions, to reality.

Helping the poor, for instance, hinges on prudence. That’s because, in the economic realm, actions have all sorts of consequences. We can’t anticipate all of them, but we can anticipate a lot of them. Therefore, if we really want to help the poor, we have to exercise prudence – to know what the world is really like, and act accordingly.

Henry Hazlitt, an economic journalist, thought this was so important that he defined economics in terms of consequences. He said,

The art of economics consists in looking not merely at the immediate but at the longer effects of any act or policy; it consists in tracing the consequences of that policy not merely for one group but for all groups.

This is one of those principles that are easy to get and even easier to forget. Unfortunately, Christians have supported all sorts of activities that were well-motivated but that made matters worse, not better. Elise Amyx argues this point in two recent posts, one on how feeling good is not enough to fight poverty, and the other on a church practice known as “donation dumping.”

In the latter, she relates a story of how a church in Atlanta, with the best of intentions, sent eggs to a poor Rwandan community. In the process, the church’s donations ended up putting local egg producers out of business. When the church stopped providing eggs and focused its charitable activities elsewhere, the community was left without any supply of eggs.

This is an example of Christians meaning well, but not thinking through the unintended consequences of their actions. If we want not just a heart for the poor, but also a mind, we first have to learn the art of economics. 

This post is adapted from the book Money, Greed, and God

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