I spend a lot of my time arguing against the case against charity (and linking to this post). You might get the impression that I am a relentlessly negative person, always arguing against something. But that’s not the case.
You see, I don’t just think that the case against charity is wrong. I believe that there’s a strong case to be made for charity.
And, as a Christian, I believe this for three reasons.
Charity in the West is deeply rooted in the history of the Christian faith. The practice of giving to the poor without concern for the worthiness of the recipient comes to us from Judaism through Christianity. The very word ‘charity’ comes from the Latin word caritas, one of two Latin words used to translate the Greek word agape. Charity, quite simply, is how we imitate God’s love for us as shown the life, ministry, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
But charity isn’t just based in Christianity. Christianity, the last sentence of the previous paragraph indicated, is based in charity.
God loved the world in this way: he gave his only son so that everyone who believes in him may have eternal life. God loves through giving. God gives the world. God gives the Torah. God gives the prophets. God gives Jesus Christ. God gives life. God gives faith and hope and charity.
And Christians respond – at least, Christians are called to respond – by sharing those gifts with others.
In the gospels, Jesus makes it absolutely clear that we are called to charity. For example, the Parable of the Judgment of the Nations, or of the Rich Man and Lazarus, or of the Rich Fool. Being charitable is a big part of what Christianity is about. And while charity in this sense isn’t limited to giving money to the poor without considering the worthiness of the recipient, that’s certainly a part of it.
In the ancient Roman Empire where Christianity was born, charity was a revolutionary idea. Here’s an example of how strange it was to Roman society. Julian the Apostate was the last pagan emperor of Rome, and he reigned after a few decades of rule by Christian emperors. One of his goals was to revitalize the Roman state religion. And one of his strategies was to import Christian charity. He gave supplies to his priests in the province of Galatia and instructed them to use some of those supplies to provide for the poor.
His attempt to turn pagan temples into food pantries failed. And today Julian is probably bet known for a single quote:
It is disgraceful that, when no Jew ever has to beg, and the impious Galilaeans [Christians] support not only their own poor but ours as well, all men see that our people lack aid from us.
Roman religion couldn’t comprehend charity or the kind of community that it engenders. They didn’t have the headspace for it.
But Christians practiced it and flourished. And part of why Christians flourished was that they built a more charitable community.
Today, we live in a world where the dominant ethos – whether we agree with it or not – is global market capitalism. Interactions are increasingly thought of as transactional exchanges. The market is the evaluator of values. Wealth is concentrated in ever fewer hands. The society we live in is increasingly uncharitable.
And in a uncharitable world, every act of charity is a revolutionary act.
Charity presents us with the possibility of a society where there are not transactions, where love is what gives value, and where wealth is freely shared, where there is justice and mercy. I don’t know if I think that we can bring about that world by ourselves. But charity is a small glimpse into a better world and inspiration to work on creating that world.
Given what I’ve written so far, you probably won’t be surprised to learn that I believe that charity is baked-into the natural order. I believe that the universe reflects the character of its creator, and that an attitude and practice of charity is the best way to ride on the currents of the cosmos. It’s not surprising that I believe that charity works.
It would be easy to attribute that belief to wishful thinking. But emerging research consistently agrees that charity – when it’s generous enough – really does work. If you’ve read this blog for any length of time you’ve seen me link to study after study that provides evidence for this.
That’s not to say that every charitable gift works. There are a lot of factors that can affect the effectiveness of charitable giving. But emerging research suggests that we might take charity as a baseline for helping low-income individuals, families, and communities.
I hope to expand on these ideas in the future. For now, let me just say this:
The case for charity is an increasingly strong one, based on empirical data about the effectiveness of unconditional giving. This is true for everyone, regardless of their religious commitments.
That case is stronger for Christians, because our faith is deeply intertwined with the practice of charity and the cultivation of charity as a virtue. Those of us who are Christian must look beyond popular calls to accept a case against charity and into the heart of our faith. We must take seriously the possibility that we are a people called to charity.
And that’s a case I intend to make.