Book Sale

Friday 12 April 2019

What Does the Bible Say About International Aid?

What does the bible sat about international aid?

This seems like a really simply question to answer. There have been mass movements driven by leaders in churches and Christian Aid organizations across recent years, at least the last decade or more, that have sought to encourage Christians to lobby governments to increase foreign aid. Act justly and love mercy has been the catch cry of these movements, and it is a wonderful slogan, because those principles underpin the Christian ethos. These highly respectable and well-intentioned Christian leaders believe that governments giving foreign aid is a Christian duty, therefore it must be, mustn’t it?

I once advocated for the Micah challenge and other initiatives to encourage government aid myself. I found it something natural to get behind because caring for the poor has always been something I have thought about and practiced as a Christian. But I never did it from the perspective that, ‘Governments must do this to be considered following their Christian duty.’ I did it because it made sense: Christians donating can only go so far, governments have bigger purses and therefore can do a lot more. Indeed, this was what our aid advocacy trainer taught us, it was a numbers game; by challenging governments to increase their aid we can do a lot of good in the world.

This seems like a noble cause, and personally I am not against international aid. I have strong Christian friends and family who are opposed to it, and strong Christian friends and family who are strong advocates for it. I also understand that there are practical reasons for giving aid to international communities, countries and aid organizations that benefit Australians. For example, giving aid to both government, or non-government organizations, working in refugee camps and war torn countries can lower the mass movement of asylum seekers, making borders safer and more easily managed across the world. This is a double benefit, people in those camps who are in need get the help they require, and governments don’t have to spend as much money on border security and other programs, because less people will be seeking to enter countries illegally. So, I am both open to international aid, I recognize how it can change lives overseas for the better, and I recognize the benefits it can bring to the nation giving it. Indeed, I invite advocates of aid organizations into my church to speak, and will continue to do so. We also should note that a lot of international aid is used in such a way as to increase the interests of the giving nations overseas. Once these multi-faceted reasons for aid are understood, I can very easily see why so many people advocate for it.

And that is fine, advocate for international aid. I can find no reason to condemn people for wanting to do this. But then this isn’t the issue, the issue is that there are those who believe foreign aid is a Christian issue who are condemning those who don’t necessarily agree. For example this article (here) on the Eternity states that:

“…With a Christian Prime Minister at the national helm guiding this year’s budget, along with an election just around the corner, many Christians are today wondering whether the Coalition Government has chosen not to represent Christians priorities.”

It’s one thing to want to advocate for foreign aid, but it is another to accuse a government, and a Christian Prime Minister of not wanting “to represent Christian priorities” for cutting aid. To say such a thing one must have good biblical evidence. Indeed to say it is a shameful thing to cut aid, which is also stated in the article, again one must have good biblical reason.

Does God condemn leaders or nations in scripture who fail to send international aid? 

I raised this question and got some interesting responses from Christians leaders and lay people: it’s irrelevant, your perverting scripture Matthew, I don’t see why that is even a credible observation to say the Bible doesn’t condemn leaders on the issue of foreign aid, you’re on dangerous territory, God will oppose those who don’t call their leaders to account on this issue, etc, etc. But that leaves the question: does God condemn leaders in scripture who fail to send international aid?

Well no, he doesn’t. I carried out several different conversations on this issue over several days, and in each of those conversations I asked people to show me clear passages in Scripture where God condemns national leaders for cutting or not offering aid, and none were given that specifically said that.  

The most common passage cited was the parable of the Good Samaritan. This is a famous and wonderful passage about Jesus teaching us to love our neighbours. When Jesus is asked ‘who is our neighbour?’ by a teacher of the law wanting to justify himself, Jesus responds with a wonderful story about a Samaritan who helps a man he found lying on the road when a priest, and Levite both left him lying there. Samaritans were despised in Israel in Jesus’ day. The point of this parable was quite obvious: bigotry is wrong, love your neighbour whoever they happen to be, no matter their nationality.  

It’s a simple, but powerful little story, but it has nothing to do with foreign aid. It neither condemns it or advocates it. It is simply neutral on the topic. The parable of the Good Samaritan says we should be willing to help anybody, but it does not condemn us for not extending aid to everybody, no one, not even governments have the resources to send aid to everybody.

Indeed our government does love their neighbour already. According to the ABC website (here) $180.12 Billion of a $500.87 Billion budget is allocated for social welfare. That is 35.9% of the current federal budget. This is allocated to people no matter their race, no matter their ethnic origin. It is a generous allotment from collected taxes designed to love our neighbour who is struggling. I have heard many people say that this government is not generous and does not care about the poor. However the single largest segment of the budget is allocated specifically for helping the poorer people of this nation. This to me is a government that literally prioritizes the poor. But it seems to many Christians online that none of this really counts, the cut to foreign aid cancels this massive charity out and allows them to say our government is not generous and doesn’t prioritize the poor, or even say they are ashamed of our country. One Christian commentator actually complains that Australian tax payers are being allowed to keep more of their own money (see here), as if the government has a moral duty to confiscate even more wealth and give it away overseas. But is that the responsibility of a nation’s government, to prioritize the poor of other nations?

