Oliver Anthony's viral hit articulates an ancient Christian concern.
Last month previously unknown artist Oliver Anthony skyrocketed to fame with, “Rich Men North of Richmond,” a song grieving the impact of taxes and inflation on blue-collar workers. In the song, Anthony takes a jab at the abuse of welfare programs:
We got folks in the street, ain’t got nothin’ to eat And the obese milkin’ welfare Well, if you’re 5-foot-3 and you’re 300 pounds Taxes ought not to pay for your bags of fudge rounds
In a recent article for Christianity Today, Hannah Anderson asserts that Anthony’s song “doesn’t love its neighbors” and “is disdainful towards people on welfare.” This strikes me as a rather uncharitable assessment. The bulk of Anderson’s article is a personal account of her experience using the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) when her family of five could no longer survive on her husband’s meager salary as a pastor. However, nothing in Anthony’s song suggests that programs such as SNAP are illegitimate or unnecessary. On the contrary, the offending lines explicitly affirm that there are people in our communities who are in genuine need of assistance (“we got folks in the street, ain’t got nothin’ to eat”). Anthony simply complains that the welfare system is being abused: tax money ostensibly intended to sustain the poor is instead being used to purchase items that are frivolous and even harmful.
I will leave it to the economists to tell us if the welfare system is actually being abused in the manner Anthony describes. As a New Testament historian, I merely wish to point out that Anthony’s concern is compatible with Christian ethics. In fact, the concern articulated in Anthony’s song is one with deep roots in the Christian tradition.
The early church was known for its radical communal sharing (see esp. Acts 2:44-45; 4:32-35). Writing in the second century, the Roman satirist Lucian describes the Christians as follows:
Their first lawgiver [i.e. Jesus] persuaded them that they are all brothers of one another. ... Therefore they despise all things indiscriminately and consider them common property. … So if any charlatan and trickster, able to profit by occasions, comes among them, he quickly acquires sudden wealth by imposing upon simple folk. (Peregr. 13, LCL)
However, while Lucian presents the Christians as gullible simpletons, our sources indicate that church leaders were aware of the potential for abuse.
Consider first the Didache, a compendium of Christian teaching produced around AD 100. The Didache states, “Do not shun a person in need, but share all things with your brother and do not say that anything is your own” (4.8, LCL). However, the Didache also includes a stern warning to anyone who would abuse such generosity:
If anyone receives because he is in need, he is without fault. But the one who receives without a need will have to testify why he received what he did, and for what purpose. And he will be thrown in prison and interrogated about what he did; and he will not get out until he pays back every last cent. (1.5, LCL)
The Apostolic Constitutions, produced in the fourth century, likewise asserts, “He that hath, and receives in hypocrisy or through idleness, instead of working and assisting others, shall be obnoxious to punishment before God, because he has snatched away the morsel of the needy.” This declaration is supported with a quotation apparently attributed to Jesus: “Woe to those that have, and receive in hypocrisy; or who are able to support themselves, yet will receive of others: for both of them shall give an account to the Lord God in the day of judgment” (4.1.3, ANF 7:433).
Of course, the canonical letters of Paul also attest a concern to prevent the abuse of charity. In 2 Thess 3:10-12, Paul insists that those who refuse to work should not be supported by the charity of the community. Similarly, in 1 Tim 5:3-16, Paul insists that the church should “not be burdened” by widows who are not “really widows,” that is, widows who still have children or grandchildren who can support them. The purpose of such a restriction is to ensure that the church will remain able to “assist those who are real widows” (NRSV).
A similar concern is perhaps behind Ignatius’ instructions concerning slaves. In a letter written in the early second century, Ignatius specifies that communal funds should be used to care for widows but not to purchase the freedom of Christian slaves (Pol. 4.1, 3). To modern readers, this prohibition may seem inhumane. However, in a world in which slaves accounted for as much as one-third of the urban population, a policy of purchasing their freedom would undoubtedly drain the communal funds and leave nothing for the widows. Note that the first-century Stoic philosopher Epictetus, who was himself a former slave, described the plight of the free poor as potentially more desperate than the plight of slaves, who at least had food (Diatr. 4.1.34–37).
Finally, a passage from Cyprian is particularly relevant to the specific critique offered in Anthony’s song. In a letter written around AD 249, the bishop specifies that those who are supported by the church must be content with “very frugal” fare (Ep. 60.2, ANF 5:356). Candy was evidently not on the menu.
In conclusion, I appreciate Anderson’s compassion for the poor and her concern to avoid derogatory stereotypes. Certainly obesity does not necessarily entail welfare abuse; unhealthy foods are often cheaper than healthy foods. Nevertheless, Christians must recognize that genuine love for the poor does not include an uncritical endorsement of the programs purporting to help them. Genuine love for the poor is entirely compatible with the recognition that welfare programs are sometimes unsustainable, inefficient, or downright harmful. The early Christians were famous for their system of social sharing, but they were also keenly aware that this system was vulnerable to exploitation and thus had to be rigorously managed. In short, while Anthony’s profanity may be unchristian, his critique of welfare abuse is not.