Charity as a Foundation

A while ago, Jacobin published an article titled “A Foundation, Not a Net.” Here’s an excerpt:

A better metaphor, both in terms of accuracy and rhetoric, would be the foundation. The welfare foundation provides a universal set of services on top of which people can build their lives. It is a permanent support structure, not a temporary failsafe. The precise mix of welfare benefits individuals get will of course vary depending on what stage of life they are in, but the welfare state as a whole is there for them at all times, giving them the stability to do everything else they want to do with their lives.

Go read the whole thing, of course. The basic idea is that the welfare state isn’t a safety net. Pensions, social security, medicare, public education, and other entitlements and services aren’t things that people rely on in a disaster. They are “universal services for life events that basically everyone goes through.”

I wonder if we can think of charity in the same way.

Often, when we think about charity, we think of it as a safety net. Sometimes, that means that we think of it as something that people use when the high wire snaps (during a disaster). Other times, when we see people in the safety net a lot, we think of it as something that people use because they can’t do the work to use the high wire successfully (they’re lazy, entitled, dependent, and so on). At its worst, this becomes charity skepticism: the idea that the safety net entangles people, and that people start treating it as a hammock.

But, at its most basic, charity is something deeper than that. The word ‘charity’ comes from the Latin word caritas. In Latin Christianity, caritas was one of two words used to translate a Greek word: agape. The kind of selfless love that God shows the world and that we are commanded to show each other.

I would like us to imagine charity as the love we owe each other; the foundation on which people can build their lives. Sometimes, that might look like a robust welfare state providing education, social security, and access to health care. Sometimes, that might look like private philanthropy providing community centers, child care, and cultural opportunities. Sometimes, that might look like personal charity providing someone with a place to sleep or a hot meal.

In every case, it means not having to worry that taking a risk – whether that’s leaving a soul crushing job or leaving an abusive relationship – will result in destitution. A charitable community is a community where there is a foundation for life; where people are free to create their best selves in covenant with each other.

He Who Does Not Work, Neither Shall He Eat

It happens sometimes. A conservative friend will read something by someone like me – someone who suggests being more generous towards people living in poverty or someone who advocates for a universal basic income – and they’ll cite this fragment of a verse from Paul’s second letter to the Thessalonians12 Thessalonians 3:10:

He who does not work, neither shall he eat.

It’s a popular bit of conservative ethics. Unfortunately, it’s also torn from its context and repeated without any reflection.

In this post, I’m going to look at this phrase and a few of the reasons why it’s wrong to use it to imply that government programs or charitable organizations should require people to work in order to receive help.

No One Means It

The most basic problem with how people use this verse is that no one actually means it. Everyone makes exceptions in the name of compassion. Nobody says that children must work. Or elderly people. Or sick people. Or disabled people. Everyone intuitively understands that work can’t be used as a criterion for help without considering the context.

At first, it might seem like there’s a simple solution: returning to something closer to the meaning of the original Greek, as seen in the New Revised Standard Version. The NRSV translates the adage this way: “Anyone unwilling to work should not eat.” This changes the criterion to something more compassionate. It’s no longer that a person must actually work in order to have what they need to meet their most basic needs; she must only be willing to work.

But that interpretation has its own problem in the form of another exception. It’s an exception that gets made without thinking. No one applies this rule to the wealthy.

While people will cite this verse endlessly when talking about people who are receiving welfare or charitable aid, it is never used on the rare occasion when people talk about the idle rich. For example, if Jared Kushner quit his job today – such as it is – and chose to spend his life sitting around playing video games, no one would suggest that he should be denied food or kicked out of his home or lose any of the other things to which he has grown accustomed.

And that’s because what people seem to mean when they say, “he who does not work, neither shall he eat,” is something closer to “he who does not pay, neither shall he eat.”

This is an important distinction. And use of this verse tends to obscure it.

