Bohanon: A Definition of Christian Charity

November 9, 2015

by Cecil Bohanon, Ph.D.

Kwang Jin Kim was born to a middle-class family in North Korea. In his book “Under the Same Sky,” he gives a first-hand account of his family’s fall to destitution during the North Korean famine in the late 1990s. Forced to sell all it had to get enough to eat, the family eventually splits up as they moved from relative to relative in a desperate attempt to survive.

The father dies of starvation, the beloved sister disappears to China, presumably as a slave bride — or worse. Kwang becomes a child thief — a kkotjebi — living a precarious life on the streets one step ahead of the North Korean state.

During his many crises, Kwang is informed that if he crosses the Tumen River into China, people in churches will give him money. When he asks why people in churches give strangers money, he is told “because they are Christians.”

On a North Korean holiday — the birthday of the Great Leader — Kwang miraculously crosses the border undetected and arrives in China. He visits a church and is given 20 yuan, a new pair of clothes and a shower. Kwang’s original plan was to go from church to church and “milk the Christians” for all they are worth. He was under the impression that Christians were rich.

At one church, however, where the pastor’s wife gave him 50 yuan, he learns the pastor is ill and cannot afford health-care treatment. That the pastor’s wife would show such generosity to him — a teenage refugee — moved his heart and led to his eventual conversion.

Kwang continued to live in China with the Chinese-Korean Christian community. He was adopted by a 75-year-old Christian woman — and in the process changed his name to Joseph and eventually moved to the United States.

This is a touching and inspiring story. Independent of one’s personal religious beliefs, we all admire these Korean-Chinese Christians. They are actually practicing unconditional love to strangers. They don’t seem to mind that they are taken advantage of — they continue to share what little they have instinctively and without question.

I know many well-meaning Christians who look at examples like this but make the following leap: If our Lord and Savior calls on us to practice unconditional love, then isn’t it our obligation to vote for candidates who support increased government programs to help the poor? Moreover, aren’t those who oppose such programs working against God’s will?

This ignores a fundamental point about Christian charity: It is not — indeed, cannot — be coerced. To use the coercive mechanism of the state to require others to give to those in need is not an act of love. It does not make the unwitting or uncooperative taxpayer love others. Jesus tells us the Good Samaritan paid for the medical expenses of the injured traveler from his own purse. He did not tell us the Samaritan lobbied King Herod to force others to contribute to his relief.

To be unconditionally generous with one’s own resources for a good cause is morally praiseworthy. To try to persuade others to do the same is admirable. To lobby government to coerce others to contribute to your good cause is in my humble opinion neither praiseworthy nor admirable. Perhaps there are good reasons for government programs for the poor, but that they embody Christian charity is not one of them.

Cecil Bohanon, Ph.D., is a professor of economics at Ball State University.

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