Re-Thinking Charity

Positioned carefully in the vacillating shadow of a large palm tree, the three of us exchanged stories as we sought relief from the afternoon sun. As we began to walk back into the classroom, the young Congolese student lowered his head slightly, cupped his hands together and submissively requested a few dollars to provide a meal for his children.

Dr. Murray Nickel, my associate, reacted with indignation: “Why would you ask that?” he queried the student. “You and I are colleagues!”

At the time I felt Murray’s response was harsh, if not uncharitable. Over time I’ve come to realize that it was indeed “uncharitable” and therein lays its significance.

Murray and I had come to Kinshasa along with other Canadian doctors to host a training conference for Congolese medical students. Murray was well aware that a couple dollars would have no lasting impact on this young man’s family. Much worse, he knew it had the potential to transform the power dynamics of their relationship and slowly eat away at the dignity and self-respect of the young man. Taken in isolation, Murray’s response would be harsh, but given his experience serving and loving the Congolese people, his actions pointed to a more profound and effectual impact that lay beyond the “charitable impulse.”

“Charity,” in its modern definition, has come to mean “the voluntary giving of help, typically in the form of money, to those in need (Oxford.)” In recent years the word has taken on a markedly pejorative connotation.

It is not uncommon to hear the refrain, “I don’t need your charity!” This is because people know innately that charity is not free, but it will cost them something. 

According to theologian Jacques Ellul in his book Money and Power, “Almsgiving affirms the superiority of the giver, who thus gains a point on the recipient, binds him, demands gratitude, humiliates him and reduces him to a lower state than he had before. Almsgiving acts this way because it is a money relationship and not a love relationship.”

The Bible not only warns us against giving in the wrong spirit, but also instructs how to give in a way that is truly generous. It is illuminating to note that the familiar Greek word “agape” was translated into the Latin Vulgate as “caritas”. This of course, is the root of the modern English word “charity”. When we maintain this intimate connection between love and charity, we get a fuller understanding of what Christian charity should entail.

For example, 1 Corinthians 13 would read: Charity is patient; charity is kind; charity is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.

More than just the voluntary giving of help, we see in the ancient understanding of charity a dimension of empathy and sacrifice that is demanded of the giver. They are in fact not asked to simply reduce the burden of the poor but in some way to bear that burden upon themselves.

In order to move towards caritas we must first lay aside easy and reflexive solutions and seek first to understand. In doing so we come to realize that poverty is more than a lack of things—food, skills, knowledge—but also a psychological and spiritual phenomenon that demands transformation at a deeper level.

In Walking With the Poor, Bryant Myers suggests that, “The fulcrum for transformational change is no longer transferring resources or building capacity or increasing choices, as important as these things are. But these things count only if they take place in a way that allows the poor to recover their true identity and discover the vocation God intends for them.”

How then do we respond in love to the needs of the poor?

A good starting point is to ask, “What do you have?” As we take inventory of people’s unique calling, skills, resources, and ideas we are opening the door to new hope and possibilities. Asking “What do you have?” is not minimizing the importance of their needs, but rather, maximizing the transformative potential inside of them.   

“What do you have?” represents a seismic shift in development thinking. In my experience it is so counter-intuitive that the initial response of the poor is often bewildered silence, since they are accustomed to working with sympathetic benefactors and problem-solvers.

It is not however, a quick-fix methodology but an attitude by which we must relate with the poor and evaluate the merit of our poverty interventions. It is a question that negates the self-importance of the giver, while affirming the significance of the poor as valued citizens and agents of change. Unlike charity as we know it, it is an attitude that is rooted in love, reflecting the true generosity of caritas.