On the one hand, when people use the phrase, they tend to mean that only people who can pay should eat. And they tend not to care about where the money came from. That money could come from good and honest work or from building supply chains that sacrifice children for profit. That money could come from a massive inheritance. That money could come from cheating and swindling. As long as the money is there, the specifics don’t matter.

On the other hand, by saying, “he who does not work, neither shall he eat,” people imply that work is the only source of money. The honest laborer, the trust fund child, and the swindler are all collapsed into the image of the person who works for a living. The use of the phrase ends up hiding what people seem to really mean by it.

The Other Side of the Work Requirement

But let’s suppose that people really do mean something like “he who does not work, neither shall he eat,” or “anyone unwilling to work should not eat.” Let’s imagine that, outside of a few cases where people really truly cannot work, the people who use this phrase want to apply it to the poor and the rich alike.

There’s still a problem: if people have to work in order to eat, then there also have to be jobs for those people to do. It’s intuitively unfair to require people to work if there’s no opportunity.

Now, it’s easy to think that there is work available for anyone who wants it.

And, on a pure numbers game, that might be true. But the realities of employment and unemployment are complicated. People may be limited to the jobs for which they are qualified, to which they have reliable transportation, around which they can arrange other commitments, that are in their geographic area, and so on. And, of course, someone can be rejected from a job for any number of reasons: a criminal record, racism, sexism, and so on.

Someone looking for work can’t always just ‘find a job’. He has to find an employer that will hire him. And, in a market economy like ours, he has to find someone who will hire him at a wage that will let him buy the things he needs.

This is the core of the problem with work requirements generally, and with the phrase “he who does not work, neither shall he eat” in particular. Adding a work requirement to welfare or charity without also adding a robust employment program – not just job training, but actual employment opportunities – is nothing more than a way to refuse help to people in need.

Setting and Context

Of course, the actual letter to the Thessalonians wasn’t written in a market context where most people were privately employed and a few were relying on some form of welfare. It was written in the context of an early Christian sharing community. This was a community where people could have a reasonable expectation that they would not go hungry precisely because of the Christian emphasis on charity.

We can understand this better if we turn to another letter: 1 Timothy.

In 1 Timothy 5:3-16, the author tells the community about caring for “widows who are really widows.” The assumption is that women are financially dependent on men – their fathers, their husbands, their sons – and that women who do not have a man to rely on are particularly vulnerable. It is therefore the responsibility of the Christian community to care for those widows who do not have anyone to support them. The letter to Timothy notes that some people, particularly younger widows who might remarry, might take advantage of this sharing community. Therefore, the author believed, specific rules had to be created.

But 1 Timothy doesn’t just have rules for the poor or the widowed. It also has rules for the rich. Specifically, it directs them “not to be haughty, or to set their hopes on the uncertainty of riches, but rather on God,” and to “do good, to be rich in good works, generous, and ready to share.”21 Timothy 6:17-18, NRSV The poor can rely on the sharing community precisely because the rich have a moral obligation to share their wealth with them.

2 Thessalonians assumes the same sharing economy and the same demands placed on the rich. And, like 1 Timothy, the author imagines – in fact, has heard that – some people are taking advantage of that fact. The author also points to the reason that some people might be taking advantage: some people are expecting that Christ’s return is imminent.32 Thessalonians 2:1-3 After all, what would be the point in working if Jesus is about to return?

In my interpretation, the problem being addressed by 2 Thessalonians 3:6-12 is that some people are taking advantage of the sharing community, and that at least some of those people are taking advantage because they are expecting the world to end at any moment. The passage – including the phrase “he who does not work, neither shall he eat” – isn’t about people who are in need of assistance because of personal misfortune or systematic exclusion. It’s about people who are part of a sharing community but who are not contributing to it.


“He who does not work, neither shall he eat” is not about our society. It’s not about a society where people are free – perhaps even expected – to make as much money as possible and use it for their own power, privilege, and prestige. It’s about a sharing community where the wealthy are expected to give and the poor have a right to their help. It’s about a society where work is available; where people have the real opportunity to contribute to their community. It’s about the church.

