Charity is one of those words which, in Christian discourse, is often in danger of meaning everything and nothing. We use it in certain very concrete senses (“giving to charity”) and also in very broad senses (Faith, Hope and Charity). At times it is taken to mean simply giving something to someone — and some even take it in a negative sense in that regard: the rich giving some few spare pennies to the poor. At other times, drawing on the Latin root of caritas, it is taken to be love as a whole in all its senses.
Because as Christians we identify God as being love, love is clearly meant to encompass a wide range of Christian action and experience, and comes in many forms. Right now, I’d like to talk about love of neighbor, and specifically, that love of neighbor which involves providing for the physical needs of others. So for the purposes of this post, I’m going to call the use of “time and treasure” to perform the corporal works of mercy “charity”, and let’s leave aside the other meanings of that term for now.
Now to me, one of the interesting things about the virtue of charity is that it says a great deal about the sort of relationships we can have as human beings. In the parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10, 25-37) we see a scholar of the law (quidam legis peritus) who cheerfully parrots back the great commandments of “You shall love the Lord, your God, with all your heart, with all your being, with all your strength, and with all your mind, and your neighbor as yourself.” but then wants to know “Who is my neighbor?”.
A recent study of 33 countries by Anthony Gill and Erik Lundsgaarde found an inverse relationship between religious observance and welfare spending. Countries with larger welfare states, such as Sweden, Norway and Denmark, had markedly lower levels of religious attendance, affiliation and trust in God than countries with a history of limited government, such as the U.S., the Philippines and Brazil. Public spending amounts to more than one half of the GDP in Sweden, where only 4% of the population regularly attends church. By contrast, public spending amounts to 18% of the Philippines’ GDP, and 68% of Filipinos regularly attend church.
One of the great principles that tends to be ignored in our debates about economics, social justice, and governmental involvement in the lives of the people is solidarity. We argue about how involved the government should be in our lives, what kinds of safety nets it should provide, and to what extent it should mandate and appropriate in order to provide for the most needy of society. We argue about how well certain economic theories–capitalism, Keynesian economics, socialism, etc.–work in providing justice, or even providing just shelter and food. We argue about subsidiarity, and how it should be practiced, and while that touches on solidarity, it doesn’t fully overlap.
One of the arguments about governmental involvement is how the aid provided is cold and distant. By the time the welfare check is spat out of the massive, convulsing, bureaucratic mess that is the government, any principle of charity has been rendered flat. The recipient is a name on the list, judged worthy to receive a handout based upon an entry in a database. At first this seems like an argument of aesthetics. If a man receives a welfare check from the government rather than from friends in the community or local charities, he still receives the money he needs to survive. Yet there is a deeper problem here than merely looking at from whom the money comes, or how much charity exists in the entity delivering assistance. The continual reliance on the federal government to solve our problems aids in the breakdown of solidarity.
Is it any wonder that we have become so polarized, so factious, so estranged?
In the last four years I’ve learned a great deal about a host of topics, including my Catholic Faith, while blogging, reading other people’s blogs, and participating in comment box discussions. And yet there are some notable dangers that come with blogging as well.
A few months ago, I did myself no great credit in a combox discussion on a friend’s post. Someone against whom I carried paper left a comment I disagreed with, and rather than sticking with a basic refutation I went all out: questioned motives, brought up old arguments, put words in his mouth, the works. An hour or two later I got an email from my friend. “Wow. Next time tell us what you really think…”
But I knew I was right. I hit reply and was pouring out the reason I’d been 100% justified in behaving that way at 70wpm. A year and a half ago, this other blogger and said such-and-such. And when I’d pointed out his obvious errors, he’d said that. And then there was that other time. And remember when over on that other guy’s blog he’s said this in the comments? And…
I took a moment to stare at the paragraphs I’d written and realized this would sound a lot more appropriate coming out of my six-year-old as an explanation for why she’d hit another kid than coming out of a thirty-year-old man who fancies himself intellectual.
As bloggers we sometimes live by the word in rather the same way that a duelist lived by the sword. And slights which, when explained to anyone else, would immediately sound small and petty, fester and become long term rivalries.
Given the source of my recent embarrassment, I’ve tried to make it a rule to think how I would feel writing an explanation of my behavior in any given conversation to a disinterested party. Given my pride, this is a strong incentive to charity, or at least calmness. Naytheless, the temptation remains. I suspect that it is a built in feature (or bug) in an avocation such as blogging.
Over at Human Events, Ben Shapiro has an article about how Israel will lose the conflict in Gaza again. His initial premise states that we keep seeing an essentially endless cycle repeated: Hamas strikes Israel, Israel retaliates, the world comes down hard on Israel, Israel retreats and gives Hamas another chance to strike Israel. Elsewhere, the debate about how justified Israel is in its current cycle of retaliations continues heatedly and almost unanimously denounces Israel’s actions.
As a personal opinion, I believe that Hamas, despite claims to the contrary, is directly responsible for its strikes into Israel. I believe that Hamas deliberately hides behind civilian shields in order to protect themselves from retaliation and to milk the public for sympathy when Israeli attacks kill those civilian shields. I believe that Hamas is single-mindedly dedicated to the destruction of Israel, and that Israel is justified in trying to defend herself against Hamas’ attacks.
During the election season, I made frequent references to the kinds of evangelical leaders who publicly supported McCain, people like Hagee and Parsely who believe that the US is the instrument of God against evil in the world, actively condoning bloody war. Rick Warren is supposed to be a moderate. And yet when Sean Hannity called for the US to “take out” Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Warren had this to say in response:
“Well, actually, the Bible says that evil cannot be negotiated with. It has to just be stopped…. In fact, that is the legitimate role of government. The Bible says that God puts government on earth to punish evildoers. Not good-doers. Evildoers.”
God help us.
What interests me about the post above is the title. I have no interest in defending Mr. Warren’s wrong-headed exegesis, but I think this method of indictment is problematic.