Defining Charity

The idea of charity is baked into our culture. We give charitable gifts. We support charitable organizations. We attend charitable events. We celebrate charity in others. We allow people to take tax deductions for their charitable donations. Charity is part of who we are. It’s part of who we imagine ourselves to be.

But what is charity? What makes a few dollars stuffed in a birthday card to a grandchild different from a few dollars given to a panhandler when we pass him on the street? What makes a check sent to a food pantry in a poor neighborhood different than a check given to an elite university in exchange for a building being named after the donor? We can all intuit a difference between these gifts. Few of us could articulate and defend that difference.

Not every gift is charitable. Not every kind of giving is charitable. Charity is a distinct kind of giving. Charity has a specific history. Charity is deeply rooted in Judaism and spread through the world as the heart of Christianity. When we understand that history – and here I’m indebted to Gary A. Anderson’s Charity: The Place of the Poor in the Biblical Tradition – we can approach a definition of charity.

Charity is benevolent giving that has three characteristics.

First, it originates in the divine. Sometimes this might be understood as a divine mandate: God commands us to be charitable and we must obey that command. Sometimes this might be understood as a connection to the divine: being generous helps us ride along the natural currents of the cosmos. Sometimes this might be understood as both of these at once or based in some other metaphor or analogy. The point is that charity is connected to a divine something larger than and distinct from us.

Second, it is specifically directed towards the poor and marginalized. This probably seems obvious, but it makes charity distinct from other forms of giving. A birthday gift to a friend or relative may be nice, but it probably isn’t charity. A gift that helps create a new business school at an elite university may do a lot of good, but it isn’t charity. Charity has a single focus: providing for the needs of those who don’t have access to the resources necessary to participate fully in society.

Third, it doesn’t discriminate based on the worthiness of the recipient. This has become a controversial characteristic of charity. There are those who advocate creating systems of ‘reciprocal exchange’ for the poor, or making sure the recipient of charity has demonstrated a willingness to escape poverty, or creating some other set of requirements that show the the recipient is worthy of charity. These kinds of requirements diminish charity, which considers the poor and marginalized deserving simply because they are poor and marginalized.

So here is what I mean when I use the word ‘charity’: benevolent giving that originates in the divine, is specifically directed towards the poor and marginalized, and that does not discriminate based on the perceived worthiness of the recipient. Not everyone would agree with this definition. But I believe it captures the historical and theological origins of charity as a Jewish and Christian practice.