And that makes applying it to the world very difficult. To do that, we would have to use it when we talk about the idle rich as well as the unemployed poor. We would have to use it to justify why opportunities to work are so readily available. We would have to give the wealthy and powerful serious responsibilities to care for the least among us.

For those reasons, and more, people need to stop using the phrase “he who does not work, neither shall he eat” to foist work requirements on people in need.

Footnotes   [ + ]

Vox: This Kenyan Village Is a Laboratory for the Biggest Basic Income Experiment Ever

Charities almost never have good evidence that what they want to spend money on is better than what poor people would choose to spend the money on if they just got the cash themselves. I certainly don’t trust myself to know what the world’s poorest people need most.

I’ve been profoundly lucky to never experience the kind of extreme poverty that billions of people worldwide have to endure. I have no idea what I would spend a cash transfer from GiveDirectly on if I were in Jacklin’s shoes. Would I spend it on school fees? Maybe! Or maybe I’d use it to supplement my food budget. Or save for a new house. I really don’t know.

You know who does have a good sense of the needs of poor people like Jacklin? Poor people like Jacklin. They have a very good idea of what they need. And you should only give something other than cash if you are confident you know the recipients’ needs better than they do.

Vox: This Kenyan Village Is a Laboratory for the Biggest Basic Income Experiment Ever

The New York Times: The Pope on Panhandling

But what if someone uses the money for, say, a glass of wine? (A perfectly Milanese question.) His answer: If “a glass of wine is the only happiness he has in life, that’s O.K. Instead, ask yourself, what do you do on the sly? What ‘happiness’ do you seek in secret?” Another way to look at it, he said, is to recognize how you are the “luckier” one, with a home, a spouse and children, and then ask why your responsibility to help should be pushed onto someone else.

The New York Times: The Pope on Panhandling

The Bodies in the River (a Story)

Once upon a time, there was a village that sat just beyond a bend in a great river. One day, the people of the village noted a few people floating past the bend and pulled them out of the water. Some were dead, and the people of the village buried them. Some were sick, and the people of the village nursed them back to health.

A few days later, more people came floating down the river. Then more people. Then more… and more… and more. And every time, the people of the village responded in the same way. They pulled the people out of the river. They buried the dead. They restored the living to health. The work of tending to the people floating around the bend in the river was never-ending.

One day, an intrepid young woman thought to herself, “It is too much for the people of this village to care for the people floating down the river. It would be far better to find the source of the problem and prevent these people from being thrown in the river in the first place.”

So she gathered some of the people of the village and, together, they journeyed upstream.

After many days, the young woman and the villagers she had gathered found another village. They sat on a hilltop and watched as the people in this village carried bodies to the shore and set them in the river to float downstream.

The young woman and the villagers she had gathered went into this village and found its elders. And the young woman said to them, “You must stop putting the bodies of your people in the river. They float downstream to our village and we must pull them out. We must bury the dead and restore the living to health. What you are doing is unjust.”

And one of the elders said, “You have come to us with your people and your demands. And you are all wearing fine clothes. Tell me, where did you get them?”

The young woman said, “From the market in the village to the east, away from the river.”

The elder said, “Ah. And where does the market in that village get them?”

The young woman said, “From the clothiers in the village to the north of it, near the hills.”

The elder said, “Ah. And where do the clothiers in that village get their cloth?”

The young woman said, “I don’t know.”

The elder said, “From here.

“In this village are the textile mills for the entire region, from the river to the hills to the plains to the mountains. People here work long hours making cloth, and it is very dangerous. The people of this village set sick, or are injured, or die. And we have no physicians and no room left in the graveyards. So it has become our tradition to let them float down the river.”

And the young woman said, “Well, you must stop. It is too great a burden for the people of my village to bear. You must make your mills safer. You must hire a physician.”

The elder said, “Once upon a time there was a village in the hills that had the textile mills for the entire region. They had safe mills and many physicians. The people of that village were healthy and prosperous and happy. But the cloth they produced was expensive. People didn’t want to pay so much. So they began buying their cloth from us.

