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.

Right now, there is a movement in churches and nonprofits arguing that charity is toxic, that helping hurts, and that the entire nonprofit sector needs to be reformed to truly lift people out of poverty. These charity skeptics are telling Christians that traditional charity deepens dependency, fosters a sense of entitlement, and erodes the work ethic of people who receive it. Charity skepticism is increasingly popular; and it is almost certainly wrong.

Now available from Wipf and Stock’s Cascade Books imprint, Radical Charity: How Generosity Can Save the World (And the Church) weaves together research and scholarship on topics as diverse as biblical scholarship, Christian history, economics, and behavioral psychology to tell a different story. In this story, charity is the heart of Christianity and one of the most effective ways that we can help people who are living in poverty. Charity—giving to people experiencing poverty without any expectation of return or reformation—can save the world and help make God’s vision for the church a reality.

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