Will We Follow God's Command to Care for Poor?


John Calvin ... [reminded us] that ways must be found to help the "undeserving," where "the image of God in them" must be found, and to whom "we owe all possible honour and love," Marty observes.
The text for today's meditation comes from The Wall Street Journal, a quotation provided by a major novelist, whose newest work was being reviewed.

The quote, first: "The Lord commands us to 'do good to all men,' universally, a great part of whom, estimated according to their own merits, are very undeserving; but here the Scripture assists us with an excellent rule, when it inculcates, that we must not regard the intrinsic merit of men, but must consider the images of God in them, to which we owe all possible honour and love."

The reviewer is Thomas Meaney, co-editor of "The Utopian," who assumes that readers will be surprised to find that the author of that quotation, so typical of liberal Protestant rhetoric, "as improbable as it may sound, is John Calvin."

Not marginal to the Reformer's thinking, this sentence appears in his classical, most deliberative, most studied and most frequently quoted book, "Institutes of the Christian Religion" (1541).

The novelist is Marilynne Robinson, who here is quoted from her new nonfiction work, "When I Was a Child I Read Books."

She cites Moses, no less, and Calvin, who is usually seen as a grumpy conservative with a closed mind and closed hands. Here, as often, he comes across, she says – with documentation – as exhibiting and calling for "true liberality" and "openhandedness."

That's enough Protestantism for one week. Are there Catholic counterparts?

Try U.S. Catholic's John Gehring, who captioned his article "Not Our Cup of Tea."

He quotes a study which found 28 percent of cup-of-Tea Party members self-identified as Catholics. Many of them cite papal and episcopal documents against birth control, etc., as we recently relearned.

Gehring wishes they would read and be faithful to other high-level documents by bishops and popes.

He quotes U.S. bishops' "Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship" with their warning against reducing "Catholic moral concerns to one or two matters to justify choices simply to advance partisan, ideological or personal interests."

The Tea Party Patriots contend that their "impetus … is excessive government spending and taxation."

Gehring writes that tax rates are at their lowest in 60 years.

U.S. Catholic polled readers and found that 58 percent would pay more taxes to "fund government programs that aid the poor and support infrastructure and education."

Evidently a non-reader of the Catholic documents is U.S. Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin.

Also, on our local scene is Chicago Tribune columnist Dennis Byrne who, to put it mildly, tends to Catholic interests.

He doesn't have to read John Calvin, but he might find in Catholic documents strong words which his don't match.

The subtitle of his typical article against government involvement in "welfare" reminds us: "You healthy people will be paying more for juicers, addicts, gangbangers, smokers, fatsos, drunk drivers" and, in the column, more, "other assorted careless, thoughtless creatures." Probably true.

Byrne spends no compensatory editorial lines that might match up with Catholic social teaching.

His are far in tone, character and substance from somber old John Calvin with his biblically and classically Christian-based reminder that ways must be found to help the "undeserving," where "the image of God in them" must be found, and to whom "we owe all possible honour and love."

Just because Calvin said it and Robinson and the Wall Street Journal passed this on to us does not mean that theirs should be the only word.

But it is a word, one of many often overlooked scripts and Scriptures, to which Jews post-Passover and Christians post-Easter, owe another reading.

Martin E. Marty is the Fairfax M. Cone Distinguished Service Professor Emeritus at the University of Chicago. His column first appeared in Sightings.

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Tags: John Calvin, Martin Marty, Poor, Poverty


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