“We know that if we make our mills safer and hire physicians, we will have to raise our prices. And we know that if we raise our prices, some other village will begin producing textiles. And the cloth for your clothes will come from that village.

“And this village, like the village in the hills, will become poor. More will get sick. More will die.

“You have a choice. You can pay more for what this village produces, and we can build safer mills and hire physicians. Or you can gather the bodies from the river, and bury the dead, and restore the living to health.”

And the young woman and the villagers she had gathered returned home with their heads bowed in shame. For they knew that they were part of the injustice they hated.

On Mission Trips

Mission trips have gotten a lot of criticism. Some of that criticism is deserved: there are mission trip volunteers who focus on tourism instead of service; there are organizations that make poor use of the volunteers who come to serve with them. But these criticisms seem to rest on a single set of questions: are short term mission trips the most efficient ways for a group (or individual) to offer material assistance to a community? Could that week be spent for efficiently? Could the money used for the trip be spent more efficiently?

The answers to those questions depend on a lot of factors that I don’t have time to look at here. But there’s something more important buried in these criticisms: mission trips aren’t just about efficiently providing material assistance. There are at least two other things that mission trips do that we should lift up.

First, they build interpersonal relationships, both within the group that goes on the trip and between that group and the people they serve. This is a major theme of a piece I linked to last week, and it matters both to the people serving and the people being served:

I would expect that knowledge to lead to resentment, but what Nadege told us was that for us to leave the comfort of our homes to be with the people of Haiti, even for a few days — that told them that they mattered. Over and over again, our hosts and translators told us how much it meant that we would leave our country to come spend time with them, to work with them, to support their ongoing labor for the future of their nation, their communities, and their children. The love and gratitude was and is overwhelming and humbling.

Second, they serve as faith formation opportunities for the people who go on them. Mission trips are opportunities for participants to learn about the privileges they enjoy, the conditions in which others live, and how we are all connected through social and economic systems. They are opportunities to live out the call serve Christ by serving the least of his brothers and sisters. And they opportunities to help participants grow in service and learn to respond to all needs with empathy and compassion.

When we look at mission trips solely as economic engines – as ways to transfer assets from one group to another – we lose sight of their total power, especially their ability to shape the lives of the volunteers in positive ways. We need to look at mission trips and other volunteer opportunities in their totality: acknowledging the bad, yes, but recognizing and building on the good.

Varieties of Giving

Not all giving is the same. Not every gift means the same things, takes the same form, or has the same motivation. An anonymous cash gift to a homeless shelter, for example, is different from a gift of stock to an elite university in exchange for the university’s business school being named after the donor; and both of those are different from a gift to a family member at Christmas. There are varieties of giving. And the differences between those varieties matter.

Here, for example, are three different – and major – forms of giving.

Patronage was the dominant form of giving in ancient Greece and Rome, based in an ongoing relationship of reciprocal exchange between two parties – sometimes people, sometimes communities – of unequal power. The more powerful person (the patron) would give things like protection, housing, land, loans, political appointments, and even cash handouts to the less powerful person (the client). The client would respond in kind by providing his patron with visits, votes, gratitude, and loyalty. At the core of this relationship lay three simple aspects of the broader social imaginary: an acceptance of social and economic hierarchy, an ethic of reciprocal exchange, and an obsession with the worthiness of the recipients of gifts. While no longer a major form of giving, patronage continues as a force in some parts of the nonprofit sector.

Charity was the dominant form of giving in ancient Judaism and early Christianity. This is what we think of when we think of giving to a soup kitchen, a homeless shelter, or even a person on the street. In many ways, charity takes an approach that is opposed to patronage: it’s rooted in divine command, directed specifically towards the poor, and unconcerned with the ‘worthiness’ of the recipient. In fact, charity is much more concerned about the worthiness of the donor: it is a way for the donor to fix herself by helping others.

