Charity and Self-Sufficiency
Rev. Douglas Taylor
May 8, 2016
I’ve told the story before of saving babies in the river. In the story, two people notice a baby floating down the river so they jump in to rescue it. As they comfort the child on the bank they notice another baby floating down. Again they rescue the child. Soon another and then another floats down the river. The first person looks to the other and says, “You stay here saving the babies from the river. I’m going upstream to see who keeps throwing babies in the water.”
The lesson I draw from this story is that there are two levels to the work of healing the world – direct service and systemic change. And both are important and honorable work toward that end. Dr. King said “True compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar; it comes to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring.” It is not enough to only offer charity, to only rescue one baby at a time, to only feed a man a fish. As the old cliché of wisdom reminds us, “If you give a man a fish you feed him for a day but if you teach a man to fish you feed him for a lifetime.” The systemic change is the key.
Mother Teresa, who spent her life in service to the poor in India, was frequently challenged for not doing enough about the systemic injustices around her, for not teaching people how to fish. In one of the last interviews she ever gave she offered this counter-argument:
Like a man says to me that you are spoiling the people by giving them fish to eat. You have to give them a rod to catch the fish. And I said my people cannot even stand, still less hold a rod. But I will give them the fish to eat, and when they are strong enough, I will hand them over to you. And you give them the rod to catch the fish. That is a beautiful combination, no? http://www.servelec.net/mothertheresa.htm
But rather than thinking we need to side either with Dr. King or Mother Teresa, we can read what they wrote and said a little more carefully and notice that they are both correct. Charity and systemic change are not an either/or proposition. And neither is sufficient on its own.
Many of the world’s religions include the practice of charity as a significant virtue. Christianity has a long and proud history of charity functioning to effect social change as well as to ameliorate individual problems for poor and destitute people. Medieval Europe was rife with examples of hospitals built and sustained by wealthy Christians acting on the call for charity by their faith. A number of religious orders focused on intensive charitable work as the primary rule of the order. Christian charity has had a significant impact on the history of Europe and, by colonial extension, many other countries.
In Judaism, the concept of Tzedakah is a religious obligation to do what is right and just, and this often takes the form of charitable giving – but not only financial giving, it could be a gift of time or other resources to the needy.
For Muslims, Zakat is one of the five pillars. Charity is one of these five defining elements of that religion! Hinduism, Jainism, and Buddhism all have a similar practice called Dāna. The link is perhaps into the root culture of India as described in the Rig Veda, but in essence it the practice of generosity and giving, the virtue of charity.
And yet, there are numerous critics of charity these days. One analyst writes:
When, confronted with the starving child, we are told: “For the price of a couple of cappuccinos, you can save her life!”, the true message is: “For the price of a couple of cappuccinos, you can continue in your ignorant and pleasurable life, not only not feeling any guilt, but even feeling good for having participated in the struggle against suffering!”
— Slavoj Žižek (2010). Living in the End Times. Verso. p. 117.
Giving to charity is a common form of ‘doing something’ to help make the world a better place. Yet in many ways unfortunately, charity has become a way of maintaining the status quo rather than fermenting real change.
Charity used to mean something more than just giving money to beggars. As I said earlier, many of the world’s religions include the practice of charity as a significant virtue. Turning back to religious expressions of charity for a moment, I uncovered an interesting connection that reveals something of what is going on today.
In Paul’s first letter to the church in Corinth, the passage so often used in weddings, the 13th chapter ends with this famous line: “And now abideth faith, hope, charity, these three; but the greatest of these is charity.”
The King James Version from 1611 uses the word Charity rather than Love. Nearly all contemporary translations including the New King James Version use Love. And several notable translations from before the King James such as the Tyndale, the Geneva, and the Bishops’ Bible used the word Love rather than Charity. So it is not that the King James Version didn’t know what we’ve figured out since – No. The King James Version specifically decided to use the word ‘charity’ at that point rather than the word ‘love.’
One argument I read in favor of that choice is it that ‘charity’ is a more theological term. I have a hard time grasping that argument. Here’s what I figured out. It involves making the distinction between the practice of charity and the virtue of charity. The practice of charity is the act of giving of one’s own resources to another, usually to one in need. The virtue of charity is the religious concept of kindness and unlimited love. Now, it seems to me the virtue of charity sounds a lot like unconditional love and this argument feels a like self-producing, circular logic.
The original Greek word Agape is best translated as Love. But the Latin word often used for Agape is Caritas, and remember that Latin was the official language of the Roman Empire and the Catholic Church for centuries leading into the Renaissance. Latin was considered the “language of international communication, scholarship, and science until well into the 18th century.” (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Latin) So the concepts of Caritas (the Latin for charity) and Agape (the Greek for unconditional Love) have become intertwined.
And while we easily tease out the practice of charity as the act of giving and sharing, the theological concept of charity at least used to be something more akin to love that what we commonly think of today.