Not according to Scripture. Here is a good example, Ezekiel 34:1-10:

“34 The word of the Lord came to me: 2 “Son of man, prophesy against the shepherds of Israel; prophesy, and say to them, even to the shepherds, Thus says the Lord God: Ah, shepherds of Israel who have been feeding yourselves! Should not shepherds feed the sheep? 3 You eat the fat, you clothe yourselves with the wool, you slaughter the fat ones, but you do not feed the sheep. 4 The weak you have not strengthened, the sick you have not healed, the injured you have not bound up, the strayed you have not brought back, the lost you have not sought, and with force and harshness you have ruled them. 5 So they were scattered, because there was no shepherd, and they became food for all the wild beasts. My sheep were scattered; 6 they wandered over all the mountains and on every high hill. My sheep were scattered over all the face of the earth, with none to search or seek for them.

7 “Therefore, you shepherds, hear the word of the Lord: 8 As I live, declares the Lord God, surely because my sheep have become a prey, and my sheep have become food for all the wild beasts, since there was no shepherd, and because my shepherds have not searched for my sheep, but the shepherds have fed themselves, and have not fed my sheep, 9 therefore, you shepherds, hear the word of the Lord: 10 Thus says the Lord God, Behold, I am against the shepherds, and I will require my sheep at their hand and put a stop to their feeding the sheep. No longer shall the shepherds feed themselves. I will rescue my sheep from their mouths, that they may not be food for them.”

This passage makes very clear what God’s intentions are for the leaders he places over a nation: they are to care for the people of that nation, the leaders are the shepherd and the people are the sheep they are to care for. This is their priority, this is their mandate, and this is what he consistently judges them on in scripture. Indeed in Scripture you will find much of the Old Testament, and certain portions of the New Testament are dedicated to this very issue, leaders are judged by how they treat their own people (cf. the books of Kings and most of the books of the prophets) and you will find that when God condemns nations because of their treatment of other nations, it is because they made unjust war on them, or engaged in corrupting trade (for example: Ez. 25-32; Amos Isa. 10-21; Amos 1-2; the Books of Jonah, Obadiah, Nahum, etc) . The Scriptures are not at all silent on the criteria which God judges national leaders on: he judges them on how they honour him in their lives, how they treat their people, and how they engage in war, whether justly or unjustly, and whether they engage in trade justly or unjustly (cf. biblical references above). He does not condemn them in relation to whether or not they take money from their own citizens and gives it to other nations.

The closest passage I could find advocating for foreign aid was in Deuteronomy 23:3-6 –

“3 “No Ammonite or Moabite may enter the assembly of the Lord. Even to the tenth generation, none of them may enter the assembly of the Lord forever, 4 because they did not meet you with bread and with water on the way, when you came out of Egypt, and because they hired against you Balaam the son of Beor from Pethor of Mesopotamia, to curse you. 5 But the Lord your God would not listen to Balaam; instead the Lord your God turned the curse into a blessing for you, because the Lord your God loved you. 6 You shall not seek their peace or their prosperity all your days forever.  

The Ammonites and Moabites both descended from Abraham’s nephew Lot, and therefore distant relatives of the Israelites, refused them bread or water on their way as they were journeying to the Promise Land, and instead attacked them. This seems to be God judging them for not giving aid in a time of need. But when you read the accounts of these situations in Scripture you see it was more than that. It wasn’t just that they didn’t send aid, it was that they refused them entry to their land, refused them entry and aid on the way through, and instead sought to make war with them. They even went as far as hiring a prophet to curse Israel so as to make the nation vulnerable to attack.

So this was not about aiding those overseas, but about not aiding the foreigner in their midst, which actually coincides with the many passages in Scripture where Israel is commanded to care for the sojourner/foreigner/refugee in their midst. For example, Leviticus 19:10 “And you shall not strip your vineyard bare, neither shall you gather the fallen grapes of your vineyard. You shall leave them for the poor and for the sojourner: I am the Lord your God.” And again in Exodus 23:9 “You shall not oppress a sojourner. You know the heart of a sojourner, for you were sojourners in the land of Egypt.”

There is a consistent pattern in Scripture that nations are given their proper boundaries, and they are to stay in those boundaries and not make unjust war on other nations or interfere in the affairs of other nations in corrupting ways. God even condemns Israel for seeking military aid from Egypt on several occasions (for example Isa. 31). National leaders are to care for their people, and the people in their national borders, and God judges’ leaders on how well they do this. So, unless someone has some clear passages which say otherwise, I cannot find where God condemns nations for not sending aid to foreign nations. 

Then why do so many Christian leaders condemn government leaders who cut aid?

What happens often in church history is someone offers an idea, in line with general scriptural principles, then they take this idea on board and advocate it as a good idea, and then it becomes tradition, and then those who question the tradition, by coming back to what the Bible actually says, get accused of perverting scripture. I think this has undeniably happened with how many church leaders and Christians judge national leaders on the issue of foreign aid.

I don’t think scripture gives us a mandate for condemning leaders on this issue, and as Christians we should always hold back judgement where scripture does not give us a clear mandate. Indeed, even when it does we should hold back because the measure we use will be measured against us.