Philanthropy is often imagined as a classical form of giving – the word itself has Greek roots – but it’s a relatively recent development and the dominant form of giving in the modern world. It’s the kind of giving that we see in towering figures like Andrew Carnegie, John D. Rockefeller, and, more recently, billionaires like Bill Gates and Warren Buffet. It’s also the kind of giving that many of us who are not billionaires participate in when we give to foundations and large nonprofit organizations. Bearing certain similarities to patronage, it’s based in the concentration of wealth, the institutionalization of giving, and the idea of reforming society.

Why does this matter? Because how we give reflects how we think about wealth, poverty, justice, compassion, and event the structure of the cosmic order. It reflects how we think about organizing life. The person who gives out of a sense of a divine preferential option for the poor is doing something very different from the person who gives out of the hope of public recognition and honor. They are shaping the world very differently.

And that has real consequences for both the people giving and the people receiving.

You Can’t Play Someone by Doing What They Want (a Story)

Once upon a time, a woman went to a park with coolers full of 100 peanut butter and jelly sandwiches.

She gave the sandwiches out to anyone who came to her. Some people took a sandwich and left. Some people took a sandwich and, a little while later, came back for a second one… or a third… or even a fourth. Some were children and some were adults. Some were dressed in rags and some were dressed in business suits. Some said ‘thank you’ and some did not.

After a while, she had given out all of her sandwiches and she left.

The next day, she came back with 100 more sandwiches and the same thing happened. Some people took a sandwich and left. Some people took a sandwich and, a little while later, came back for a another. Some were children and some were adults. Some were dressed in rags and some were dressed in business suits. Some said ‘thank you’ and some did not.

And again, after a while, she had given out all of her sandwiches and she left.

On the third day, as she was setting up her table and laying out her sandwiches, some other women who usually sat nearby came up to her.

They said, “We think you’re doing such a great think, giving out sandwiches to people who are hungry. But we’re worried that you’re getting played. Some people are taking a sandwich and, a little while later, coming back for another. Some people are adults who should be working for their food. Some people are dressed in business suits and could clearly afford to buy a sandwich. You really should be more careful.”

And the woman said, “No, no. You don’t understand. I’m here to give out sandwiches. Anyone who takes one is helping me do that.

“They’re helping me if they take a sandwich and leave. They’re helping me if they take a sandwich and, a little while later, come back for another.

“They’re helping me if they’re children. They’re helping me if they’re adults.

“They’re helping be if they’re dressed in rags or if they’re dressed in business suits.

“I cannot be played when people are doing what I want.”

And the other women left her, bewildered.

Teach a Man to Fish

Recently, I came across two critiques of a common saying: “Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day; teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.”

One of those critiques was in the video below (hat tip to James McGrath and Ross McKenzie)

The other was in a post by Vu Le at Nonprofit With Balls that I linked to earlier:

The teach-a-man-to-fish paternalism. This philosophy, so ingrained in our culture, is patronizing and often ineffective, sometimes harmful. It assumes one person is a fount of knowledge while the other is an ignorant, empty vessel to be filled with wisdom. It ignores systems and environmental variables. We can teach someone to fish, but if they have no transportation to get to the pond, or if the pond is polluted, or if better-equipped corporations have been destroying aquaculture through over-fishing, then they’re still screwed while we feel good about ourselves. We see the same dynamics in funding via this belief that nonprofits can be self-sustaining if we just teach them to earn their revenues instead of constantly asking for free fish in the form of grants and donations.

Perhaps I’ll share my own thoughts on this later; there’s a lot that I could say about teach-a-man-to-fish colonialism. For now, I just want to share this video and this quote along with a quick comment.

The idea of teaching a man to fish often ends up looking like this: we who have the fish teaching the people from whom we took the fish how to work the systems that we designed to distribute the fish and ensure that we get to keep most of the fish. That’s deeply problematic. That’s an idea that we need to interrogate.

The Case for Charity

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 Is a Cornerstone of the Christian Faith

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.

Charity Presents a Different Kind of Community

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.

Charity Works

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.

Conclusion (of a Sort)

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.

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