Today the practice of charity has been unhitched from the virtue of charity, or to cut through the confusion created by the Latin/Greek language mix, the practice of charity is no longer done as an expression of love. Thus we speak of ‘fling[ing] a coin to a beggar’ rather than loving the poor. We talk about wanting to give a hand up rather than a mere hand out – which would be a step in reconnecting the virtue with the practice.
I am suggesting we would do well to have relationships with the people we help. A few months back I found this quote from activist Lila Watson: “If you have come to help me, you are wasting your time, but if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.” We need to reconnect charitable giving with compassion.
Each month we take a Special Collection for a local group or organization. Part of the point in that is to have a relationship with the groups, to be with them in the struggle for justice, not merely to give them charity. So, on a purely pragmatic level the goal of charity is to relieve a person’s need, to feed someone who is hungry or pay somebody’s medical bill or car insurance bill. But after that, there many other things that can also be accomplished.
There can be a positive, charitable feeling in the giver, there can be peace of mind and relief felt by the receiver, there can be a tax deduction for the giver, there can be renewed hope and opportunity for the receiver, there can be a scrooge-like change of heart in the giver, there can be a deepened relationship with Spirit or with God for both the giver and the receiver, there can be the establishment of a new relationship between the give and the receiver, there can be a heightened awareness of the systemic issues at play for both parties. So many other goals may be involved after that initial goal of alleviating one person’s need.
Consider the example of our Syrian refugee meal packaging event last month hosted by the Children of Abraham group. The pragmatic goal was to feed the hungry refugees fleeing from Syria. Additionally we wanted to demonstrate that Binghamton and Broome County cares about the refugee issue. And, as always, we wanted to share an activity across our religious lines. It was a fairly complex event. First we had to raise money to pay for the ingredients. We quickly discovered that our initial goal of five thousand dollars was too small, so we increased our goal to $7,500 which would make 30,000 meals. Our UU congregation served as the bank for this endeavor. We did not do a special offering during a service or an organized collection of some type, but I know many of you contributed money for this event.
On the day of the event, April 3rd, we had hundreds of people from all over the community participating to package the meals. We formed five tables like a factory line to prepare the packages. Some people scooped in the rice or the soy, others added the spices. It was measured and balanced and then sent off to a second line where the food was vacuum sealed and placed in a box.
There were 50 to 60 people actively working in the assembly lines at any time young and old, white and middle-eastern, Muslim and Jew and Christian and UU all working side by side in the lines. And we had to convince people to move out of the line after a 30 minute shift to let others in. Hundreds of people were involved in the event. Several of you from this congregation were there. It was a great experience.
We raised far more than the $7,500 we had as our goal. We raised more than $12,000. The Children of Abraham planning team decided we would do three things with the excess money that would be in line with the intentions of the givers.
First, we decided to make a donation to the shipping company that took the boxes of food. The shipping was done by a company that works on donations. From what I know, the food has not actually left our country but is scheduled to do so some time in the next week or so. The food is going to a refugee center in Greece where many Syrians are waiting to learn where they will be settled.
Second we decided to keep a thousand as seed money to repeat this event in the fall. I’ll keep you posted about that.
And third we decided to send some money to Jordan. When we started this our goal was to split the shipment between Greece and Jordan – both countries have a large number of Syrian refugees are waiting to be resettled.
We learned, however, that the Jordan would prefer we just send the money so they can do the meal packaging there in Jordan which would stimulate the Jordanian economy as well as help the refugees. Not only would that help the refugees, it would help the Jordanians and we wouldn’t have to spend money on shipping the food. If our only goal was to feed the Syrian refugees, the Jordanian plan would be more efficient.
But feeding the refugees was not our only goal. In the first reading this morning from Paul Klein’s article, the opening sentence is a helpful reminder of what we are doing.
Almost a billion people go to bed hungry every night yet the World Food Program believes that the existing knowledge, tools, and policies, combined with political will, can solve this problem. (“Are Nonprofits Getting in the Way of Social Change?” –Paul Klein)
The political will is built by experiences like the April 3rd food packaging event where regular people have a hands-on encounter with the needs of the world. It is an opportunity to reconnect the giving with our compassion.
This is why both systemic change and charity are needed. Charity alone will only ever alleviate the presenting need while never touching the system that perpetually creates that need. But without direct experiences of the need, the political will of the people to address the systemic problems will not manifest. People are too easily lulled into apathy and a sense of scarcity.
Many of the world’s religions call their adherents into the practice of charity. May we Unitarian Universalists also hear that call to be generous, to care for the stranger and the poor. The goal is not to offer a coin for today’s problems, but to unshackle the needy so that they can rise into their own natural self-sufficiency. That has long been a deep current in classic Unitarian theology: to structure society so all people can nurture their natural inclination toward health and self-culture.
Whatever your motive for giving, I urge you consider both the simple, direct results of charity and the long-term, systemic impacts you hope can occur. And if for no other reason, give charitably for your own spirit, that you may be expanded and feel a connection with the poor and those in need. Not because you are safe and they are not, but because you and I and all of us are in this together, and together we will make a better world.
In a world without end
May it be so.